Improve your game by getting the simple things right.
I’ve got a lot of poker experience over a lot of years. I’ve played in many ‘home games.’ I’ve played online. I’ve played in swanky London casinos and I’ve played in Vegas. I’m not a professional, but my overall record is pretty good and it’s reasonable to say that I am ‘of a professional standard.’ Perhaps just as importantly, however, I’ve also taught a lot of people how to play the game and guided them from clueless beginners to competent players.
And if you’re a casual poker player playing in a typical home game, looking to improve your game, you might well find this article helpful. It’s not about advanced strategies. It’s about the simple stuff that is often overlooked. I’ve met many players who’ve read one or more advanced strategy guides by famous professional poker players, but who don’t understand the basics as well as they think they do.
It’s probably true that most home games are social occasions, played for small stakes, in which the beers are as important as the cards. But winning feels so good! So here are a few tips that might help:
1. Never forget that poker is a game of skill.
For those people who say that poker is mainly a game of luck, they should note that whilst the cards are random, and so which cards you receive in a particular hand is down to luck, we all get roughly the same cards in the long run, so the luck evens itself out. The skills of poker, however, are not so evenly distributed.
Fundamentally, poker is a competition in decision-making. The successful poker player combines his (or her) knowledge of probabilities with his understanding of psychology to help him make consistently accurate judgements and consistently logical decisions. He then adds a little acting and other deception techniques to make it difficult for his opponents to make their own decisions. These skills are what determine his profits in the long-run — not luck.
2. Focus on the basics.
The simplest winning poker strategy is to try to win as much as possible when you have the best hand and lose as little as possible when you don’t have the best hand. Yes, there will be some hands you can take down with a bluff, but it is your ability to make consistently good judgements about when you do and do not have the best hand that is the foundation of a profitable poker game.
3. Learn how to fold.
One of the most important things the average player in the average home game could do to drastically improve their game, is to learn to fold more often — sometimes a lot more often — at the very start of the hand.
If there are ten players at the table, then, on average, you’ll only start with the best hand one time in ten hands. You may well want to play this hand. You’re also forced to enter the pot when you are in the blinds. Most of the rest of the hands, however, you should probably fold.
The key here is to take a good look at yourself: Do you actually know how many pots out of ten you are voluntarily paying into? Chances are many players will be entering into four, five, six or even more. It may be true that every hand has got possibilities, but in most cases, they are little more than a pipe dream. Try to be realistic about how often that miracle flop is actually going to turn up.
4. Get in and win or get out. Don’t loiter without intent.
You only really want to be in a poker hand when you are going to be there at the end, winning the pot. This is the ideal scenario. Failing that, the next best thing is to fold your hand at the earliest opportunity. But it’s the hands in between those two extremes that are often the ones in which people lose most of their money.
5. Don’t chase unlikely draws.
A lot of players spend a lot of their time chasing miracles. If you’ve got four of a suit and are going for a flush, remember that it will only come up on the next card about a fifth of the time. In other words; it’s unlikely. And yet many players will frequently chase even more unlikely draws. Occasionally, the right cards will turn up — but, in the long run, chasing those rainbows will cost a fortune for very little reward.
6. Don’t be a calling station.
A calling station is a poker player who calls an awful lot of bets and is reluctant to ever fold, but who rarely makes any bets or raises of his own. A calling station is the ideal poker opponent since, when you have the best hand, they will call you with a worse one, and when they have the best hand, they don’t charge you to outdraw them.
Betting and raising enables a successful player to make the most out of his good hands and also enables him to take down some pots with bluffs. On the other hand, folding helps him reduce the losses on his losing hands. But when a player just calls, he doesn’t usually make the most of his good hands and loses more than he should on his poor hands. Consequently, you might well improve your game by increasing the frequency with which you bet, raise or fold and cutting back on the number of times you just call.
7. Don’t be scared of making a decision.
Poker is a game of decisions, but where a lot of players come unstuck is that they dither; they put off making decisions and waste a lot of money in the meantime. Facing questions like “Do I have the best hand?” they answer to themselves, “I don’t know — but perhaps I’ll have a better idea after another card!” They leak money into the pot because they refuse to make a decision on where they think they stand.
