Poker sharks are commonly described as tight and aggressive: "These poker pros do not play many hands, but when they play them, they play them like they have the nuts."
That's a nice general description, but it doesn't say much. In my opinion, a solid poker player is one who has mastered the four key skills of poker.
Skill #1: Mathematics
• A solid poker player knows the general probabilities of the game. For example, they know that you have about 1 in 8.5 chance of hitting a set when holding a pocket pair, and that you have about a 1 in 3 chance of completing a flopped flush draw by the river.
• Good players understand the importance of outs. Outs are simply the number of cards that will improve your hand. Count your outs, multiply them by two, and add one, and that's roughly the percentage shot you have at hitting.
• Good players can figure out the pot odds. Knowing outs is meaningless unless it's translated into rational, calculated betting. Knowing you have a 20% chance of hitting, what do you do then?
• Math skills are the most basic knowledge; it's day-one reading. Anyone who doesn't understand these concepts should not play in a game for real money until they do.
Skill #2: Discipline
• Good poker players demand an advantage. What separates a winning poker player from a fish is that a fish does not expect to win, while a poker player does. A fish is happy playing craps, roulette, or the slots; he just hopes to get lucky. A poker player does not hope to get lucky. He just hopes others don't get lucky.
• Good poker players understand that a different game requires a different discipline. A disciplined no-limit player can be a foolish limit player and vice versa. For example, a disciplined limit hold'em player has solid preflop skills. When there is not much action preflop, he or she only plays the better hands. When a lot of people are limping in, he or she will make a loose call with a suited connector or other speculative hand.
• A disciplined player knows when to play and when to quit. He recognizes when he is on tilt and is aware when a game is too juicy to just quit while ahead.
• A disciplined player knows that he is not perfect. When a disciplined player makes a mistake, he learns. He does not blame others. He does not cry. He learns from the mistake and moves on.
Skill #3: Psychology
• A good player is not a self-centered player. He may be the biggest SOB you know. He may not care about anyone but himself, and he may enjoy stealing food from the poor. However, when a poker pro walks into a poker room, he always empathizes with his opponents. He tries to think what they think and understand the decisions they make and why they make them. The poker pro always tries to have an answer to these questions:
1. What does my opponent have?
2. What does my opponent think I have?
3. What does my opponent think I think he has?
• Knowing the answer to these questions is the first step, manipulating the answers is the second and more important step. Suppose that you have a pair of kings and your opponent has a pair of aces. If you both know what the other has, and you both know that you know what the other has, then why play a game of poker? A poker pro manipulates the answers to questions #2 and #3 by slowplaying, fastplaying, and bluffing in order to throw his opponent off.
• Good poker players know that psychology is much more important in a no-limit game than in a limit game. Limit games often turn into math battles, while no-limit games carry a strong psychology component. Thus, poker tells are much more important in no-limit games.
Skill #4: Understanding Risk vs. Reward
• Pot odds and demanding an advantage fall into this category. Poker players are willing to take a long-shot risk if the reward is high enough, but only if the expected return is higher than the risk.
• More importantly, they understand the risk vs. reward nature of the game outside of the actual poker room. They know how much bank they need to play, and how much money they need in reserve to cover other expenses in life.
• Good poker players understand they need to be more risk-averse with their overall bankroll than their stack at the table.
When you play in an individual game, you must value every chip equally at the table. You should only care about making correct plays. If you buy in for $10, you should be okay with taking a 52% chance of doubling up to $20 if it means a 48% chance of losing your $10.
However, you should be risk-averse with your overall bankroll. You need to have enough money so that any day at the tables will not affect your bankroll too much. If you worry too much about losing, then you will make mistakes at the table. You need to leave yourself with the chance to fight another day.