Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2006) in Poker Player newspaper.
Psychology is essential to master if you’re planning to extract the most profit from your poker games. Tells can add oodles of extra cash. Finesse tactics will let you play hands in ways that add extra chips to your stacks. I teach all of this.
But none of it is enough to make you a winner unless you learn a basic game plan from the get-go. You need to have a solid understanding of the elemental components of poker before you can be comfortable with more sophisticated techniques. And that’s the concept we’re going to talk about today.
We’re going to explore how tragically you can get lost swimming in the ocean and never return to the safe buoy where you started. And we’re going to learn how to avoid that. It’s all made clear by an old MCU lecture I delivered. It goes like this…
A buoy in the ocean
Every year, more than a million new players discover poker for the first time. Some never even learn how to play by the rules. Some experiment with the game, but never really play it seriously. Maybe they just play for matchsticks. Some try to emulate poker the way they saw it played in Old West movies.
And a few of these new people who are just becoming aware of poker, decide they want to play it to win. Some even decide they want to make their livings playing it.
Fine. But, now what happens? Most of these players go into formal home games or casinos and putt-putt around, hoping their intuitive wisdom is better than their opponents’. They have a feel for which hands to play, when to raise, when to call, and when to fold.
Most of these players are just guessing, and some guess right. They are accidentally playing close enough to a correct strategy that they win. Does this make them lifelong professional prospects with a secure future in poker? No, because they stray from what they were doing right in the first place and then forget how to get back.
It’s actually worse than this. Some players who guess right about a strategy get unlucky and lose. Then – before they go broke and disappear from the poker scene forever – they change their strategy. In an attempt to win, they shift from a winning strategy to a losing one, not realizing that the first strategy would have won for them had they stuck with it.
And here’s something else strange to think about. Many of those who decide to give serious poker a try start out winning by playing a really poor strategy. They’re just lucky. And they are unlikely to adjust, because the bad strategy worked for them. They’ll also probably go broke and disappear.
The real point here is that the correct strategic starting point is available to you. There are plenty of credible books to help you out in the beginning. I recommend that you write a basic strategy on paper. The strategy should say what you’re going to enter pots with in which positions, what you’ll raise with, what you’ll call with.
Make sure it’s consistent with what has been proven to be correct – with what has been published by a credible researcher. You can add to it and change it a little, making it better. But it’s always your basic fall-back strategy. At first, your basic game plan won’t cover everything, but it will cover enough to make it less likely that you’ll crash immediately.
Once you’re using your basic game plan, you can, as you go along, modify your strategy. Add new insights. Find ways to vary your play and be more creative.
But you need to keep that first solid game plan in mind at all times. Why? Because if you just keep adapting, your game will become less and less like it was originally.
Pretty soon, it will have very little resemblance to your original game plan at all. You may find that the adjustments you made are not working and you’re out in the ocean, treading water, looking for shore or something to cling to. And your bankroll will disappear as you struggle.
Where you started
You wish you could just go back to where you started, but you don’t remember where that was, because you never wrote it down or memorized it. You just jumped into a spot in the ocean that looked like every other spot around it, and you started to play.
You made good choices for a while, but you’ve forgotten what they were, and you can’t find that spot again. That’s something that destroys thousands of poker players every year – forgetting how to play profitably.
But this won’t happen if you have written down or memorized a basic game plan in the beginning. Once you’re convinced it wins, you can start to be more creative. You can stray from your original strategy in quest of bigger profits. But that memorized original game plan remains with you.
It is like a buoy in the ocean. It’s there for you when you need it. Just look around, find it, and swim back there. Rest. Play basic strategy. Win. When you’re comfortable again, try expanding your game, being more sophisticated, seeking more money, but knowing that if things go wrong, you can always return to that buoy and win.
Keep it forever
If you don’t have a firm basic game plan to go back to, you’ll flounder around in poker’s ocean, never remembering what it was you formerly did right. But when you do have a firm basic game plan written down or memorized, you can keep it with you forever and return to it for comfort. That’s what I do.
Sometimes I find that I’ve made too many adjustments and I want to go back to a core strategy that I know will win. Then, gradually, I’ll add more finesse. This is how I’ve played poker all my life. The buoy in the ocean is what has kept me from drifting too far from profit while trying to expand my winnings. It works for me, and it will work for you, too.
This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today. — MC