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The Most Important Things I Know

by John Vorhaus |  Published: Nov 13, 2013


John VorhausWow, that was some stinky bad poker those guys were playing last night. Even as I crushed them, my heart went out to them, because their heads were just not in the right place. It astounds me, in a way, how the fundamentals of poker still elude those who play the game every day. I’m not talking about pot odds or how to run a squeeze, chum. I’m talking about a basic mental approach to the game. I’m talking about crucial stuff like this…

If you can’t be right, be loud. Announce your bets and raises — and even your folds and checks — in a loud, self-assured voice. Do this for two reasons: First, if you announce all your actions with confidence, you will ultimately acquire confidence as well. This is the Buddhist concept of “right action, right mind.” Take the action you wish to take, in the way you wish to take it, and your mind will eventually come along for the ride. Second, if you announce all your actions in the same forceful tone, you’ll make it more difficult for your foes to find tells in your inconsistencies. Of course, you could announce all of your actions in a consistently weak way, but that wouldn’t exude confidence, and confidence, well, that’s something you just want to ooze.

When in doubt, always act in a manner that is above reproach. Poker is an angle-shooter’s paradise, and there are often strong incentives for otherwise honest players to sink to that level. Don’t do it! Aside from the negative impact your actions have on the spirit of the game of poker as a whole, the energy you spend shooting angles — and worrying about getting caught at it — will actually degrade the overall quality of your game. This extends, by the way, to something you might not think of as an angle, asking to “see all hands” at showdown. Only do that when you suspect collusion. Otherwise, you’re using protection against collusion to gain information, and that’s an angle.

Each of us is the center of our own universe. And we’re of blindingly little interest to the universe next door. People don’t care about your bad beats. They really don’t. And when you share those stories, guess what? All you’re doing is reinforcing the perception that you’re a sad, pathetic loser. Why would you want to do that? What possible good can it do, except temporarily salve your poor, bruised psyche (which, if it can’t take care of itself, has no business in a poker game in the first place)? If there’s bad news within your universe, do us all a favor — but yourself most of all — and keep it to yourself.

Only victims are victimized. Your own patterns of loser-behaviors — whining, self-pity or other types of fatalistic noise — will actually encourage your opponents to come after you. Present a hard target, not a soft one. Even if you feel like you’re being victimized by everyone from the floorman to God himself, please act at all times as though you’re walking on sunshine. Let the victimizers go victimize someone else.

You’re born broke, you die broke, everything else is just fluctuation. This is a hard idea to hold onto when you’ve just lost every bill in your wallet, but remember that every bill in your wallet is just a tiny fraction of every bill your wallet has ever held or ever will hold. Take the long view — the longest possible one — and allow today’s losses to recede into proper perspective. I can make this more concrete by referencing the twenty-year rule: If it won’t matter in twenty years, it doesn’t matter now. Let it go, Joe. Just let it go.

Don’t bite the hand that feeds your bankroll. If you’re beating up on some weakie, and he’s giving you all his money, don’t do anything — anything — to distract him from his task. Especially don’t berate him when he draws out on you. He has to draw out on you every once in awhile in order to maintain his enthusiasm for the game (and his enthusiasm for the job of feeding your bankroll). Nurture the weakies. After all, they’re only temporarily borrowing from you the money they win.

Money is only important to people who don’t have anything important in their lives. Does poker rule your life? Or does it exist in the context of a conscious, well-balanced, self-aware existence? It may surprise you to learn that the less obsessive you are about your poker, the better your game will be. Why? Because if poker is all you have going on in your life — if getting that money is the only thing that matters to you — you’ll be so hooked on outcome, and so dependent on a positive outcome, that the pressure of performance will cripple you. Vary your interests. Live a full life. Then your poker can be the triumphant experience you want it to be — in its proper place.

Don’t challenge strong players, challenge weak ones, that’s what they’re there for. We’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating: A poker game is not a tennis match, where your goal is to improve your play by tackling tough foes. That’s certainly a worthy aim, but not a money maker, not by any stretch of the imagination. Find weak players and pummel them senseless. Like Willie Sutton said when they asked him why he robbed banks, “because that’s where the money is.”

If you look harder, you see better. This sounds self-evident, I know, but put it into practice: Study your poker texts; study your opponents; most of all, study yourself. The effort you put into looking hard at yourself pays the biggest dividends of all. Do you, for example, play “getaway hands?” Do you loosen up your starting requirements when you’re about to leave the game, just in hopes of winning that last, lucky pot? More often than not, you end up giving back part of your win. Sometimes you give it all back, then stay on in the game and end up losing lots more. This wouldn’t happen if you really knew yourself, and knew the danger that getaway hands posed to you.

Know yourself — just know yourself. In poker as in life, everything follows from that. ♠

John Vorhaus is author of the Killer Poker series and co-author of Decide to Play Great Poker, plus many mystery novels including World Series of Murder, available exclusively on Kindle. He tweets for no apparent reason @TrueFactBarFact and secretly controls the world from