Number of cashes
Texas Hold'em is a game of decision making based on partial information. Since we can't know for certain what cards our opponents are holding, or the cards that are coming on the flop, turn, or river, we have to gather as much information as possible and then try to make the optimal decision based on our conclusions. Successful players go through a deep thought process to gather as much information as possible, to narrow down hand ranges and determine what his or her opponent is thinking. However, too often poker players think the wrong things during a hand. Amateur poker players think about trivial things such as "I have Kings, please no Ace on the flop!" or "Club! Club! Club!" I would like to use this article to give some insight into what I believe a poker player should think about during a hand, and the thought process that can make someone a successful poker player. Surprisingly, the thought process for a hand begins before the cards are even dealt (The more you play the more you'll realize that your own cards are almost irrelevant but instead, the focal point should remain on your opponents' cards and their tendencies). Amateur players think, "Gosh, I hope I get a good hand" while strong players begin to analyze their current situation in the tournament. The first thing that you should consider is the tournament that you are playing in. Is it the $25k WPT championship or is it the $10 rebuy? The answer to that question will drastically affect how you will proceed with the hand. So many people use hand histories that don't even include the site/tourney/buy-in at the top, when it's the first thing you should consider before making a decision. Are you playing a table full of professionals or does everyone pretty much suck? Against strong opponents I'm probably going to be playing pretty conservatively, trying not to get myself into trouble with marginal hands, but against weak opponents, I'm willing to push my edges and see lots of flops, knowing that I'll be able to make good decisions on each street. There is no one set "style" of play that always works. Instead, successful players choose a style of play to best exploit their current table. At a table full of nitty amateurs, I'll probably open things up and try to play lots of hands to exploit their tightness, but at a table full of strong LAG players, I'll likely play a conservative TAG game, waiting for strong hands to trap my overly aggressive opponents. The second thing I consider is the stage of the tournament. Although I often multi-table over 10 tourneys at I time, I usually organize them based on how deep they are and how strong the field is on my monitors (If I'm deep in the 200r I'll have that on one side, and if it's early in a $10r donkament, I'll have that on another side). I generally play the first few levels of every tourney the same, maybe raising a few suited connectors here and there, but mostly just trying to see flops and hit big with sets or trips, and generally just stay out of trouble areas. Big pot-big hand, small pot-small hand poker. However, once the antes kick in, I'll start noticing player tendencies and look to splash around some chips. If we are on a bubble situation, it might be a good idea to get aggressive, but if we just reached the money, I might sit back and play tight to let a lot of the shorter stacks bust. The next thing I consider (and one of the most important) is my stack size and how it determines my overall gameplan for the tournament at the moment. If I'm a big stack, I'll be looking to accumulate chips, either by stealing a lot of blinds from tight players, or flatting and trapping aggressive players. If I'm a short stack, I'll be in survival mode, looking for a good spot to shove all-in with a good amount of fold equity and a hand that plays pretty well. I'm not going to be opening many pots to steal blinds, but instead, I'll be playing a strong TAG game, looking for good spots to re-steal. As I start to accumulate chips though, I'll usually switch my game up and play a more LAG style. However, just because I have a big stack doesn't mean I should start raising every hand. If I have a couple strong LAG players behind me who also have big stacks, I'll probably play more conservatively. While your stack size should play a big role in how you will play your next hand, you should also consider the stack sizes of your opponents. Many times players see a hand like TJs on the button and think, "This is a good hand. Let me raise this and steal the blinds." But if both the blinds are really aggressive players waiting for a spot to re-steal, it may be a more optimal play just to fold and not let the blinds re-steal from you. Looking at the stacks BEFORE the hand allows you to make much easier decisions once the cards are in the air. Now that I've gone through the process of assessing my overall situation in the tournament, I'll now take a look at my cards. How strong of a hand do I have? Can I raise this hand for value (like AQs or JJ) or should I raise this hand as a bluff pre-flop (with a hand like 65s or KTo) from early position. Many times I'll ask myself before I get my cards, whether I will get re-raised if I open the next pot. If the answer is yes, I'll only raise a hand I'm willing to call a 3-bet shove with, or one I'm willing to 4-bet shove. If my table has been playing tight, and I have a pretty tight image, I might raise almost any two cards as a blind steal. This brings up another point: your table image. Based off the last few orbits of play, what is your table image and what are the other players at the table expecting you to do? If you've been playing tight, by all means, open the next hand as a steal. If you've been playing LAG, maybe you should consider open folding small pairs or weak broadway hands. You should also consider all your options. If my table has been super aggressive, and I have a hand with a lot of flop value, like QKs, I might limp in on the cutoff to avoid being 3-bet off my hand. Hopefully I can see a flop in position with a hand that flops well, and if not, I can just fold and move on to the next hand. To make sure I remain unexploitable, I'll just mix in limps with AK or AA to trap overly aggressive opponents. Now it's time to see a flop. Once we see the flop, I'll ask myself how big of a pot I feel comfortable playing. If I have the nuts, I'll usually bet to begin building a big pot. If I have total air, I'll usually bet as a bluff to take the pot, but if I have something marginal, like maybe 2nd pair or a gutshot straight draw, I'll likely check to keep the pot small and hopefully improve on a later street. Additionally, I might be able to get value out of hands that I'm ahead of. With AT on a Q T 5 flop, I'll usually check-behind to avoid getting blown off my hand by KJ or J9 or so, and hopefully get in a value bet on the turn or river from hands like TJ or 9T. Also, I'll try to check one street with hands like AA or top pair to make sure I don't get involved in a big pot with just one pair. Just like in the early stages, I'm very conscious of preserving my chip stack (unless, of course, I'm just in the mood to spew), and I still try to stick to the basic rule of big pot-big hand, small pot-small hand poker. As the hand progresses, I am constantly trying to narrow my opponent's hole cards to as small of a range as possible. Successful poker players are constantly asking themselves lots of different questions in order to do so: What is my opponent's opening range here? How often should I expect him to continuation bet? Does this flop connect with a big part of his range? Does a check from this opponent usually mean weakness, or does he like to disguise his hands and trap people? However, the thought process shouldn't just concern your opponent's cards, but also what he or she is thinking. Really strong players will ask questions like: What sort of range will my opponent likely be giving me here? How strong will a continuation bet look to him, or should I check-raise bluff instead? Based on my current table image and past history, how should I expect my opponent to react to me? Will they give me a lot of credit or do they plan to hero call me no matter what they have? Going through hands eventually becomes second nature, and the more and more we play, the easier it becomes to pinpoint an opponent's two cards and determine what he or she is thinking. If some of the concepts in this article are new or complicated to you, feel free to start slow, taking each new idea at a time and doing your best to understand it fully. I would highly recommend talking aloud while you play, asking and answering some of the questions from this article. The next time you find yourself playing, just start naming aloud all the hands you think your opponent might have. It might sound silly, but you'd be surprised how quickly you'll find yourself narrowing down ranges correctly. If you catch yourself saying "Wow. This guy has to have at least JJ here", you can easily throw away a hand like 99 or AQ. Or, you may say something like "This guy probably thinks I have garbage cause I raised his big blind three times in a row" and then decide to call his shove with KJ. Sure enough, you'll probably be right, and you won't be able to wipe the grin off your face when his J3o doesn't get there. The thought process that each poker player takes may be unique, but hopefully you can take some of the things I wrote in this article and apply them to your game effectively and become a successful poker player too. * Unranked at the beginning of '08, PhilUSCphildoCollins has moved all the way up to #10 in the world at online tournament play according to theP5's Rankings. Be sure to check out Phil's feature interview this Thursday on theP5's Podcast.