Thinking like a poker player

There’s a lot of talk out there about “thinking like a poker player,” and you’ve probably heard the expression before. And while we don’t like cliches, this one is really true: poker requires a precise system of thinking that many beginners simply don’t understand.

It’s tempting to think about all sorts of things during a game of poker, and it’s also easy to get distracted. This section exists to help you weed out those distractions and concentrate only on the things you SHOULD be thinking about—like the four key poker skills.


Poker pros are frequently described as “tight” or “aggressive.” What these words mean is that poker sharks don’t usually play many hands, but when they do play, they play as if their life depends on it.

While “tight” and “aggressive” are nice general descriptions of poker pros, it doesn’t help the beginner very much, does it? How can a beginner become “tight” and “aggressive”?

In simpler terms, we believe that the single most important thing a poker player can do is to learn, practice and ultimately keep developing four critical elements of poker: MATH SKILLS, DISCIPLINE, PSYCHOLOGY, and RISK vs. REWARD MANAGEMENT. The following sections give an overview of these crucial poker checkpoints.


All good poker players know general percentages, and you should too. What are general percentages? Well, it’s anything you can memorize about the game of poker that will save you time when all eyes are on you. For example, you have about a 1 in 8 chance of hitting a set when you hold a pocket pair. You also have about a 1 in 3 chance of completing a flush draw at the flop. There’s a seemingly endless number of general percentages that can help you out in a game of poker, so it’s a good idea to sit down and think about the most crucial numbers. The more you play, the more you’ll be able to remember. Study the deck like you would study for an exam.

Good poker players always know their outs, too. Outs, of course, are the undealt cards that will improve your hand. You should always know how many cards could potentially help you, and it’s not a bad idea to think about outs in terms of a percentage, either. To roughly calculate your odds, count your outs, multiply them by two, add two, and the answer will show you your chances in percentage terms. That formula again:


We can’t stress pot odds enough, either. Pot odds go hand-in-hand with outs. Outs are meaningless unless they’re translated into intelligent betting—betting that considers the financial return of the decisions you make. To learn more about Pot Odds, click here.


Good poker players demand an advantage. What separates a winning poker player from a fish is that a fish doesn’t expect to win, while a poker player does. A fish is happy playing craps, roulette, or slots; he just hopes to get lucky. A poker player doesn’t hope to get lucky; on the contrary, he hopes that others DON’T get lucky.

Good poker players understand that different games require different kinds of discipline. A disciplined no-limit player can be a foolish limit player, or vice-versa. Usually, a disciplined limit player is very tight at the pre-flop stage. He will not play too many hands, only the ones that have a very good chance of winning.

However, a disciplined no-limit player is very different. This player is not so concerned with playing too many blinds; instead, he doesn’t want to get trapped. The main difference between a disciplined limit and no-limit player is that the limit player avoids piddling away his stack bit by bit, while a disciplined no-limit player avoids losing his whole stack in one hand. Hence, a disciplined no-limit player can play a lot of hands. Pre-flop, he can be as loose as anyone. However, he knows when to toss hands that will get him in trouble.

Probably the most important fact to remember is that a disciplined player knows when to play and when to quit. He recognizes when he is on tilt and he’s aware when the game is too juicy to stop. This kind of knowledge will come to you in time. Until then, just follow your instincts. If it feels like you’re playing more with your emotion than with your head, it’s a good idea to sit out a round and evaluate the situation.

Disciplined poker players knows they’re not perfect. When a disciplined player makes a mistake, he learns. He doesn’t blame others. He doesn’t cry. He learns from the mistake and moves on. That’s the best advice we can give.


There’s a lot to be said about poker psychology, and we’re not going to get too “in deep” here. We do, however, want to impart some words of wisdom. The main thing to remember is that the OTHER PLAYERS in poker are every bit as important as you are. What we mean is that poker catches many people off-guard because they’re thinking about themselves too much: evaluating their decisions, their style of play. As much as those things are important (see the DISCIPLINE section above), you have to devote an equal amount of time and thought to what the other players at the table are doing.

A good poker player is not a self-centered player. He could be the biggest S.O.B. you’ve ever met and he may not care about anyone but himself when he’s not playing poker. But when he IS playing poker, his philosophy will change. He’ll start to empathize with his opponents. He’ll try to think what they are thinking, and he’ll try to understand the decisions they’re making.

A good poker player must always try to answer three important questions:

#1. What does my opponent have?

#2. What does my opponent think I have?

#3. What does my opponent think that I think he has?

Knowing the answers to these questions is a good first step; manipulating the answers to your advantage is the second, more important step. If you have a pair of kings and your opponent has a pair of aces, and you both know what the other has and you both know that each of you knows what the other has, why play a game of poker? A poker pro will manipulate the situation by slowplaying, fastplaying and bluffing in order to throw his opponent off. You’d better get used to the idea of changing things up; sometimes it’s the only way to go.

One key note: good psychology is much more important in a no-limit game than in a limit game. It’s important for you to realize that. While limit games can often turn into math battles, no-limit games carry a strong psychological element, and beginner players should know what they’re getting into when they play no-limit.


Pot odds, outs and demanding an advantage all fall into this category. While risk and reward management might seem like an obvious skill for you to possess—in life, as well as in poker—gambling tends to bring out sides of ourselves that usually remain hidden; we sometimes follow passion instead of reason. You should always strike a compromise between the two, and never let things get out of control. Good poker players should be willing to take a long-shot risk if the reward is high enough, but ONLY if the expected return is higher than the risk. Playing poker is a kind of balancing act, and poker studs are the ones who can balance things best.

More importantly, you should understand that the risk-versus-reward nature of poker does extend outside of the actual poker room. Members of Gamblers Anonymous are the ones who have lost sight of this fact. Always know how much money you need to play, and how much money you need to cover other expenses in life—expenses that matter.

Fundamentally, good poker players are slightly averse to risks, surprising as that might sound. In investment terms, a person is identified as risk-neutral, risk-averse or risk-accepting, depending on what that person does with available funds. Over time, you’ll find that the most successful poker players are not the ones who bet their whole roll on a long-shot (risk-accepting), or even the ones who bet their whole roll once in a blue moon (risk-neutral). Successful poker players, instead, are the ones who take calculated risks only, and who never lose sight of the so-called “big picture.”

Following this kind of an example is much better for you than going for the whole pot all the time. Even if you’re initially successful at taking big risks, your recklessness will catch up with you—sooner rather than later.