A few days ago, I was talking with an amateur poker player about his playing experience. During our conversation, I realized something: Most poker players have no idea how to think. More specifically, they have no idea what to think.
Notice that I said "most poker players," not just amateurs. Don't feel insecure -- I might not be talking about you (although I probably am).
A lot of amateurs ignore fundamentals and dwell on immediate results. For example:
In a nine-handed $1-$2 no-limit hold 'em cash game, a tight player with a $140 stack raised under the gun to $10. One player called, then action folded to "Andy the Amateur," who was in middle position with 6-7 offsuit. Andy correctly folded his hand. The button and the big blind called.
The flop came 6s 4c 2d, and the initial raiser bet $30 into a pot of $41. The button called and everyone else folded.
The turn was the 7d, and the initial raiser went all in for $100. The button called. The initial raiser turned over K-K, and the button showed 10-10. The 9s fell on the river, and the initial raiser won the pot. Andy started second-guessing his preflop decision, stating that he should have remained in the hand.
This is all too common with new, raw players. They are extremely results-oriented. Having little experience, they learn the game from the environment in which they play. In low-stakes games, it's not uncommon to have six players to a flop. It's also not uncommon to have your pocket kings cracked by a hand like 6-7 offsuit.
The first thing amateurs need to understand is that poker is a game of incomplete information. Once you make a decision, regardless of what street that decision was made on, you stick by it. You are allowed to second-guess your choices, but ONLY to learn from them. You should never use the results of the hand as a measuring stick. You should think about how and why you came to your conclusion. Making the best possible decisions with the given information is what poker is all about.
You might be wondering, "Well Tristan, what should I be thinking, then?" Great question. I'm glad you asked.
The first thing to consider is how your hand plays against your opponent's range. In the example above, a tight player raised from first position, so you should only continue with hands that play well against their potential range of hands. This is a basic, fundamental principle -- and half the battle.
Your image is also important. How do people perceive you?
Knowing this will allow you to understand how people play against you.
Next, you have to break down the information from your opponents.
What hands do they play, and from what positions? How does their bet sizing differ? What type of players are they?
Learn your opponents and how they play their hands. Cycle through the action in the hand and put the pieces of the puzzle together. If something doesn't make sense to you, chances are that you have good reason to be suspicious.
One thing is certain: You shouldn't think about the results of a hand. What separates great players from the rest of the pack is their ability to criticize themselves. Focus on making good decisions, and you'll be on your way to becoming a winning poker player.
Tristan Wade is a World Series of Poker bracelet winner and the director of training and education for DeepStacks Live poker seminars.