A 3 Step Process to Thinking Through a Poker Hand


You’ve probably spent a lot of time studying, reading, and thinking about poker strategy and tactics, and maybe even learned about how that theory can be used to plan hands based on other players at the table. However, scant literature has been dedicated to the way professional poker players think through a poker hand. The main reason is that the poker thought process varies wildly from player to player.

As a rule, pro poker players are generally fanatical about finding the most optimal +EV line for every single poker decision they make. However, when it comes to planning hands, almost all players have no set way of doing things. Each hand is often thought through in an unorganized and inconsistent fashion, with no general sense of standardization. As a result, many actions that are chosen end up being sub-optimal. In this article, my goal is to give you some direction on how to hone in on a hand planning process that can be used on every single street you play.

A “Routineless” Game

Every winning poker player makes decisions based on the information at hand. How they go about processing the information varies from person-to-person. Often, exact methodologies may be inconsistent from session-to-session, or even hand-to-hand. While quality decisions may be arrived at with great frequency, without a systematic and precise process, optimal performance is difficult to achieve. What is really needed is to make a habit out of the way a poker hand is played. Why can’t poker players have routines just like they do in other sports?

After years of falling into ruts more often than I care to admit, I eventually became fed up with the lack of consistency in the way I thought my way through poker hands. It was rather obvious that I had to do something to find a more dependable way of doing things. In earnest, I decided to draw upon my athletic background and invent my own systematic way of thinking through hands. My goal was to come up with some exact routine that would allow me to consistently think of the correct things during a poker hand in the most efficient way possible. What I didn’t realize is that it would take many years to figure out.

Be A Poker Athlete

There is a reason top players in just about every sport do the same thing every single time. It’s to reset their mind and focus at the beginning of every action in order to make sure they are staying true to fundamentals and building “muscle” memory for the motions required during the execution of the game. The pattern becomes so ingrained and finely tuned for some players that it becomes a thoughtless process. Think of a professional bowler or golfer and the way they go through the same exact motions each and every time. Or, if you are a basketball fan, you know that nearly every player does the same exact thing before shooting a free throw.

In fact, routines are so thoroughly ingrained into players by coaches, that straying from the pattern in any small measure can throw off everything. It works the same way at the poker table. I am guilty of this from time to time. Sometimes I’m lazy, tired, or both and find it hard to focus and have a definitive structure in my decision-making process. This leads to either unorganized thinking or a form of simplified auto-piloting, which is detrimental to anyone’s win-rate.

 My Simple Free Throw Routine

Getting Organized

The good news is that there is a simple solution to this problem: organize the way hands are played and use a repeatable hand planning process. This will make sure every bit of information is applied to each situation. Afterward, once the routine is implemented, the overall quality of every play that we make should be improved.

Additionally, a routine will achieve a positive after effect. Once you start using a deliberate decision-making process, you will find that it becomes virtually impossible to make hasty and emotional sub-par decisions. In fact, following a routine is that it becomes the ultimate weapon to combat complacency or auto-piloting which, in my opinion, is the underlying cause of long downswings. If you find you are timing out on tables while following a routine, you are likely playing too many tables. It is much better to play fewer high-quality hands than a ton of auto-piloted or poorly thought out hands.

Solving The Riddle

Just because I thought I had “solved” my organization problem, didn’t mean that the process would just come up with itself. Unfortunately, coming up with how to define an exact process was not an easy task. In fact, after thinking about it from time to time, I gave up on the idea for a while.

It turns out that I needed to progress further as a poker player in order to even be qualified to come up with such a process. And then one day, it came to me in sort of a eureka moment. I had just finished up my Spare Change Challenge and was writing a guide to help players find ways of tilting less during a session. Since soft tilt is a huge problem, I wanted to come up with a way for people to play better when they were not at peak mental capacity.

Then, it dawned on me. If only there were a simple multi-step routine that players could just follow to make each and every decision, it would help people focus better. As a result, tilt would be less a factor. I realized that all I had to do was define exactly what I was doing when I was playing my A+ game and turn that into a routine.

The Process

When playing my best, before every action I first assess the table dynamic, then form a plan to attack based on the situation. Once the line was chosen, all I have to do is determine my bet sizing, if applicable. In hindsight, it seems so obvious. It’s basically what all top players do, at least some of the time anyway, I just needed to codify it.

