Tight, Disciplined Poker Might Be Boring – But You’ll Win More Often
One of the things that makes poker such an interesting game is that it’s a gambling game, but the players who succeed most gamble the least.
You will, of course, see no shortage of people say that poker is NOT gambling, but they’re just playing semantics. If you’re wagering money, you’re gambling.
Having an edge against the other players or the casino doesn’t mean you’re engaged in some activity that isn’t gambling.
That’s my personal view, anyway.
Once you start reading poker strategy articles for beginners, you’ll start seeing a lot of talk about tight play and discipline. What many of these poker strategy articles neglect to mention is how boring this approach might be.
At an average Texas holdem table in a live casino, you might see 30 hands per hour on average. In an online poker room, you might see more like 80 hands per hour.
You’ll see people mention that “tight is right.”
A tight poker approach is one in which you don’t play a lot of hands. You only play a few hands. If you’re also an aggressive player, you’ll be betting and raising with those hands instead of checking and calling.
I’ll save the concept of aggression for another post, because I want to focus on tight, disciplined poker in this post.
If you restrict your play to just the top 20% of hands preflop, you’ll only play six hands per hour at a live poker table, and you’ll only play 16 hands per hour online.
And those are just the hands you’ll see a flop with. At least 50% of the time — maybe more — you’ll fold your hand when the flop rolls around.
Most players want more action than that.
Those players tend to lose more money than the tighter players who are willing to take it easy and deal with a little bit of boredom.
How Hard Is It to Be a Tight Poker Player?
I think playing tight poker is hard. Most of my friends do, too. In fact, many of my friends KNOW that tight poker is the right way to play, but they play loose anyway.
What does it mean, practically speaking, to play tight?
Sometimes it means sitting there at the table for an hour (or more) while folding every hand you get before the flop.
The thing to remember is that every hand you fold saves you money, which is money you can use to bet when you get cards you like.
Every time you fold is like putting more money into your bankroll for when the odds favor you. The more chips you have in front of you when you finally get pocket aces or kings, the better off you are, mathematically.
Compare this to what some people must do to earn money, though. Have you ever worked in a fast food restaurant for $7.50/hour? Is folding a lot of hands of poker per hour really that hard compared to that kind of work?
Think about what it’s like to work in any kind of factory — monotonous, repetitive work with little in the way of financial compensation.
Playing a game where the worst thing about it is a little bit of monotony or boredom when you’re waiting for a hand sure seems like an easier task to me.
After all, most of the cardrooms I’ve played in were comfortable and climate-controlled. The company was pleasant. I could even get free soft drinks while I played, although I had to tip the cocktail waitress. Playing profitable (tight) poker seems easy when you think about it from the right perspective.
It’s Not Enough to Be Disciplined SOME of the Time
It’s easy to forget that your disciplined approach to the game can be undone in a short period of time, especially when you’re playing pot limit or no limit games.
I’ve spent 10 hours at a table playing a tight, disciplined game, then I got tired and angry and donked off everything I’d won in 20 minutes.
Does playing an excellent game for 10 hours straight and an awful game for 20 minutes result in excellent results and lots of profit?
Sadly, for most poker players, it results in a net loss.
It’s easy to keep score in poker, folks. If you’re winning a sufficient amount of money per hour, you’re doing great. If you’re losing or breaking even — or even winning a minimal amount — you’re not doing well.
But the results are based on what you walk away from the table with.
If you win $400 in the first 10 hours, then lose $500 during the last 20 minutes because you played badly, your net loss for the day is $100. You’re losing $10/hour on average instead of winning $40/hour on average.
What lesson should you take away from this?
Stay focused on being a consistently good player who makes consistently good decisions for the entire game.
If Poker Is Exciting, You’re Doing It Wrong
If you’re playing tight poker, you’re probably bored a lot of the time.
My friend Steve Badger compared it to watching paint dry for hours, then getting on a roller coaster for a few seconds. (I’m paraphrasing him, here, so if the simile is poor, that’s my fault, not Steve’s.)
Not every decision in poker is simple, straightforward, or cut-and-dried.
But a lot of those decisions are.
You have a VERY limited number of hands you can profitably play from early position in a Texas hold’em game. The other hands must be folded if you want to win in the long run.
Big pairs, like A-A, K-K, and Q-Q, are usually playable early. Smaller pairs like J-J and T-T are sometimes playable, depending on the texture of the table. A-K suited and A-Q suited might also be playable.
Other than those hands, a lot of hands are best folded from early position.
That’s not terribly exciting, although one interesting tactic is to slow-play aces or kings from early position.
If you’re playing with some loose aggressive players, it can make sense to limp in with pocket aces with the hopes that someone will raise behind you. Then you can re-raise all in. (I read about this tactic in Super/System, by the way.)
Of course, this isn’t the way you should play this hand every time, or even most of the time. You don’t want to play so consistently that your cards might as well be face up.
But you do want to play consistently enough to stay profitable. That’s a balancing act in itself.
When you start doing fancy, tricky, exciting stuff to make the game more interesting, you’re usually making mistakes. Your opponents will profit from those mistakes, and you’ll lose money from them.
