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Understanding Poker Conceptually

by Roy Cooke |  Published: Sep 26, 2018


How do you play A-Q behind a raise? I’m often asked these types of questions. And my answer is always, “It depends.” It depends upon the current situation.

Who raised? How much? From what position? Has anyone called? What are their ranges? Who will act behind me? What is their playing style? How do my opponents’ emotions affect these questions? The questions are endless, and the depth of thought going into those questions and the quality of the answers is the most important component of playing poker well.

Some poker “authorities” approach the game from a memorized play systemic perspective. Many of the current poker systems are based on balancing a range so as to make you unexploitable by other players. It’s a systemic approach to poker, mathematically and computer calculated. An, in this given situation, do this, mindset. This approach can have value and win. It’s especially effective when multi-tabling online. Once learned, and it becomes your mindset, it’s mostly routine and easy to play. And it has value when playing optimum opponents.

But, it’s not optimum in low-medium stakes live poker where your opponents are making highly exploitable errors, you don’t have tracking software, and you can acquire better information regarding the psychological aspects of poker. When a situation varies based on non-standard criteria, the standardized approach is often not the optimum play. Additionally, there are just too many differing poker scenarios for the limited available disk space in my poor little brain.

It’s important to conceptually learn why we bet, raise, fold, check-raise, slow play, etc. on a deep level. Very similar-appearing poker situations often have different optimum answers. If you understand why the situations are different and what criteria goes into making the optimum decision, you can take any situation and decipher the correct play.

You may raise to thin the field, but do you know when you should not? What concepts go into making the play correct? For Example: In no-limit, when playing out of the small blind, you may always three-bet a given late position raiser rather than call. Some of the value of that play is lowering the equity of the big blind, and some of it is lowering the odds of getting squeezed from the big blind. But what if the big blind never squeezes? And/or the big blind plays his holding very badly? How much does that change the current equation? Can you judge when flatting is a better play than three-betting? To make that judgement you have to understand the game conceptually.

Learning poker concepts requires effort, and it’s much too involved to identify all the components in a column. I think the best starting point is to read The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky. It contains the basic concepts of poker. From there, take the concepts you learned and apply them to all the poker situations that you play and observe. Doing so will help you develop a conceptually correct thought process.

Did you define which concepts applied to the situation you just played? It’s not always clear-cut, and multiple concept situations will often be contradictory. In such cases you need to determine the value of all the concepts and weigh which play holds the greater value.

Once you’ve defined which concepts apply, and you’ve weighed their value, what play is consistent with maximizing the value from your decision? This requires judgement and creating a mindset where you can think through these situations. By observing your opponents, and analyzing how they should have played their hand, not only will you get a line on their thinking and be able to make exploitative plays against them, but it will improve your thinking process.

By applying concepts and thinking through each situation individually, you’ll make more accurate decisions. Often, the standard GTO (Game Theory Optimal) answer will be the correct play. But the times it’s not are sometimes high +EV situations that will make a huge difference in your annual results.

Poker is more than a standardized strategy like blackjack. You need to learn how to think through situations. You need to know why you should make differing plays in similar situations. If you don’t, you’re giving up edge to those who can. I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn GTO strategies, just that you also need to learn when to situationally adapt off of them.

Don’t play poker with a mechanical mindset. Seek to understand how your opponents think. And understand and develop how you think.

And if you do that well, you can become world class!

Roy CookeRoy Cooke played poker professionally prior to becoming a successful for 16 years prior to becoming a successful Las Vegas Real Estate Broker/Salesman. Should you wish any information Real Estate matters-including purchase, sale or mortgage, his office number is 702-376-1515 or e-mail Their website is where you can visit Roy’s Poker Room for his poker writings. You can also find him on Facebook or Twitter @Real RoyCooke. Please see ad below!