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 30.11.2020 · last updated 15.03.2021

Poker Rule – We should always watch how our opponents play. This advice is quite obvious, and it might appear that I’m only bothering to mention it because those less experienced or new players who read these articles will find it useful to keep in mind as they progress down the long and winding road that is poker mastery.

But that wouldn’t be true. First, I’m guilty of ignoring this fundamental golden rule myself – during those hands in which I’m not involved, rather than continually observe the game in order to pick up insights into how this or that player deals with different situations and so on (invaluable info to be used later), I might instead find myself surfing the web, for example. Another (deliberate) distraction is watching TV – my ideal scenario is playing a tournament while watching football, with the TV in the same line of vision as my laptop, maybe with a few snacks and drinks within convenient reach. It’s a nailed on guarantee that I’ve just described the habits of countless poker fans. It’s also a given that many of these will be experienced players who should know better…

Of course, the meaning of ‘ideal’ in this specific context is debatable at best. As far as my playing as well as possible is concerned, making sure I at least make a concerted effort to eke out every potentially useful edge by properly focusing on poker, this bad habit is a careless and, admittedly, unforgiveable one. By the way, apart from enjoying sharing my thoughts with fellow players, actually putting them down in black and white also helps me – as is the case here – be necessarily introspective as I realize that I don’t practice what I preach.

 So let’s all make an early New Year’s resolution today, and promise ourselves that we’ll keep an eye on proceedings every hand, and not just those we play a part in. In fact, having said that, some players get so tense while they play that they forget the details of hands they were invested in, so we’ll tweak our resolution to, simply: ‘Observe every hand’…

Here’s an example of how closely monitoring a player can later be used to our advantage. We find ourselves heads-up, with position, against an opponent who we’ve noticed has been very solid, having not ventured out of their comfort zone thus far. We have As 9s and the Flop brought Qs 6s 2c, giving us a welcome nut flush draw. We call a bet, and the Turn brings the magical 7s, thus filling our flush. Our opponent checks, we bet $6 into a $16 pot and we’re met with a fold. At first this might seem like a poor result, given the strength of our hand, but it would be a mistake not to bet the Turn. The point is that not only were we trying to extract some value out of our flush, but there was also the possibility that our bet would induce a raise or even a bluff, which is all we need to engineer a big payoff by letting the opposition do the work for us. And, importantly, we have gained some potentially useful information – our opponent backed out of the hand when the Turn brought a possible flush; not necessarily because they were convinced we had one, but more likely they were simply not prepared to take the risk. Note that we can reasonably make this assumption based on their previous cautious play.

Continuing our focus on this same opponent, we can subsequently approach boards featuring possible draws with a view to giving them the opportunity to make the same mistake. However, the idea is that this time we can make the same play without actually having a drawing hand – the trick is to simply represent one. We see on TV and in films (but not while we’re playing, remember!) about ‘playing the people, not the cards’ and of course that seems impossible to accomplish, especially for inexperienced players. But here we have a situation in which doing so is totally feasible and practicable. We observed an opponent’s habits and witnessed such an example when up against them in a hand, so it would be logical, in a game of opportunity, to seek to exploit a possible chink in their armour. And, don’t forget, to continue doing so until that particular proverbial goose stops laying golden eggs!

Note that in this kind of scenario where we are looking to represent strong hands and subsequently push opponents out of the pot, any cards that might realistically fit our chosen narrative are often going to be enough to get us over the line, especially if we have managed to successively set the scene by our previous actions.

It’s imperative that we put ourselves in our opponent’s shoes as a hand evolves, and the more we understand about how they play, the easier that task becomes. This might seem a tall order for a newer player, given that we’re also busy trying to put players on this or that hand, but having an idea of what they’re thinking about us can be that decisive factor that tips the balance in our favour. Such an approach becomes a more natural to the point of being second nature the more we play, so we should keep learning as we go, and gradually hone this and other skills as we go along.

As long as we make it a golden rule to properly observe our opponents, that’s already a step in the right direction, and a great habit to get into.

Have fun!

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