Five Of The Best Skills In Poker That Are The Most Difficult To Master

By Ian John
May 3, 2023

When you start playing poker, it may be your dream to learn to play the game well, or at least profitably some of the time.

Once you have mastered that, you then want to play at a higher level, against better, more experienced players to help you develop the all-round, nuanced and tough-to-read game that will make you a real shark at the table.

But for some, the most elite players, they take their skills at poker to a level beyond that, mastering the most difficult of all the poker arts to the point where their play is so far advanced of most players, that it is barely believable.

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Of course, if you cast a net over the top players in the world, all of these players have elements of this in their game, but what exactly are these skills that help these players seemingly make the right call, at the right time, time and time again, even if poker logic or the cards dictate they should make a different call?

In this article, we are going to look at what these skills are and how they are developed over time.

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So what are the key skills that the elite poker players have that, in my view at least, mark them as a different level to the standard poker player?

And I am willing to bet that what you may think is the most important skill is very different to what I believe the ultimate skill is in the game of poker!

5 Poker Skills That Are The Most Difficult To Master

  1. Knowing When To Fold A Good Or Even Great Hand

What separates the greatest poker players from the rest? For me, it is not about how much money that they have won in their careers. It is about how much they have not lost by being able to fold a good or great hand when they are up against a player holding the nuts or the strongest hand.

The difficulty with this skill is that it is counter-intuitive to your general poker thoughts. A strong hand generally means you should be aggressive, call or re-raise raises and even go all-in if you think you have won the hand.

There are times though when you could be sat with a full house of three Aces and two Kings on the board but someone has landed quad sixes on the flop, turn and river.

For the average player, it is almost impossible to think their Full House of Aces full of kings can be beaten here, but the top players will be aware that with two sixes alongside the aces and kings, the possibility of quads exists, and if someone is not afraid to match your bet, or raise it, knowing you likely have a full house, then you could be in trouble.

This is a very simple example, but it does show that the real skill at the highest level is when a top player knows when to fold what is a great hand. When you see that, you know you are playing someone who has exceptional skills. Such as Daniel Negreanu.

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Difficulty Level – 5/5 – Arguably the toughest of all poker skills to acquire as it tends to go against all your basic intuitions for the game, which is to fold from what could be a position of dominance.

  • Knowing When To Play Or Fold A Middling Hand Out Of Position

Poker is more difficult when you are out of position at the table in the betting, as you have to bet before the majority of other players at the table, so the ability to play weaker hands from this position can be a very difficult skill to master.

It is easy to underestimate how much of a disadvantage playing out of position is, even if you hit a pocket pair, such as pair of sevens or eights. The simple fact that others get to see how you bet and react before they make their play, gives them a notable advantage.

Of course, playing stronger hands from out of position is easier, but when you play middling hands, if you have players betting after you that remain in the hand, then you need to connect with a card from those revealed in the flop, turn or river.

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Difficulty Level – 4.5/5 – The good news is that with the more experience you get playing poker, the better you become at being able to play a middling hand out of position at the table. Experience is your best teacher here and it only takes a few heavy losses from trying to force through a win with this type of hand against someone holding a much stronger one for you to start heeding those lessons!

  • Underrepresenting A Strong Hand Plausibly

Holding a strong hand at the table, or even the nuts, is the position most players love to find themselves in, but it is a position which can prove to be tricky to play for novice players who tend to throw in either too few, or too many chips, especially pre-flop.

Too few chips and you have the likelihood of a number of players limping in who could then hit something on the Flop, Turn or River to put you behind.

Throw in too many chips and you’ll likely see a domino effect of folds and you have in effect made minimum profit from your strong position.

What you want in this scenario is to increase the pot size with the first three rounds of betting, before making your move in the fourth and final round of betting. Doing that though is not easy against good players.

Small raises and even checks can make your opponent’s think your hand is not as strong as it is, and that is what you want to entice bets from them so they get their cash into the pot. Once money is in the pot, then you can make your big bet and hope that you are called to land a big payday.

Difficulty Level – 4/5 – Don’t be fooled into thinking if you hold the nuts, you can just make minimum bets or raises or calls in order to tempt your other players into the pot so you can take their cash. There is an art to playing a strong hand well enough to ensure that you maximise how much you win from your position of strength and that can take years to master.

  • Being Able To Recognise And Call A Well-Executed Bluff

The art of calling a bluff is one of the most satisfying aspects of poker, when someone has tried to pull the wool over your eyes but you didn’t fall for it. However, at a basic level, bluffs are almost ad-hoc, far too frequently used and often highly implausible which makes it possible for a player with a modicum of skill to call them.

At the highest levels though, bluffs are generally rarer, there can often be much more on the line and the knowledge you are playing against a player who is very strong, and who rarely bluffs makes calling the bluff much more difficult.

Forget the Hollywood film stories of obvious tells when someone is bluffing, the reality is you’ll need to have watched a player, understood how they play a hand, what range of hands they tend to play, how they bet, when they bet and how much they bet, to fully get a grasp of their current situation and the likelihood that they are bluffing.

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Then you need to factor in how probable it is your hand will beat them, and any other players remaining in the hand. You may be sure the fish is bluffing, but if the shark is still in the hand and you put them on a better hand than you, there’s no point trying to call the bluff.

Calling bluffs at a high level is tricky, which is why they work well for top level players and it is their infrequency and plausibility that makes them so difficult to detect.

Difficulty Level – 4/5 – It is hugely satisfying to call a bluff, but sometimes novice players don’t hide their bluff’s particularly well, making it easy to call. When you start playing against experienced and talented players, recognising when they bluff is much more difficult, but it is one that can pay rich rewards if you can do it in terms of pot size, and also in terms of demoralising your opponent who probably won’t be in a hurry to try and bluff you again.

  • Representing A Very Strong Hand, When You Hold Nothing At All – Bluffing

The flip side of the bluff call is when you want to make a bluff yourself to try and win a hand. Bluffing is a risky strategy but also one of the most appealing ones in poker. The fact that you don’t have to have the best hand to win is what makes poker such an intriguing game.

Novice players always tend to over-estimate how successful bluffs will be and they tend to use them far too frequently too. You quickly learn that when you make a bluff, you have to act plausibly, bet and play as if you have a much stronger hand, and also target the right player at the right time with the bluff.

Sure, it may be tempting to double-through the chip leader with a well-timed bluff, but they are likely to have the chip capital to call your bluff and if you have not made your move convincing, you could be in a whole world of trouble.

The skill to bluffing is making your move plausible enough so that the other players at the table will put you on the hand you want them to think you have.

And of course, if your bluff wins, then all well and good, but if your bluff fails, then it can be much more prudent to fold, rather than re-bluff in the hope that the other player will fold in the face of your next raise.

Difficulty Level – 4/5 – Yes, anyone can bluff and sometimes that bluff will win you a hand but often it is the perception and reaction of novice players making an incorrect assumption or call that will see you land the win. Landing a bluff against the best players not only takes skill, but nerve, a lot of money, confidence and an ability to read the kind of hand your opponent has.

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