How to Be Good at Poker

A compassionate guide to focus, confidence, and emotional discipline

Michael Boyle
Jan 29 · 12 min read
Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

I first started playing Texas Hold’em Poker in high school with my friends, and for a long time, I was bad at the game. Really bad. So bad that my friends took to calling me “The Donation,” because the money I put into the pot in each game was guaranteed to go to one of them, not to me.

For a while, I blamed bad luck. My cards were always terrible. And even when they were good, somebody always seemed to have a better hand.

But, like with everything in life, blaming the hand you were dealt only gets you so far.

It was only through changing some key attitudes and learning some basic strategies that I got to the point where I didn’t leave each poker game feeling like I’d been taken advantage of. I’m not a hugely successful player or anything — you’re not going to see me on TV anytime soon — but it’s rare that I leave a game without winning some money.

I’ve played with some amazing poker players and I’ve played with plenty of bad ones, and what separates the two groups are three things: focus, confidence, and discipline.

This article assumes you’re already familiar with the rules and terminology of poker; you’re just not a good player yet. I’ve been in the same place as you, and every tip here is something I had to learn for myself the hard way.

This is a guide to help you get better at the game, but it’ll also give you a chance to work on the mental skills needed to succeed anywhere else. Like with chess, there’s a reason why people use poker metaphors so much when giving advice: so much of what helps you in the game can help you through the rest of your life.


Focus

A lot of doing well in poker comes down to paying attention to your surroundings. You’re at a table with several other people, all of whom are capable of screwing you over at any moment. Be vigilant.

Don’t take any drugs at the poker table

This might seem obvious to some people, but poker is a social game. Depending on the setting, it’s often common for people to be passing a joint around or drinking beer as they play.

I used to take part in this because, well, it was fun. Pot and alcohol eased my nerves and made me less self-conscious and more willing to take risks.

But you know what’s not fun? Losing money. I stopped these habits when I realized how much they made me unfocused, how much they made me lose.

While others at the table seemed to be able to smoke as much as they wanted and still be at the top of their game, I would get drowsy. I’d keep forgetting what my hand was and have to check every ten seconds. Other players would have to remind me when it was my turn to check, call, or raise.

Most of all, when I was buzzed I’d make bad decisions. I’d call when I knew I was beaten, just because there was a tiny chance they might be bluffing. I wouldn’t fold a bad hand because I didn’t feel like waiting until the next hand. I would miss obvious cues from other players that could’ve helped me make the better choice.

It’s as true at the poker table as it is anywhere else: don’t do drugs if you want to make good decisions. And if you must, remember that moderation is key. If you know your tolerance is lower than others, then don’t drink or smoke as much. This is a game that requires you to be alert, so stay alert.

What’s the best drug to take when playing poker? Coffee.

Coffee, or water. Because these games go on for hours, you need to stay awake.

Staying away from depressant drugs (and most drugs in general) is the first step to getting better at the game because it allows you to stay alert, even when the other players aren’t. You can use that focus to play the game actively, even when you’re not in the hand.

Not only that, but coffee and/or water are the best chances you’ve got at staying focused the whole game. Poker tournaments can go on for a long time, and you don’t want to fall into the trap of starting off well, only to grow increasingly tired — to the point where you don’t even care about winning, you just want the game to end.

You can stay vigilant 99% of the time, but all it takes is that 1% of carelessness for you to lose everything. Don’t let yourself get tired. Don’t let yourself slack off.

Always observe the other players

When I say this, I don’t just mean you should observe the people who are currently in the round with you. You should be observing people everywhere, all the time, even when you’ve folded and nobody’s actions will affect you directly. Pay attention to people’s tics, pay attention to their strategies.

Is someone playing conservatively, only ever calling when they’ve got something good? Keep that in mind when they’re calling on you.

Is someone always raising, always straddling, playing as aggressively as possible? Keep that in mind when they’re raising on you.

If someone’s been talking and joking around all game, pay attention to when they suddenly go quiet.

Pay attention to how often people double-check their cards and take note of the context in which they do it.

Any time there’s a change in someone’s behavior, take a mental note. Always try to figure out why they’re switching things up now.

Always keep track of how well everyone’s doing and how many chips they have compared to you. Keeping track of the chips is keeping track of the balance of power, which is vital when deciding whether to call, raise or fold.

