I love playing no-limit Texas Holdem’ and I play organized games whenever I get a chance. It’s the only table game that literally makes my heart race. The game has everything, strategy, skill, drama, and chance. It’s a thinking game and a “feel” game. But most interesting to me is the premium that no-limit Texas Holdem’ places on mental discipline and emotional control.
If you’re unfamiliar with the game, it goes like this. Six to ten players sit around a felt-covered table with a padded rail and nice drink holders. One person is designated the “Dealer”. This is symbolized by a little white marker or “button” (that says dealer) placed on the table in front of him. The person directly to the dealer’s left is the “small blind”, the person to the left of the small blind is the “big blind”.
The small and big blinds are forced bets. Before any cards are dealt, those players must place bets. At the tables I play, a typical small blind might be $1 and the Big Blind is 2x the Small Blind, or $2. The dealer button moves clockwise, around the table with each hand dealt. The big blind represents the minimum bet anybody can make.
Once the “blinds” are placed on the table, each player is dealt two cards. These cards are called your “hole” cards. A round of betting ensues starting with the person to the left of the big blind. Each person must match (“call”) or “raise” the big blind to stay in the game. If anyone raises the bet, that amount must be “called” or “raised” by all other players wishing to stay in the game. If you do not call or raise, you “fold” (you are out for the rest of that hand and have no chance to win the pot). Players can fold at any time and are not obligated to play any hand. The only bets a player must make are the blinds. Think of the blinds as the fee you must pay to sit at the table. Luckily, you only have to make them every six to eight hands.
All the remaining players proceed to the next phase of the game. The dealer lays five “community” cards in the center of the table. The first three cards are called the “Flop”. Another round of betting ensues. The fourth card is called the “turn”. Another round of betting ensues. The last card is called the “river”. A final round of betting ensues. When everyone has either “Called” (matched the highest bet) or “Folded” (dropped out), the person with the best five cards made from his two hole cards and three of the five “community cards” in the center of the table, wins the “Pot” (all the chips bet in that hand).
But here’s the rub. All positions at the table are not created equal. The Dealer is in the strongest position, the Small Blind is the weakest position. The Dealer is strongest because he gets to see what everyone else at the table does before he must commit to a Call or Raise. Say the Dealer holds King, nine unsuited before the Flop. If another player ahead of him raises big, he can quietly fold and not lose any chips. If however, he sits to the left of the Big Blind and Calls, then another player raises big, if he Folds, he loses his bet.
But the biggest “rush” in no-limit Texas Holdem’ is, just as the name implies, there is no limit to the amount any player can bet. If a player feels his hand is strong enough, he can literally push in all his chips and dare other players to match him and risk losing all their chips. This aspect of the game also implies that the size of your chip stack matters. The bigger your pile of chips, the more you can “bully” other players into folding. For example, if I have, say 1000 chips, and you only have 100, I can put you “all in” and only risk a tenth of my stack. You must risk all of your stack to accept the bet. In a tournament situation, you would be “knocked out” of the tournament if you lost, I would only lose a small portion of my stack and continue to play. When your stack gets small, you must play more conservatively, when your stack is large, you can play “looser” if you wish.
If you’re confused already, know that we haven’t even talked about the real game. The real game is how you react to others, how they react to you, and how much mental and physical(facial expressions) discipline you can exercise in the face of vast amounts of drama. Just imagine catching a full house on the flop and then someone in front of you trying to “bully” you with a huge bet. Now try not to smile. In this situation, the odds are that you’ve already won and there are two more cards to be dealt. If you can control your emotions and simply call, you have two more rounds of betting to fatten the pot and receive a huge payoff – unless you tip your hand and scare everyone out.
Anyone who says Texas Holdem’ is a game of luck hasn’t really played the game or bothered to delve into it’s finer aspects. Yes, there is an element of luck. But knowledge of the odds combined with skill and experience make a huge difference. It’s no accident that a hand full of guys sit in Vegas poker rooms every day, amassing huge stacks of chips, while during the same time period of time thousands of tourists have come, lost everything, and gone. There is a reason good poker players are called “sharks” and bad players are called “fish.” A good player sits back and watches bad players “limp” into hands, calling with bad cards, hoping the one card that can save them will appear. He watches expressionlessly as fish occasionally catch cards on long odds to win small pots. The shark is watching and waiting for the right situation and the right moment to strike.
So what are the life lessons learned in Texas Holdem’ I apply to my life?
- There’s an element of luck in everything we do. Think about it. How much of your life is pure serendipity? If you were born in the U.S. instead of
say, Uganda, that’s a pretty good break. If you have good health and all your fingers and toes, that’s a pretty good break. It goes on and on. So much of life is luck. Will the sun turn into a supernova tomorrow? Who knows? Will a total stranger shoot you over the contents of your wallet? Who knows. The point is luck is part of the equation. Just like in poker, in spite of all your planning, shit happens. The best you can do is prepare for success and hope for the best. If luck is with you, you won’t contract cancer at thirty.
- Understanding the game puts you at a great advantage. Just like the “Sharks” at a Vegas poker table, knowing the score vastly increases your odds of winning. In life understanding and experience also put you at a great advantage. Never miss an opportunity to improve yourself.
- Go “all in” when you’ve got it. When you know you’re in a strong position to succeed, don’t be afraid to commit. Luck is always a part of the game. What better time to “go for it” than when the odds say fortune is on your side?
- Sometimes you just have to smile and say good hand. In spite of all your effort and preparation, sometimes life conspires against you and deals you a “bad beat”. A classy player understands this is part of the game and simply smiles and congratulates the winner.
- Ultimately what really matters is character. When you play poker frequently, you get to know all the players. This is something occasional players don’t get. They will walk into a Vegas poker room totally oblivious to the fact that half the people in the room know each other. The regulars know who the gentlemen are, and who the scoundrels are. It’s much more fun to play with gentlem
- Patients are as important as luck. Good cards come and go. When your cards are hot, you know they can’t last. When your cards are cold, you know they can’t last. The trick is to wait out the troughs, play conservatively, and guard your stack. That way when the “bullets” come your way, you’re fully loaded. Patients and action are flip sides of the same coin, wisdom.