As a beginning poker player, the two things that should be foremost in your mind at all times are the very, very basics: good starting hands and using position well. These are the core principles that will serve you well no matter how or where you play and you should work to master them, but what comes after the very mathematical basics? Then there’s the psychological aspect of the game and that comes into play once you learn how to gather intelligence from your opponents as you play.
It’s a common mistake for beginners to assume that the main psychological aspect of poker is figuring out whether or not another player is bluffing at any given time. The fact of the matter is that while it does play a role in the game, especially in higher levels and in no limit hold ’em, bluffing is not as common as you might think. The most common psychological tactics used in poker revolve instead around what an opponent’s playable range is and how they play from different positions.
You’re not going to be able to gather this intelligence against an unknown opponent who you’ve not sat down with yet, but as you play more hands with any given player, work to establish patterns that they might have in their calling and raising. For instance, if they’re dropping four times the big blind before the flop from the middle position and they ride the game all the way to the river to reveal a pair of 9s, then you know that they view middle pairs as something to play aggressively.
Intelligence at the table gives you a distinct advantage when you have to handle more difficult situations against the same players. As an example, let’s say you’re holding QT in heads-up play in a tournament against an opponent that you know overplays top pair consistently. You’re both sitting behind a stack of 1,500 chips and the blinds are at 100/200. The flop is revealed: TTK, giving you three of a kind. You, of course, raise and your opponent fires back with a reraise. This continues until your opponent goes all-in.
You know you’ve got a very playable, solid hand, but there’s also the worry that your opponent could be holding KT and have a full house. At this opportunity, you should look at how you’ve played against them in the past. If they’ve overplayed top pair in the past (as we stated,) then it’s more likely that they’re holding a pair of Kings. In a moment like this, making the call is your best move.
The more information you gain from an opponent, the better the decisions you’ll be able to make against them during difficult moments like the one described. It’s those moments that make a poker player’s career.