When most of us begin playing poker, we decide our actions according to the cards we’re holding. The way that we play the hand then varies according to the strength or weakness of our cards.
While this is an important place to start for learning fundamentals like pot-odds and ranges, this approach can only take us so far. There’s a lot more that goes into poker than just the cards themselves.
To make optimal decisions, we need to consider everything from position to stack size to psychological player profiling. All of these factors come together to form a context, or, in poker terms, a spot.
If you want to level up your poker game, you’ll need to learn how to play spots instead of cards. Of course, our cards are one variable in that spot. But, in truth, they’re hardly more important than any of these other variables.
How Often Do You Go to Showdown?
This varies in every game. Sometimes, especially when the game is full of calling stations, most hands go to showdown. Other times, if the table is full of tight players, then we rarely go to showdown.
The first thing that you need to ask yourself to figure out how much your cards actually matter is how often you’ll go to showdown. Showdown is the only time that our cards have any impact.
If our game often goes to showdown, then you’ll need to give your hole cards much more weight. You’ll want to bluff less and play more value hands.
On the other hand, our cards can be any two napkins if we rarely go to showdown. Of course, our cards always matter to a certain extent. These are the scenarios, however, when playing spots is more profitable than playing our cards.
Playing the Spot
Instead of asking yourself “Are my cards good enough to bet with?” try asking “Is this the right time to bet?” Consider how likely it is for your opponent to call based on all the information that you’ve gathered about them and then go from there.
One exercise that you can do to learn how to play spots is to play without even looking at your cards. In fact, Norwegian poker pro Annette Obrestad famously won a high-stakes online poker tournament with a piece of paper covering her hole cards. This forced her to rely entirely on playing spots instead of cards.
Next time you sit down at the table, try playing a couple hands without looking at your cards. Since you won’t know whether or not you’re betting for value or not, you’ll have no choice but to make these contextual decisions.