There are aspects of poker which make it different than any other card game. It is easy to apply strategy learned from playing backgammon, chess, spades, and other games to your poker approach. Following basic strategy and playing percentages at all times will give you the ability to make money from terrible players, but you will do so very slowly. It is hard to beat the rake using only mathematical evaluation. If you want to become successful, you have to understand and use psychology.
There are two important aspects to using psychology effectively in poker. First, you have to know the playing styles of your opponents. Second, you have to understand the perception other players have of you.
In simple terms, psychology is used to make money by betting and raising to project strength in a hand which otherwise would not win. This involves knowledge about each of your opponent’s playing styles. For instance, if the only other player in the pot with you calls every bet and chases every card, it will do no good to attempt to bluff him or her out of the pot. However, if you know the only other player in the hand with you is very tight and conservative, even a small bet will often chase the player out of the pot if the flop did not help his or her hand.
The other player’s perception of your playing style is also very important to your use of psychology. If you only play every tenth hand and only when you have fantastic cards, who is going to believe you have anything better than a pair when you make a bluff at a terrible flop? Part of using poker psychology is not letting other players get a good read on your playing style. Very loose players need to understand that their bluffs are not going to work all the time because they have no credibility. Very tight players have to realize their bluffs are not going to work because observant players already know what hands they are playing. If you do not mix your style up you will never be able to fool your opponents.
I personally did not start to win until I made a very difficult and important change to my playing style. When I first started playing I only stayed in for the top 20% of starting hands. This is a great way for beginners to learn because you gain tremendous amounts of experience and do not lose much money. Unfortunately, every decent player at each new site had me figured out within a week and started playing me accordingly. By changing my game and playing more hands it is much harder for players to get a read on my style and my bluffs have become more effective.