AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

· Published 29.06.2021 · last updated 29.06.2021

Multi-Grand Slam winner, Andy Murray, has an impressive reputation in the tennis world as arguably the sport’s best ‘reader’ of opponents and how they play. Where others who find themselves in difficulty in a match continue to struggle as the pre-game strategy hasn’t gone according to plan, Murray would manage to home in on his opponents’ tactics and potential weaknesses and engineer a way of exploiting them. Countless matches saw him achieve ostensibly unlikely turnarounds.

With that kind of perceptive, clinical ‘in running’ analytical thinking ability, Murray would do well to take up poker when he hangs up his rackets (which, it seems, is imminent, given his current final comeback attempt). Being able to properly observe other players at the table is already more difficult than it might seem for many. The modern poker fan seems so easily distracted, turning as they do to social media and other forms of entertainment to fill in the time when not involved in hand. Reading these words, we might think that following the game only when we’re actually playing a hand is an obviously stupid way of approaching the game, and indeed it is. It’s actually a common habit. But we are not going to be so foolish!

The advantages of observing ALL play are pretty obvious. Regardless of how few hands we might play, by keeping a close eye on what’s going on, what hands Player A is prepared to call with, how rarely Player B raises, does Player C have a habit of being too aggressive with certain hands and so on, we are building up a mental database of information that could prove invaluable down the line. A poker session tends to consist of our being dealt many hands but (if we’re doing it properly!) playing a select few, so it follows that the mere opportunities to win pots are going to be rare. All the more reason, then, to accumulate as much information as possible about our opponents’ strategies and, in particular, their weak strategies.

If we can not only identify a specific pattern of play, but also determine that there’s a potential leak to be exploited, winning just two or three pots against such deliberately targeted players could make the difference between a losing or winning session. Or, perhaps more crucially, ruthlessly punishing mistakes and general misconceptions can accelerate our overall progress on the route to poker mastery (and boost our bankroll accordingly). And that should be our main aim.

Here’s a typical example. Because we subscribe to the golden rule that demands watching play at all times, in a hand we’re not involved in we notice that Player A, who limped in pre-flop from early position (and is generally playing too many hands), bets a Flop of A 7 2 (rainbow) and, after it’s called by just one player, the X Turn and X River are checked out. Player A wins the showdown with a weak Ace. We can deduce from this that holding top pair wasn’t enough for them to justify continued aggression as they were very aware of perhaps being out-kicked, should they have been up against another Ace. Indeed, rather than an act of aggression, the Flop bet was more an attempt to see where they stood which, while a common tactic in the old days, is considered rather unnecessary and unrefined today. A strategy of betting the Flop and shutting up shop by checking on the Turn and River is rightly considered quite feeble, and it’s something that can be exploited. With this in mind, let’s tale note of this hand and fast-forward a little, and we’re dealt T♠ 8♠ and the same player limps in yet again, and we check in the Big Blind, seeing a Flop of K♠ 9♥ 6♠… We have a flush draw, and a 7 would fill our gutshot straight draw. We check, and Player A makes a Flop bet of a similar size to that in the previous hand.

Everyone folds to us. Given that it looks again like they don’t have a strong hand, we could check-raise and possibly take down the pot. However, if we’re wrong, and we’re reraised, it’s not a great spot to be in. Meanwhile, we could instead just call and see if the hand does indeed follow the same path as the first one, and then act accordingly. If so, we would be getting to see both the Turn and the River for the mere cost of this call on the Flop – that’s great value for our draws. We call, and the Turn brings 8♣ – a pretty toothless pair, maybe, but more cards to further strengthen our hand. We check, and so does our opponent – just as happened in the previous hand, which is exactly what we were expecting. The X River changes nothing, so in terms of showdown value we’re not doing too well. However, the signs are that our opponent is not confident with their hand. They limped pre-flop, appeared to have made another dubious ‘see where I am’ Flop bet, and checked the Turn in position. This is a perfect opportunity to take the pot with a confident bet. We’re in the Big Blind and therefore could have absolutely anything, and also showed sufficient strength to call the Flop bet. So we throw in a pot-sized bet, and our opponent insta-folds. Easy game…

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