Changing Pace in Poker

- Poker Source Staff Writer -

stick_shift_pokerWhen I refer to “stick-shift poker,” I’m not talking about the seamless acceleration of a race car driver moving through the gears. Rather I’m envisioning the first time I tried to drive a stick shift car: stop…stall…go…fast…slow…stall. It was anything but smooth.

Pop the clutch in your car and you’re likely to give your passengers an unwanted surprise. Pop the clutch at the poker table, and you may surprise yourself with how much money you’ve just won. You’ll hear me preach, day in and day out, about the importance of the element of surprise in poker. This means changing pace in your poker game.  The most dangerous behavior you can adopt is to become predictable.

When I sit down at a table, here’s my first read: whose head can I get into today? Sometimes it’s the new fish swimming in my pond. More often, it’s the daily grinder who has no idea that I just set up camp in his cerebellum.

Why this first move?  Why not look for tells or amateurs at the table?  Because to be honest everything else is irrelevant. If I’m inside your head and I know how you play, it’s over. You may as well write me a check.

To get inside someone’s head, you must look for certain signs. Does he or she play tight all the time? How long does he pause before betting with a winning hand? Can you push him around, or will he call you down? All of these elements—and more—should factor into how you read a player.

Once you figure someone out, your cards really don’t matter anymore. You know what your opponent will do in any given situation. If you re-raise, they’ll fold. If they never fold, you know when to stake your ground.

The payoff from a good read is immense, but this isn’t really the point of this article. In truth, it’s less about getting inside someone’s head than keeping him out of yours.

OK, grab your notebook. We’re about to get philosophical. It’s then extremely easy to understand why any player worth a dang is trying to access your brain from the moment you sit down at the table. There are two basic ways to handle this:

1.) “Do Not Enter!” Put on your shades and stone face, hoping he doesn’t get through the front door (rookie). 2.) Invite him inside your head—even, bake him cookies. This is where poker leaves the realm of game and enters into the realm of art—and my main argument in this article.

It’s fine—even beneficial—to let players inside your head. I love it when a player believes he knows what I’m thinking. Why? Because he doesn’t.  I don’t even know what I’m thinking half the time.

It’s as simple as this: when you play correctly, you don’t have a “style.” You’re not tight; you’re not loose. You don’t cap every raise or fold every small blind. You change pace, you switch gears: first gear to third gear to reverse.

What’s next? Perhaps you’ll shift from fourth gear to first again. You have no idea where you’re headed—and neither does anyone playing against you. This is the “zone.” You are every type of player and no type of player, all at the same time. Other players can be in your head for one minute and absolutely lost in the poker wilderness in the next. They don’t know what’s coming next—and facing this kind of unpredictability is the scariest place to inhabit at the poker table.

So, the next time you sit down, try to remember back to the days when you were in a parking lot somewhere, stumbling your way through a five-speed. Think about the way the person sitting next to you that day must have felt as you clumsily maneuvered the stick shift. Now make the folks at your poker table feel the same way, and keep switching gears on them. And if you’ve never learned to drive a stick, get out there and do it!  It might even rev up your poker game.