One of the great things about poker is that it’s so dynamic and evolving. Players use intuition, instincts, and well-reasoned approaches when determining the strength or weakness of another player’s hand.
Undoubtedly, luck can play a role, but strategy and skill are crucial to long-term success. And when it comes to poker strategy, the game is constantly evolving. Poker strategy has seen numerous changes from continuation betting and button raises to blockers, small-ball, and GTO (Game Theory Optimization).
As players evolve their own takes on strategies, someone always seems to be thinking one step ahead. This cat-and-mouse game affects strategy trends and constantly changes with new thinking and gameplay..
Keeping up with the regular changes comes with plenty of studying, and staying ahead of the curve may pay some big dividends.
1 – Early Games’ Strategy
Draw and stud poker were two of the most popular forms of poker in the 19th Century and even into the early 20th Century. Games in Old West saloons, mining towns, Civil War troop encampments, and aboard Mississippi riverboats grew the game’s popularity in the United States.
Players not only had to develop skills to be consistent winners, but they also had to watch for cheaters and colluders. Even famed author Mark Twain was a regular player, but worried about frequent cases of cheating in those Mississippi games.
Poker at the time was a learn-as-you-go affair, with no computer or strategy guides to take an old west rounder from loser to winner. But the game spread quickly, and more Americans began grasping the nuances.
Twain peppered some of his writing with terms from the game. These writings perhaps offered insight into the game’s growth in the mid-19th Century. In a western story he wrote in 1862, Twain relayed the plight of American Indians involved in a card game.
He noted the game’s mechanics and seemed well-versed in all of poker’s intricacies:
“First they ‘dealt’ and ‘antied’, threw up their ‘hands,’ and ‘doubled the pot,’ and dealt again.”
He also added the use of terms like “bluffing”, “straddling the blind”, “aces full”, and the unfortunate notion of getting “busted.”
Another crucial aspect of poker strategy was the game's evolution in the 19th Century. An early version in New Orleans in the 1820s may have used only twenty cards and four players. Different variants popped up quickly in the coming years, meaning players had to adjust.
In the coming two decades, the 52-card deck won out and draws came into play in the 1850s. Savvy players began making major strategy adjustments, relying on skill and odds rather than luck.
2 – The Rise and Dominance of Texas Hold’em
Poker saw significant growth in the 20th Century, and the birth of Texas Hold’em undoubtedly added to that. By the 1960s, the Hold’em dominated games in Las Vegas, with the World Series of Poker debuting in 1970.
The game was simpler than the traditional seven-card game. Instead of receiving five or seven cards, players received only two. And community cards made for some serious gameplay changes and new strategy consequences.
Players like Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss, and other early Texas road gamblers used considerable skill to best their opponents. The game featured several betting rounds as players saw more cards they could all use.
This change resulted in exciting and strategic betting lines, especially when the no-limit version became more popular. The poker boom of the 2000s only added to the game’s popularity and strategy adaptations.
"They didn't call it Texas Hold 'em, at the time, they just called it Hold 'em,” early Texas player Crandall Addington noted of seeing the game in 1959, as documented in Des Wilson’s Ghosts at the Table. “I thought then that if it were to catch on, it would become the game. Draw poker, you bet only twice; Hold’em, you bet four times. That meant you could play strategically. This was more of a thinking man's game.”
As Hold’em surged in popularity over the last two decades. Approaches to the game have changed and continue to transition all the time.
What used to be the ideal way to play became passé. Players have also embraced old strategies again at times.
In the 2000s, the game transitioned from massive moves with players more frequently shipping it all-in or making huge bets.
Players like Daniel Negreanu favoured “small ball” with lighter betting and what was termed “pot control.”
3 – Changes During the Poker Boom
Poker is constantly transitioning. And individual players approach situations and hands differently. Long-time poker pro and former World Poker Tour player of the year Faraz Jaka offered own views on the subject:
“I started playing poker during the 2004 Moneymaker boom, and strategy is way different than it was then, and it’s definitely evolved several times, and, of course, it continues to evolve,” says Jaka, who runs Jaka Coaching, which offers weekly group coaching lessons reviewing various topics and tournament hand history reviews.
“Back when I was playing then, you didn’t really need to study. You could, but you could just be smarter than other people and really work on being present, being focused, and just observing, being creative, and talking to other players about interesting ways to play hands.”
“A big part of my game back in the day was to simply put people in annoying, uncomfortable spots. I think you can still do that today, but it’s a lot easier for people to figure out how to exploit that using solvers. Back in the day, if someone was just three-betting you relentlessly, there wasn’t a clear answer of how to respond.”
Fine-tuning against specific types of players and how they might react to different moves became a major focus for Jaka. Discussing these scenarios with friends helped him find an edge in tournaments. Recognising the poor decisions and strategies of others was critical.
In the intervening years, trends toward bigger moves came and went, which Jaka called "five-bet wars." He also remembers an intriguing online play that saw four- and five-bet all-in shoves with small pocket pairs.
“It was kind of about who had more balls than the other,” says Jaka, whose training site also features videos and guided learning modules to help players get to the next level.
“Fast forward to today, and I think it’s a matter of accepting that there are always going to be more and newer tools … it's about how you have a process to keep up with the latest tools and know about them ahead of other people. I think the way to do that is to have a community.”
Logic and patterns leading to adjustments are essential in today’s game, Jaka notes. Solvers can help players adjust to another player’s type. He now offers deep strategy coaching featuring the following –
- Documenting and tracking play
- Reviewing hands with other players and coaches
- Offering training and self-study concepts
As a coach, Jaka can take advantage of his path in the game and strategy adjustments.
That tale may resonate with many poker players who began playing No-Limit Hold’em during the poker boom of the 2000s.
