Creating A Winning Strategy

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To play poker professionally, you have to be a winning player over the long-term. Almost all individuals who play poker experience intermittent short-term gains at certain points in their lives.

However, by tracking results over many months or years, players can truly measure how successful they are. And, it’s only when your results are good enough – over the long run - that you should possibly consider making the daring leap from amateur to professional.

Throughout this chapter, we’ll be showing you proven techniques to become a winning player over the long term. Firstly, we must clarify what exactly what it means to be a “winning player.”

What Is A “Winning Player”?

A winning player isn’t so much defined by their results as they are by the decisions they make during their gameplay. Yes, winning money and accruing positive results are important factors in any poker pro’s career. However, results always come secondary to what really makes someone a profitable professional: making winning, strategic decisions.

A winning player is defined as someone who makes decisions that attempt to maximize their expected value (EV) in each given situation.

Just think – if you can always get your money in good when you play, then over time you will become a profitable player, regardless of variance.

Ultimately, being a winning player comes down to reading your opponents, playing against them accordingly, and putting yourself in situations where you maximize your gains and minimize your losses.

When you can do this correctly, then your profits will soar!

A Word On Variance

Variance is the primary reason results come secondary to what makes someone a winning player. Variance is also the primary reason players can’t afford to be too vested in the end result of each hand. Experienced players know variance is out of their control, which is why to win at poker, they have to focus in on what the can control:

The decisions they make at each point in any given hand.

A bad beat can be a tough break for any poker player, but if you focus on whether you played the hand correctly (instead of worrying about the ultimate result), then you’ll quickly become desensitized to bad beats. Becoming oblivious to outdraws will enable you to continue making optimal decisions after a sore loss. Even when you’re playing pots worth thousands of dollars, the fundamentals of success still apply: 

Winning strategy = Winning results

Playing Styles of (Most) “Winning Players”

Poker players are usually categorized as having a style made up of two of the following (one from each set):

  • Tight – Narrow hand range
  • Loose – Wide hand range
  • Aggressive – Bets or raises often
  • Passive – Checks or calls often

The style of play that is widely considered to be the most profitable is Tight-Aggressive (TAG).

The Trouble With “Loose” and “Passive”

If you play too many hands and play loosely, you’re going to be losing a lot of money. Simply, the initial money you have to put in to play all those hands will place a massive burden on your stack.

Furthermore, playing a wide range of starting hands will put you in awkward situations against your opponents. Better players will force you to make difficult decisions for big sums of money in less-than-optimal spots.

Also, playing loosely often means you’ll be playing raggish-like hands more often. Playing good hands out-of-position can be tricky, now try doing the same with rags. You're making things even harder for yourself. 

If you don’t bet or raise enough and play too passively, you’re going to be playing a guessing game whether you’re ahead, a lot of the time. Also, you won’t be able to get value from your strong hands, partly because your passivity prevents you from aggressively betting them.

Instead, you end up relying on others to bet for you (and the savviest players just won’t play ball). And, when you do bet or raise, you’ll frequently come off as having a very strong hand because you rarely play aggressively.

Why Tight-Aggressive Is Superior

The playing styles described above are extreme situations of each, but it’s easy to see how playing a loose-passive style over the long run can be a losing strategy. At the other end of the spectrum, playing a TAG style is a much more profitable style for newbie pros. You'll be opening and playing hands that generally do well (tight), while controlling the size of the pots and action, choosing whether to bet or raise (aggressive).

Another reason the TAG style is superior is because it is a less exploitable style of play than any of the alternatives. Being tight and aggressive means, you’re able to mix your value hands in with your bluffs and keep your opponents constantly off-balance. It will make your bluffs more believable while getting your value hands paid off.

Being the one “in control” of pots usually allows you to maximize your winnings and minimize your losses – a key strategy behind building long-term profits. If you play too passively or loosely, your opponents can easily counteract this playing style by trapping you with their big hands. Also, they won't bet your hands for you, and so you just won't get paid as much on your big hands. Slowly, but surely, as a Loose-Passive player, your opponents will plummet your bankroll to ruin.

Mixing Up Your Play

Poker is a game of uncertainties. However, if you play similar hands the same way all the time, then your opponents will soon adapt and counteract your play. This is why it’s important to mix up your play.

For example, for an UTG player, a typical starting hand range might be AJ+ and 88+. Imagine mixing in something like 56s once in a while. This move disguises your hand possibilities to your opponents.

