While math is at the very heart of what makes poker work, what makes poker interesting is a combination of discipline and psychology. These factors are what require players to do more than just bet when they have good cards and fold when they have nothing. Psychology is at the heart of every poker game above a certain limit level because enough money is on the line with each decision to make it possible for players to take risks. These risks can come in the form of bluffing or by simply over-or-under-representing the hands that a player has. Let’s break the psychological game down a bit and take a look at the three questions that you need to ask yourself whenever you’re involved in a hand.
“What does my opponent have?”
This is the very first question you need to learn to ask yourself on a regular basis when you are playing poker, the core of a good poker game. Too many beginning players become too interested in their own holdings and focus just on the hand they can build. It’s important to observe other players and how they are betting at any given time. For example, if someone who’s consistently folded and only gone to the showdown with a pair of tens or higher raises before you and you’re holding 88 with nothing on the board? You’ll want to consider folding, even if you really like the look of what you have.
“What does my opponent think I have?”
This question requires some parallel thought with the first, obviously, because you have to not only dissect what their holdings are likely to be based on the data you’ve gotten from their play but you also have to think about how you’re representing your own hand. If you’re a more aggressive, loose player, your opponent is going to place you on a wider range of cards than they would be able to if you stuck to very tight play. One way you can make your play more uncertain in the eyes of your opponent is to pick one riskier hand to see through the turn every three or four orbits. Then make sure that you don’t muck your cards when you fold. It’s a simple way to introduce uncertainty into their game.
“What does my opponent think I think they have?”
This requires some planning and forethought but once you get in the swing, it’s easier than you’d think. Check-raising is a great way to introduce the idea that you know more than you’re saying (or vice versa). You check when the action gets to you and when your opponent bets, you raise in response. It basically shows your opponent some weakness and then comes back with enough strength to say “I know what you have, but I can beat it.” It introduces uncertainty and even fear into the game for them when it comes your turn to play.
Great poker players know how to take these questions and juggle them constantly at the table. Controlling the flow of information in poker is extremely important and it’s the players that understand that who get the most out of their opponents.