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 21.05.2021 · last updated 21.05.2021

It stands to reason that, because we’re only human, we can’t expect to function perfectly. When it comes to poker, which is such a complex game that can rather cruelly differentiate between success and failure based on the turn of a card, treading this thin line is a difficult task indeed.

As we progress and learn more about strategy and so-called optimal play and so on, we get used to thinking in more refined terms, with one such aspect being Expected Value (EV) and, in turn, how we can search out and subsequently profit from so-called +EV situations.

It seems eminently simple: we find weaknesses in the opposition’s play so that we can exploit them by engineering +EV scenarios that we can take full advantage of. The trick is to do this at every opportunity while at the same time avoiding spots that are -EV, thus maximizing our long-term chances of coming out ahead.

If only it were that easy! The problem with this would-be ideal strategy is that, while it holds pretty tight in theory, in practice we’re not going to be able to fully deliver because, unfortunately, we won’t be skillful enough to carry out this or that task. Inevitably, there will be numerous elements of the game that we haven’t yet got to grips with, or perhaps even plays and situations that will always pose problems for us. We might not appreciate how best to handle specific aspects; it’s quite possible that we simply don’t feel comfortable in some situations and therefore don’t trust in our ability to make the necessary decisions.

The cold truth is that just because a situation is +EV, it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s the best course for us if we’re for whatever reason not able to see that particular play through. Moreover, it could also be more likely to lead to a negative outcome were that the case. For example, if 3-betting out of position is something that we tend to be uncomfortable with and leads us into situations that we can’t seem to play properly, then a theoretically +EV scenario that requires such a plan might very well NOT be +EV for us. Consequently, until such time that we’ve succeeded in getting our heads round this specific subject, we’d be better off stearing clear of these situations.

This is just one example of a player’s possible weaknesses or, perhaps more accurately, areas in a player’s experience and progression that have yet to be properly addressed. It’s imperative that we achieve sufficient competency to fulfill the requirements to confidently and successfully execute a +EV strategy.

Of course, we should be looking to be as skillful as possible in as many situations as possible, investing time and effort accordingly into building up a sound, thorough understanding of the game’s many elements. We can never have too many strings to our bow.

However, it’s much better to have a repertoire of scenarios that we know we handle well, and commit only to those, adding more as we improve our game, than to feel obliged to go down a path that could lead us into trouble just because in an ideal world it’s +EV.

Finally, an important point to keep in mind is that we can flip these considerations and appreciate that, if not being sufficiently equipped or prepared to handle a +EV spot can work against us, it follows that a theoretical -EV situation can be profitable if we can outplay the opposition. It’s because poker is such a situational game that we can absolutely use our strengths with great effect, putting ourselves in situations that we expect to turn to our advantage, much in the same way as an athlete can give an opponent a start in a race, safe in the knowledge that they have the ability to overcome the defecit and go on to win.

We need to have a mindset that means we make this or that play not necessarily because it’s theoretically ‘correct’ but because it allows us to best use our strengths to our advantage.


It’s not enough to try to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses – for such a plan to succeed we need in doing so to be playing to our strengths. Only then is the situation going to be genuinely +EV (for us, specifically).

Over time it will become evident in which areas we’re improving our understanding and developing our ever-expanding skillset. And, in turn, our confidence in our ability improves as our familiarity of concepts and how to deal with them increases.

We will ultimately enjoy greater success by utilising our strengths to engineer +EV results rather than robotically seeking out theoretical +EV situations that might lead us into problematic situations we’re ill-equipped to deal with.

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