Even a hand like J9o can benefit from the odd raise in early position. On the off chance that the flop comes strongly for you like Q-T-8, it’s going to be practically impossible for your opponents to put you on this hand. This is why it’s optimal to have a balanced range of starting hands.

Applying the same logic to 3-betting, imagine being someone who only 3-bets premium hands like QQ+ and AK+. Your opponents will know you’re strong and will be able to play against you accordingly. Now, if you add in hands like A-x, low pocket pairs, or random suited connectors to your 3-betting range, then you’re able to disguise your stronger hands and keep your opponents off-balance.

For this reason, mixing up your play will be pivotal to your poker success. However, always keep in mind that the way you play an opponent should be mostly based on their style and tendencies. That way you'll be able to fully exploit them to your benefit.

For example:

  • If they’re aggressive-maniacs, consider check-calling and trapping them with a big hand.
  • If they’re way too tight, open up your range, put more pressure on them more, and pressure their blinds more often.
  • If they’re way too loose, tighten up your range.
  • If they 3-bet only premium hands, only call with hands that have good implied odds and equity versus their range.

The Bottom Line

Playing tight and aggressive has worked well for many players. However, you might find another style works better for you. Perhaps slightly tighter or slightly looser than the “norm” is something you should consider.

While we can suggest basing your play on a TAG style, if you’re getting and maintaining good results playing a slight variation of this style, then continue doing what’s working for you.

The bottom line to becoming a poker pro is that you have to make money from the game. Whatever way you can go about doing this consistently, using your own unique style; by all means continue doing what you do! 

Like the popular phrase suggests, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

The Importance of Taking Notes

Because poker is a person vs. person game, the best poker you can play is one that involves strategically countering the exploitable play of your opponents.

However, you can’t always rely on your memory to recall all the details of each opponent you play. That’s why it’s important to put systems in place that will help keep track of key details on your opponents.

Taking notes is one of the easiest, yet most beneficial ways of doing this. It will help assist you in remembering your opponents’ play when you multi-table, as well as when you go from session to session.

For example, knowing if a player will call any river raise after they make a river bet is a helpful note to have. Another note you might choose to write down about an opponent is if you believe that they have any preconceived ideas about your play. Perhaps they have figured out that you can triple barrel bluff with a busted flush draw. These types of very specific notes are helpful in allowing you to “level” opponents by reversing and/or changing up your play, accordingly.

Taking notes is a feature available on most HUD’s and also within many poker clients. If you're not doing so already, it’s one that you should definitely start using.

Learn How To Win at Cash Games

As we’ve discussed in previous chapters, playing cash games is going to be the most consistent way for you to make a profit as a professional poker player in the long run. For this reason, it’s imperative that you study how to win at cash games. And, even when you’ve become a winning player, never stop studying, as it’ll be very beneficial to your results if you can get that BB/100 stat even higher!

Arguably, the biggest difference in strategy between cash game play and tournament play lies in the number of big blinds you have at your disposal any given moment. Cash games are typically played out anywhere from 100 to 250 big blinds, whereas the main stages of tournaments usually take place around the 10 to 40 big blind mark.

Therefore, you’re going to be using a deepstack strategy in most cash games and a shortstack strategy in the majority of tournaments. As a result, by saying you should learn how to win at cash games, we’re recommending that you develop a profitable deepstack strategy for your gameplay, first and foremost.

That said, let’s elaborate on the proper strategy for both deepstack and shortstack play in both cash games and tournaments. Please keep in mind, after reading the section below, it’s still important to continuously use a variety of other sources (i.e, training videos, hand histories, etc.) to expand your poker awareness. Doing this will further increase your skills and abilities as a player.

Deepstacked Play vs. Shortstacked Play

Deepstacked Play

Deepstacked play is most commonly found in cash games but is also found in tournaments with slower blind structures and bigger starting stacks, as well.

Be Aggressive Entering pots

Following a tight-aggressive strategy, you should raise 3 to 3.5bb pre-flop when you open (enter) any pot. You want to start building a decent-sized pot early so that you can get all your money into the middle, if the opportunity presents itself.

Another good technique to use to start building a good-sized pot is 3-betting. When another opponent has made a pre-flop raise, you can challenge them by sticking in another raise on top. This move has another purpose besides building a pot; it allows you to isolate an opponent. If you can get heads-up in a hand pre-flop, you'll have the upper hand post-flop.

