This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Fran Ferlan.
“Poker is war. People pretend it is a game.” – Doyle Brunson
With more than half a century of poker experience, Texas Dolly sure knows what
he is talking about. Poker is war, albeit of a more civilized sort.
And war, war never changes. So why not learn the lessons from the most famous
war manual that has stood the test of time and apply them on the felt?
The Art of War
is an ancient Chinese military tractate written close to two and a half
millennia ago, and is traditionally credited to a military strategist known as
It has been studied to this day not just by the military, but by many
businessmen, athletes, politicians and so on.
Its timeless lessons are useful and applicable wherever there is conflict. And
if you’re dealing with people in any endeavour, there will always be conflict.
So let’s look at those lessons and see if we can take them to the felt to
crush any and all opposition, be it external or internal.
1. Know Your Edge
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a
hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory
gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor
yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – Sun Tzu
What makes poker profitable? The fact that everyone thinks they know how to
play. And it’s true. Poker is an incredibly simple game to learn, but
incredibly difficult to master.
Most people never go past the surface level understanding of the game. In
fact, most people don’t really understand it’s a skill game in the first
place. It’s a card game after all, so how could it possibly be about anything
other than luck?
So those that know that it’s all about skill in the long run are the only ones
that are actually able to make money. That’s why there are professional poker
players, yet there are no professional blackjack or bingo players.
Poker is all about awareness. To quote the great
Daniel Negreanu, you have to understand that everything you do at the poker table conveys
If you are aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, you have a huge leg up
on the competition, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Knowing the rules
and the winning strategy in theory will only get you so far.
This is something that Nathan “BlackRain79″ Williams actually specifically discusses in his latest video:
The key point here though is, if you’ve mastered the fundamentals, the next
step is understanding the opponents you’re up against.
Are they a fish or a regular? Are they too loose/tight, too
passive/aggressive? What are their weaknesses, and how can I exploit
What is the best strategy to use against them individually, as well as against
the table as a whole? How do they perceive me, and how can I use it to my
One wonderful thing about poker is that the more you immerse yourself in it,
the more you recognize how deeply complex the game is.
The more you learn, the more you realize how much you actually don’t know.
This is the paradox of knowledge.
Think about the time you only started playing poker. How did you make your
decisions? How many factors did you take into consideration? I’m guessing very
Then you started learning about playing in position, pot odds and implied
odds, outs and equity, board textures, stack-to-pot ratio, bet sizing, hand
ranges and so on and so forth. And these are just the basics.
Today you’re taking all of this information in account and then some, often
not even realizing it consciously.
Now consider your average fish. How many variables do they take into account
when making their decisions? Hopefully, far less than you. And this is where
your edge lies.
Your winnings are the sum total of all your edges played out over a huge
So if you know yourself and you know your opponents, and can recognize your
skill edge over them, you need not fear the result of a hundred
2. Adapt to Your Surroundings to Stay Ahead
“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which
it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he
is facing.” – Sun Tzu
What is the best poker winning strategy? Tight and aggressive? Loose and
aggressive? Something else entirely?
It’s none of those things, and all of those things at the same time.
There are simply way too many variables to consider at any given hand, so
there is no one-size-fits all strategy for every situation.
The best strategy is therefore one of adaptability. You will never play the
same poker hand twice. What works on one table, won’t work on another.
So in order to stay ahead, you need to constantly adapt to your surroundings.
And if you adapt successfully, your more cognizant opponents might adapt to
your adaptation and so on.
There’s no such thing as standing still.
That’s what makes poker such an incredibly dynamic game, so it’s your job to
always stay one step ahead of the competition.
The biggest winners in the game aren’t those who play perfectly balanced
ranges at all times and are utterly unexploitable, but the ones that are
perfectly adaptable in relation to their opponents.
They recognize their individual strengths and weaknesses, and use them to
maximize their profit.
Now, that’s not to say that there will be situations where the best tactic
will in fact be to have perfectly balanced ranges at all times, but that’s
also being adaptable in relation to your opponents.
