Almost every poker player takes pride in the idea that they play well. In fact, most people think they are great at most things they lots of time on (especially if they have experienced a bit of success).
No one likes to think they are bad at something they devote considerable time to.
The harsh reality is that if you play the small and medium stakes games, or if you are new to poker, you almost certainly have significant flaws in your strategy. While this may sound like a terrible thing, it isn’t if you resolve to work hard to improve your skills. If you have lots of holes in your game, you have the possibility of going from a marginal or poor poker player to a strong poker player relatively quickly.
In this article, I will explain a few of the major mistakes small and medium stakes players commit on a regular basis, as well as how to exploit them. Once you know what you are doing incorrectly, you can work to improve, allowing you to win more money at the poker table.
Common Errors at the Small Stakes
Essentially all small stakes players have gigantic holes in their strategies. If they played great, they would move up to where they could win more money. I have been told by a few recreational small stakes players that they don’t want to move up because they don’t like the risk, and they are comfortable playing the small games. While it is fine to be cosy, if you want to truly better yourself in any aspect of life, you have to consistently push the limits of what is possible.
No one has ever become great at anything by doing what is easy and comfortable.
That said, I understand many players don’t care about winning money. They play for “fun”. If you are participating in my Bankroll Builder Challenge of turning $10 into $888, realise that you are playing to win. It is as simple as that.
If you are playing to win, you must be honest with yourself and confront the flaws in your strategy.
Play Too Straightforwardly
The vast majority of small stakes players fail to succeed because their hand’s strength is blatantly clear to anyone who is paying attention. They simply play much too straightforwardly.
When they have a strong hand, they make a big bet (or slow play and then make a big raise). When they have a medium-strength hand, they make small or medium bets. When they have a weak hand, they check.
It really is as simple as that.
When you encounter someone who uses this strategy, your best counterstrategy is to assume they are playing honestly. If you have a strong, but non-premium hand, such as K-J on a K-9-7 board, and your straightforward opponent who you know likes to make big raises with his premium hands makes a large raise, you have an easy fold. A-K may even be a fold in this spot (unless your opponent will overvalue K-Q, K-J and K-T).
Alternatively, if you have 5h-4h on K-9-7 in a heads-up pot in position and the straightforward preflop raiser who you know continuation bets with his/her strong and medium-strength hands decides to check, you should be willing to bluff on at least the flop and turn.
Poker is easy when your opponent tells you where you stand.
Play Too Trickily
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some small stakes players play in an overly tricky manner. They may raise all their playable hands before the flop besides exactly A-A and K-K, which they limp. Or they may continuation bet on the flop every time unless they have a premium hand.
When you encounter someone with this tendency, you should be keenly aware of any play that is out of the ordinary. When something doesn’t seem “normal”, it usually means your opponent’s hand is either abnormally strong or abnormally weak. But, in general, it will be abnormally strong.
If your opponent has a premium hand, you should only stick around with your nut hands and draws that have the potential to outdraw your opponent’s premium holding.
Play a Few Hands in a Specific Manner
Some of the absolute worst players play a few hands (or one hand) in a specific manner. The classic example of this is the player who raises to 3 big blinds before the flop with all their playable hands besides exactly J-J, which they instead raise to 5 big blinds.
Clearly, you do not want to make it obvious to your opponents when you have one specific hand because that makes you incredibly easy to play against. It goes without saying, but you want to do your best to be difficult to play against while still playing fundamentally sound.
This leak can manifest itself in many ways, such as limping with only A-A from first position, raising to $.88 with pocket Eights, or making gigantic bets on the flop only with draws.
Pay attention to your opponents’ actions, and you may pick up on these in-your-face behaviours, allowing you to react perfectly.
Raise for “Protection”
One of the costliest mistakes of small stakes players, especially as they move up in stakes, is to raise with their decently strong made hands on the flop and turn, thinking they are raising for “protection”. They want to raise big so their opponents can’t outdraw them without paying a hefty price.
In reality, their large raise forces their opponents to fold their marginal made hands and junky draws, all of which are drawing thin. When your opponents are drawing thin, you want them in the pot so you can extract additional value. Any time your opponent plays as they would play if they could see your cards, they are playing well. If your opponents are playing well, you aren’t maximising your profits.
The way you exploit this tendency is to fold to the big raises unless you have your opponent’s raising range in bad shape or if you have a draw that is getting the right pot odds plus implied odds to continue.
In general, though, if a reasonably straightforward player makes a gigantic raise, you are wise to get out of the way.
Overvalue Decent, but Non-Premium Hands
Similar to the previous leak, many small stakes players are not capable of folding decently strong made hands, even when confronted with significant aggression. For example, they raise A-K and four players call. The flop comes K-Q-7. They bet, someone raises, and then they either call or re-raise, often going all-in. They are usually shocked to see their opponent has the best hand with K-Q or 7-7. They fail to realise that if a lot of money goes into the pot, their top pair is crushed unless their opponent is prone to overvalue junky one-pair hands.
When you have a decently strong, but non-nut hand, like top pair with a strong kicker, if you bet and get raised, you should usually just call. If you re-raise, you make it nearly impossible for your opponent to continue bluffing. When you re-raise, if your opponent sticks around, they usually have you beat or is getting the right price to draw.