More than likely, you'll also have position on the initial raiser and, in poker, position is power. Therefore, by isolating with a pre-flop 3-bet, you'll gain an edge on your opponent, allowing you to continue a tight-aggressive style post-flop.

Blending Hand Ranges

In deepstack poker, it’s much more common to see a wide range of hands being 3-bet. To disguise the monsters from the hands with potential, you should look to blend your 3-betting range appropriately, with a mix of a bit of each (e.g. some suited connectors, A-x, K-x, etc.) from time to time.

If someone 3-bets you and you’re contemplating calling or folding, consider your implied odds when making your decision. Small and medium pocket pairs often have great implied odds because, if you flop a set, and your opponent has an overpair, it’s usually quite easy to play for stacks and get all the money in.

Just think – if you’re calling perhaps 6 or 7 additional big blinds pre-flop to ultimately win a stack of 100+ big blinds, that’s a pretty good deal. Low and medium suited connectors are another example of acceptable hands to call a 3-bet within certain situations. They have great implied odds for straights and flushes.

Sizing Your Bets Just Right

In post-flop deepstack play, you’re going to want to be very careful when sizing your bets. Bet-sizing helps dictate pot size. It can also be indicative of how much you stand to potentially win or lose. Therefore, especially with deep stacks, bet-sizing will be a crucial element to keep in mind when maximizing your profits, minimizing your losses, and keeping your win rates in the positive.

Taking Your Shots

A distinct difference between cash games and tournaments is that in cash games if you go bust, you can immediately re-buy and not miss a hand. In tournaments, you don’t often have such a luxury (except in re-buy tournaments). Therefore, in certain spots where you reckon yourself to be in 50/50 type situations or even have a marginal +EV for the hand, going with it and playing it down is going to be much more standard in cash games.

In tournaments, in some situations you’ll fold, even with a slight equity advantage. You’re not going to take unnecessary risks because chips are at a premium – once they're mostly gone they can be very difficult to get back. For cash games, it’s okay to win some and lose some flips. You can always re-buy back in.

Learn from the Best in the Cash Games

To develop a deep and fundamentally solid understanding of how to play deepstack poker well, studying the winning play of other cash game players is going to be the best way to go. Learn the different playing styles of winners, take what you like, leave what you don’t. Combine all the new-found knowledge into your own unique playing style to come up with a winning strategy.

Shortstacked Play

Shortstacked play requires a completely different approach to poker than deepstack play – both in tournaments and cash games. However, short-stack cash game strategy is much less common than deepstack.

Smart Aggression

The more shortstacked you get in tournaments, the less of a need there is to raise 3 big blinds when you are the first to enter the pot. The initial raise size should be relative to the average stack size, so raising 2.5x around a 30BB or 40BB average stack size might be preferable, with a 2x raise being suitable for anything under 20BB.

The reason for this shortstack adjustment is simple: there’s no need to risk more money than you have to when entering the pot. In tournament play, you want to preserve your stack above all else while slowly chipping up. The less (or less optimal) “big-pot/high variance” situations you get yourself into, the better.

Bet-sizing Post-flop

More so post-flop in tournaments, you really have to take (1) the effective stack sizes, (2) ICM, and (3) your opponents’ tendencies into consideration in choosing what to do. Bet-sizing in shortstack/tournament play will usually be much smaller than in cash games.

For example, you’ll see many players commonly c-betting anywhere from ¼-pot pot to ½-pot (especially at the final table in tournaments). It all comes down to average stack sizes and how big and drastic the remaining tournament payouts are in relation to that.  In cash games, shortstack c-betting is can be an all-in. Remember, there's less of a need to preserve your stack, but rather the intent is to double up in cash games.

Some cash games shortstack specialists will immediately leave after they double up at a table and re-buy shortstacked into another game. Others will switch from shortstack cash game play to deepstack strategy at the same table, after doubling up. It all depends on which style you feel most comfortable executing.

However, in tournaments, you must carefully choose the situations where your entire stack is at risk. Unlike cash games, you can’t re-buy in most tournaments; once you’re out, you’re out! Therefore, choose to risk taking coin-flips in spots that would put you really good situations to win the entire tournament.

Key Shortstack Points

Bottom line, in tournament shortstack play, protect your stack and take the 50/50 risks at optimal times. At the cash tables, go for the double-up and then move on from there. It can be a much riskier strategy and one that requires a lot of skill to be profitable. Therefore, the deepstack cash game strategy is one that is much more common. And one that a lot of pros find very successful.