You have to remember, however, that you are in fact playing against living,
breathing humans. Nobody plays perfectly 100% of the time, and everybody has
leaks in their game.
Some less than others, but they still have them. You just have to dig a bit
deeper to find them.
Improvise, adapt, overcome.
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3. Make No Mistakes And You Will Win
“He wins the battle by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what
establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that
is already defeated.” – Sun Tzu
Here is a thought to have at the forefront of your mind every time you sit
down at the table: Most of the money you win won’t be the direct result of
your superior skills, but of the inadequacies of your opponents.
When playing poker, your goal should not be to outplay your opponents. That’s
fighting a losing battle. You should let them try to outplay you.
The secret to winning in poker is actually very simple: don’t make any
mistakes. It’s easier said than done, of course, but there really is nothing
more to it.
But how can you get to the point of not making any mistakes? Well, that’s
simple, too. By making a lot of mistakes.
I think the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr put it best: “An expert is a person who has made all the
mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”
The trick is to actually learn from your mistakes. Let’s face it, we all make
all kinds of asinine plays from time to time. Some more than others.
And we’re often flabbergasted with our own idiocy.
How many times have you said to yourself something along the lines of: How the
hell could I have been so stupid? Or: I knew he had it, why the f!@# did I
call him down?
It’s normal to be critical of yourself in those kinds of situations.
You have a feeling that you should have known better by now. But it’s all a
part of the learning process. If you know you made a mistake, that’s a lot
better than not knowing you’ve made one.
It takes a great deal of repetition and deliberate practice to get to the
point of just knowing what to do effortlessly. It takes a lot longer than many
Knowledge is difficult. And the learning curve is not a straight line. It’s
more of a zig-zaggy, one step forward, two steps back kind of line.
So if you make a mistake, it simply means that your skill is not so far ahead
on the learning curve you assumed, and you haven’t really mastered it yet, but
that’s ok. You are getting closer one mistake at a time.
As long as you learn from the experience, it’s not really a mistake, but a
If you never ever make any mistakes, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve
mastered something. It’s more likely that you’re just not improving and
challenging yourself. And that’s a mistake in and of itself.
4. Pick Your Battles
“The wise warrior avoids the battle.” – Sun Tzu
This one may seem counterintuitive at a first glance, but if you think about
it, it makes a lot of sense. Winning poker is not only about winning huge
pots, but also about losing as little as necessary.
The sum total of the two determine your long term profitability, and both are
Beginner poker players often don’t realize this, and that’s why they play way
more hands than they should. After all, how could you hope to win if you don’t
They think that folding is weak, so they play too many hands, and stay in the
hand longer than they should. Just play all the hands, you can’t miss them
Of course, as any decent player knows, playing too many hands in poker is just
about one of the worst things you can do.
In fact, as
would suggest, about 80% of all your winnings will come from only the top 20%
Winning poker is about picking your spots, not just hoping to smash the flop,
because mathematically speaking, you’ll miss far more often than not. And you
can’t outrun math.
When the odds are against you, you should do everything you can to hedge your
bets, instead of throwing your money in with a mathematical disadvantage. If
you do that, you might as well go play the lottery.
You should also consider the opponents you’re up against, as mentioned
previously. If you’re up against decent, thinking players, sometimes the best
play is not to play at all.
If you don’t expect them to make a lot of mistakes, and you don’t make any
mistakes, you’re basically just trading the money back and forth, while the
house takes their cut.
You should always get involved with some kind of edge, be it better cards,
position, or superior skill (hopefully all three). If none of the factors are
working in your favour, wait for a better spot.
So next time you are dealt a marginal hand out of position in a multiway pot,
for example, stop and consider is it profitable to get involved, and do the
potential benefits outweigh the risks.
Are you putting yourself in a profitable situation, or will you just throw
money away most of the time?
Pick your spots, pick your battles, and the rest will take care of itself.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Mix it Up
“In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack – the direct and
the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of
maneuvers.” – Sun Tzu
There are two lines you can take in every spot you play, aggressive lines like
betting, raising, and reraising, and passive lines like checking, calling and
But the number of combinations you can take throughout the hand are
immeasurable. You should be aware of them at all times, and try to take the
most profitable line in every spot.
