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Basic Poker Strategy: Mixing Up Your Game

14 November 2008, By:
A fundamental skill in poker is to vary your game. You must learn not to play a certain situation in the same way every time. Learn to mix up your game!
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Let's first look at a very simple game that has nothing to do with poker. It's called roshambo, I suppose you know it? Two players choose to play either rock, scissors or paper.

Scissors beat paper, paper beats stone and stone beats scissors. Simple as that.

Now, if you were to play 100 rounds of roshambo, what would your strategy be? Maybe you're a hairdresser and really like scissors. You'd play scissors all the way, right?

World class roshambo strategy

Well, then I've got news for you. Your opponent would catch on to your strategy after just a couple of rounds and would then start playing stone every time. You're looking at a crushing defeat, my friend, something like 97-3.

To have a chance, of course, you must mix up your game. The fact is, if you pick rock, stone and scissors randomly with 33% probability in each round, opponents can no longer outsmart you. Not even the ten time world champion, if there is one.

The same goes for poker, it's just a bit more complex. Pretty much more, actually.

Avoiding predictability in poker

To start with a really stupid example, let's say that you move in on every hand, no matter what you have.

Once or twice this might win you a (small) pot, but very soon your opponents would just sit and wait for a high pair and then call you down. Against opponents with any kind of perception, you'd start losing really quick.

If instead you fold some hands and move in with the rest, things would already be more difficult for the opposition.

Actually, if you have a stack of ten big blinds or so, a push-or-fold strategy becomes a strong weapon, often used in tournaments. With more chips, though, it's a bit too coarse to be your best strategy.

Don't stick to your good habits

But the principle holds on all levels of poker: as soon as you get predictable in some way, other players will exploit this. You need to do things differently from time to time.

For example, before the flop, if you always raise with high pairs plus AK and AQ and always flat call with lower pairs and suited aces, the other players will know pretty well what you're holding.

Every time you call, someone will raise it up and force you to fold. And when you raise, they will just throw their cards in the muck and prevent you from ever winning anything much with your best hands.

You have to avoid this by mixing up your online poker game. With a pair of aces the natural action is to raise it up before the flop, but if you choose to just limp once in a while, any opponent who puts in a raise is up for a surprise.

Planting a seed of doubt

Now they know that you can limp with strong hands. The next time you limp with one of the weaker hands, it won't be as obvious for them to put in a big raise and shut you out. If they make a move on you now, they must fear that you actually have a strong hand and will be playing right back at them.

Or, even if you don't have a strong hand, now you can play back at them as a bluff, and there's no way for them to know if you're strong or weak. Hey, they've even seen you limp with aces!

So, just by occasionally limping with a strong hand, you have opened up a host of new plays for yourself in various situations. You can put your opponents to hard decisions.

When you hit a flop, go with a check once in a while. When you feel the need to fold a marginal hand on the turn, make that questionable call instead. Or make a big bet on the river when you missed that flush draw.

Once people know that you can make this kind of plays, you have taken a heavy gun out of their hands. Now they must be very careful around you. Often they will prefer not trying their dirty tricks, thereby saving you a lot of headache.

And when they give you action, you can give them some credit for it. Now that you're an unpredictable player, other players' actions will take another meaning. They won't be trying to rob you. Not all the time.

Keeping the balance

Just don't go overboard with this! Raising with aces isn't a bad play. On the contrary, it's the right play. Checking a strong hand on the flop should never be your standard play!

Mixing up the game doesn't mean playing all your hands "the wrong way". If you always check a strong hand and bet when you're weak, not only will you be just as predictable as before, in addition you'll be playing all hands in a bad way.

So, the idea goes like this: Stick with a sound poker strategy but throw in an occasional variation. Keep your opponents guessing.

You'll never be an easy target again!

/Charlie River

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