Poker is quite unlike most casino games in that it’s a game that is as much about skill as it is about luck. The trick, though, is that the skill involved in playing poker has very little to do with the cards themselves and everything to do with the other players. “Play the players, not the cards” is the familiar refrain of pro poker players everywhere.
In particular, while there’s no control over which cards you’re going to be dealt, you do have control over being able to read other players, to figure out what kind of hand they’re holding and whether they’re bluffing – while at the same time being able to perfect your own poker face to prevent others from doing the same to you.
As such, the ideal would be that you never get nervous while playing poker or at least hide your nervousness as much as possible. But obviously, however much control you may have over your reactions, your physiology can never be totally mastered (hence the existence of “tells”) and there are times when your excitement and nervousness will overtake all but the very best of players.
Here, then, are situations and card hands to look out for that are likely to push your poker face and your opponents’ poker face to their natural limits.
When Making a Great Hand
One of the tensest moments in poker comes right after the initial round of betting where you discard “bad” cards from your hand in the hopes of making something better. This could come in the form of trying to turn that pair 9s into a triple, but it can also be to turn nothing into a straight or flush just by swapping out one card (say by having a 10, Jack, Queen, and an Ace but also a 7 that you discard in the hopes of getting that all important King), and this moment can be super tense and easy to give away what you’re hoping for.
When Having a Great Hand
You might think that having a great hand like a flush, a straight or a full house would mean you can rest on your laurels as the round is almost definitely yours. As any poker player knows, though, you need to stop yourself from showing how pleased you are in case others pick up on it and fold before you can win any serious money. At the same time, the need to keep calm and collected can be nerve racking all by itself, so you need to be on guard for that at the same time.
When Having a Great Hand… But
Another problem area is when you have a great hand, but one or more of the other players keeps on raising the bet and the round goes on and on. Even if you’re confident in your hand, especially when you have the unbeatable royal flush, it can be unnerving to see someone else constantly trying to psych you out by betting more and more money. Especially if you have a great hand like a straight that nonetheless can be beaten and you realize that you’ve put so much into the round that you simply can’t abc out despite the actions of someone else who may be bluffing or may well have a great hand. Keep calm, keep contained and see if you can figure out whether that bluster is a feint or something really to be worried about. Or fold if you want to cut your losses.
When Not Having a Great Hand
Generally, if you have a terrible hand then you want to fold as quickly as possible so in that case, there’s obviously no reason to feel nervous. Just put down your cards and take the loss, which should be small at the outset of the round. If, however, you have something like a pair 8s and you feel that your bluff game is on point – or you’re playing in a tournament and this is the last of your chips anyway so you may as well throw down – then you may well want to stick around, but as the round goes on and more and more money is put in the pot, it can become increasing anxiety provoking to figure out your next move.
When You Cannot Figure Out Your Opponents’ Hands
Regardless of your hand, it’s important to get some sense of what the other players are holding to figure out your play. This requires being able to read tells: those small tics and shifts in body language or facial expressions that can indicate what kind of hand another player is playing with. If, however, you suddenly find yourself at a table surrounded by players who are much better at keeping a poker face than you and the usual people you play with, it can get nerve-racking very quickly. Your best option in this case is to bow out and go for another table if you’re playing at a casino or being extra cautious when playing a tournament. If it’s simply a friendly game, but the table is filled with new faces then keep an eye on your money but the nice thing about such games is that they’re perfect opportunities for honing your skills at a low cost.
Most importantly, just try and have fun. It won’t just make your experience more enjoyable and it won’t just promote more responsible gambling, but it will greatly increase your ability to manage your nerves and keep your involuntary physiological reactions at bay.