Poker is not like other casino games – and not just because it’s played as much out of a casino as it is in. Poker is a card game that you play for money, but it’s one that is as much about skill as it is about luck. As such, whereas there’s not very much difference between being a “good” and “bad” player in games like blackjack and baccarat beyond knowing the rules inside and out, there is a world of difference between “good” and “bad” poker players. There’s even a significant difference between good and great poker players.
But what makes a poker player “good” as opposed to “bad”, let alone “great” as opposed to “good”?
Let’s take a look at some of the key ingredients.
Understanding the Game
Just to get this out of the way first, bad poker players do not understand the basics of how the game works. They don’t understand when to raise or call; they don’t know which hands beat which other hands. Knowing the simple fundamentals of how poker is played is not enough to make you a good, never mind great, player, but not knowing these fundamentals will automatically make you a bad player.
Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible to win as a bad player, but if you do, it will come from dumb luck and I wouldn’t hold my breath on it happening repeatedly.
Understanding More About the Game
Good players won’t just know the basics of the games, but will also understand how to play the cards they are dealt optimally. They will understand the odds involved with the different hands they may draw, whether to try their luck at creating better hands at the risk of losing their decent hand (like, say, having 10, Jack, Queen, and two Kings – all of spades, except the one King which is a King of Hearts – and whether to risk that rock-solid pair Kings for a royal flush: the best hand in poker) and when to fold before the going gets too tough.
Some bad players may understand the base-level rules of the game without truly understanding how to play it.
Understanding What the Game Really Is
Failure to understand the game on a fundamental level as a card game will make someone a bad player, without any doubt, but even knowing the rules of the game backwards and forwards, inside and out, and how to play them smartly is still nowhere near enough to make a person a genuinely good poker player. Certainly not when you play against players who are genuinely good – let alone great or professional.
There’s an old adage in poker that rather than playing the cards, a good player plays the other people. And, indeed, this is absolutely the most important part of improving your skill as a poker player.
Knowing the ins and outs of the odds and which hands to take a chance on is really about being a good gambler and like any game where the cards you get are basically entirely up to chance – even if governed by statistics – that’s more about knowledge than skill. The actual skill involved in poker has very little to do with odds or even the cards themselves. Though, of course, having good cards is always a good start!
A Showdown of Minds and Bodies
Amazingly, and novices will find this especially surprising, poker is first and foremost a game of psychological manipulation and about knowing both how to read another person’s body language while also, at the same time, having such control over your own that you can either hide what kind of hand you’re holding (the classic “poker face”) or, even more impressively, using it to confuse or misdirect your opponents.
The better you are at this, the better you will be at poker. It’s really as simple as that. Mediocre players are mediocre at these psychological and physiological skills. Good players are good at them. And truly masterful players will have mastered them.
Which isn’t to say that luck doesn’t still play a huge part. Great players may have truly terrible nights and mediocre players may find themselves on a twelve-game winning streak, but it’s not about winning one game of poker or even a whole night’s worth, but about being able to repeat that success over and over again. And this particular set of skills is the one thing that you can really improve.
Bad vs Bad
One final note. While the above makes all the difference between being a successful player and an unsuccessful player, it’s of course worse mentioning that being a “bad” player can have nothing to do with your skills, your knowledge or your luck. Being a good player is also about having both good basic etiquette when playing with others (this includes the specific etiquette of betting, handling cards, etc. but also just basically acting like a decent person) and being responsible with your money. Games can easily be ruined by a rude player and though cleaning someone out of hundreds or thousands of dollars may obviously have plenty of appeal, the greater repercussions (from bad vibes at the table to causing someone to fall into crippling debt to the difficulties of playing with someone desperate to win) just aren’t worth it.
So, yes, hone your skills so you can lift yourself up from being a bad player, but remember, even when you are a bad player that’s no excuse to be a “Bad” player.