As much as we’d all like to believe that we’re the best player at any poker game we sit down in, the truth of the matter is that we probably aren’t. Dealing with better players is a skill that too many poker players tend to overlook, even though it’s relatively easy skill to develop – not to mention the fact that developing said skill will save you a lot of money and frustration. The common advice I see poker writers give to players who are wondering how to handle superior opponents is simple – get up and leave. I’ll admit, that’s not a bad strategy, but it’s really only a great strategy if the entire table is better than you are. Games like that should certainly be avoided at all costs, unless you just enjoy losing for some reason or another. However, the ‘get up and go’ advice for handling quality players isn’t nearly as sage when you’re sitting at a table which is basically a fish farm with a shark or two hiding in the reeds. In these cases – where the game is great in seven spots and tough in two – leaving means missing an opportunity. The other problem with such advice is that it assumes you have another game you can go and play – and if you’re playing a no limit holdem tournament or simply in an area that doesn’t have a broad game selection, you might not be able to up and leave. This leads us to a simple conclusion – rather than just abandoning games with good players seated in them, we need to develop a set of tactics for dealing with these opponents. Obviously, our long term goal is to become better than these players through practice and study of poker strategy, but that will probably take awhile, and require some poker software and training tools. In the meantime, here are some basic suggestions for handling those opponents with more skill and experience than you posses:

Strategy One: Avoid them

Now I’m aware that earlier in this article I criticized a strategy that might sound similar to this one, but when I say avoid them, I don’t mean that you should avoid the game – I mean that you should avoid the good players in the game. The fact of the matter is there are easier ways to make money in a game than going head to head with the toughest players at the table. Let other people battle the strong players. Your job is to make money in the game, not to convince everyone in the room that you’re the kill of the hill. Essentially, this strategy asks you to take your ego out of the game and realize that there’s absolutely no shame in walking away from a fight you can’t win – especially when there are several other fights where you have a clear advantage waiting just around the corner. If it helps, think of the good player as just another cost in the game: you have to pay rake, you have to tip waitresses, and you have to lose a couple of pots you might win against a weaker opponent.

Strategy Two: Use them as a tool

While superior players represent a potential drag on your bottom line, your experience with them doesn’t have to be a complete loss. Having a great player at the table is something you can actually use to your advantage, if you play your cards right (apologies for the pun). Consider a few possibilities: First, just watching how good players handle certain situations can be a great way for you to get ideas about how to improve your game. Mimicking a great player certainly isn’t the worst way in the world to learn how to play good poker. Second, when you’re in a hand along with a good player, you’ll find that all of the players in between you and the good player will tend to play in a far more straightforward fashion – especially when you’re in early position and there are players to act in between you and the quality opponent. Finally, you can ride the wake of the good player – as she or he is setting up opponents and frustrating them, you can take advantage of all of the good player’s work and exploit opponents who have already been softened up.

Strategy Three: Confront them head on

This is obviously the riskiest strategy of all, but there are a few possible advantages of taking the fight right to a more skilled opponent. For starters, there’s the fact that these confrontations can be valuable learning experiences. When you get in a lot of confrontations with good players, you start to develop a strong lexicon for identifying skilled players and their patterns. Not only can you gain lessons from this for your own game, but it will also help you to more rapidly identify good players in foreign situations (tournaments, playing at new rooms, shorthanded no limit hold’em, etc). Also, you might find that selectively confronting the skilled player will make them leave you alone. Most good players are looking for the easiest way to earn the most money, and a target that shoots back simply isn’t as appealing as one that gives up without a fight. Finally, if you start battling the head honcho at almost any table, you’ll find that the rest of the table will revert to the most unimaginative style of poker possible, meaning that while you might lose a pot or two to the good player, you’ll be able to make up most, if not all, of your losses by running over the weaker players who have tightened up.

Good players are a fact of poker life. No matter how skilled you become, there will always be someone at the next table, on the waiting list or in the card room just across the state line who is better than you. You can live in denial of this fact, or you can suck it up and figure out ways to make the best of it. I don’t have to tell you which choice I think a good player would make.