This can only be done if you look at the bigger picture. You shouldn’t just
choose what to do on one street, but consider the future streets as well.
Then, and only then can you make the most +EV decisions.
The players that consider more options give themselves more ways to win. If
you are only calling or folding, you can’t expect to be a winning player.
Think of it this way, would you rather have two bullets in a gunfight, or
The more lines you can think of and pull off, the harder you’ll be to play
against. If you’re doing the same things over and over, you’re going to become
predictable very soon.
Even if your strategy is winning you money for some time, your opponents might
adjust and start exploiting you. You have to be willing to mix it up here and
If you are mostly c-betting the flop for value, for example, you might want to
try an occasional check-raise, or a delayed c-bet instead.
If you fold a lot from the big blind, you can 3-bet light against steal
attempts from time to time. There’s no such thing as a standard play. Playing ABC poker can only get you
so far as BlackRain79 discusses in this video:Keep expanding your knowledge, and don’t be afraid to try something
unconventional every so often.
Give yourself the permission to try something creative. When you get the
fundamentals down you have to keep pushing the envelope. There is room for
creativity in poker.
There are possibilities for those who are willing to search for them. You
probably won’t discover some groundbreaking new strategy, but that’s not the
The goal is to start seeing the opportunities you might have missed before. If
nothing else, you’ll make yourself a more difficult adversary, and that’s not
to be underestimated.
6. Be the One to Dictate the Tempo
“The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the
enemy’s will to be imposed on him.” – Sun Tzu
This one is all about thinking proactively instead of reactively.
When you play reactively, you’re not really in control of the outcome. And
since we can’t always control the outcome when playing poker, it doesn’t
really make sense to relinquish the control we do have.
Players who play passively are at the mercy of the pace their opponents
dictate. If you just check or call most of the time, you let your opponents
dictate the price of the hand.
They basically say: if you want to get involved, this is how much it will cost
you. You become their customer, instead of the other way around.
Now, that’s not to say that you should be betting and raising every chance you
get and try to bulldoze your way to victory. While it may work in the short
term, it’s hardly an optimal strategy.
It’s antithetical to the previous tips about biding your time and picking your
If you respond to aggression to mindless aggression of your own, you are still
reacting to your opponents and let them set the pace.
So how do you play proactively? By not merely playing every spot in a vacuum
and responding to your opponent’s action street by street, but by looking
ahead and considering all the possible outcomes.
For example, you call a flop c-bet just because and then fold to a double
barrel on the turn.
The proactive approach would be to first consider all the previous action and
available info, try to estimate their range, ask what would happen if I call
or raise, what kind of action do I expect on future streets, which turn cards
would help me and which would favour their range and so on.
7. Preparation is Half the Battle
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors
go to war first and then seek to win.” – Sun Tzu
Consistently winning poker players set themselves up to succeed even before
they even sit down to play. This is going to be a little long-winded, but bear
with me on this one.
Consider an elite athlete for a second. What do they do prior to the big
Are they partying non-stop, living it up, and then just show up and sweep the
competition thanks to their godlike abilities and innate talent?
Or are they working their ass off in the gym, practicing rigorously, watching
what they eat, and getting sufficient amounts of sleep every single day?
On top of that, they are intensely focused on their craft, watch game tapes,
devise strategies with their coaches and teammates, maybe even meditate and
overall look for every tiny edge they can in order to get a leg up on their
When you are competing at a world class level, every little thing counts and
Those that are willing to go the extra mile are the ones that eventually rise
to the top, propped up by the right amount of fortune at the right time.
Poker is no different in that regard, except the fortune factor is far more
pronounced in the short term. But over a long enough timeframe, all those
little edges will add up, and the best will rise to the top.
But being the best isn’t all about being exceptionally talented or
exceptionally fortunate. It certainly doesn’t hurt, but it’s not the whole
There’s always going to be someone more talented, and fortunes won’t always
favour you. When those things inevitably happen and you hit a brick wall, grit
is what will keep you moving forward.
