The following lecture was the 26th Tuesday Session, held March 23, 1999, and later appeared in Card Player magazine.
Some of Poker’s Most Profitable Things to Observe
I believe that many potential winners are inattentive at poker games simply because they don’t know what’s important. They want to win. But they try to do too much at once. They try to look at everything. They become frustrated. They fail. They look at nothing.
That’s what we’re going to talk about today. This was the 26th in my series of Tuesday Session classroom lectures at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. It was delivered March 23, 1999 and has been specially enhanced for Card Player. The title of my talk was…
Profitable things to watch in a poker game
The vast majority of players simply give up on trying to observe seriously, because the task is too overwhelming.
Trying to take poker seriously, but still not being able to discover basic traits or tells in opponents is a classic case of “not being able to see the forest for the trees.” There is so much going on at a poker table that — if you try to watch it all — you will almost certainly be overwhelmed and you might as well observe nothing. You will seldom observe the most profitable things in poker if you try to look for everything. The trick is to focus on one thing at a time.
Students are often amazed by the results they get when they focus on just one thing. When you look for something specific, miracles can happen. Sometimes you see what you’re looking for and sometimes you don’t. But when you try to focus on everything, you are overwhelmed and important things can go unobserved. You almost never see what you’re looking for, because you’re looking for too much.
The more experienced you become, the more things you can focus on and still get results. But when you’re still learning and having little success spotting poker tells or understanding your foes, use the rule of one.
This is not an absolute, set-in-stone list of things to look for or how to observe.
Everything we’re going to talk about today is collectively only one example of how I might teach somebody to go about observing things at a poker table. You can incorporate today’s tips into your own game plan, add some, subtract others. Or you can just take advantage of these specific tips, exactly as presented.
First question: Is this game worth my time?
That’s the first thing that demands your attention. If the game is so tough that there’s no profit in it or if there is a better game available, you shouldn’t be in that seat. You can get a good idea about whether a game is worthwhile even before you take a seat. In the first hour of play, keep asking yourself what things are happening that you clearly know you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) do. If you don’t spot any of these mistakes, the game is probably not very profitable.
And that’s one of the key lessons I’ve learned over my years of playing poker. I need to see mistakes made by others that I wouldn’t make myself. If I can’t spot these, I’m probably in a bad game. The only regular exception I make is against players who are not making many tactical errors but exhibit powerful tells. Then I’ll play because I won’t be able to take advantage of such blatant tells in another game where opponents seem otherwise to be playing more poorly.
Second question: What is my fantasy seat.
By applying the criteria we’ve talked about in previous lessons (sit to the left of the loose players so they act before you, also sit to the left of knowledgeable, aggressive players, and sit to the right of tight non-entity players), decide what seat you would most like to have. If an opportunity arises allowing you to take that seat, take it.
If you don’t focus from time to time on what seat you would ideally like to have, you’ll likely be too late to make a switch if that seat becomes available.
Try to reconstruct hands.
Nothing else gives you as much insight into the way opponents really play. Focus on just one opponent and – after seeing the showdown and while the next deal is being prepared – go back mentally and try to equate that player’s hand with how he played at each stage of the action.
You will discover wondrous new things about an opponent’s habits when you try to put the picture together after the fact and figure out how he arrived at the showdown. Most world class players do this instinctively.
When looking for tells, focus on just one player.
Other tells from other players involved in the hand might become apparent, anyway. The main reason players can’t spot tells is that they don’t focus on just one player at a time. Remember, too many trees and you can’t see the forest.
When you’re out of a hand and you don’t feel like observing, don’t.
I believe that one of the main reasons players don’t learn observational skills – and thereby sacrifice profit – is that observing constantly is agony. It’s better to let your mind rest when it wants to rest. Always observe when you’re in a hand. Otherwise: When it’s comfortable to observe do; when it’s not, don’t.
Yes, you can force yourself to concentrate more and play a little better for short periods. But most people will find that they “burn out” quickly and are unable to play longer sessions in profitable games if they force concentration while their mind rebels. I believe that in those long, profitable games, you should let your brain relax between hands whenever it wants to.
A simple, accurate way to rate your table.
For 20 hands that you’re not involved in: (a) Add 1 point for each call; (b) Subtract 1 point for each raise; and (c) Subtract 1 extra point for each check-raise (minus 2 points total). First bets are ignored in the count. Re-raises count as a single raise (minus 1 point). All players’ actions count, even when they act more than once on a single betting round. The higher the score, the better.
You’ll have to compare your results to other games of the same size, type, and number of players. But soon you’ll know with surprising accuracy how profitable today’s game is compared to yesterday’s. Twenty hands may seem like too small a statistical sample, and sometimes it is. But usually it’s enough to tell how profitable your game is relative to others you’ve played or will play. Try it. – MC