Now that I had a routine to follow, all I had to do was define it. After some deliberation, I decided to call the process the DPS method. DPS is an acronym for Dynamic, Plan, Sizing. It’s somewhat inspired by the REM (range, equity, maximize) process that you can read about in the book “Professional NL Hold’em,” which is on my list of top poker books. And, while I feel the REM process was groundbreaking at the time, I think it is a little bit difficult for average players to implement and thus didn’t really get traction among the masses.

You may be wondering why I couldn’t just use the REM process for my routine. The main reason is that it doesn’t account for the entirety of a hand-planning process and only really focused on pots where you were betting or raising. Sure, you still had to figure out the range of your opponent based on their style of play, but there wasn’t really an emphasis on planning in a holistic sense. Don’t get me wrong, the REM process is an amazing tool for maximizing in pots. It is just damned hard to implement for beginning to intermediate poker players.

It’s A People Game

My method attempts to solve this and fit more easily into a player’s plans, no matter how advanced he or she is. The major difference is that my process forces you to assess the table dynamic before forming a plan. The plan can include deciphering the ranges and equities, but some situations don’t require you to go that deep.

The DPS process always factors other players into the decision-making process, which alone will make a huge difference in anyone’s play. Even so, if you are an advanced player and want to still use the REM process, it will work in tandem with my method. You just add in the dynamic part before moving on to the REM part. So I guess it’s the DREM process?

The main thing I want to harp on here a bit is that once you have the fundamentals of poker down, adjusting to your table is what 90% of your focus should be on. Establishing the dynamic is by far the most important step of the process. In fact, the end game all comes down to being one step ahead of your opponents, and less about who plays hands “perfectly.” In other words, if both you and your opponent are technically good, then it all comes down to who is putting themselves in the most profitable spots. It’s the players who are really good at the tactics and master reading situations that win the most money.

The actual planning phase of the hand is almost always drawn from a mental database of pre-formed optimal lines that have been developed away from the tables. You just choose the one that fits your current situation the best. Of course, there is some room for creativity and tweaking of the lines, but, for the most part, you should work toward the execution phase being mostly standard.

The Process Defined

  1. Dynamic
    All current factors that affect the strategy which you will implement based on the opponents at the table and any recent history as well as a focus on keeping in line with general winning poker fundamentals. The end game of poker is all about adjusting everything you do based on who you are playing against. Whoever adjusts best, wins.
  2. Plan
    The plan includes the best tactics to attack your opponents based on the dynamic. Once you have established a strategy based on the current table dynamic, it’s time to implement the tactics that carry out that optimal strategy. This covers all facets of your actual actions at the table: betting, raising, checking, calling, c-bets, 3-bets, 4-bets, etc. Most plans will be based upon pre-planned lines optimized during your study sessions.
  3. Sizing
    When betting or raising, the appropriate amount to bet or raise that best carries out your plan. Sometimes your plan will not include a need for coming up with the correct sizing. If you checked, called, or folded, you obviously don’t need to worry about step #3. However, since aggressive play does include a lot of bets or raises, we can’t forget this crucial piece of the puzzle. The question to ask yourself is, “what sizing best executes my plan.”

The beauty of this process is that it works with any action on any streets. It also allows you to account for contingencies or new information, that might arise through an entire hand or series of hands. Every time action is on you, the DPS process begins anew.

The DPS Process In Action

To illustrate how the DPS process works, I will walk you through a hand step-by-step. Pay close attention to how I think in ranges, not absolute hands, and how the actual actions chosen are all standard lines that are just called upon and used in the process.
——————————————————-
$1/$2 No Limit Hold’em Cash, 4 Players

CO: $275 (137.5 bb) 60/10/22- Passive fish
Hero (BTN): $60 (30 bb)
SB: $746.60 (373.3 bb) 14/9/28, 3% 3-bet- Nit
BB: $262.62 (181.3 bb) 26/22/38, 12% 3-bet- Aggressive Reg
Before we even discuss the actual hand, let’s talk about our general strategy on this table dynamic. First off, we have an excellent seat with a fish to our direct right and a nit to our direct left. This is pretty much the dream seat. Our ongoing plan for this table is to get into as many hands as possible with the fish, steal wide against the nit, and avoid getting into too many battles with the aggro reg. This is an oversimplified assessment of the table, but you get the idea.

