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What Should You Study?

by Ed Miller |  Published: Jun 07, 2017

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If you’re reading this you probably want to improve your poker game. But there are so many things to work on. Should you try to improve your preflop play? Should you focus on tells? How about the mental game?

Obviously, there’s no perfect answer for everyone, since everyone has slightly different strengths and weaknesses. But I wanted to write about what I think are the most important things to study depending on what sort of poker you want to play.

Live Cash Games $2-$5 and Below

Once you get the basics down, for live cash games at this level the most important skill is to learn how to adjust your strategy to take advantage of the mistakes your opponents are making. When players feel like they are playing “solid” but get frustrated at the $1-$2, $1-$3, and $2-$5 level, the problem is usually that they aren’t adjusting their strategy to exploit opponent errors. They are just playing “their game” at all times.

Even if “your game” is better than most of the other players’ games, the edge you can build without trying to adjust and exploit just isn’t big enough to satisfy most players’ ambitions.

Sure. If you play better than your opponents, you’ll have an edge. But then take out the rake. After that, your edge could be as little as one or two $1 chips per hour.

If you want to really improve your results in small stakes live games, the key is to analyze your opponents’ blatant weaknesses and then tailor a strategy to make the most out of the errors they make.

There are lots of ways to get started learning to do this. I wrote a book, Playing The Player, on this topic. But my opinion is that if you play these levels, learning to play the player is the most important thing you can focus on.

Live Games $5-$10 and Above

When you play bigger live cash games, some other skills gain prominence. First, I think tells become a lot more important. Tells are very useful in smaller stakes games also, but often your opponents are transparent enough that tells are just icing on the cake.

At the higher levels, your opponents will still tend to be fundamentally unsound, but much trickier than they are at the small stakes. When your opponents are actively trying to deceive you, learning how to spot and interpret tells becomes important. It’s just as important to learn to find and eliminate your own tells.

In my opinion the definitive works on tells these days are the books by Zachary Elwood. If you haven’t read them yet, you should pick them up.

Also particularly important at higher levels is improving your mental game. While all types of poker can be frustrating at times, in my experience there is no type that can be more soul-crushing than getting hit with a downswing at higher stakes. It’s not just the money. It’s the other players who play at these levels. They are often tricky and deceptive. They are better at the psychological parts of the game than those at smaller stakes. And there are just more strong players period.

If you lose at small stakes, often you can easily point to a few things that didn’t go your way that doomed you. At higher stakes, though, the games play more aggressively, and during rough periods it’s common to get a nagging feeling that you are being outplayed.

This may or may not be true—when you have a run of bad cards, it’s easy to get “outplayed” by opponents of similar or even lesser skill level to your own. But either way I find that downswings are harder to cope with mentally at higher stakes live games than lower ones.

Limit Games and Uncommon Games

This is a big category, but in these cases I think the most important thing is to improve your ability to play the “basic strategy” of the game well. Chances are you don’t have a ton of hours played in Super Razzdugi, so it would be tricky to focus your energy on exploiting opponents or catching tells. Instead, your best option is to study the math and strategy of the game itself. Your plan will indeed be to just “play your game.” Most people play uncommon games pretty poorly, so if you devote a lot of energy into learning to play as correctly as possible in as many games as possible, you should have a nice edge in any game mix. That is, if you can find a regular mixed game. (With World Series of Poker time here, however, it’s a great time to work on your mixed games.)

I think the same is true for limit hold’em and other limit games. Tells just aren’t worth a lot in limit games—at least not nearly as much as they are in no-limit games. And exploiting opponents with custom strategies often isn’t really the right play. Usually you just want to play as accurately as you can in as many situations as possible.

Tournaments

Maybe it should go without saying, but by far the most important thing to study for tournaments is tournament strategy. You want to learn how to play short stacks of all different sizes. That means memorizing a lot of push-fold tables.

In my opinion, there really is no substitute here for rote memorization. You just want to commit as many of the correct plays to memory as you can. It’s tricky because the plays change when you switch from 5 to 10 to 15 big blind stacks. But so many tournament players go to the table without having these strategies memorized. Indeed, many go without having even reviewed these strategies at all before.

If you play tournaments on a regular basis, you just have to learn the push-fold charts. Everything else is secondary. This is a relatively simple way to get a whole lot better at tournaments.

Final Thoughts

One thing I find fascinating about poker is how much strategic diversity there is within this one relatively simple game. Here are four different types of poker, games that would likely appear similar if not indistinguishable to someone who had never played. And yet, to excel in each type of the game requires study of a different area of strategy.

That’s not to say that every area doesn’t apply to every game. You can exploit people in tournaments, and you certainly should prepare yourself mentally no matter what you play. But the different types of poker emphasize different skillsets. The more you focus on the most important skills in the games you play, the better you will do. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.