Consequently, when they do have the best hand, they don’t make as much out of it as they should, and when they have a losing hand, they call instead of making the decision to fold. What you end up with is a classic calling station. They can’t decide whether they really want to be in the hand or not.
Look at your cards, assess the situation, make a judgement and act. Your judgements won’t always be correct, but you still need to make them. The worst thing to do is to dither whilst more decisive players effectively make your decisions for you.
8. Don’t be fooled by what you see on the TV.
Watch poker on TV and you can easily get the wrong impression of how people play. For a start, you often see edited highlights. They don’t bother showing you all the hands when the star player folded straightaway. Instead, they concentrate on the times when monster hands collide, when people play big with very marginal hands and when players run outrageous bluffs. But if you try to play like that the whole time, you can lose a lot of money.
9. Try and have some sort of clue about probabilities.
You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to be good at poker. Fortunately, most important poker probabilities can be learnt or estimated. But, whatever you do, don’t be completely ignorant about probability or underestimate its importance.
Very briefly: The top hands in Hold ’Em are often considered to be AA, KK, QQ, JJ, AK and TT (Ten,Ten). You will, on average, get one of these hands approximately once in every 29 hands.
If you start with a pair, you will get three-of-a-kind on the flop nearly 11% of the time. If you start without a pair, the flop will pair one of your hole cards about 27% of the time.
On the turn and river, it’s best to think about ‘outs.’ An ‘out’ is a single card that you think will give you the winning hand. And all you need to do is just multiply the number of outs you have by two and you get a rough percentage estimate for how likely it is to make your hand. So, if you need a Jack to complete your straight and there are 4 Jacks potentially still in the pack, you have 4 ‘outs’ and an 8% chance (approximately) of getting your straight on the next card.
If you go all-in pre-flop, a pair is usually a big favourite against two lower cards, but only a slight favourite against two higher cards.
10. Don’t ignore pot odds.
The concept of pot odds is simply about comparing risk with reward. ‘Pot odds’ refers to the relationship between the amount of money already in the pot and the amount you have to bet to stay in the hand. If there is $10 in the pot and you have to bet $1 to stay in the hand, then the pot odds are ’10 to 1.’ In other words, you are betting $1 in order to try to win the $10 that is already in the pot.
To be able to justify drawing to a hand, your pot odds should usually be greater than your drawing odds. For example; if you’re drawing one card for a flush, your drawing odds are about 4 to 1. If you’re being offered 10 to 1 pot odds, that’s good. But if you’re only getting pot odds of 2 to 1, you probably can’t justify paying to draw to that flush, because, mathematically, it’s a losing proposition. A lot of players, however, will pay to draw to straights and flushes when the pot odds just don’t justify it.
11. Control the pot odds.
In poker, you want your opponents to make mistakes. Therefore, you should be giving them plenty of opportunities to make those mistakes. An easy way to do this is to control the pot odds they face. You have to consistently give your opponents the ‘wrong’ pot odds to draw the winning hand.
For example, if there is $10 in the pot already and you bet $10, you are giving your single opponent pot odds of 2 to 1. This gives him the wrong pot odds to draw to his flush. If he draws anyway, that’s a loss-making move for him in the long run. But if you only bet $2, you’re making his flush draw profitable.
So; every time you make a bet, you should be thinking about what drawing odds your opponents are likely to have and then working out how large a bet you have to make to ensure the pot odds they face are lower than their drawing odds. This is not an advanced strategy. You should be doing this for every bet you make.
12. Don’t overload on alcohol or tobacco.
It’s got to be said. Social poker games usually involve a few beers, but it’s fairly obvious that excessive alcohol will not help your poker game. And if you keep nipping outside for a smoke — especially during a tournament — you could be missing out on some of your best hands of the evening.
13. Bluffing is about recognising a good opportunity.
When you bluff, you should have a good reason for believing that a bluff will be profitable in the particular circumstances you find yourself in. Try to avoid doing what a lot of people do — which is to bluff mainly out of desperation, when they can’t see any other way to win the hand.
Good bluffing is also about telling a convincing story by representing a specific hand. Try to ensure your actions throughout the hand are consistent with having those particular cards.
And if you think a bluff is a good idea, be decisive; make a large enough bet to do the job. Don’t just feebly stab at the pot because you’re not really sure what to do.