If you instead just call your opponent’s raise, you keep them in the pot with their entire raising range, which you are likely in fine shape against. Unless your opponent’s flop raising range is only nut hands, in which case you should fold to the flop raise.
When you have a non-nut made hand, keeping your opponent in with all bluffs and inferior made hands is the best option. Especially if the alternative is for your opponent to fold everything besides nut hands that have you beat.
Common Errors in the Medium Stakes
Once you move to the medium stakes, most players’ leaks become less pronounced. This scenario is because you must play at least reasonably well to survive at the medium stakes. So, while you can still have an edge in these games, it will not be as large compared to your edge (in terms of big blinds) in the smaller games.
Mistakes Are More Subtle
Medium stakes players’ mistakes are often a bit more subtle. For example, if the optimal continuation betting percentage is 70% (which may or may not be the case), an overly aggressive small stakes player may continuation bet 100% of the time. An overly aggressive medium stakes player may continuation bet 85% of the time.
While the medium stakes player’s mistake will be less costly than the small stakes player’s mistake, it is still an error that you can exploit.
It is up to you to actively pay attention and figure out what your specific opponents do incorrectly and what your counterstrategy should be.
Fancy Play Syndrome
Perhaps the main mistake that plagues reasonably competent poker players is fancy play syndrome. This is where the player feels like they must make intricate plays on a somewhat regular basis, often to stroke their ego.
They mistakenly think that they win due to their “amazing” plays, not because their opponents play poorly. These fancy plays are often far from fundamentally sound and almost always cost the practitioner a large amount of money in the long run.
Instead of getting well out of line for no real reason, work hard to develop a fundamentally sound strategy. While I am all for exploiting your opponents’ mistakes, you should not feel the least bit inclined to run a big bluff every hour in an attempt to show your opponents how “good” you are.
All you are really showing them is that you lack self-awareness.
Don’t Bluff Often Enough
The previous point may make it sound like I advocate shying away from bluffing, but bluffing is a key part of poker that must be mastered if you want to succeed. Instead of bluffing randomly, you should do it in an intelligent manner.
In general, you should bluff preflop with hands that have a decent chance to improve to premium hands on the flop, such as suited Aces and junky suited connectors. Or perhaps hands that make it more difficult for your opponents to have a strong hand, such as hands containing an Ace (because when you have an Ace in your hand, your opponents are less likely to have an Ace with one less left in the deck).
On the flop and turn, you should usually semi-bluff with your draws that have a decent chance to improve, such as Js-8s or 9c-8c on 7c-5s-3s. Notice that both these hands are unlikely to win at the showdown but have a reasonable chance to improve to a decent or premium hand on the turn.
River bluffing is an intricate topic that is tough to explain in a few sentences. Simply put, when you are the aggressor going to the river, you should usually bluff with about half as many hands as you are value betting. So, if you are value betting with 50 combinations of hands, you can bluff with about 25 combinations of hands, assuming you are making a pot-sized bet.
As your river bet size becomes smaller, you should bet with fewer bluffing combinations. As your river bet size becomes larger, you should bet with a few more bluffs. Unless you think your opponent folds much too often, the ratio of value bets to bluffs should never exceed a 1:1 ratio. You always want to have more value bets than bluffs.
When facing a river bet, you want to bluff raise with hands that are not strong enough to call and contain cards that make it more difficult for your opponent to have the nuts.
For example, 7-7 is a much better bluffing hand than Ks-Qs when your opponent bets the flop, turn, and river on 9c-8s-6s-4d-3c (assuming you think 7-7 is too weak to call). Holding two sevens makes it harder for your opponent to have a straight. But when you have Ks-Qs (two spades), it is less likely that your opponent is bluffing with a flush draw, meaning they are more likely to have a made hand.
If your opponents play well, you rarely want to find yourself in a situation where your entire range is either all value hands or all bluffs. If you find that you have essentially no bluffs in your range, you are playing too straightforwardly. If you have almost no value hands, you are playing too wildly.
By playing your value bets and bluffs in the exact same manner, you keep your opponent guessing, making you difficult to play against.
Once you develop what you think is a reasonably strong fundamentally sound strategy, it is important that you are constantly striving to fine tune it and implement it to perfection. This strategy is easier said than done, as many middle stakes players eventually become bored or burnt out, resulting in them playing robotically.
While it is great to play without large emotional swings, it is not advantageous to not care. When you are playing poker, ensure playing poker is your main concern at that moment.
If you would rather be doing something else, perhaps playing poker at that time is not ideal.
As you can see, many of these mistakes can be easily remedied by learning to play a fundamentally sound strategy. Most players approach poker thinking, “If I play my own unique strategy, I will succeed.”
If you consistently make plays that have been mathematically proven to be definitively wrong, you will lose money in the long run. I strongly suggest you spend time studying the best players and figure out why they make the plays they make.
If you are truly dedicated to taking your poker game to the next level, hire a qualified coach who can quickly pinpoint your flaws, which you may be completely unaware of. Once you know what to work on, you will be well on the road to success.
I hope the process of turning $10 into $888 is going well for you. If you have any questions for me, feel free to ask on Twitter @JonathanLittle.