I'm a firm believer in learning the game by playing the game. I'm not saying there aren't a lot of great resources around to help players improve their games or that poker books and tutorials don't have their place. They do.
However, the problem I see with people who rely on these kinds of aids is that they end up playing poker like someone else or - even worse - like everyone else.
One of the things that makes poker great is that it's a game where there's really no right or wrong way to play. Every player has their own approach to the game and the key, in my opinion, is to take the things you learn from other players and incorporate them into a style of play that works for you.
There are some players who take a very mathematical approach to the game, and for them, it works. They study the odds and make decisions based on whether they think they're getting the right price to commit their chips to a pot.
It's a solid way to play, but the fact is, it's not the right approach for everyone. What's more, even the best of these players will tell you that math only takes you so far.
Calculating the odds can certainly help you decide whether you're making a smart move, but it doesn't take into account who you're playing against. There are many times when you can do all of the math you want and your decision still comes down to intangibles and a feeling about your opponent or the situation you're facing.
Does this guy have a hand? Can I push him off the pot? Am I getting myself into trouble here? Even if the odds say you should play, your gut may be telling you something else, and that's something you can only develop by playing.
Relying too much on other peoples' advice can actually make it harder to develop this kind of reading ability because it tends to clutter up your head. You get so focused on thinking about odds, probabilities and strategies you forget you're playing against someone else and that you have to try and figure out what he or she is doing.
Are they scared? Will they fold to pressure? Are they a maniac? In my opinion, these are the important things to keep in mind during a hand.
It's been said before, but it bears repeating. Poker isn't about the cards; it's about the players and the situations. Winning players understand that sometimes you have to take chances. Sometimes they work and other times they don't. Whether you win the hand or not, you have to make the play that you believe is best.
At the end of a hand or a session, go back and study the things you did well and be honest with yourself about where you made mistakes. Don't, however, overanalyze how you could have played a hand differently because this can negatively impact how you approach your next hand or session.
Identify your mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Just because some play or move didn't work the way you wanted doesn't mean you were wrong to try it. As I said before, there are just some things that you have to learn by playing.
So here's my advice. Read this tip. Read other tips and poker books. Talk to your friends. Absorb as much information as you can. But at the end of the day you have to trust your instincts and play your own game - not someone else's.
-- Phil Ivey
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