A lack of focus is the chief issue that follows us through all walks of life. How many times have you gotten into an argument with someone because one of you wasn’t paying proper attention to the other? How many accidents have you seen that boiled down to somebody not paying attention to their surroundings? Just being able to notice the obvious physical cues is half of what you need to survive in the world. At the poker table, it’s invaluable.

That being said…

Don’t try to be Sherlock Holmes

Try as you might, you are not going to be able to deduct a good player’s intentions by observing all the micro-expressions on their face, especially if you don’t know them too well. Restrained excitement and restrained anxiety look very similar; don’t flatter yourself into thinking you can tell the difference. Sometimes you just can’t tell, and that’s okay.

When you can’t read the player, read the cards again. Ask yourself which hands could beat yours. Consider the likelihood of someone else having those hands. Think back to how they played pre-flop, after the flop, after the turn, and so on. Do their actions make sense for someone who’s got that hand? Think it through.


Confidence

Don’t let opportunities pass you by.

A lot of beginners have a tendency to play it safe, which ironically tends to be the thing that screws them over.

Don’t sit on a good hand

Say, for example, you get pocket aces. Isn’t that a great feeling? But you don’t want to call attention to yourself, so you don’t raise anything pre-flop. You just call whatever’s given you.

The flop comes out and it’s something like a jack and two eights. Your hand is still strong, but all it takes is for somebody else to have an eight and you’ve lost. And because nobody raised before the flop, the odds are much higher that someone with an eight is still in play.

Before the flop came out, you had the best odds out of anyone at the table. But now that the flop’s come out before anyone was forced out of the game, your odds have gone down a lot. The longer the hand is allowed to go on without an ace turning up, the lower your chances of winning become. That’s why it’s important to force as many people out as possible as soon as you can.

Don’t be afraid to bluff

Obviously there are some caveats here. For instance, always keep in mind that good bluffs work better on experienced players than they do on inexperienced players. A new player is more likely to risk a lot of money on a bad hand due to a lack of understanding of their odds. If someone’s new at the game, or if they’ve got a history of making risky calls, don’t try to bluff them.

Also, don’t go into each hand with the specific intention of bluffing. It’s not a good strategy. But when the opportunity presents itself — which it will — you need to have the courage to take a smart, calculated risk.

After all, on the inevitable days where you’re getting nothing but terrible hands, you’re either going to need to be aggressive, or you’ll be forced to watch your chips slowly disappear, one blind/ante at a time, until you have to go all-in and hope for the best. Relying entirely on luck is never a good place to be in.

Take your position into consideration

If you’re the first person who has to fold, call, or raise, it’s not a good idea to bluff right away, because you haven’t had time to observe how anyone else has been playing.

The best position to bluff is near the end of the circle — when you’re the cutoff, the button, or the small blind. For the most part, you’ve had time to see how everyone else has played their hand so far. Did everyone limp into the pot? Then now might be a good place to put in a raise. Has somebody already raised? Then this might not be a good place to bluff.

Don’t forget about semi-bluffs

These are when you’ve got cards that are kind of good, but still not a strong hand. For instance, when you’ve got a straight/flush draw on the flop — you’ll probably lose these hands if all you do is call, but there’s still around a thirty percent chance things will work out for you.

These are less risky than a semi-bluff because your odds of getting saved by the turn and the river are higher. But keep in mind that the goal of the semi-bluff is still to force the other players to fold, not to win through luck.

Be smart about size

A common mistake inexperienced players make is starting off with a big raise, and then — when nothing helpful comes from the flop, or the turn — following that up with a smaller raise. Doing this can be smart if you hit on the flop and you’re confident you’ve got the better hand. But in the more likely scenario where you didn’t hit, this shows weakness. You’re less likely to be seen as a credible threat.

However many chips you bluff the first time, be prepared to risk at least the same amount of chips the second time around, and the third. Unflinching, accelerated pressure is what allows a bluff to work. The moment you back off the pressure, you’ve given yourself away.

I know: it’s scary. You don’t want to put that many chips on the line. But whenever you’re prepared to bluff or semi-bluff, you need to have the confidence to see it through.


Discipline

If gathering up the courage to bluff isn’t a major issue for you, the reason you’re not good at poker may come down to another problem: you can’t control yourself. Through some measure of greed, impatience, or curiosity, you end up taking risks that simply aren’t worth it.