Whether online or at the live tables, there is no slowing down in poker’s evolution.
4 – Early Strategy Guides and Books
For much of the history of poker, players had to sharpen their skills and strategy by playing the game. Legends like Wild Bill Hickok, Stu Ungar, and Doyle Brunson didn’t learn the best moves and odds by reading a book, playing online, or joining an online training site of poker.
These players learned from the “school of hard knocks” and didn’t have the convenience of modern poker strategy options. But eventually, players began revealing some of their strategy secrets via the printed page.
It seems a poker strategy book comes out every week nowadays. But a book offering tips at the tables was rare before the late 20th Century. One early version from 1887, The Game of Draw Poker by John Keller, focused on the popular version of the game in the 19th Century.
The book mostly detailed the rules of the game, which varied widely at times, with some strategy thrown in as well.
The preface offers a look at the game’s growth during that time;
“The existing and increasing popularity of Draw Poker as a means of amusement to the better classes of American people, and the various methods of playing the game – some of which are radically wrong and the direct results of ignorance – amply justify a brief and simple treatise on poker as a pastime,” Keller writes.
“I have so frequently played this game with ladies and gentlemen, who either did not know its elementary parts, or differed materially as to its cardinal points, that I have become convinced that some easily accessible and easily understood book of reference is absolutely necessary for the preservation of good feeling among such players.”
Occasional strategy books continued to be released in the coming decades. Some served players well, while others gave strategies that may not have offered the greatest advice or correct odds.
These poker authors culled their play and knowledge to offer poker strategy tips. And they did all this without the benefit of computers and deep modern analysis.
One of the first significant strategy works came from an interesting character named Herbert Yardley. He was a gifted cryptologist who served in the U.S. Signal Corps during World War I and cracked German codes. His intelligence work helped end the war, and he, eventually headed up the U.S. Cipher Bureau.
Along with being a crucial part of U.S. spy craft, Yardley was quite a poker player as well as an author. His 1957 book The Education of a Poker Player detailed his fascinating poker life, which included games all over the world.
But the book also served as one of the first modern poker strategy guides. Yardley gave real-life examples of strong play, his views on strategy, and detailed breakdowns of how to play.
Yardley writes that he’s been a consistent winner because “my method of play for each game is based on the scientific study of thousands of individual poker hands in each of all the various methods of play. I do not believe in luck – only in the immutable law of averages.”
5 – Modern Poker Strategy Guides and Books
One of the most significant steps toward modern strategy came from none other than 10-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner Doyle Brunson. In 1979, he released Super System: A Course in Power Poker (originally titled How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker).
The book was originally self-published and released two years after Brunson won the second of his WSOP Main Event titles.
Super System offered a deep look at the modern game and transformed the thought processes of many poker enthusiasts. The game tackled several poker variants with some of the best minds in the game chiming in, including:
- No-Limit Hold 'em – Brunson
- Seven Card Stud – Chip Reese
- Lowball – Joey Hawthorne and Brunson
- Seven Card Stud High-Low – David Sklansky
- Limit Hold'em – Bobby Baldwin
Super System also featured deep research into probability and statistics. Many poker pros credit Brunson’s book for changing how players view the game.
Brunson has even claimed that revealing his secrets may have cost him more money than the cash he collected from writing the book.
The book remains a classic, eventually leading to a litany of poker strategy books that began during the poker boom. Super System is the precursor to modern poker thought and theory.
Author James McManus notes in Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker:
“In 76 brilliant pages, he broke down the minimum opening requirements, analysed starting hands in terms of position, broke new ground on bluffing strategy, tell reading, and gauging opponents’ hands by how many cards they draw; and provided no fewer than 50 statistical tables showing the odds of improving one’s hand.”
6 – The Modern Game
Technology has been a massive boon for poker strategy in recent years. The online game has created an enormous increase in players at the tables. At the same time, the skill level has also skyrocketed regarding strategy.
Online players now see more hands in a couple of years than the game’s forerunners might have in an entire lifetime. Players seeing more hands means more chances to adjust, grow, and improve.
Online poker sites themselves now offer educational features, allowing players to fine-tune their skills and, hopefully, find more wins.
In the old days, improving one’s game often meant losing sessions at the live tables. Nowadays, online players can work on their skills and strategies at much lower stakes that won’t bust the bankroll.
Penny-ante poker is a cheap way to work on some of those strategies.
So many more players in the game mean a large poker ecosystem. Many players’ success comes from bouncing ideas and hands off other players. So, players of all backgrounds can get insight into their own play and work out any holes in their game.
Modern technology also makes picking the brains of stellar players an easy possibility. Online training sites like Chip Leader Coaching, LearnWPT, and Run It Up abound. For a fee, players have access to many online resources, including the following –
- Training videos
- Strategy guides
- Discussion groups
- One-on-one coaching
Players can also find free resources online via strategy websites, YouTube videos, Twitch, and more. Even 888poker offers players a complete strategy blog with topics including GTO, the mental side of poker, bluffing, and more.
The bottom line is today’s Internet makes it easy for players to work on their skills without spending a dime.
7 – AI Poker and the Future of Gameplay Strategy
In recent years, the game has become even more high-tech with the advent of AI (artificial intelligence). Computer solvers can break down poker hands and offer analysis on how to play them better.
In 2020, a massive online heads-up battle occurred between Doug Polk and Daniel Negreanu. Both players used solvers and teams of strategists to analyse their sessions.
In the end, Polk came out on top for $1.2 million after thirty-six days of action. Those following the duel gained insight into GTO, deep analysis with solvers, and unique high-stakes heads-up poker strategy.
Poker strategy is constantly changing and has already come a long way. Players who keep track of the trends and adjust will always be ahead of the game.