And when it comes to actual game time, make sure you are the best poker player
at the table before even sitting down to play.
Know that you’ve worked harder on your game off the felt than anyone else, and
there is nothing you are not prepared for, including a gruelling string of
never ending bad beats and suck-outs.
Practice proper game selection and seat selection, make sure you are properly
bankrolled for the stakes you play (the bigger bankroll, the better), and
study off the felt to fix your leaks.
It also goes without saying that you shouldn’t play drunk, high, tired, tilted
or otherwise emotionally compromised in any way, shape or form.
In short, approach the game like a poker pro does, and you will get world class results.
8. No Guts, No Glory
“If you fight with all your might, there is a chance of life; whereas
death is certain if you cling to your corner.” – Sun Tzu
One final tip for all you tournament players out there. Sometimes you just
have to roll the dice.
Tournament poker is about survival. And the only way to survive is to
constantly fight to stay ahead of shallower and shallower stacks. So you can’t
just wait out your way to the final table.
In fact, this is exactly the key to winning poker tournaments: to play
aggressively around the bubble. This is where most of the players will clam
up, and here you should attack relentlessly.
You should try to steal the blinds frequently, and recognize the players who
don’t defend and are too tight. If you are shortstacked, you should play
If you’re deep-stacked, you should exert maximum pressure to medium-to short
stacked weak opponents.
The goal is to set yourself as the chip leader going into the final table,
instead of barely making it with a few blinds behind. The top three finishes
have disproportionately big rewards, as opposed to eighth or ninth place, for
example. BlackRain79 discusses this final table ICM strategy in much more detail in this article.
So if you actually want to win a tournament instead of just making it to the
money, you’ll have to be willing to risk your tournament life at any
Sure, there will be times when laying low and biding your time is the correct
approach, but it can’t be the only approach.
Remember you’re playing no-limit poker, so your whole stack is on the line all
the time, and with it your tournament life. Guard it carefully, but also be
willing to lose it any second. And you might just win it all.
Poker is war, except the battles are fought with chips instead of tanks and
It’s a civilized form of warfare, and it’s absolutely beautiful. If played
responsibly, only your feelings and your wallet can get hurt, so it’s hardly
the end of the world.
But in order not to get our feelings or our wallets hurt, we need to win, and
in order to win, we might want to heed the lessons of poker pros who played quite
higher stakes than most of us will (hopefully) ever need to.
It all starts with our awareness. Poker is profitable to the select group of
people who not only know the game inside out, but know how their opponents
think, feel and act.
Your average fish on the other hand, doesn’t even know how little they
So if you’re aware of your own skill edge, as well as the inadequacies of your
opponents, there is nothing to fear, not even the never ending swings of
When you can read your opponents, you can adapt to their play style
effortlessly and always stay up one step ahead of them.
There is no such thing as standing still. You have to keep moving and keep
adapting, otherwise you will get left behind.
You should also keep trying to improve and work on fixing your leaks off the
The elite world class professionals didn’t get to the top by having a sixth
sense or some godlike innate talent, but by studying the game reverently and
practicing deliberately for an insane number of hours over many years.
And they made way more mistakes on the way than most of us ever will. That’s
what made them experts.
Speaking of mistakes, one of the best ways to avoid them is to not put
yourself in the position to make them in the first place.
This means being selective about spots we decide to get involved in. A lot of
beginner poker players simply play too many hands, stay in them too long, and
donate way too much money.
Sometimes the only winning play is not to play at all.
However, you also miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So you will have to
go out of your comfort zone from time to time.
This means experimenting with different lines, and letting go of the notions
of “standard play”.
If you make a standard play every time, you will have standard results. And a
standard result for an average poker player is actually losing money.
If you don’t tilt and make huge costly mistakes, you can expect to be a
breakeven or a slightly winning player.
So don’t be afraid to get creative here and there. You might end up with the
conclusion that the “standard play” was the correct one all along, but that’s
also part of the learning process.
If you don’t ever mix it up, you’re stultifying your progress as a player, and
might get …