14. Don’t over-rate aggression.
Lots of poker ‘experts’ go on and on about how ‘essential’ it is to be aggressive — betting frequently and heavily in marginal circumstances. If you play regularly against highly-skilled players, that might be a good strategy — but playing hyper-aggressively against a typical home game poker player is often either unnecessary or totally counter-productive. It may simply mean you are taking unnecessary risks when, given a little patience, the money is there to be had for almost no risk at all.
15. Have some situational awareness.
Many players rely far too heavily on what cards they have in their hand — but a hand of poker is made up of far more than just what cards you have. It’s about the entire situation in which you find yourself: What position are you in? How many people have entered the hand already? Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s short-stacked? Where are the most aggressive players sitting? It isn’t all about the cards.
16. Don’t forget that your opponents have cards too.
I can only hope that this seems obvious, but the fact is that there are many players who get so excited about their own cards, that they sometimes entirely forget to think about what other players might have. As far as they are concerned, trips is such an amazing hand that they can forget about what anybody else has got. And then the other guy has a straight!
17. Read the board and note the nuts.
In order to work out what your opponents might have, the first step is to work out what it is possible for them to have. So, you look at the cards on the board and work out what the nuts are. ‘The nuts’ is the best hand it is possible to have at that point in the hand.
Lots of players not only don’t know what the nuts are at all times, but, if you asked them to work it out, they’d often come up with the wrong answer. Give me strength! Wouldn’t these people be more suited to playing bingo?
18. Take note of position.
There is a poker saying that the three most important things to remember when you play Texas Hold ’Em are position, position and position. ‘Position’ refers to the order in which players bet in each betting round.
A special feature of Hold ’Em (and Omaha) is that your betting position remains pretty much the same throughout the hand. And the later your position, the more information you will have about your opponents when your turn comes (as most of them will already have had their turn to act) and the less likely it is that you will be raised by someone acting after you. You’ll also have a better chance of being able to steal the pot when no-one has a decent hand.
What this basically means is that whilst you can ‘limp in’ in late position with only a moderate hand, you want to be much more selective in early position. Yet what happens in many home games is that some players frequently call in early position with weak hands and often ignore the importance of position altogether.
19. Plan ahead.
Many players just think of each individual bet or call they make in isolation. However, before you even place a bet, you ought to be thinking about what might happen next: If someone calls my bet, what does that mean? What will I do if they raise me? If I’m called, will I bet again on the next street? Only then can you make a reasonable assessment of whether your original bet is likely to be a good move in the first place.
Good players have a plan for the entire hand, or at least for the main possibilities of what might happen and what cards might come up. It’s all about trying to play each hand in a joined-up way and trying to see the possible pitfalls ahead.
20. Understand ‘the river principle.’
Usually, unless you are bluffing, the purpose of betting on the river is to entice a call from someone with a hand that isn’t as good as your own. A common mistake, however, is for players with a moderate hand to bet such a large amount that they are only ever going to be called by a hand that beats them.
The trouble is there’s no profit to be made from making such a bet. If your opponents can’t beat your hand, they fold and you don’t make any more money out of them. If they call you, it’s because they’ve beaten you, and so your bet has increased your losses. It is worth thinking through this mistake carefully, because it is amazing how often it is made.
21. Adapt to survive.
There’s no standard set of tactics that will win in any poker game. There is no single ‘correct way’ to play a hand — even though some ‘experts’ often talk as if there is.
When ‘experts’ talk about the ‘correct play,’ they are often talking about a good way of playing a hand when you are playing against top-class players. But the thing is; you’re not! You’re probably playing against a bunch of inexperienced amateurs, many of whom like a bit of a gamble and a bit too much to drink. Tactics that might work against a decent player may be completely useless against these amateurs. Perhaps they should fold to your bluff, but they’ll often just call anyway. So don’t stick to the supposedly ‘correct’ way to play when it clearly won’t work.
Your overall style of play ought to be flexible. You may have a particular preference for playing aggressively or very conservatively, but the tactics that work best will depend on the particular situation you find yourself in. Don’t get stuck with one particular style of play.
