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Improve Your Poker
by Bob Ciaffone
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One of the more respected writers of this generation, Ciaffone's material, now compiled under one cover, has previously appeared in a variety of publications. Here, he helps sharpen the skills of beginners and experienced players in ten different areas, including general concepts like beating a loose game, and tight/loose play. He moves to gambling skills like the mental side, and money management; then to Reading Opponents, including tells and using your eyes. A vital section on Deception and Bluffing is followed by incisive advice on Hold'em including raising and missing.
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Poker and Warfare

Most of my poker students are intermediate players, experienced but still having flaws in their game. I am getting a good education on which areas this type of player needs the most work to improve.Bob CiaffoneBob Ciaffone is one of America’s best-known poker players, writers, and teachers. He has numerous poker tournament wins and placings, the most prominent being third place in the 1987 World Championship. He has been a poker teacher since 1995, with his students having earned well over a million dollars in tournament play.  Bob's website is  Here are some important concepts the intermediate level player needs to master.

Over and over, I marvel about how the games I play resemble real life. The parallel to poker in the real world is warfare. Poker is a fight, a struggle. The poker player makes decisions resembling those of a soldier on a battlefield.

(1) The better-armed gladiator is the favorite. The essence of poker is betting your hand (armament) is superior to the other guy's. The way to do this is to be more selective in your choice of starting hands. If you play 15 percent of the starting hands you are dealt, and the opponent plays 30 percent of his starting hands, this has a huge influence every time you square off against each other. You will come to the fight better armed and win most of the confrontations.

The logical question arises, why play 15 percent of your starting hands? Why not even fewer, like 10 percent or 5 percent? The answer is twofold. First, you are charged a price for every hand by having to pay blinds or antes. If you play too tight, the overhead will get you. Second, to get a decent overlay, you only need to play a bit tighter than the opposition.

Frankly, does anybody really play too tight in their selection of starting hands? I have never had a student with that problem. As for myself, I have had another pro tell me that folding two sixes up front in an aggressive ninehanded hold'em game as I had advocated was "too tight." Of one thing I can assure you. If he is right and I am wrong, the amount of money I have cost myself at the end of the month will not buy a travel ticket to go very far. And if I am right and he is wrong, the difference is also quite small. The pros differ in starting hand requirements, but not by a lot.

(2) The number of opponents controls your strategy. Your strategic decisions are of course affected the most by the strength of your hand. But after that, the number of enemy soldiers against you is the most important factor affecting your strategic decisions. Here is a sampling of questions that the size of the opposing army has great bearing upon. Is top pair no kicker likely to be the best hand? I raised the pot; should I bet my A-K even though the flop did not help me? Can I run a bluff to try and steal the pot, even though I do not have any outs? Should I bet my flush-draw in this situation?

Here is what I advocate. The dividing line for strategy is when you have exactly three opponents. With only one or two opponents, you should play aggressive poker. You can try to steal the pot with no hand at all, you can bet a drawing hand, you can play top pair no kicker for the best hand, and so forth. With four or more opponents, you play very straightforward poker. You do not run bluffs, and you do not bet ordinary draws. With this many players, someone has a pretty good hand, and the best hand is going to win the pot. With three opponents, you have to look at the texture of the flop, who is in the pot with you, and all the other factors that can affect your decisions. But the first thing you always look at is the strength of the opposing army. Yes, Rambo can take on a whole enemy division—but only knowing a cold-deck is controlling the outcome of the battle. Otherwise, he's toast.

(3) Keep your opponents a little off balance. The accent should be on "a little," as you should not be trying to play the role of a maniac. Every once in a while, you make a play that is not the best play and not your usual play. Here the typical poker player usually goes to excess. When you make an unusual play, you are giving something up; the sound and normally correct play. Do not do this too often. People remember unusual plays for a long time, so your opponents do not need to be constantly informed of the fact you sometimes depart from routine poker. Furthermore, if you are playing in a large public cardroom, the cast of opponents is constantly changing. You have less to gain by making an unusual play, because the guy or gal you went far out of your way to impress may well be gone soon.

What kind of plays am I cautioning you against too frequent use? A few examples from limit hold'em are raising in early position with suited connectors, reraising before the flop without a big pair or A-K, and just limping in with a big pair. These plays definitely give something up, and are used way too often by the average player, who is apt to do this kind of thing several times a session. In my opinion, making such a play once a session is far too much. I think once every half a dozen sessions is about right.

I am not talking about such routine poker plays as coming in with a raise on an ordinary hand for previously unopened pots when in late position trying to pick up the blinds, or betting the flop with no hand in a shorthanded pot. These plays are long-run winners and a part of everyday poker.

(4) Make sure your cause is not hopeless. A general with an army of a thousand men has no chance against an equally-armed army of ten times that number. He could be Napoleon Bonaparte, Robert E. Lee, and Erwin Rommel all rolled into one and it will not let him beat the odds. There are a couple of things that will make your cause hopeless. First, if the house is taking so much money out of the pots that nobody can win, it does not matter how well you play. Second, if you know all the right moves, but do not use them, the knowledge does you no good. What help is it to know that smoking causes cancer and heart disease if you continue to light up every ten minutes? Without the discipline to do what you know to be right, skill cannot be applied efficiently.

When trying to teach poker, I feel a bit like a drill instructor in the army. If you listen to me perfectly, even though you can still die out there on the battlefield, you have improved your chances. But if you are up against an overwhelmingly superior force (an excessive house rake), or forget everything you have learned in the heat of battle (steam when losing), don't expect to come back in one piece.

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