Pay Attention!


There are a lot of young players at the poker tables who come equipped with headphones (or earbuds) and computer tablet. When I see them I say to myself, “What the heck are they doing?”

They sit at the table, listening to whatever, gaming on their tablet. When they are interested in a hand, they suspend play on their tablet to put some poker chips in the pot. When they are really interested in a hand, they pull the headphones down around their neck and sit up in their chair. And when they give up on a hand, the cards go in the muck, the headphones go back on and their eyes and attention fixate back on their portable screen.

This doesn’t mean that they are bad at poker play. They tend to be cocky, and to a certain extent rightfully so. They usually know the math, reading players, game theory and the other stuff that makes a good a player. In fact, they often outplay most other players when they are in a hand. And most of the time, they leave the table with a profit.

So what do I find objectionable? Certainly, there are obvious tells given off, as it’s obvious when such a player is interested in the hand. However the problem with this kind of behavior goes far beyond the obvious tells.

Poker is a game of long-term strategy. It is a battle waged on the felt, but also in the minds of the players. The goal, as in any battle, is to minimize losses and maximize gains. How in the world can any player do that if they aren’t constantly paying attention to what their “enemies” are doing? There is an awful lot of observation and strategizing that you, as a player, should be doing even when you aren’t in a hand.

Let me give you an example. I was playing a WPT regional tournament with about 500 entrants. At my initial table, there was an aggressive player a couple seats to my right who was dominating my table for the first few blind levels. I was studying his play every hand and thought I had picked up a tell on the way he put his chips into the pot. I was finally able to confirm it when, in a hand I didn’t play, he mucked his cards after making a re-raise on the river, getting his opponent to fold. I had seen this same tell and thought he was weak. As this player mucked his cards he imparted a slight tilt, allowing me to catch what he had re-raised with – it was five high! From there on, I always knew when he was betting weak and was able to dominate him, and thereby the rest of the table as well. I eventually busted this player, and went on to my best tournament cash to date.

Here’s another example, in cash game. There was an intelligent aggressive player who was playing most hands, often straddling and making raises. In a hand I didn’t play, this player folded, showing an ace for top pair, to a re-raise by his opponent in early position on the turn. The board wasn’t particularly scary other than a flush draw. But like I said this player was intelligent and knew the betting patterns of the other player, who wouldn’t make such a bet without a made hand. After folding, this aggressive player made an offhand comment to his opponent that he would have called an all-in. I believed him. He was indicating that he would have recognized an all-in as an overbet that was most likely a draw to the flush.

A short time later, I limped early with 8-6 suited. The aggressive player raised 3.5x the blind from the button position. Four of us saw the flop of A-8-8, two hearts. I checked and another player bet out about 2x the blind. The button player made a significant raise. Normally I would smooth call with my trips or maybe make a reraise to get out anyone drawing to the flush, but I remembered the comment the button player had made earlier so decided to represent to him the flush draw. After a short pause for thought and effect, I moved all in. The other folded and the button player took a few moments to reflect, then called me with AK offsuit. Paying attention and listening earlier had paid off big time for me.

When you head to the poker room, leave your headphones and tablet at home. They have no place when you are playing live poker. Pay attention both when you are playing hands and when you aren’t. You should be putting all your attention and effort into doing battle with the other players, not into wizards or warlords on a computer screen.

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