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Poker Strategy: Psychology

Lots of books have been written about how to play casino poker strategically. Some of the best players in the world have put it all on paper for our benefit. However, for the low-limit casino player, the danger with some of this knowledge is that it does not pertain as much. Or, the other problem is that professional players/writers recognize the unique mathematic attributes of a low-limit poker table, but do little more than touch on the subject.

There needs to be some perspective for the low-limit poker player, and there are only so many books that have been written about it. The tables are looser, and there are strategies that best capitalize on the climate of the table, the number of players staying in, your position, and the cards you are dealt. Whether you have never read a book on poker or have read them all, it is important to understand how the low-limit table has certain mathematical and psychological fundamentals that can be understood and utilized.

We will begin our discussion with a review of the math of pot odds, and how they should be measured at a low-limit table. We then move to the fundamental observation that more players play more hands at the low-limit table. This means bigger pots (relative to the size of the bets), but more cost if you want to stay until the end. This in turn means a difficult balance between staying in often enough to win pots, but not so often that a string of losses breaks you for the night. We also review the need to understand upfront how many hands you will need to fold, and coping with what some would call boredom.We will also look at the types of hands that will be attractive before the flop and on the flop when there's more cards to come, but a lot of action to call if you want to get there.

Pot Odds

First, a quick review of the concept of pot odds. Let's start by looking at how the game of Craps makes the casino so much money. At any time in the game of Craps, you can bet that the next number rolled on the dice is twelve, or two sixes. If you make this bet (good for one roll only) and double sixes are indeed rolled, you are paid 30 times your bet. Yet, there are 36 possible ways for two dice to land, and double sixes is only one of those possible ways. Therefore, you are being paid 30 to 1 for a long shot whose probability is 1 in 36. If you bet one dollar on this 1,080 times, then you would win 30 times and you would lose 1,050 times. For the 30 times that you win, you would be paid thirty dollars each time, and for the 1,050 times that you lose, you would be paid nothing. At the end of 1,080 such bets, you would be up $900 and down $1,050. See? Not a good bet.

If this were a game of poker, you would be a sucker to ever take that bet, since it does not pay over the long run. This concept applies to poker in every instance where you are being asked to put money in the pot. There is an amount of money in the pot, and there is an amount of money that you need to call in order to stay in the hand. If there is $50 in the pot, and you are being asked to put in $5, then that is a payback of ten times. You would be wise to call that bet if you have at least a one in ten chance of winning the pot.

Let's face it, though, nobody has time to do that kind of math at a poker table. Decisions have to be made quickly, and even good players can get bogged down trying to do math at the table when a quick decision has to be made. Great players do this intuitively. Great players understand and adhere to pot odds, but can make instinctive calls based on some rough amount that they believe is in the pot, and some rough idea of their prospects in this hand. It is enough to know that when you are unsure of the value of your hand, or if you are chasing a particular hand, that you should be more inclined to call when the pot is big and more inclined to fold when the pot is not.

David Sklansky introduced the concept of implied pot odds, which is a powerful concept when it comes to low-limit tables. Sklansky pointed out that not only should you be thinking about the current size of the pot, but also the future size of the pot. It would be narrow-minded to ignore how much bigger the pot could be based on the number of players who have yet to act. This has strong implication at the low-limit table, but with a caution.

The implication is that when unsure of your hand's value or when chasing a hand, you may be more inclined to stay in. Because it costs money to stay in the hand, take this lesson with a grain of salt. In other words, when chasing a hand, be sure that if you do in fact make your hand, that it will be strong enough to take the pot. If you are chasing a straight when there are three cards of the same suit showing on the board, you might make your straight and lose to a flush. If you are chasing a flush and there are two pairs showing on the board, you might make your flush and lose to a full house. Be sure that you are chasing a hand that would indeed win if made. You can help determine this by keeping a very close eye on the board, and asking yourself what potential hands could be made with those cards that would beat what you are chasing.

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