How to consistently win at poker

Survival is the ultimate test in our little world. We all know excellent players who seem to have the right stuff. They read cards like a magician and make miraculous plays, but they are often broke, while less gifted players are consistent winners.

What's the difference?

The players who win at poker are willing to do whatever it takes to win, but the fish (losers) do what makes them comfortable and perhaps enjoy their time at the table too much.

It is their extreme commitment that makes them winners, but you might not want them as a neighbor or brother-in-law. Here are some traits that most winners possess.

1. Winners always demand an edge

That edge can come from a better hand, a good draw, favorable position, superior skill, greater concentration, or lots of other things. But without it, winners won't play.

They will fold their cards, change seats, move to another table, or go home. (The one exception occurs when they will accept a situation without an edge for a short period of time for the sake of a greater long term edge.)

2. Winners are obsessed with winning

Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing to them. They could say something like "I'd bust my own grandmother if she played poker with me." Their obsession makes them do lots of unpleasant or unnatural things that others refuse to do. Perhaps the hardest and most important is to put their egos in their pocket because egotism can make fools of us all.

One of its most destructive effects is making us care more about what people think of us than what we actually accomplish. We take foolish chances, show off, or give away information to make ourselves look good, even when we know it reduces or wipes out our edge.

3. Winners have extreme self-control

Without self-control that obsession can become self-destructive. It can force you to take foolish chances, continue to play long after you have lost your edge, refuse to accept that your hand is beaten or that the game is too tough for you, and do many other stupid things.

4. Winners are brutally realistic

They don't kid themselves about their own cards, the other hands, the odds and risks of winning, their own skill, the ability of the other players, or anything else. It is often painful to accept reality, but - since they are obsessed and controlled - they pay the price.

Denial drives the entire gambling industry. Without it, the industry would collapse immediately. The players lose billions every month because they deny that it is impossible to beat craps, roulette, lotteries, etc. You can beat poker, but only if you are realistic about everything, especially yourself.

We all kid ourselves sometimes, and we always pay for it, sooner or later. Every time you play a hunch, or chase with a weak hand, or sit down in the wrong game, or try to get even when you are on tilt, you are kidding yourself and - over the long term - it must cost you lots of money.

5. Poker winners concentrate intently

They focus all of their attention on the game because they implicitly agree with the principle: in an otherwise even contest, the man with the best concentration will usually win.

They study almost every card, bet, gesture, and word. They know who is winning and losing and how they play when they are ahead and behind. They often remember not only who made each bet, but also how that bet was made. Were the chips piled neatly or thrown messily? Was the bet made quickly or slowly? What did he say? And how did he say it?

They concentrate even when they are out of the pot. Most of us, when we fold our cards, do what comes naturally: check the baseball scores, make small talk, or just relax. But the poker winners keep working, picking up information they might miss while playing.

6. Winners admit mistakes quickly and learn from them

Winners verbalize their assumptions, observations, conclusions, and the way they reached them. They know why they have made a bet or chosen a game, and they never just yield to an impulse.

Realistic, visible thinking, and control of their egos enables them to admit their mistakes. They may have loved the hand or the game, but - if they get new information such as an unexpected raise or signs that the table is tougher than they thought - they can fold their cards or leave the game.

Everybody makes mistakes, but winners rarely make the same one twice. Their obsessive need to win combines with their other qualities to help them learn from their mistakes.

7. Winners accept responsibility and depersonalize conflicts

They do not complain about bad beats, stupid plays, dealers' mistakes, losing streaks, or anything else. They don't complain because they accept the game as it is - with all its frustrations. Their acceptance of responsibility lets them focus on the only thing they can control: their own decisions.

Since winning is everything, and anger or a desire for revenge would reduce their edge, they don't let themselves get angry or try to get even. They are like lawyers who fight intensely in court, then enjoy lunch together. It's not a personal conflict; it's just the way the game is played.

They constantly monitor the game, explicitly decide how they should play now, then make whatever changes are needed. If, for example, the game tightens up, they become tighter, looser, more aggressive, or whatever they think will increase their edge. This way they avoid being predictable.

8. Winners are selectively aggressive

Because they insist on always having the edge, they pick their spots. They wait until they have the right cards, the right position, the right opponents, or preferably all three, and then they attack as appropriate. They trust their guts.

Of course, you can't be selectively aggressive unless you do all the things discussed above, especially putting your ego into your pocket. You must realistically assess your cards, your skill, and your opponents, then attack only when you have the edge.


Because he could not do those things, Nick "The Greek" was the second best example of the highly skilled loser. You have probably read of his heads-up confrontation with Johnny Moss, a much better player, and Nick's famous statement that being in action is more important than winning. That's why he died broke. His gravestone should read: "Here lies a fool whose ego made him challenge a better player."

An even better example was Stu Ungar, perhaps the greatest no-limit tournament player of all time. He is the only three time winner of the World Series of Poker No Limit Hold 'em Championship. He was even better at gin, but he died broke in a crummy motel room.

Part of his problem was drug addiction - which is based on denial -but he was so hooked on action that he would gamble on anything. His enormous ego kept him from accepting his obvious limitations at other games. In fact, he often acted like an utter fool.

Even though none of us has remotely as much talent, he was a loser, but we can be winners. If we accept and work within our own limitations, and never, ever make a bet without an edge, success is virtually guaranteed.

That's what this website is all about, getting that edge. Stu Ungar and Nick "The Greek" ended up as losers because they denied reality. They had much more skill than we do, but they were blind to their own limits. They played games they couldn't beat, and it destroyed them. You may kid yourself in the same sort of way.

Do not. One of our major goals is to help you improve your poker skills.

If you want to learn more about poker strategy, ask Maria Ho, a poker pro at Bodog.