First know what your poker game is, then play it

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A common phrase of encouragement thrown around in sports is “Go out there and play your game.” I’m told this when I’m playing poker, too, and I often catch myself saying it to others. “Just play your game.” Well, that’s nice to say, but what if you don’t have a game you can call your own? What if you don’t have a style you’re comfortable with? And, worst of all, what if your game is really not that good? What do you do now?

Think of yourself as a football coach. You must figure out which personnel is right for which positions. … offense, defense and special teams. You need to test players at different positions and objectively evaluate who works best together and in what situations. You need something outside your standard game plan to spring on your opponents.

Well, poker is no different. You need a game plan with your go-to plays to use consistently to maximize your chances of winning. But substituting plays and taking chances at times to catch your opponents by surprise is also very important. The only way to develop all of this is to put in the time to develop your game. You need a style that fits your personality and a game plan in place that you’re comfortable executing. If you don’t, you’ll consistently make mistakes.

About a year and a half ago I was really struggling with my identity as a poker player. Enter my smart and insightful wife. She pointed out I was playing with a mix of other people’s styles and hadn’t developed a style I was comfortable with and could execute consistently. If you can’t honestly explain what your style of poker is and how you approach the game, then you need to spend time developing your game.

I spent countless hours at the tables trying new strategies, ones I had read about and agreed with, and ones I came up with that just felt right. Feeling strongly about a particular play in a given situation is an emotion that can’t be overlooked. If you know the right thing to do, there’s a reason for that and you must follow your instincts. Follow what your mind tells you and trust yourself and your game plan.

There’s absolutely no substitute for experience. Play with an active learning mind-set and objectively evaluate every hand. Try to learn something every time you sit down at the felt. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. Take the time to put yourself through your own training camp and find the style of play you’re truly comfortable with.

Conduct your training camp at low-level buy-in tournaments so when you’re playing in a larger event, you have your game plan in place … and then execute it. There are many successful game plans, but to ensure consistent success, you must come to the table with the one you have developed and feel confident executing.

— Lee Childs is founder of Acumen Poker. You may remember him from his seventh-place finish at the 2007 WSOP Main Event. Check out acumenpoker.net.