Key Poker Skills

Phil Ivey

Discipline. Observation. Changing Gears. Money Management. These are the key poker skills all rounders must master in order to become winning players.


In order to win steadily at poker, the most important skill to master is discipline - in fact, all other skills are dependent on discipline. You must have the discipline to wait for a good hand, a good game, the right opportunity, etc.

Discipline means you do not play in games where you lack edge; you refrain from playing hands that will get you into trouble; you manage your money expertly; and you learn from your mistakes.

It is imperative you keep your emotions under control at all times and not go on "tilt." Do not, under any circumstances, play drunk or when you are tired or emotionally troubled. As well, you should constantly ask yourself if you are playing your best game. If you aren't, you should call it a day and only return to the tables when you are ready.


If you continually study your opponents, you are guaranteed to learn a lot. It's that simple. Most of the time you spend playing you will not be involved in a hand, and you should use that time to observe your opponents.

Watch how each player plays their hand and use that information against them. It is important to listen to what they say. A lot of players will tell you what kind of hand they threw away or why they played a hand in a certain way.

Try to figure out what they are holding and put them on hands whether you are involved in the pot or not. Consequently, when you are playing a hand with them, you will know what their checks, bets, calls and raises mean.

Pay equal attention to your own game and think of your table image at all times. You will notice that some players do not examine the game at all and therefore your table image is virtually non-existent when playing against them. Just as you search for tells in your opponents, look for tells in yourself. When you spot one in an opponent, consider whether or not you are displaying that very same tell.

Changing Gears

A good poker player is unpredictable and is able to change gears. The way you do this is dependent on your opponents and your table image. If you have been playing solid poker and were not once caught bluffing, you will have substantial bluff equity. If you have been playing loose and bluffing a lot, you will be in a position to get paid off when you hold a good hand.

pocket aces
Play smart and get paid when you hold this hand!

When your opponents are playing tight, you should play looser and, when they are loose, you should tighten up your game. Always try to be one step ahead of your opponents.

It is the ability to balance your game by changing gears at the right moment that makes you unpredictable. This is why you should occasionally advertise plays when you know you will be playing with the same players for a while: show them hands you do not normally play and mix up your play to cash in on those plays later.

This is not as important when playing online since people usually don't pay as much attention to the game and also because players move around a lot. However, it should still be done under the right circumstances.

Money Management

If you are unable to manage your money, you will never be a steady winner no matter how good you are. Money management means only playing in games you can afford and knowing how much you are expected to win in the long run. The reason so many skilled players go broke is because they constantly play at limits that are not supported by their bankroll.

There will be times when you are just plain unlucky for a longer period of time even though you are playing well. You must have a bankroll large enough to handle these expected swings in poker.

For example, you should have a bankroll of 300 times the big bet when playing Limit Hold'em. If you are a winning Limit player and have 100 times the big bet in your bankroll, and you always cash out or use your winnings for other expenses and never let your bankroll grow, inevitably you will go broke.

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