Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


Poker Strategy vs. Poker Tactics

Think less about tactics and more about strategy

by Matt Matros |  Published: Apr 29, 2011


There are many different ways to think about poker. Books have been written about how to isolate physical tells, how to avoid tilt, how to break the game down into mathematical concepts, and, of course, how to play specific hands in specific situations. Poker is incredibly appealing precisely because of this variety of skills that it requires. But how do we know which of those skills to concentrate on? Many things may be important, but most of us can focus on only one thing at a time. I can’t prescribe a foolproof method for everyone, but I will say that most players would benefit by thinking less about tactics and more about strategy.

For those who may not know the difference (I didn’t know until recently), strategy refers to big-picture decisions about your overall game plan. Tactics are the mechanisms by which you execute your game plan. Planning to play aggressively, hoping to win more pots than your opponents, is a strategy. Deciding whether to raise to three times or to two-and-a-half times the big blind with pocket sevens is a tactic, as is the decision of whether to raise or fold with a flush draw, as are all decisions that are based on reads or intuition. Strategy and tactics are, of course, related. The secret is that having a clear strategy can greatly simplify tactical decisions, as you’ll see.

The vast majority of poker analysis is analysis of tactics. People want to know what they should do with A-K after continuation-betting, or how big a stack they need to semibluff all in on the flop, or whether their opponent’s sneeze means that he’s bluffing or value-betting. Such analysis is important; it’s virtually impossible to improve as a player if you never do any hand-wringing over a tactical decision. It’s the strategic decisions, however, that often end up determining one’s skill level.
During those times in my poker career when I’ve been lucky enough to make a big leap in my understanding of the game, it has been from a change in strategy, not tactics. Here are some examples:

1. When I first started out, I made the strategic choice to focus not on my results, but on improving as a player. I thus avoided becoming one of those players, of whom I know many, who learn how to beat the very low-limit games and never bother to move into riskier territory. They are stuck at a certain skill level forever.

2. During my initial foray into tournament poker, my strategy was to try to make my chips last as long as possible. It wasn’t until I changed it up and actively tried to accumulate chips that I began succeeding in tournaments.

3. A lot of players are married to the idea that they can avoid marginally profitable high-risk situations because they are skilled enough to select only highly profitable lower-risk situations. I also thought this way for a while. It was only when I chose to view myself as an average player, and to be satisfied that I was taking advantage of every profitable situation available, that I became a good tournament player.
Before I made these strategic adjustments, I was pretty much dead money.

Our advantage in poker comes from having a better plan of attack, a better approach, a better overall strategy than the other guy. And, of course, strategic changes lead to tactical changes. In fact, after deciding on a different strategy, you’ll find yourself making far more tactical changes than you ever would’ve considered making under your former strategy. Let’s say that you’ve decided to make one of the adjustments I mentioned above, moving from a survival approach to a chip-accumulation approach. And now let’s say that you’re facing an all-in decision with J-9 suited when getting 2-1 on your money. Under your old strategy, you might not spend much time deciding. You simply fold quickly, knowing that you have the worst hand and not wanting to get into a bad spot. Under your new strategy, you don’t have to think too hard, either. You call quickly, knowing that you’re getting the right price. The strategy change leads to a wildly different tactic.

It can be scary to implement an all-new strategy in your poker game, which is why some players avoid doing it. Don’t fall into that trap. What’s more scary, experimenting with new ideas and testing different approaches to poker or missing out on massive profits because you stuck with the strategy you always used? There’s nothing more scary than remaining stagnant.

Some players see themselves as having a certain natural style, whether that’s tight-aggressive, tight-passive, loose-aggressive, maniacal, or whatever. Don’t fall into that trap, either. The only thing that should come naturally to you is the desire to maximize your earnings. If your style has to change in order for you to make more money at poker, so be it. My favorite playing style is whatever style gets me the chips.

I purposely didn’t spend much time in this column on specific strategy adjustments. That’s because figuring out the best strategy for an individual player is a process that’s highly specific to that player. Also, working out strategy improvements on your own time is a big part of that process. Take some time to think about your overall plan in this crazy game of poker. It’s possible that drastic changes in the way that you think will lead to a drastic increase in your bank account. ♠

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player. He is also a featured coach for