A Poker Winner’s Checklist

By Tom "TIME" Leonard

Information, which is the cornerstone of knowledge, is only of value if put to good use. You should always be reviewing a checklist to make sure you are putting your poker knowledge to good use. That is what winning poker players do. It is also how you will know that you’re playing your “A” game as you will be monitoring it. Let’s review several key elements of a poker winner’s checklist, starting with the most critical one – discipline.


Knowing how to play poker well is not the same as playing poker well. The difference between the two is discipline. You need to exercise discipline to put your knowledge of poker to good use. If you’ve invested the time and effort to acquire the knowledge of how to play poker well, it would be a travesty to play poorly just because you have trouble exercising the proper discipline. In fact, truth be known, a large portion of poker players do just that – know how to play well but don’t. That is actually good news for those of us that exercise discipline and do both – know how to play poker well and do just that!

If you find yourself drifting off the straight and narrow relative to discipline, here are a couple of crutches you might consider to aid your focus. Imagine that your coach or backer is looking over your shoulder and evaluating your play. Alternatively, imagine that you are participating in an event that will be shown on television with professional commentators critiquing your play and all your friends and foes, for that matter, will be watching. The criteria which will gain you either praise or scorn will be the quality of your decisions not how much you win or lose.

If an occasional lack of discipline resonates in your poker game and this type of mental ruse can help – then by all means use it. I think about this focus to discipline especially while experiencing a dry spell of playable hands and begin to get the itch to jump in the fray with marginal holdings. It’s the quality of your decisions that matter and it takes discipline to keep that quality on a winning level.


How I would define focus is keeping your head in the game. Focus refers to the work involved in watching hands that you are not involved in and tracking your opponents’ tendencies. It’s the constant observation of everything going on around you when you play poker. Many players work hard acquiring a good knowledge of poker through playing experience and study, but then reach a plateau and succumb to the mistake of putting their game on auto pilot. You must always remind yourself that knowing how to play poker well is only half the battle since every group of players present different challenges and if you’re not paying attention you won’t be able to exploit their unique weaknesses or guard yourself against your more savvy foes.

Create a Plan

Once you’ve settled into a game and have had the opportunity to observe your opponents’ tendencies and evaluate the tempo and texture (looseness, tightness, experience level, etc.) of the game begin to formulate a plan to best serve your objective of winning. A well worn aphorism relating to planning but well worth repeating is – people don’t plan to fail, but many fail to plan. Have a plan based upon your observations and implement it. Realize that your plan needs to be fluid as changing factors dictate but you will be well served to create a plan.

Creating a plan does not need to be overly complicated. An example might include; this game seems extremely tight so I’ll open my game up some and try to take advantage of a timid table or particular player. The flip side of the first example may be the observation of a loose “ram and jam fest” which might suggest tightening up as a plan. Determining the sophistication level of your opponents will help you develop an appropriate plan. Should you be playing ABC poker or using more advanced poker plays?

The key here is to strive to develop a plan versus just trying to play your best game. These two things are not mutually exclusive but should complement each other. Of course you should play your best game but first you need to determine what game that should be based upon the environment in which you find yourself. Forcing yourself to create a plan is just another path to excelling and that’s a good thing!

Each time you engage in battle on the green felt remind yourself to run down your winner’s checklist to make sure you are giving yourself the best opportunity to win. You just might notice a nice surprise in that developing a commitment to embrace discipline, focus and the creation of plans will not only serve you well at the poker table but also in life.

Putting it All Together

There are many different aspects that contribute to superior poker play. As a brief re-cap allow me to list several for your review.

While this list is not intended to be all inclusive, it does highlight many of the critical elements that are paramount to success on the green felt.

If one were to poll a group of skilled poker players as to which attribute of poker was the most essential to winning play, I would guess that several different answers would come forth. You might think that this would be a question on which skilled poker players would be in consensus. Why wouldn’t they agree? One skilled, winning poker player might identify hand reading ability as the most critical skill for success. That may be the result of his honing of that skill and realizing how well it has served him. Another poker player might offer up discipline as the most critical element in his opinion. In this case, maybe that player has a really strong grasp of most of the other elements but realizes that on occasion he gets out of line and that gambling aspect of his game has not served him well.

If I were able to ask you what you believed to be the single most critical element – what would you answer? More importantly, why would you have chosen that particular element? Would it be because you excel at it and know how much it adds to your game or would it be that it needs additional honing and you realize how much it hurts your game and therefore your results?

This bit of soul searching can lead us into what I believe is the next step in your ongoing poker education. That next step is an honest evaluation of your game and what you believe to be your strengths as well as your weaknesses, or more politely stated, your developmental needs.

By Tom "TIME" Leonard

Tom has been writing about poker since 1994 and has played across the USA for over 40 years, playing every game in almost every card room in Atlantic City, California and Las Vegas.