Analyse this

Rushed decision-making probably isn’t helpful in any area of life, so why do it in poker?
Take your time and you’ll take it down says Julian Gardner

Poker is a game of partial information, so give yourself the opportunity to fill in the gaps with all the information around you

One of the UK’s finest poker exports, Julian Gardner is the only person in the world to finish in the money at the ‘Big One’ from 2002-2004. Still only 27, he has earned over $2m from tournaments

Psychology is what makes a great tournament player. In theory, anyone with a good grasp of maths can be a good poker player, but the greats have that something extra in their psychological make-up that means they can concentrate for 12 hours without making a mistake, or instinctively know when they should deviate from the mathematically correct play.

Poker is in essence a simple game, it’s the people who play it that make it complicated – so knowing how your mind and those of your opponents work is just as important as working out your pot odds. Psychology in tournament poker also relates to pressure – your capacity to withstand pressure and your ability to put other players in pressure situations will win just as many pots in a tournament as your big hands, if not more.

Most people assume psychology in poker relates to psyching your opponent out, but before thinking about how you can use psychology to affect other players, it’s important to first assess how your own psychology affects you. Your mental and emotional state has the biggest impact on how you play. Hours of good work can be wiped out if you get a bad beat and start tilting or lose focus and call a bet you know you shouldn’t have. Tilt has been covered extensively in poker magazines and on the web, so I won’t go into that in this article, instead I want to cover a major problem for pretty much all poker players – loss of focus.

Call your autobluff

Staying focused is probably something that every player wishes they could do better. I often see inexperienced players making decisions on autopilot, most often with an instant all-in during a tournament when there’s no way they can have thought carefully about the situation they are facing. Before worrying about psyching out other players, make sure you can control your own mind – always take time before you make a decision to question yourself.

We all want to play our best, but poker isn’t just about playing well, it’s about not making mistakes. One of the most common mistakes is that players decide they will bluff in a given situation and stick in a big raise or re-raise without really considering their position or their opposition’s likely holdings. Avoid this at all costs. Unless you’re confident that an instant bet will truly portray strength, you’ll find pros like me calling your autobluffs 99% of the time and you’ll struggle to get through the first few hours of decent tournament without donking off a good portion of your chips.

I try to focus on making the right decisions at all times – it’s the key to good poker. We all make mistakes, but if you have confidence in your ability and that most of your decisions are right most of the time, then you’ll end the year in profit. So you have to give yourself the best chance. It sounds obvious, but simply giving yourself a few seconds to think things through before splashing the pot or clicking the mouse will improve your decision making and consequently your winnings. This is true in all games of poker, but it is of utmost importance in a tournament where you can’t put more cash on the table and one momentary loss of concentration can undo hours or even days of hard work.

If giving yourself time to evaluate your decisions is a key internal skill, externally, your psychology is displayed to the other players via your table image. Unsurprisingly, there’s no one table image that’s better or worse than another in poker. Tournaments are won by all sorts of players, from the crazily drunk aggressives to the inanimate, poker-faced mutes. A lot of your image is down to what you’re comfortable with, but just as physical tells give away information about your mental state, so your table image can display your psychology. Personally, for a new player I believe that Chris Ferguson’s style at the table is perfect. He sits there very quietly, watching absolutely everything, but not giving anything away.

Image is everything

Unless you’re very, very good, time spent mouthing off at the table or showboating to the railbirds is time wasted that you could be using to gather information on your opponents. Poker is a game of partial information, so a poker player should give himself the opportunity to fill in the gaps with all the information around him. I keep saying that success is all about making the right decisions, so why not sit tight, give nothing away and watch and listen to your opponents. You’ll be surprised how much information you can gather if you are attentive. Those of you worrying about looking weak at a table of big personalities can be assured that when you make the right decisions and gather in chips, no-one will be thinking about how meek you are – they’ll be more concerned with avoiding you crushing them with your stack.

I’m a pretty quiet player myself on the whole and I’ve been told that I’m most intimidating when I’m sat at a table, silent, but with a stack of chips. Players find it more threatening when they can’t get anything out of you than if you’re doing a poor impersonation of Mike ‘The Mouth’. Your attitude should be: ‘Worry about my poker skills, not my withering put-downs.’

Changing gear is a key concept in tournament poker and is one of the most important intangibles in your tournament strategy. The idea of moving through the gears is to change your playing style during a tournament to take advantage of the situation and the table you’re on, with the aim of making yourself hard to read, playing the optimum style at a given time. People talk a lot about moving through the gears, but nobody really explains how to do it – probably because there are so many variables to consider. Once again, it’s a skill that depends on your reading of a given situation rather than any set rules that you must follow.

Many of the newer, ultra aggressive players really only have one gear. They start the tournament in top gear, reasoning that it’s a lot harder to play an aggressive game with a short stack and that they will either accumulate chips fast or go bust quickly and then move on to the cash games. To play this aggressively you have to be very skilled at gauging your strength post-flop with marginal hands.

Personally, I like to play a more traditional game, starting out in low gear, playing tight when the blinds are low then going through the gears, loosening up after I’ve built a believably tight image and hitting top gear around the bubble when the blinds and antes are high and other players have tightened up. This is a pretty solid way of playing, but you shouldn’t be afraid of changing up a gear early if the situation merits it, for example if you can isolate a weak player or if you’re on a table of weak tight players.

Moving through the gears

Another key consideration is changing gear according to your chipstack. When I’ve got four or five rounds left at the current blinds or less than 50% of my starting stack I’ll hit top gear, it’s time to gamble. (If you want to read more detailed information on how your stack size affects how loose you play, Harrington on Hold ‘Em Vol 2 pretty much covers it).

Whatever your natural style, I believe it’s a mistake to play in any one set way. Over the years, people I’ve come up against have told me I’m loose, but others have told me I am tight – this is the way I like it. Every game is different, so why not change your playing style and/or your table image to that which will give you the best chance in a particular situation. Few of us are good enough to run over any table we sit at, and flexibility and self awareness are key skills in ensuring you use your psychology wisely and end up with all the chips at the end of the day.

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