Poker Skills vs. People Skills

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We all do it, some better than others, but nevertheless we all approach a table with our eyes darting from player to player, checking out their body language, their regalia and eventually their chip stack. In an instant we form impressions (some wrong), as we begin processing the much-needed data to achieve a winning session. Along with watching how opponents play their cards, we continually analyze and explore every detail sitting right before our eyes. Why? Because poker isn’t about cards, it’s about people. You’ve heard that a million times.

What’s the first thing that enters your mind when you see a 20-year-old player sitting to the right of you? He’s on the edge of his seat flipping chips in his hand, as his head pivots nonstop in a 360-degree motion, with a cold beer held tightly in his left hand. I see inexperience, stupidity, impulsive behavior and a sure fire-trap victim. He personifies the player showing little patience, little or no bankroll, wanting to make it happen right now and not willing to wait on the proper cards to take down a huge pot.

Or how about the “seasoned” lady sitting to his right? You know, the one who needs a hand vacuum to occasionally wave over her chip stack to let everyone know the pile in front of her is not just a dust mound. Are those long wrinkles stretching across her forehead from worry or age? Or could they represent the numerous lengthy winning sessions she logs at everyone else’s expense?

You will see dozens of faces, disguises, getups and oddball personalities at the poker table. It’s your job to sort everything out and start extracting money, knowing their weaknesses and their strengths. For example, you should know better than to continue betting into a player with chips covered in cobwebs while you’re sitting with K-K, an ace hits the board and that player hasn’t folded. You should also know better than to enter pots when maniacs at the table are capping just about every hand, unless you have top cards. And you must know when to set a trap when the right situation is at hand, you’re sitting with the NUTS, and they’re still playing chase me, beat me, show me!

Who or what intimidates you at a table? Is it stature, reputation, dress? Most of the time (unless they’re regulars), we are unfamiliar with the habits and mistakes displayed by players and must rely on our eyes and ears. They don’t lie; what you see is what you get. You just need to figure out what you are really seeing and hearing.

Let’s start with the guy in sunglasses (that’s me), and his friendly attitude at the table. He generally smiles, makes an occasional comment (nice cards), and rakes in his share of pots. What can we learn from his demeanor, dress and actions? Well, you know from his clothes he’s not spending his last dollar; from his glasses he wants to present us an appearance of mystery. This also hides his eyes and prevents us from seeing his darting eyes and possibly some tells. His complimentary table talk signifies he has an even keel attitude, works hard not going on tilt and displays excellent table savvy. If he were a tight player, we may see his chips stacked neatly, even the colors on the side of chips arranged in color order.

The smart player won’t be drinking alcohol, and when he sits at the table for the first time he won’t say much as he examines the play. He’ll quickly assess opponents and put them on the type hands they seem to readily play. If he puts a headset on, does that mean he’s signaling everyone that he’s concentrating on the cards or needs the music to settle his nerves? And if a person is wearing a headset, you must immediately realize they themselves discount the usefulness of tells (sounds such as grunts, sighs and the inflection of voices during calls, raises and checks). Or do they watch the overhead televisions and only occasionally follow the hand until conclusion?

All these actions indicate something about our opponents. Astute players must continue to watch and listen, filing information quickly and unceremoniously. People skills are important.

Do you really think certain races have an advantage over others? And how about women and young players; are they to be given any less chance to win at your table? Preconceived mind-sets like these can cause hesitation and error in your play.

If your answer to any of these questions was anything but no, you have a problem and it will show in your monthly winnings ledger. Sure, players will quickly prove they are weak opponents, but you can’t assume they’re not worthy adversaries. Don’t fall into those traps; you have a lot of work separating the strong from the weak, the lions from the deer.

Start by assuming all players at the table have arrived to take your money, have time on their hands to play forever and never make mistakes. After each hand in hold’em start to determine who does not fit that criteria. Who plays 10-7 offsuit, ace-rag, or who plays Q-Q or better? You need to know who will chase, who bluffs and who’s to be respected when they bet. In stud, also look to see the quality of their beginning cards. Players going for low straights and having two-card flushes are welcome at my table.

Poker is a game of opportunities, and the first opportunity is not being unprepared or sitting with preconceived notions and opinions. Know your opponents or they will make your card-playing days miserable. People are so willing to show you their cards, or at least tip their hands. Be smart, be alert, be a winner.

I need another table change, Oh, floorman!

— Al Spath is the former Dean of PokerSchoolOnline, author the “Poker Journal,” and a private online and live poker coach (at Delaware Park Casino, Atlantic City and Las Vegas). He can be reached for private poker mentoring through his website: pokerinstructors.com or alspath@alspath.com.