Any long-time poker player will tell you that to be a good player you must think about many different things while you are playing. In this sections, four important psychological concepts will be discussed: tilts, tells, reading hands and situations, and thinking on many levels. With the right amount of practice and skill, you, too, can become a master bluffer.
When players make mistakes because something upsets them emotionally, it is called a "tilt" or "being on a tilt." An example is a player who is a huge favorite in a hand but loses to an opponent who hits a miracle card on the river (often called a "bad beat"). That player becomes so emotionally upset that he/she begins to make bad decisions. Another instance that sometimes puts players on a tilt is when an opponent is loud, obnoxious, rude, or otherwise annoying. Players who are on a tilt react in many different ways with the most common being entering pots with weaker hands than usual and calling bets when the pot odds don't warrant it. While it's important to realize when one of your opponents is on a tilt, it is more important to realize when you may be going on a tilt and figuring out how not to let your emotions get the best of you.
Recognizing when you are going on a tilt is easier for some than others. If you think you may have played on tilt but aren't sure, one way that may help you is to keep detailed records of your playing sessions. Something else to watch out for is if you start to consider playing weaker hands than you usually play after taking a couple bad beats.
Once you realize that you are going on a tilt, you must, of course, try to avoid it. Some players can avoid tilting by simply suppressing their emotions and concentrating more on the game. If you are too upset, it may be best to simply quit your current playing session. Some players will get up and take a short walk to clear their head before returning to the game. Some find that fresh air also helps. Try different things when you go on a tilt until you find which one works best for you.
When one of your opponents is on a tilt, remember a few things as you try to take advantage of the situation. Players on a tilt are often unpredictable, especially when deciding their starting hand. Entering the pot with weaker hands than usual is the most common thing players on a tilt do.
Another thing to remember is that players may realize what they are doing and correct it at any time. In addition, solid players may be trying to convince you they are on a tilt when they are not. Deception in poker is a frequent occurrence.
It is important to remember not to play weak hands in order to take advantage of the player on a tilt. The fish may become so tempting to you that you become a fish yourself.
In the next section, we will look at the "tells" that can reveal a player's hand, intentions or mood.
When players act in a way that gives away something about their hand, it is called a "tell." Much like a tilt, it is important not only to recognize your opponents' tells but also to realize if you have any.
Some players' hands shake when they are placing a bet if they have a very strong hand, while other players' hands shake when they are bluffing. Some players act strong when they are weak and act weak when they are strong. These players will often bet aggressively by practically throwing their chips into the pot or even toward you in hopes that their show of strength will make you fold.
Players who have a large pocket pair in Hold'em--like AA or KK--will sometimes closely watch each other place their bet into the pot as if making sure that nobody shorts the pot. These players have already won the hand in their mind and want to make sure that they collect every last bet. And then there are some players who hold their breath when they have a strong hand.
There is an unlimited number of possible tells, for it is human nature to react in some way when excited, and everyone is different. Picking up tells on your opponents can be done only by paying attention to detail. So practice concentrating on your opponents as much as possible while hiding any tells you may have. Learning to control your emotions under many situations takes practice, but it is very important because poker is a game of information, and you don't want to give any more of it away than you have to. If you are able to, your game will certainly improve.
But what about reading hands and situations? We will cover that in the next section.
Reading Hands and Situations
Reading hands and situations is a skill that can be mastered only by practice and experience. Over time, you can read many players because they fall into patterns and become predictable. For instance, some players raise before the flop only with strong hands like AA, KK, and AK.
These players reveal too much information about their playing styles to their opponents by always playing this way.
What you must constantly look for is betting patterns. Many players bet the same type of hands the same way every time. If you can pick up on their patterns, it will improve your game tremendously.
Many players, when on a draw, will call bets on the flop and turn. Then, they will always raise on the river when they hit their hand, and check or fold when they don't. One lesson to be learned from this tendency is to occasionally vary your own play so an opponent can't easily read your hands. Usually making a play that is contrary to your normal playing style is only necessary about 5 percent of the time to keep your opponents guessing. This, however, is only necessary in a game with opponents who are paying attention. Poor players rarely notice anything you do out of the ordinary, so just play simple straightforward poker against them.
As you become more experienced, you will learn to read situations and know what is going to happen. A common example of this is when you have a top pair and a good kicker or two pair on the flop, which contains two cards of the same suit. You bet on the flop and are called. You bet again on the turn and are called. Then on the river the third card of a suit hits making a flush possible. After you bet again, the person who had been calling raises you. In low-limit Hold'em, this means a flush will beat you almost every time. The only time you may not be beaten is when a solid player feels that you are capable of laying down a good hand for one bet and is bluffing you because of the scare card. This is often not the case. Situations such as this are learned with experience. So practice, practice, practice.
Another reason it is important to pay close attention to the game is so you will think back about how a hand has been played to the present. Did anyone raise before the flop? If so, who raised? Has someone who has been checking and calling suddenly raised? You need to answer these questions in order to recognize and read situations at the poker table.
Poker is a thinking man's game. In our final section, we will stress the importance of thinking on many levels.
Thinking on Many Levels
One of the biggest advantages that most professional players have over amateurs is the ability to think on many levels. This means thinking about what you have, what your opponent has, what your opponent thinks you have, and so on.
Thinking beyond the first two or three levels is rarely necessary in low-limit Hold'em, but as you advance in limits, it becomes necessary to think on many levels. Remember that poker is a game of information, and the better your opponents play, the more information you will need to be successful.
Psyching out your opponent takes much skill and dedication toward learning the art of bluffing. Always be thinking about your opponent's moves!