Preflop: Hero is BTN with ??
CO folds, Hero raises to $4, SB folds, BB calls $2
The actual cards we hold does not matter since we do not play our cards, we play our range. When it folds to me, I consider the dynamic and realize that I am basically heads up with the Big Blind, since the Nit will only be getting involved with super premium hands. Since the SB is an empty seat, I would normally open super wide, but since I know that the Big Blind realizes I am an aggressive player, I am sure he will defend a ton. Therefore, my plan is to open a range that includes a lot of hands that can either playback against a 3-bet or that flop reasonably well when he flats. So I choose to open about 35% of hands, 22+, Ax, X97. (Shown below) Since I am in a steal position and want to lose the least when I have to fold to a 3-bet, my bet sizing choice is to min-raise. After I open raise, the Small Blind folds and the Big Blind calls.

A pokerstove screenshot of my button opening range for the current table dynamic
My Button Opening Range Based On The Table Dynamic

Flop: ($9) 3♦ 7♠ 7♥ (2 players)
BB checks, Hero bets $5, BB calls $5
The dynamic is exactly as we anticipated, and no new information has come to light. My plan will revolve around our ranges and the board texture. This board does not connect well with either of our ranges and our opponent knows that. However, he also knows that there is not much he can rep here by raising, so we would not expect a check-raise here very often. I would expect him to check-call a reasonable amount but fold often enough to make it worthwhile to bet our entire range. Our opponent would not expect us to ever check here, so I would bet everything from complete air all the way up to quads. For sizing, I choose to bet just over half pot, a not too small and not too big bet, for a couple of reasons. A big bet doesn’t make sense because the board is dry and we don’t need to protect anything. Also, we don’t want to blow our opponent off his air if we have showdown value. Betting tiny also doesn’t make sense, because he will never fold anything to that sizing.. and we want to maintain some fold equity with our weaker hands. So I bet an amount that gives away no information, yet still allows us to get all-in by the river on some run-outs.

Turn: ($19) Q♣ (2 players)
BB checks, Hero checks
The dynamic is the same, we are still heads up with the same player. I would expect the Big Blind to often have a range that includes Ace Highs, King Highs, Overs, small pairs, suited connectors, and of course, monsters. Therefore, in planning, I would not want to continue betting my monster hands, since he will be folding really often on this turn. I also don’t want to bet my showdown value, since this is a really good turn for him to check-raise on since the Queen does connect with a portion of his range and he might choose to rep it at this point. I also don’t want to bluff, since I want to give him the opportunity to put more money in the pot with his own bluff on the river. I would think that after we check back, he will bet every part of his range except SD value. Since river betting range will be weighted heavily toward weak hands, we can call all of our SD value and raise all of our air confidently on the river. If he checks the river, we will bet our nut hands, check back our air (since he almost never check-folds), and bet our stronger SD value hands. No betting is done here, so no need to discuss sizing.

River: ($19) 2♣ (2 players)
BB bets $19, Hero calls $19
Our plan for the river was already established before the card was even dealt, so no need to plan here, unless our opponent had done something out of the ordinary, like bet double pot or shove all-in. As it played out, the opponent bets the river and we call with our SD value hand.

Results: $57 pot ($2.85 rake)
Final Board: 3♦ 7♠ 7♥ Q♣ 4♣
BB showed 4♠ 5♦ and lost (-$28 net)
Hero showed ?? and won $54.15 ($26.15 net)
Our opponent shows a busted gutshot straight draw and we scoop the pot.
——————————————————-
Notice how easy this hand played out once the table dynamic was considered. The planning phase is always just about applying simple logic based on the situation at hand.

Summary

My ultimate goal in this game is to teach people how to win at poker via a simplified and better way of playing. The DPS method works nicely in getting students on the same page by standardizing the way people think about poker hands. By defining the process exactly, it allows students the ability to more efficiently assimilate the information that is being given. In other words, it makes the whole process of learning and playing more easily actionable.

Of course, if you take out the learning aspects, it’s still worthwhile to follow an exact process in poker. The objective is to follow a solid and repeatable process that eliminates a lot of factors that atrophy our win-rate caused by playing in an unorganized fashion. In other words, once you implement this process or a similar process, the quality of all of your actions will then only be limited by your strategic and tactical skill.

 

Video Version

Jim James

Jim is the author of the best-selling book called Automatic Poker. He has been playing professionally for over 10 years and has helped countless people become winning poker players. Using a no-nonsense mathematical and logical approach to beating the games, Jim has helped demystify what it takes to win money in No-Limit Hold'em.

One thought on “A 3 Step Process to Thinking Through a Poker Hand

  1. Thank you for explaining the best way to process your hand in poker. My sister has been thinking about getting into poker since she has been not bad at the gambling games she has played. Maybe she could branch out and find other poker games to play that are similar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Content