Common Playing Lines

Playing lines refer to how the action takes place during a poker hand. The more you understand common betting/playing lines, the more you’ll develop a knack for knowing the most sensible action for you to take to counteract your opponents’ play.

Always be aware of how the playing lines taken each hand affects your opponent’s perceived range and your perceived range. For example, when you're looking to make a big bluff, ask yourself, “Does my story make sense? Have I played the entire hand like I would if I actually had the hand that I’m representing?” If the stories don’t match up, time to rethink that bluff.

While real-time experience is more beneficial in learning to identify common playing lines for certain hands and board textures, below is a list of basic playing lines that you should keep an eye out for when you play:

  • Check-Bet-Call, Check-Bet-Raise: This line is one that the beginners especially like to use. If you notice this line, it usually screams strength – something along the lines of a set or better!
  • Check-Bet-Insta-call, Check-Bet-Insta-call: Usually if a player checks and instantly calls your bet, they have some sort of drawing hand and have decided to fish for their gin card. Careful on the river if a flush or potential straight draw gets there, though. If your opponent thinks for a minute and then bets into you, chances are they've probably hit their draw.
  • Open-Limp from someone who normally Open-Raises: This play, especially from early position, is usually indicative of strength. If you raise, you could potentially face a deadly limp-raise.
  • Open-Raising from someone who normally Open-Limps: A change in opening-play from an opponent usually means that they’ve picked up a premium or pretty good hand. Calling is usually the right way to counter this if you’re going to play; see a cheap flop and don’t consider 3-betting here with anything less than the goods.
  • Check-Bet-Call, Small Donk Bet: When someone just check-calls the flop, and then leads out on the turn for a small amount (a “blocker” bet), they’re hoping for just a call so that they can see the 5th card cheaply. In these cases, it’s common for them to have a draw. In other cases, they’re hoping to reach showdown a bit more cheaply than they would if they checked to you and you bet (bigger).

While the above are a few basic playing lines, always adapt to the current situations and how your opponents are playing. Look to pick up any information you can in identifying other common (or unique) betting lines your specific opponent(s) may be using. This information will help you determine when they’re bluffing, weak, or strong.

Things you can think about include:

  • How does your opponent usually plays their draws?
  • How do they normally play their strong hands in 3-bet pots?
  • Does your opponent ever bluff?
  • What hands does your opponent bluff with?
  • Do they only ever c-bet once if they've missed the board?
  • Is your opponent playing a certain hand differently from their normal style?
    • Why do you think this is?
  • What level of thinking is your opponent on?

When To Move Up Levels

In the previous chapter, we talked about bankroll requirements. Following these basic bankroll requirements (i.e, 30BB for cash games and 100BB for tournaments), the chart below details the approximate bankroll you should have if you want to play at certain stakes in both tournaments and/or cash games.

Following this guide strictly is an extremely important part of proper bankroll management

Cash Game Stake

Minimum Bankroll

Tournament Buy-in

Minimum Bankroll

2 NL ($0.01/$0.02)


$1.10 ($1 + $0.10)


5 NL ($0.05/$0.10)


$2.20 ($2 + $0.20)


10 NL ($0.05/$0.10)


$5.50 ($5 + $0.50)


25 NL ($0.10/$0.25)


$11 ($10 + $1)


50 NL ($0.25/$0.50)


$22 ($20 + $2)


100 NL ($0.50/$1)


$33 ($30 + $3)


200 NL ($1/$2)


$55 ($50 + $5)


400 NL ($2/$4)


$109 ($100 + $9)


500 NL ($2/$5)


$215 ($200 + $15)


1000 NL ($5/$10)


$530 ($500 + $30)


2000 NL ($10/$20)


$1050 ($1000 + $50)


NOTE: It’s recommended to have 1-2 buy-ins above the figures outlined above for cash games because as soon as you buy-in, you won’t have the proper bankroll requirements to play at that level anymore.

NOTE: The minimum bankroll suggestions shown for tournaments are based on the percentage of the buy-in going towards the prize pool. For a more conservative approach (that would take the tournament fees into account, too), add approximately 10% to the minimum bankroll requirements.

In Conclusion

Your winning strategy should take three main things into account:

  1. Your Skill Level/Knowledge
  2. Your Bankroll
  3. Your Natural Playing Style

Find a strategy that fits all three best, and you'll have found a way to win consistently, just like the pros.

In Chapter 4, we'll help you decide whether live or online poker should be your bread and butter – or a little of both!

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