There are two common phrases I hear from poker players when discussing strategy.
I don’t play the cards, I play the player.
I don’t worry about tells too much, I just play my cards.
Typically I’ll hear the first phrase from more aggressive players. The second is a common statement of very tight players.
So which of these two has the better approach? In reality, taken as a single statement on how to play poker correctly, they’re probably both wrong. Poker is not just a game of cards or players; it’s a game of situations.
Focusing on only your cards will work very well against loose passive players. They will pay off your value bets, but won’t push you off the hand with re-raises. However, when you run into a solid player who’s been paying attention to your play, he will pay off none of your value bets, and will bluff you off all your mediocre holdings. Because you’re not paying attention to what’s going on around you, or what type of image you’re portraying at the table (rock), you will slowly get taken out by more astute players.
Conversely, if you’re only focusing on the players and don’t have a solid understanding of the fundamentals (starting hands, odds, etc), you may find yourself making critical mistakes like paying too much for draws, overplaying top pair, or betting when it has a negative EV. These mistakes will eventually take their toll and eat away your chip stack.
While both of these philosophies have flaws independently, they are superb as a team. A good poker player should absolutely have a solid understanding of odds, and know how to play their cards correctly. However, they should also have the ability to read their opponents and know when to deviate from that “correct” strategy.
If you’re a rock, start paying attention to the betting patterns of other players and look for bluffing and stealing opportunities. If you’re an aggressive player, make sure you take a look at the leaks in your fundamentals. Read books, study game theory, and make sure you know the odds you’re facing in any given situation. It will go a long way to improving your results at the poker table.