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Playing Poker: The Skill or the Will?

Don’t just reach for the perfect hand

by Jim Feist


When I walk up to the wagering window at any Las Vegas sports book I don’t go there with the intention of losing my bet. However, you can’t win every game. Sometimes you get hit with incredibly bad/unlucky beats, such as in the 2013 college football season with Alabama/Auburn or Auburn/Georgia. Other times, you’re just plain wrong with the team you like having a bad day and getting whipped. It happens. The key is not to sweat it.

Nobody likes to lose, but losses will happen in sports betting and at the poker tables. Which means when you sit down at the tables go in with a game plan where you intend to win, but expect to lose. Mentally be prepared to suffer a defeat because if it doesn’t happen during this game, it will eventually. No matter how well you play poker it is an imperfect game and there are no guarantees you’ll come out ahead. The key is to put the odds in your favor, which requires patience, knowledge, planning and the correct state of mind.

In football, some coaches say, “It’s not about the skill, but the will!”  Meaning it’s less about talent and skill level and more about the sheer will to beat your opponent. I’m not a proponent of that for winning in football or at the poker tables. Poker is very much about skill level. There are rules to the game. To be the best player in the fight for the pot you need to know to rules, the percentages, and when it’s your turn to act—either by attacking or folding. In football you don’t win by giving up, but there are times in poker to pack it in and move on to the next hand.

There’s nothing worse than a player who slows down the game by not knowing when the action is on them. Focus on the game and what you’re doing. Don’t hesitate. It not only slows things down, but it can annoy seasoned players at the table while showing them you’re not on the ball. That’s one sign that you’re less of a skilled player, too, which means they will come swooping down on you and your chips like a hawk—and likely fly away with them.

Some subtle tactics to use at the table are to smile, be pleasant and to listen. That is, tell a joke or chat with players showcasing a friendly demeanor. There’s no reason to stare down other players or to gripe about someone else’s bad play.  By being courteous you can avoid enemies down the road, such as buying a round after you rake in a big win. It’s called winning graciously.  And don’t be angry when you lose, either. If you can’t afford to buy a round after the game, you shouldn’t be betting in the first place.

And don’t reach! I’m not referring to reaching for a beer, but reaching for the perfect card. You may find yourself holding a hand that only needs one card to complete a flush or straight. It’s exciting being so close to a blockbuster hand, but as a general rule if your opponent is betting heavily, it is unlikely to be profitable to chase after these draws. However, if there is only a small amount of betting it may be wise to call in the hope of making your hand. If the amount your opponent bets seems too big to warrant a call to make your hand, then don’t.

Finally, don’t jump in at the high limits. The players at the higher limits are better than the players at the lower limits. Keep that in mind—if you step up the money, you are stepping up to far better competition. There is less chance that you’ll be able to beat them if you’re newer to the game, which means you’ll spend a lot of money trying to learn the game in the process.

Play at limits you can afford—and only you know your bankroll. You should not play at limits where you are going to drop money that you cannot afford to lose. That could turn you into an ungracious loser and cloud your thinking for the next game.  And a ruffled, desperate poker player is destined to lose.


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