One bit of advice that I have heard for years is to always play your best. In fact, we are often told that if you can’t play your best you shouldn’t play at all. As an example, I recently read that if you are driving to your favorite poker room, and for some reason you don’t feel 100 percent, you should just turn your car around and go home. This way you avoid the loss that is sure to come. Of course this is just plain silly.
All expert players possess what is sometimes called an “automatic pilot” strategy. This is a strategy that dictates their play without taking into account any other information that may be available. For instance, at the limit hold ’em table, if I’m dealt ten-nine suited under the gun, my automatic pilot play is to limp in. If the game is tough and there are aggressive players behind me, this should be taken into account and my automatic pilot play with the ten-nine suited will now be adjusted from a limp to a fold. If the game is weak and the blinds are tight, my limp now adjusts to a raise.
As most of you probably realize, to make these types of decisions well, you really need to be at 100 percent, and of course it never hurts to be at 100 percent. But the fact of the matter is that if you play poker well, the vast majority of your win comes from your automatic pilot plays and not your super judgment plays.
So what this means is that unless you are in a very tough game (like those the sometimes occur at the high limits), as long as you know how to play poker well, you don’t need to feel close to 100 percent. On these days, recognize that your abilities are not at your peak and just stick to your automatic pilot. You should do fine. By the way, if you don’t think you can beat a game without your superior judgment, then your basic understanding of poker (and your automatic pilot) needs to improve.
For years I have been part of the debate as to how much value visual tells really have. My position has been that in general, while these type of tells do have some value, their overall value is not very much, or at least not as large as some claim. This is especially true in games like limit hold ’em or seven-card stud where the pot can become quite large relative to the size of the bet. In fact, a number of years ago I wrote that an expert player at $20-$40 limit who can make $40 per hour at full time play should find these types of tells worth about $2 per hour. It is why in my opinion you are far better off when trying to read hands to review how the hand was strategically played to that point, and then combine this information with what you know are your opponent’s tendencies as well as the underlying mathematical probabilities that govern hand possibilities. (See our books for more discussion.)
Now an interesting event just occurred that lends credence to my position. The $10,000 No Limit Hold ’em Championship at the World Series of Poker was just won by a young man by the name of Chris Moneymaker. One of the facts that is so interesting about this win is that Mr. Moneymaker had only played poker on the Internet where he won his entry into the World Series of Poker. His play at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas is suppose to be the first time he ever played poker in a live cardroom. Clearly he should have virtually no skill when it comes to tells. But if they are not very important, it shouldn’t matter. So much for those tournament stars who claim they know what someone’s hand is by simply looking at him.
Sometime when you enter a poker game there will be a player already in the game with a huge amount of chips. In almost all cases, this will be a terrible player. You will almost always be looking at someone who plays way to many hands and frequently also plays too aggressively. What has happened is that he has just hit a lucky streak and amassed what appears to be an unbelievable number of chips. But these sorts of streaks are expected for this type of player, and in the long run, they can also expect to lose all their money.
But now put this same guy in a tournament. Many times, they will just bust out quickly. But on that lucky day when they amass a lot of chips, they can frequently be in position to win the event. This is especially true if they are willing to attempt many steals on the opening round.
Now before I get criticized, let me state that there is much more to tournament skills than a wild aggressive style. But this does help explain why most successful tournament players do tend to be on the loose aggressive side. Furthermore, when a tournament player talks about playing tight, his definition of playing tight often seems loose to me. But that’s another issue.
However, and for those of you who are interested in making the transition from standard ring game play to tournaments, and are watching the World Poker Tour shows where the hole cards of the participants can be seen, this does help to explain some of the extremely loose aggressive plays that you see. Many of these plays, which would be terribly wrong in a full ring game, are indeed correct tournament strategy. This is especially true if your chip position is strong and you are attacking someone who is trying to survive. (See Tournament Poker for Advanced Players by David Sklansky for more discussion.)