Learn the basics and know them cold. That's job one. Lay down a solid foundation for strong play. Be selective about the hands you play. Build a set of starting standards you can rely on, and stick to them - even when your intuition is loudly shouting to do something else. Regardless of the game, if your goal is to win money, then don't look for reasons to play hands or you'll talk yourself into playing too many of them. Instead, stay away from troublesome, marginal hands. But when you do get involved in a hand, play aggressive. If you've got the best of it, make your opponents pay to draw out on you. Sometimes they will, but most of the time they won't - and that extra money in the pot will wind up in your stack of chips.
Hand selection is one of the most important keys to winning in poker. Most players play too many hands - even those who have been playing for years. After all, the majority of players aren't in it to make their living; they play to enjoy themselves. As much as they'd have you believe their goal in playing is to win money, that's really secondary to their main objective of having fun. These recreational players will look for reasons to play marginal hands, and to continue playing them, even when subsequent betting rounds are fraught with danger. The money player, on the other hand, will look for reasons to release hands. He will avoid unnecessary danger, and dump his speculative hands whenever the potential reward is overshadowed by the risks.
Deciding which starting hands to play in poker is like any other form of investment decision you're confronted with on a daily basis in real life. You can make the decision on whim and whimsy or you can look for an opportunity that provides the best ROI.
In the heat of battle you don't have the time to assess every hand as though you're seeing it for the first time and deciding whether to play. You should have made these decisions long before you hit the table. That's why standards are critical. If you incorporate solid starting standards into your game you are light years ahead of any opponent who has not done this - never mind how long he's been playing or how much experience he may have in other phases of the game.
Another real benefit that accrues from developing starting standards for your poker hands is that these very standards provide a basis for deviation, but only under the right circumstances and conditions. You won't know when the time is right to deviate unless you've developed standards and incorporated them so completely into your game that they are second nature to you. Only when that's been accomplished can you hope to find those very few exceptions that allow you to profitably deviate from them.
What does this mean in real terms? It's simple. There are times when you can play holdem cards like Kh-2h, or 8d-7c in middle position, and knowing when, of course, is part of the art of poker. It requires knowledge of the game's texture, the playing style of your opponents, your table image at that moment, and the cards you're holding, as well as those that may have been exposed. There's no cookbook to guide you through these close-call situations. Sound judgment comes with experience and poker know-how, and the ability to make the right choices in these situations is what separates the great players from the good ones.
If you find yourself doubting the importance of selective play, consider the following example: picture someone who calls every hand down to the bitter end unless he sees that he is beaten on board. That player would win a lot of pots. In fact, he would win every pot that it's possible to win. He'd never be driven off the winning hand by bets and raises, nor would he ever be bluffed out of a pot. His opponents would soon discover that it never pays to bluff him, and they'll soon stop bluffing whenever he's in the pot. Of course, every time they had the smallest edge, they'd bet into him, knowing that he would call with the worst of it. These value bets would soon relieve our hero of his bankroll. If you're still in doubt, just play every hand and see how long your money lasts.
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