Tight Poker Isn’t JUST About Hand Selection
You might think that the only thing you need to do to become a tight, disciplined poker player is only play premium hands. And that’s an important aspect of the game, for sure.
But it’s not the only aspect of tight, disciplined poker.
You’re looking for a combination of factors when deciding which hands to play and how to play them.
You want good cards, sure. But you also want to account for your position. And you want to look at your opponents’ body language. Their chip stacks matter, too, especially in low limit games.
Sometimes you’ll be in position against a weak player, and a bluff will be appropriate.
This doesn’t mean you’ve given up your tight, disciplined approach. It just means that you’ve chosen a decision that has a +EV (positive expected value) even though you’re betting with marginal cards.
Usually, this situation will come up when you’re acting late, and your opponents have been playing weak. It’s hard to win a preflop bluff against more than two players, and it’s twice as easy to win a preflop bluff against a single player.
Continuation bets on the flop can carry a lot of weight, too, even if you’ve missed the flop.
But that’s only in certain situations.
Reading those situations is one of the critical skills you must learn to play winning poker.
Poker Has a Rhythm to It
If you’re playing correctly, a poker game has a certain rhythm to it. Poker’s almost like a dance in this respect. You fold for a while, then you bet and raise for a hand. Then you start folding again for a while.
Sometimes the tempo of the music changes. You’ll play faster when the rhythm changes, and you’ll slow down when it changes again.
You won’t necessarily notice these rhythm changes at first. It takes hours of play to start getting a feel for how the math of the game works in this respect.
In probability theory, you’ll learn that in the short run, anything can happen. This is called “variance” or “deviation.”
But as you get closer to the long run, patterns will inevitably emerge regarding how slow or fast you should play.
Getting in touch with that rhythm and rolling with it will make you a better poker player who walks away a winner more often than not.
Ride the Wave
Poker can be like surfing, too. Doyle Brunson talks about getting on a hot streak, and from a probability perspective, this is a little bit of mathematical voodoo. A hot streak can’t be predicted mathematically.
But it can make a difference in your game.
I was in a spread limit game in Plano, Texas, one night, and I folded almost every hand I got for almost eight hours straight. I finally got a great hand with a great flop, and I won over $700 on a single hand.
After that kind of tight play all night, I was able to use my newly huge stack of chips to win another $300 over the next few hands.
I was “riding the wave.”
I was steamrolling the table with my chip stack, too, but that’s part of the game. When you’re playing poker, you’re looking for situations where you can get an edge over your opponents. Sometimes that edge consists of being able to force them out of hands with aggressive play.
But be careful of the other players riding that wave, too. They can do a real number on your bankroll if you’re playing random, undisciplined poker.
Another way to think of this wave is as being like “momentum” in a football game. My buddy John Clifton likes to talk about how a team is playing with “Big Mo” as one of their players. He’s referring to momentum, and he loves it.
It’s a real phenomenon in sports and in poker. Realize its reality, look for it, and capitalize on that opportunity when you can.
Confrontations Are Definitely Two-Edged Swords
A lot of the time, disciplined poker is avoiding confrontations, especially with other players.
I knew this great tight aggressive Asian poker player named “Rock.” I didn’t have to lose much money to him before I realized that unless I had great cards, I should avoid getting into a showdown with him.
Most people learn really fast that the money flows from the guppies to the sharks at the table. You’ve probably also heard that if you don’t know who the fish at the table is, it’s you.
There’s something else to consider, though. The sharks tend to give each other a wide berth and avoid going head-to-head too often.
If you have a barely-playable hand, getting involved in a confrontation with two of the players at the table who seem more skilled than you is folly.
You’re far better off waiting for another spot where you can get into a confrontation with someone you’re confident you can out-play.
This takes some time and practice to master, but it’s worth it.
Suited Cards Are Often Less Important Than You Think
A lot of players get really excited about their cards being suited. And while that’s an important factor in terms of playability, it shouldn’t be overestimated.
Being suited only increases your probability of winning by 2%. That sounds like no big deal, but it’s both a bigger deal than you think and a lousy deal.
The trick is paying attention to what happens after the flop. Most players aren’t disciplined enough to get away from suited cards when they miss the flop entirely.
And just getting one extra card of the right suit isn’t enough to consider yourself having “hit the flop.” You need to have four suited cards as of the flop to have a 1/3 probability of hitting your flush on the turn or the river.
That being said, suited cards are always a better deal than unsuited cards. Just don’t overestimate how much better, and you’ll probably be fine.
If your goal is to become a consistently winning poker player, it’s important to become a disciplined, tight player.
That’s harder than most people think because it involves managing your own thoughts and emotions. With the right perspective and practice, though, you can become a player like David Sklansky, who claims he never tilts.
Some of this skill comes from nothing less than spending many hours at the table and playing (and/or folding) thousands of hands.
Some of it comes from having the right mental attitude. And since poker is a situational game, it’s a good idea to remember that none of these rules are engraved in stone or apply to every situation.
The bottom line is simple enough, though.
You should probably limit your play to the 15% or 20% of the best starting hands, then proceed from there. In some poker rooms, and especially online poker rooms, that’s enough to guarantee that you’ll at least break even over the long run.