Poker Strategy: The Mental Game (Part 1)

By: Daniel Laidlaw

As I embark on another period of live poker I thought I’d help prepare myself by sharing an expanded mental checklist of the sort of things you should be thinking about when preparing for and playing a live session.

Pregame: warm up!

Consult your checklist and remind yourself of how you want to perform today and what you want to accomplish / think about at the table.

Bad example: I will make $xxx.

Good example: I will glance to my left before acting on my hand.

Any performance goals should obviously be things you can actually control (your thoughts and actions) rather than things you can’t (your results).

If you’re playing a tournament, you should if possible know the structure and how long the day / tournament will last so you can prepare yourself to play your best game for the duration. If you’re playing cash, you should determine the length of your session, the stakes you intend to play, and the conditions under which you will allow yourself to change this.

Bad examples: I will quit earlier when I’m winning / losing $xxx. I will jump in the bigger game if I’m stuck $xxx.

Good examples: I will quit earlier if I feel my concentration is waning. I will extend my session if there is a certain player in the game and I think my win rate in the next hour is substantially higher than normal. I will switch to the bigger game if player X, Y, or Z sits down. And so on.

Develop a plan for each opponent

What is the best absolute hand strength they will fold in a single raised pot? What is the worst hand they will stack off with?

A plan doesn’t have to be complex when you have little information at your disposal, but you should attempt to build some foundations. I think it was Limon of twoplustwo fame who wrote that you can put opponents into two basic categories: those you never need a hand against, and those you only need one hand against.

What this means is that people typically either fold too much or call too much, so determining which is which and adjusting your approach accordingly is critical.

Stereotyping based on physical appearance and mannerisms is valuable, as long as you are prepared to continually re-evaluate your assumptions based on new information. Remember that due to primacy bias we have a propensity to fixate on first impressions, and this can be costly if that initial “thin slice” is wrong.

Almost as important as the profiling itself, I think, is that the discipline of creating plans helps train you to think about relevant stuff (exploiting your opponents) rather than irrelevant stuff (how you’re running; which waitress is the hottest).

It’s also important to remind yourself to do this throughout your session, rather than just at the start. If you’re 6 hours in and suddenly realise there are a couple of new faces and you don’t know how long they’ve been there or what your basic plan for them is, then you’ve probably lost focus.

What is my table image? Or: How does each opponent perceive me?

I’ve found that simply through variance my image can fluctuate between huge nit to spastic LAG, depending on each individual opponent’s experience with me. Therefore, you rarely have a generic “table image” as such, but rather a particular image in each opponent’s mind, conditioned by both their past experiences with you and how they think about the game.

So remember that if you’ve been caught bluffing in a couple of big pots in the last hour, the timid guy who just sat down doesn’t know that. Similarly, if you’ve only shown down monsters recently and have a “clean image”, the calling station who just joined is not aware of this (and probably doesn’t care anyway). Your image is player-specific.

Bear in mind that against a lot of live players, image simply doesn’t matter, or is of only marginal significance, because they have a robotic approach to the game that is mostly independent of your actions. Be very careful before you give anyone credit for adjusting to you or you’ll end up levelling yourself too often. But against opponents slightly more sophisticated, your image will determine to a large extent what you can and can’t get away with in different situations, so you should continually pay attention to it.


Stay tuned for Part 2 where Daniel takes a look at poker egos, self-awareness and paying attention at the tables!