Book Smarts vs. Table Smarts
These days, it seems like you can't walk through a bookstore without tripping over a poker strategy book. How do you play A-K in early position short-handed? Should you raise with suited connectors on the button after the big stack smooth calls? When is it right to slow play pocket aces?
There are now dozens of books written by expert poker players that will answer all of those questions. I've seen entire chapters devoted to playing certain hands in particular circumstances. And while it's useful to understand why these authors make the suggestions they do, it's more important to realize that all of these questions have the same answer:
Poker is a game of infinite complexity. Players like Chris Ferguson can calculate the odds of almost any situation, but there are no hard, fast rules for how to play a specific hand. The math matters, but if you want to take your game to the next level, you need to start working on three things:
Creativity, imagination, and flexibility.
There are many successful styles that work in poker. From the seemingly reckless manner of Gus Hanson (there is a method to his apparent madness), to the tightly disciplined systems of David Skalansky, your goal should be to experiment with different ways of playing. Once you've started doing that, you need to figure out which style will work best for you and the
situation at hand.
If the game is too loose, it's often right to play fewer cards. If the table is a rock garden, you can sometimes get away with bluffing more. The key is not to be stuck to some plan that is "always right," but to redefine yourself in each given situation.
Learning how to adjust your play takes practice. Shorthanded play is a great opportunity to test your creativity because you have more decisions to make. You can also invest time playing single table sit & gos, where the increasing blinds force you to play more hands against your opponents.
Imagination is at the heart of the game. Just as there is no right way to write a song or paint a picture, there is no right way to play poker. The best players are experimenting and adjusting all the time. The beauty of the game lies in this ever-shifting landscape, and it keeps us interested each time we sit down.