A good poker player looks at his opponents and picks a style of play that will give him an advantage over those particular players on that particular day and will be ready to adjust his style from one hand to the next, depending on the precise situation. He is simply identifying the weaknesses of his opponents and choosing tactics that will exploit those particular weaknesses. The saying is, “Don’t play your cards. Play your opponents!”
22. Note that failing to win money is every bit as bad as losing it.
People tend to notice when they lose a lot of money in a hand, but they often fail to notice when they play poorly in a hand they win and consequently fail to win as much as they should have done. A common error is when a player fails to raise on the end when they obviously have the best hand. Often, they are just so excited about winning the hand and so eager to rake in the pot, they seem to entirely forget that they have the option of raising.
23. Mind your kicker.
If you play Ace-Five and hit an ace on the flop, you’ve got top pair, but that ‘kicker’ (your 5) is weak. You’re all too likely to lose out to someone who has also hit top pair, but who has a much better kicker than you. The trouble is that you have still hit top pair, so you may be reluctant to let that hand go.
Often, it would have been better to have let that hand go pre-flop. After all, what is it you expect to hit? Hitting the 5 probably isn’t much good and hitting the ace may well just get you into trouble.
24. Build your poker skills on a wide base.
Texas Hold ’Em is a fine game, but it so dominates the poker world that many players play nothing else. This is less than ideal, because players who base their poker skills on a wide base of different poker games, are usually the most flexible players who can most easily adapt their strategies to different circumstances. They are also likely to be better-versed in the general principles of poker and better able to apply those broad principles to any poker game they take part in.
If, on the other hand, you only ever play Texas Hold ’Em, you may well become tempted to learn the game by simply imitating others and copying the way they act in the common situations that crop up time and again when you restrict yourself to a single form of poker. It’s far better, however, to build your game on the foundation of a thorough ‘first-principles’ approach.
25. In tournaments, pay special attention to the size of the blinds.
In poker tournaments, the blinds keep on going up as the tournament progresses. And the size of the blinds in relation to the size of your stack should have a considerable influence on how you should be playing your hands.
If you get ‘short-stacked’ and can only afford a few more blinds, you should be prepared to be very aggressive and make a move to steal the blinds, if an opportunity presents itself. Those blinds are very valuable to you.
If you just sit around waiting for a premium hand, by the time it turns up, you may not have a big enough stack to defend your hand against a draw. And even if you do win, it may be too late to make much difference. And if you wait till you are desperate to make a move, you cut down your options. If, for example, you intend to bluff, you want to bluff while you still have a big enough stack to scare people away.
26. Don’t throw good money after bad.
Big losses at the poker table often result from this age-old error. It occurs when a player refuses to recognise he’s obviously going to lose and throws away good money in a desperate attempt to retrieve the ‘bad money’ he’s already put into the pot.
To avoid this error, the important thing is not to worry about the money you’ve already put into a pot. It isn’t yours anymore. Having more money in a pot may improve your pot odds, but it doesn’t matter who put the money there. If you made a mistake when you called a bet, admit to your mistake and don’t compound the error by throwing more money away.
The proverb also applies to a game as a whole. Many players, for example, having been outplayed in a poker game, start to stake more and more money in a desperate attempt to win their money back — throwing good money after bad. That’s usually how they end up losing a lot more than they bargained for.
27. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half-hour at the table, ….it’s you!’
Many players have an exaggerated idea of their own poker skills. The worst players in a game often don’t believe they are the worst. But, if you are not amongst the worst players in the game, you should be able to identify other players making clear errors. And if you can’t do that, then perhaps you are the worst player in the game, after all.
28. Perhaps the most important lesson of all is; Successful poker is all about honesty.
This may seem a strange thing to say about poker — a game famously associated with the art of deceit — but I’m talking about being honest with yourself.
Poor poker players deceive themselves by telling themselves they were really unlucky when, in reality, they just played very badly. They also tell themselves they are superb poker players when, in fact, they just got lucky with a good run of cards and some freakish outdraws. A good poker player, however, is much more honest with himself. He recognises when he gets outplayed. He criticises his own play, even when he wins. The trouble is that being honest with yourself is something a lot of people are very reluctant to do.
I hope you find these tips helpful. But take note: Your financial decisions remain entirely your own responsibility.
Disclosure (April 16th 2019): This article has so far earned me $8.99