In this article we explore five essential poker truths that players unfortunately often have a tough time recalling in the heat of the hand.

“Try to decide how good your hand is at a given moment. Nothing else matters. Nothing!” Doyle Brunson.

Often times, in the rush of poker, hands begin to meld together in value. When we get aces preflop, raise, get a caller, and flop a raggedy rainbow board, we expect to have the best hand. But, if we bet and our opponent makes a massive raise into us, how good our the aces in this moment? Stopping and realizing board texture, player tendencies, and hand ranges as much as possible during your play will help you to maintain that level of focus needed to understand the strength of your hand at particular moments in the hand. It’s the axiom that makes you protect your best hand on vulnerable boards, instead of allowing a player to peel for free. When we forget about relative strength, we miss opportunities to get value or protect and allow our opponents a chance to steal pots from us. Keep good track of your hand’s value from preflop to river, and you’ll make more accurate decisions throughout the entire hand.

“Sometimes you’ll miss a bet, sure, but it’s OK to miss a bet. Poker is an art form, of course, but sometimes you have to sacrifice art in favor of making a profit.” Mike Caro.

Learning to extract valueWhen we’re trying to play at our peak level, we start to see spots that we normally wouldn’t see; places we can extract thin value, preflop squeezes where players are opening light, and so on. Just because you see places where you think you can make a play or gain thin value doesn’t mean you have to take every single one of them.

By pointing your cone of focus at these highly marginal spots, you can detract from the obvious spots of profit; remember, when you’re making these plays, it’s altering your image. So, even though you might be able to make big squeeze plays and bluffs every time you see the spots, if you want to keep a tight image, it may be -EV if the pot isn’t worth very much. Don’t give yourself grief over a single missed bet or failed bluff. Just remember that it’s what you end your game with, in profit or in ranking, that matters in the end, not the hyper-sick-value bet you made with bottom pair.

“Whether he likes it or not, a man’s character is stripped bare at the poker table; if the other poker players read him better than he does, he has only himself to blame. Unless he is both able and prepared to see himself as others do, flaws and all, he will be a loser in poker, as well as life.” Anthony Holden. (The Big Deal)

Self-perception is something that gets lost in translation at the poker table, especially in the heat of the moment. You lose a pot. Then another. Then you get rags for an hour. Then you get your aces cracked. The table is going to be watching you, trying to see if this run of bad luck is going to tilt you. Being aware of your own emotions, whether it be tilt, euphoria, boredom, and so on, is vital in ensuring you know what your opponents are thinking about your game. If you seem tilty, and your opponents are reacting to you as tilty, if you haven’t realized you’re playing angry poker, you become easily exploitable. If you think your mood or behavior in the game is shifting, make sure to take the time to catch yourself and either adjust it or become aware of it first, so that when the other players start to shift their play against you, you’ll be one step ahead of them.

“Put yourself in their shoes before you decide on the best way to take their shirts.” David Sklansky.

Having empathy in pokerThe optimum way to break one player in a hand may be to just attack attack attack. But, poker is not a static game with static players. When approaching each player, whether it’s online or live, understanding that each player is more than a name, a face, and maybe a “tight/loose” label can be a major asset in tailoring your play to that specific player. It’s not just about looseness or tightness. It’s about reactions. If you three bet them a lot,are they the type of player to get frustrated and four bet light? If you check the turn after betting the flop, are they likely to try to steal it from you there?

Every player that plays poker plays the game a certain way. The more accurate you can characterize their play, the more likely you can optimize your profitability against them. Online, note-taking is a vastly underrated tool for finding quirks in your opponents game that you can access with the click of a mouse. The button just 6 bet all-in with K5h? That seems like something to take a note of. Live, you may not have a notepad and pen on you at all times, but you can still do more than labeling a player with simple catch-all’s like loose or passive.

Look for tells, patterns, and styles that each player employs. Keep a mental note of tendencies that you can exploit; limping with marginal hands, always continuation betting, and look at your players from their shoes, as well. If you’ve opened preflop five out of the last six hands, whether or not you’ve had hands, if you haven’t shown any of them, your opponent will very likely think, “Wow, this guys a lunatic.” Perception is reality, even at the poker table, so use it!

“You cannot survive without that intangible quality we call heart.” Bobby Baldwin.

Making good strategic decisionsWe can read all the books in the world on the game. Participate in forums every day. Play 16 hours a day, 5 days a week, for the rest of our lives. Do literally everything to absorb the game we love into our bloodstream. Even with all this work, all this study about proper play and right and wrong, the beautiful thing about poker is the blurring of those lines, “right and wrong” into something so majestic, we can barely comprehend it. Knowing when to five-bet bluff all-in preflop with five high, not because the book says it’s right or the guy has been hammering you all night, but just because you feel it’s the right play. Instinct, as trivial and bad as it may seem to rely upon, can sometimes be your saving grace at the poker table.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been sitting in a hand with a monster and just suddenly found myself sliding it in the muck, just because that sense picks up on something awry in the air. I’ve called 100 BB bets on the river with king high; snap-called them, and been completely, utterly right. Now, of course, I’ve also called those river bets with bottom pair and been shown top set, but, in my career, my instinct has led me to profit far more often than it has ruin. Learn to harness your instinct and utilize it when the time merits it, and you’ll find yourself reaching levels you didn’t know existed.

BONUS! “Poker is a lot like sex, everyone thinks they are the best, but most don’t have a clue what they are doing.” Dutch Boyd.

So true.