While all great poker players are certainly not created equal. Most do share similar qualities in their styles of play. By looking at a handful of the best players in the world, we can draw from what they have in common and apply it to our games. Here are five of the best online No Limit Hold’em players around (in no particular order):
Daniel "Jungleman" Cates
Rich "Nutsinho" Lyndaker
Ben "Sauce1234" Sulsky
Tom "Durrrr" Dwan
Tom "kingsofcards" Marchese
All of these players have won millions of dollars working from small stakes NL all the way up to the nosebleed games on sites like PokerStars and FullTilt. While they each have characteristics that make their games slightly different they also tend to be rooted in key poker fundaments. Each of these great players trust their instincts, positional awareness, fail to employ proper game selection, and are able to put in the time and effort to be an elite player.
Trusting Your Instincts
This might be one of the toughest ideas to employ for those new to poker. The great thing about instincts or what some call your "gut" is it will change over time as you process and learn more about the game. While your instincts at first could be incorrect, as you begin playing more hands you will start subconsciously adjusting your thoughts in key situations based on the hands you have been shown in the past. Poker is quite the individual game. Even the best players in the world have either employed coaches or had friends to bounce ideas back and forth with, but once you sit down at the tables it is just you versus your opponents.
All of the great players make decisions that most players either do not understand or are not capable of understanding. They make these decisions based on thousands upon thousands of previous difficult decisions that have developed their "instincts" over time. It is important to trust your reads, instincts, etc… when playing new opponents, moving up in stakes, or when playing deep stack No Limit. Believing in your abilities and going with your gut will help give you confidence to play and compete with better poker players as you move up in stakes and find yourself in tougher games.
One of the biggest leaks of beginning poker players is not truly understanding the importance of playing the majority of your hands while you have position on your opponents. The best Heads-Up players in the world are incredibly loose while on the button. Some players are known to open-raise 100% of their buttons! These players are also quite loose when facing a three bet from the button. They understand as their button range opens, as does their opponents’ out of position continuing range. This allows the player on the button to continue to play hands, with the lead and position, against players who are out of position.
The same can be said for the elite players in ring games. While their ranges might tighten up somewhat they will open and 3bet an incredibly high % from later position, forcing their opponents to either play a lot of hands out of position or to just fold before the flop. Either way, the aggressive player in position will be getting the better of the situation. Opening a wider range in later position can get some getting used to, especially for those who are typically quite tight before the flop. Do not try to immediately begin opening three times as many hands as you are used to doing. Begin adding hands like suited connectors, hands like KX suited, and other hands that have the ability to made strong hands after the flop. We want to not only be able to play aggressively before the flop, but aggressively afterward as well. Hands like K-5 offsuit do not afford us this ability because of their inability to flop draws or even strong one-pair type hands.
Game Selection…or Not
The best players in the world typically fail at one of the key poker fundaments, game selection. Instead of constantly seeking out opponents who are much worse than they are the elite players throw caution to the wind and take on any and all comers. This can be both good and bad. For one, player betters players will force you to think deeply about your game which should lead to great improvement. On the other hand, playing those who are better than you is a recipe for losing. The answer here is to balance. Instead of constantly fish hunting you should take some time every now and then to play against great players. Make sure you are mentally prepared to play in these matches and be sure to analyze all of the difficult spots once the match is over. This should help condition you to exploit weaker players which is where we make all of our money in poker.
It is this fearlessness that makes the elite players the best. When games form around one fish and with 3-4 other regulars that are not worried about competing with the better players at the table. As you move up in stakes there will be fewer fish at each table and you will be forced to compete with better players in order to get your shot at the losers money. There will be times where you should start games at ring tables against better players in hopes of fish coming to play. This can be a big help as you and one other player might get the fish all to yourself which is a dream scenario at higher stakes games. Remember, you do not have to seek out better players, but it can certainly benefit your game to use some of your time at the tables competing in tougher games. Do not let your ego get in the way. If someone is clearly getting the better of your match just accept your losses and move on to another game.
It takes a long time to get very good at anything, especially a skill game like poker. There are some that say to become proficient at any skill you must invest at least 10,000 hours perfecting your craft. Even if you were able to play/practice/think about poker for 7-8 hours a day, each and every day, it will take you four years to reach 10,000 hours. This is where work ethic, commitment, and just sheer will comes into play. In order to become an elite player you have to be willing to completely immerse yourself in the game. Other hobbies should take a backseat as you study, play, and discuss the game. Poker affords everyone great freedom in that you can play at any hours of the day. You do not have to cut yourself off from the outside world as having balance is always important, but if your goal is to be the best you will have to outwork the best. Remember this quote "hard work will beat talent when talent doesn’t work hard." You might have all the skill in the world but if you fail to utilize this ability you will become just one of many players who never reached their true potential.
It all ties in together. Working hard on your game will allow you to understand principles we talked about above like improving your positional awareness. Putting in the hours will help you trust your instincts and know you are making the correct decisions against any and all opponents. It takes all of these characteristics to be a great player. If you can commit to applying them all you should improve your game, move up in stakes, and increase your winrate.