Mind games

Note: This section generally only applies to no-limit Hold’em. No-limit Hold’em ring games require more psychological and bluffing skills than any other popularly played poker game. And you should only use these tools based on the type of opponent you’re playing.

If you’re playing a lower-stakes no-limit game (with a buy-in of $100 or under), we suggest NOT using psychological tools much. An occasional flop bluff against a few opponents may be profitable, but these opponents will frequently pay off their whole stack on hands as low as second pair. In these games, you should just wait, make a good hand, and then punish your opponents with pot-sized bets.

Once you play in higher-stakes games ($200 buy-ins or more), mind games will play a larger factor, especially if people’s stacks are deep (more than 100x the big blind). The first thing you need to do, however, is categorize each of the opponents you are facing. You’ll be glad you did. Here are the primary groupings:

1. Fish. These guys are just playing their hand, not yours. If you bet big and they have a bad hand, they’ll fold. If you bet big and they have top pair, they’ll call, provided you don’t do something scary like put them all-in. They probably won’t bluff at you much.

2. Weak-tight. These guys also just play their hand, but will call less than the fish. They are not willing to lose all of their chips on top pair unless they think you are a maniac. Bluff these guys out of a good number of pots (but not too many, so that they’ll still attempt to trap you later on).

3. The Sheriff. These guys are similar to fish but understand the game enough to where they know when the only thing they can beat is a bluff. However, they often think you are bluffing and will call you down.

4. Tight-aggressive. These are your tactically sound players. However, their no-limit ability differs largely based on how well they read their opponents. In general, they are much more eager to bet at the pot than call. Against these players, changing pace is necessary. You should occasionally trap these players with strong hands and occasionally go over the top at them. By continually changing pace, you may be able to bully them into becoming too “weak-tight” or by becoming a sheriff. Notice which direction they’re going in and then take advantage of that strategy.

5. Hyper-aggressive. These guys like to bet and raise. It’s almost impossible to tell if they’re bluffing or have the nuts a lot of the time. These players can be dangerous, but you need to make an effort to trap them. While it is good to “test” them by raising them, don’t always do this with a hand because it will become a clear signal to them. Don’t let these guys know what you have by raising. Play your hands differently and certainly trap them sometimes when you have a strong hand like a set.

6. Tilting players. Whatever set these guys off, these guys are on tilt. They’re going to bet all of their chips in. The best strategy here is just to let them do the betting because they may fold if YOU do it and they have nothing.

In general, you should only play mind games with tight-aggressive and hyper-aggressive players. The other players act predictably, so there is no real reason to change your strategy against them.

However, you don’t want to be bullied by hyper-aggressive players, and you don’t want to live in fear if a tight-aggressive player bets because that’s what these players want. You need to consistently change your image among these players. You want to make it difficult for them to think you are tight-aggressive or hyper-aggressive. When changing your pace, you should also pay attention to several small, important things:

1. Where you bluff. If you always bluff at the flop, they’ll begin calling you on the flop in the hopes that you’ll reveal your strength on the turn. So, often, it’s best to switch up where in the pot you bluff.

2. Your pre-flop play for certain types of hands. You shouldn’t always gear your pre-flop play to what is just “technically” sound. Even though you want to see the flop for the cheap with small pairs or suited connectors, you should sometimes raise just for deceptive purposes. This is an especially good idea with a medium pair in late position.

Perhaps the most important mind game of all, however, is how much you bet. You shouldn’t bet based on how much your hand is worth, but how much your opponent’s hand is worth. Bad opponents will let you know what their hand is worth by betting its value. However, good players will bet how much they think you value your hand. To bluff someone out, you generally must bet more than how much they value their hand (if someone is smart, though, they may realize that and call you if you have been bluffing a lot). To maximize the value of your made hands, you should bet how much your opponent will be willing to call, given their hand. Examples of this in play:

1. If you have a high full house, you should bet especially hard because there’s a good chance your opponent has a smaller full house.

2. If you have a flush and the board is paired, you should bet ?-2/3 of the pot because you want someone with trips to just call. Betting very hard in this situation will only lead you to be called by someone who has a full house.

3. Leading into your opponent. If your opponent is raising (and you don’t think he is bluffing), a good strategy is to bet small, have your opponent raise, and then re-raise him all- in. This is especially strong if you hit a weird straight and you’re certain your opponent has a set or two pair.