Improving your game

Making improvements to your game can be hard, but it’ll be worth it

Poker strategy – no matter how good – is no substitute for years of experience

Poker strategy is a great way to improve your game, but – and this is a big but – it’s important to remember that the vast majority of poker books, articles and videos should be seen as descriptive rather than prescriptive. Reading and then employing specific strategies en masse can be a recipe for disaster, but it’s extremely tempting to do it.

Say you read a piece from a hyper-aggressive player. Everything he says makes sense and suddenly you get the idea that the game’s easy. The very next time you play, you’re raising and re-raising everything like a madman. And when you lose you blame it on the cards. After all, you’re playing the way Gus Hansen plays – except he doesn’t seem to rely on cards. Which is where, rightly, you get a bit confused.

The trouble (or the beauty) with poker is that there’s no one right way to play the game. And the trouble with poker strategy is that – no matter how good it is – it’s no substitute for years of experience. Strategy can introduce you to moves and concepts, some easier to grasp than others, but it can’t turn you into a winning player overnight. And it can’t teach you to ‘feel’ the game and play at the highest levels.

Natural talent

You could say your own game of poker is as individual as your DNA – things that work for you simply won’t gel with others, and vice versa. Some players swear (yes, still!) by Brunson’s Super/System, others couldn’t win a pot with it. Harrington is probably the closest you can get to a universal poker manual, but that’s because the advice is almost entirely situational and descriptive.

Quite often throughout the situations outlined, Harrington acknowledges that there is more than one ‘right’ way to play a hand.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that your game should be static – that the way you play the game now is the way you should play it in the future. As you progress through your poker career it’s absolutely right and necessary to tweak your game, or even make wholesale changes to your overall approach. You’ll see this happening over time as you put the hours in and get more experience.

And it doesn’t mean that poker strategy is redundant – far from it. Unless you’re playing 40 hours a week with a wide variety of players, it’s essential that you read others’ strategies and cherry-pick from them to enhance your own playing style. Any changes you make will be absorbed over time until they become locked into your poker genomes.


It’s also important to remember that however you make the changes, the same thing will usually happen – your performance will dip as you make the adjustments before rising again, hopefully to a point higher than before you started. You see it in all sports – like the golfer who switches to a new putter in an effort to remedy his appalling green play. Or another analogy (and I apologise in advance for mentioning the ‘j’ word) is the juggler.

When you’re starting out you stick to the basics – three balls, no funny through-the-legs stuff, and certainly no flaming clubs or chainsaws. When you’ve mastered that to a point where you can do it in your sleep, you add a fourth ball and… invariably drop the lot.

The important thing is that you’ve introduced a new move and – when you’ve mastered it – you’ll be considered a much better juggler. And besides, you’re never going to make big money by sticking with the by-the-numbers three-ball juggle – too many people can do it.

But how do you progress to the chainsaws? Well, you need to be prepared to learn – from your own experience and the wisdom that other jugglers can impart to you. You need to be prepared to practise, practise and then practise some more, and take some calculated risks.

Most importantly, you need to take that final leap, which involves having confidence in your own ability and the willingness to accept that you might have your arm cut off if things go badly wrong. Thankfully, if you’re playing poker, the most you can lose is a hand.

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