A group of my fellow pros and I recently completed a tour of Germany where we got to spend a lot of time interacting with a whole new generation of players from around the country. What I noticed along the way – aside from the incredible enthusiasm for the game – is that many of these players are very technically sound, but lack the real-life game experience to use their knowledge creatively.
To me, these players are like artists who learn by copying the works of past masters. They've studied the styles and understand the concepts, but their games lack originality. It's paint-by-numbers poker.
For beginning players, reading poker books and strategy articles provide a great foundation for learning the basics of the game. These materials teach the importance of strong starting hands, position, and aggression. But, as Phil Ivey recently pointed out, relying too much on other's people advice can actually stunt the growth of your game.
One of the most important pieces of advice I offer to new players is this; mix things up. There's more than one way to become a winning player and it's up to you to find the style – or combination of styles – that works best for you. Look at some of the game's best known tournament pros like Gus Hansen, Gavin Smith, and Erick Lindgren. Each of these players is a master of mixing up their games and of playing “against the grain” of the competition.
If you're normally a tight player, go a little bit crazy and loosen up for a while. You might be very surprised at the results you get. The same goes for those of you who usually play a very aggressive style. Rein it in at times and try out a tighter style of play. By switching gears like this, you'll prevent your opponents from easily determining how you play and you'll be able to take advantage of opponents who don't make adjustments to their games. Sitting in a rock garden? Take advantage of your tight opponents by playing more hands. Surrounded by maniacs? Tighten up and pick off their bluffs by playing more premium hands.
Knowing when – and how – to make these changes comes with experience, so don't be afraid to experiment, especially online. It's very easy to sit down at a low-limit table – or even a play money table if you're more comfortable with that – and try out some new tactics. Experiment with different starting hands, not just the ones recommended by the books. Try playing a hand like 8-6 suited from early position and see what happens. You might not win the pot, but it's an experience you can learn from and draw on later in your poker career.
Another great way for players to start mixing up their game, especially newer ones who play No-Limit Hold 'em almost exclusively, is to try out some of the other forms of poker out there. Play some Limit Hold 'em, Pot-Limit Omaha, Stud, and Razz. Doing this will likely give you a fresh perspective on No-Limit Hold 'em and open up your mind to some new ways to approach the game.
Its one thing to read a book where the information presented is based on someone else's experience. It's entirely another to have that experience for yourself. Get online and experiment. Try different plays and different games and see how mixing things up can help make you a more successful poker player in the long run.