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 29.12.2020 · last updated 29.12.2020

While chess is always cited when discussing spatial awareness in the context of analysis being supported by mentally indexing countless relevant positions and circumstances, in many ways poker is equally applicable.

Poker, like anything with a significant skill element, requires practice, study and experience to initially learn, improve and (hopefully) ultimately achieve a level of mastery and expertise. While practice does allow us to build up a database of knowledge from which we can extract the useful bits, it helps to be able to constantly monitor what’s happening in a hand, who is doing what, what the mathematics have in store for us, how we might adjust accordingly and so on.

Some players seem to be able to cut a path through the forest of information (past, present and, in a way, future) and emerge ready to make decisions that best take all the relevant factors into account. This knack of assimilating various bits of information, sifting through what is and isn’t significant in order to generate reliable evaluations, is an imperative skill for the would-be improving poker fan.

Moreover, as well as reading situations better than our opponents, ideally we would like to be able to actually engineer advantageous situations and steer the game down a path that suits us. It’s totally possible to influence how play develops. Spend time at the tables with skilled players and it’s strikingly noticeable how they take control of a hand, from the specifics of pot control to the dynamics – even in an emotional sense if we consider (other players’) tilt and poor decision-making in critical situations. We want to be able to emulate such players so that, confidence brimming, we’re used to being able to put our stamp on the game.

Note that this applies not only to individual hands but also to the nature of play at a table, the general flow, urgency and gear changes that can have a profound effect on our opponents in a tournament, and so on. But we achieve this only by perfecting a kind of mental plate-spinning, whereby it becomes second nature to apply a poker version of spatial awareness to all the elements of the game.

Essentially, as part of our general, hopefully automatic thought process, we should be looking when the flop arrives, for example, to determine both the strength of our hand and how the flop might have helped/hindered the opposition, as well as the potential significance of possible draws (for all players), how easily the texture of the board might change, which of the players still involved in the hand have shown a propensity to be aggressive/passive as a hand plays out…

We also need to factor in our (relative) position, the possible implications for others of their position, the stack sizes of the players involved (including us), not forgetting any relevant previous history that could come into play (including from hands we weren’t involved in – hence the importance of following the game at all times!). In some ways the spinning plates analogy doesn’t quite do this subject justice. At least such a skill is quite simplistic in that the performer’s task is to keep a row or circle of plates spinning without them falling to the floor. Our poker equivalent task is far more demanding because we need to be constantly aware of all of these factors, carry out in-running analysis, extrapolate the relevant elements, consider what we don’t know(!) and generally be prepared to be evaluated from the moment we sit down to play.

But it’s worth the effort! Once we get used to this process we can naturally assess situations so that we are better able to make the most optimal decisions, minimize our mistakes, and continue to improve…

Have fun!

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