There are stages to a poker players’ education. But they’re not stages like floors you can get to on an elevator, not nearly that well defined. They are more like evolutionary phases that you can place someone in roughly.
When you begin playing poker, you learn the rules and start to learn the pace of play. Understanding where the action is and what your options are when it is your turn to act.
During this and many subsequent phases, the new poker player plays his own had. You get two cards and those are the ones you play. You act according to the relative strength or weakness of your hand.
There is nothing wrong with this; it’s just the beginning phase of poker hand play. You raise with strong hands, call with moderate ones and fold the weak majority.
The next phase involves playing based on your position. You fold KJ suited in early position (Under the Gun, +1, and +2) because it can’t really stand the likelihood of a raise from the 4-6 players behind you. You raise the exact same hand in the Cutoff or on the Button because you are either responding to the lack of raises in front or representing a stronger hand, thus allowing a more believable continuation bet on the flop.
So, in this phase you’re still playing your cards but you’re also playing your position.
After this, the evolving poker player starts playing other peoples positions against them.
What you have in your hand doesn’t make much difference, if there are only 2 or three people left to act and the blinds and stack sizes permit, you will raise with anything. And as long as the situation warrants it and this tactic wins more chips than it loses over time…it is correct to do so. This is what is known as Positive Expected Value (+EV).
Wikipedia denotes EV and gambling as this:
‘There are three variables common to all forms of gambling:
How much is being wagered, the initial stake (in money or material goods).
The predictability of the event.
In mechanical or electronic gambling such as lotteries, slot machines and bingo, the results are random and unpredictable; no amount of skill or knowledge (assuming machinery is functioning as intended) can give an advantage in predictability to anyone.
However, for sports events such as horse racing and soccer matches there is some predictability to the outcome; thus a person with greater knowledge and/or skill will have an advantage over others.
The odds agreed between the two (or more) parties to the wager; where there is a house or a bookmaker, the odds are (quite legally) arranged in favor of the house.
The expected value, positive or negative, is a mathematical calculation using these three variables. The amount wagered determines the scale of an individual wager (bet); the odds and the amount wagered determine the payout if successful; the predictability determines the frequency of success. Finally the frequency of success times the payout minus the amount wagered equals the "expected value" The skill of a gambler lies in understanding and maneuvering the three variables so that the "actual value" is positive over a series of wagers.’
The phase of card play that evolves after playing according to your opponent’s position is playing your opponent’s hand. In order to do this effectively you must develop the skill of placing your opponent on a range of hands based upon all the information you have at a given moment. How have they played in the past, how do they play in this position, how do they play with this stack size, are they currently playing on tilt or erratically? What hand does their bet size represent? These and a myriad of other data will feed into an estimate of a range of hands your opponent might be holding. As with all things, experience and trial & error will hone this ability.
But once you are confident what kind of hand your adversary is holding you can play HIS hand instead of your own. You can raise with air and fold your over pair with ease. You can act with confidence out of position and with over confidence in position.
Ever heard of Annette Obrestad? Her account of winning a 180 person tourney while not looking at her own cards is fairly well documented and believable given her phenomenal skill.
It is important to push yourself as a player along the evolutionary scale of poker skill. And it is vital to try and recognize where your enemies are on this scale in order to play effectively against them. If you get too comfortable with your game you tend to stagnate. That way lies poker extinction!