Poker Strategy vs. Poker Tactics

... aren't the same

Poker Tactics"Where there is no vision, the people perish."
-- Proverbs 29:18

In poker, strategy is comprehensive planning and conduct for the long-term. Strategy gives us the course of action we take as we attempt to achieve our goals. Tactics are maneuvers we do to carry out strategy.

Tactics then only make consistent sense when they are seen as an aspect of strategy, and not an end in themselves -- and this explains why the way a lot of players approach the game makes little sense. They make decisions in a vacuum. Many otherwise thoughtful players, when they decide to think and talk about poker strategy, end up focusing and thrashing around various tactical ideas. They end up missing the forest for the trees.

Poker isn't brain surgery. It's not all that complicated, and since many situations come down to marginal decisions, a lot of what we do just doesn't matter over the long-run. However, lots of players make the game far more complex than it needs to be because they lack an overall strategy - while focusing inordinately on tactical issues. The truth of the matter is: good, sound strategy simplifies decision-making.

Some strategies can even be boiled down to a few words: "I want to win", "I want to have fun", or "I want to annoy people and burn chips." The latter two make for easy playing. The first one, if left just that one-dimensional, is too simplistic to succeed, but even alone it simplifies a player's actions a great deal. With this strategy, a player will know not make plays that he or she knows are losing plays.

Truly sensible strategy is much more complex, but what good strategy serves to do, partly, is to make all individual decisions easier. Strategy is like a road map, if you know where you are going, and you know the route you want to take, there are a lot less tactical decisions you will need to make once you get in the car. You will still encounter roadblocks and detours and potholes, but compare a trip where you consult a map before you get in the car, to one where you just get in and start driving. The second way, you waste time going in wrong directions, you waste time trying to figure out where the place you are going to actually is, and you likely will never even get to where you want to go! All the tactical decisions you make the second way -- should I turn right or left, should I take the freeway or a surface street -- will be hard, complicated, and often over-your-head decisions.

Lots of times I see players talking about the play of a hand. The vast majority of the time, the discussion is framed in a way to be almost useless. First, "it depends." Poker is not like duplicate bridge. Situations are totally unique. More than that though, I see people asking questions that make me wonder: if you don't know what to do in this situation, why did you put yourself into this situation?

Strategy grows out of a web of interrelated concepts: I want to win... I have X amount of dollars to play poker with so I will play at this limit... I'm not very good at reading players for bluffs, so I will cultivate an image that leads to players bluffing me less... I will exercise game and table selection so I usually sit in games suited to my style... I will focus on playing hands in positions where I am reasonably confident that they are profitable in the long run... Each step of the way in game or in a hand I will continue to play only if I'm pretty sure I will know what to do in all the possible situations that could later come up...

Aspects of strategy are nearly endless. The more you work strategy over in your brain though, the more you decide broad issues, the easier the little tactical things become. The next time you are faced with a tough decision on the turn card, or on fifth street, or in the big blind when shortstacked in a tournament, ask yourself why you don't already know the answer of what to do! Wherever you are, you should be there for a logical reason -- and then following through with that logic.

When it comes to the skills it takes to be a winning poker player, the tactics you use when you are in a hand are pretty trivial. Strategy makes you a winner. Good tactics merely make you win more.

See also Cunning, Fraud and Flight, Poker Strategy and Reality TV and Poker Vision