Learn to cut your losses

The sunk-cost fallacy is the biggest killer when it comes to poker. We’ve all been there: someone’s got you beat, and you know they’ve got you beat, but you’ve already put so much money in the pot and you can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, they’re bluffing, and the only way to find out for sure is to call their raise.

They’re not bluffing.

An important caveat to the bluffing section above is that there will often come a time where you realize this was not the right time to bluff. You know they’ve got a good hand — maybe even the best hand possible — and no raise is high enough to get them to fold.

It’s tempting to cling to the chips you already put into the pot, but don’t. They’re already gone. Accept it. Throwing more away doesn’t help you at all.

Don’t call on every hand

When you’re playing at a table of six, seven, eight, nine-plus people, you should be folding most of your hands straight away. In fact, you should be folding about a fifth of your hands pre-flop. The earlier position you’re in, the selective you should be. Replay Poker has a handy guide:

Source: Replay Poker

Keep in mind that as the amount of players starts to dwindle, you can get away with being more lenient. But in the beginning, your odds of having the best hand are around one-in-nine each time, so play it smart: don’t play those odds unless you’ve got a strong hand, or if you’re in a late position and nobody’s raised yet.

Don’t try to bluff multiple people at a time

If you pre-raise and two or more people call, the odds that one of them hit in the flop are pretty big. Semi-bluffing might work here, but if you didn’t hit at all? Not a smart risk to take. Be prepared to either check or fold.

Don’t bluff when short-stacked

The whole point of bluffing is to intimidate the other players into folding, and nobody finds a small stack intimidating. If you don’t have enough chips to cover about ten big blinds, you’re better off waiting until you’ve got a hand that’s actually good.

Ignore impatience

It’s frustrating when you get a string of bad hands and are forced to fold again and again. But learning to ignore that frustration is the key to avoiding wasteful, reckless betting.

Don’t get mad if a fold turns out to be the wrong decision

You get a seven-two off-suit and you smartly fold. Then the flop comes out with something ridiculous like seven-seven-seven. You would’ve had a four of a kind, and nobody would’ve seen it coming.

You still made the right decision.

Alright, maybe you didn’t make the right decision in that specific moment, but there was no way you could’ve known that would happen. It’s an extremely unlikely event, and you can’t count on it.

The most likely scenario would’ve been that you didn’t hit on the flop. Or even if you did, it would’ve been a single pair, and the odds of someone else having a higher pair than a seven or a two are too high for you to gamble on.

Calling with a bad hand is so unwise because it allows you to get strung along. Even if you hit something, you’re still at a disadvantage, because the people who join the pot with a stronger hand need a lot less luck than you to win.

Don’t give yourself away

Remember back in the “focus” section where I gave you a list of things to look out for in other players? If the other players are worth their salt, they’ll be doing the exact same thing to you. Which is why it’s important not to do any of those things I mentioned yourself. In particular, make sure to:

  • Memorize your hands. This way when you get a hit, you won’t have to look at your hand again to double-check. People can figure out a lot from that.
  • If you’re a conservative player, don’t suddenly start playing aggressive the moment you get a good hand. I used to do this a lot; I’d only check or call, and then I’d get an amazing hit on the flop and I’d raise. Sure enough, everyone knew exactly what I had and folded accordingly. In cases like those, it would’ve been better to wait for someone else to raise, and call like I would in a regular hand. Only after the river would I try to put in as much money as I think anyone would go for.
  • Don’t talk so much. Not while you’re still in the round, at least. The more you talk the more potential information you give away, knowingly or not.

And finally:

If you screw up, let it go

You’re human, and every once in a while you’re going to fail to follow some of this advice. And even if you follow this advice, you’re still going to have painful losses every once in a while. Poker gives and poker takes, and sometimes no amount of skill is enough when another player gets that one-in-a-million hand.

Emotional discipline is key. No matter how many chips you lost, no matter how unlucky that round was, you can’t let yourself get angry, or bitter, or desperate.

Stay focused. Stay confident. Stay disciplined. Start every new hand with a blank slate.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Michael Boyle

Written by

Freelance writer/editor living in upstate New York. Looking for other writers to follow. Find me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mboyle98

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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