Poker is a game of deception, trickery and audacious bluffs. It requires a skilled practitioner to be unpredictable – to outmanoeuvre opponents, set traps and sidestep hazards. However, amid all the dodging and weaving it can be easy to forget the fundamentals of the game – a game that, at its core, is quite a simple one. The basics of poker strategy apply no matter what level you’re playing at, and it’s worth reminding yourself of them from time to time, whether you’re new to the game or a veteran of many years.
Here then, for first-time consumption or as a timely reminder, are the key tenets of good poker play. These basic blocks should be used as the foundations upon which you can build and embrace more advanced concepts, such as floating and semi-bluffing. If you’re constantly pulling moves and can’t even explain why a check-raise is the correct move in a given situation, then it’s probably time to reacquaint yourself with our back-to-basics tips. Read, digest and return to the tables with a vengeance!
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1. Prime hand selection
You may have read that in poker you should play the man and not the cards. Well, that’s true up to a point, but it doesn’t mean you should start ignoring the strength of your hole cards and get up in arms when ‘some fish’ doesn’t put you on a killer hand that you’re trying to represent. Wouldn’t it be better if you just show down a big hand instead and still have opponents call down your big bets? If you stick to opening with a solid range of starting hands, including pairs, big Aces and the occasional suited connector, you will hit flops, you will out-kick other players’ bad Aces, and you will be rewarded with some juicy pots. At the lower levels this is often all you need to post a regular profit.
2. A big hand = a big bet
When you have a big hand it’s very tempting to try and trap your opponent(s) by checking or calling in an attempt to invite further bets. Trapping definitely has its time and place, particularly against aggressive players, but your default play should be to bet your monster hands hard. If you’ve got pocket Aces or Kings why do you want to let the big blind out-flop you by limping in with them? If you know your two-pair is ahead on the flop, why check and give your opponent the chance to catch up? Beyond that, why don’t you want to get more money into the pot when you have a good hand? The pots where you are most likely to win big are when you have a huge hand and someone else has a draw or a hand that is good but second best. Don’t miss out on your opportunity to swell the pot early on or you’ll be left ruing the fact that you’ve left chips on the table.
If you’re not sure how much to bet, a decent, normal amount is anywhere between half-pot and full-pot. As a further rule of thumb, you should tend to bet more if there are multiple players still in the hand and if the board is wet (i.e. if it presents a lot of potential straight and flush draws). Always remember that, as tempting as it can be, slow-playing a big hand is usually the fastest way to go broke.
3. Location, location, location
The power of position in no-limit hold’em cannot be overstated. There’s a reason why the strategy guides tell you to play only premium hands from early and middle position and avoid cold-calling when there are still many players to act behind you. The earlier the position you enter the hand from, the more likely it is that you will be stuck out of position for the rest of the hand; that puts you at a huge disadvantage as you’ll be forced to make decisions before your opponents. The closer to the button you are in the hand the later you act on each street and the more information you’ll receive about your opponents’ hands.
Avoid calling in the blinds with inferior hands just because you’ve already committed some money. It may seem like a cheap way to see a flop, but you’ll have to play the entire hand out of position – and without committing more chips you’ll have little idea as to the strength of your opponents’ cards. Many fortunes and tournaments have been lost this way. Position is paramount in no-limit hold’em, and the moment you forget that is the moment you’ll start losing.
4. Know your odds
Playing solid poker is not about pulling off complex multi-street bluffs – it’s about calling when you have the correct odds to do so, folding when you don’t and getting other players to call when they shouldn’t. You can embrace check-raising and floating at a later date, but if you don’t know your pot odds you’ll never be able to work out if you’re charging people the right price or not, and that includes when you’re representing a hand you haven’t got!
If you do nothing else, learn how to work out rough pot odds and start using them. On the flop count the number of outs you think you have to make the winning hand and multiply that number by four to get the percentage chance of making it on the turn or river, or by two to make it on the next card. Some key numbers to keep in mind are nine outs for a flush draw, eight outs for an open-ended straight draw and four outs for a gutshot straight draw.
5. Bluff less, win more
When you first start playing poker it’s all too easy to think the game is about bluffing and spotting tells – after all, that’s what it’s about when you see it played on TV, right? Wrong. TV highlights tend to focus on the monster pots and audacious bluffs, making it appear that players bluff a hell of a lot more than they actually do. Bluffing should be just one weapon in your arsenal, and when you do bluff you should have a good reason for it. You need to gauge the situation carefully, taking into account such factors as the number of players in the hand, your table image and whether or not your bets tell a believable story.
Okay, this isn’t very exciting but you simply can’t ignore it. If you’re playing at a higher limit than that which you can honestly sustain you will tilt, blow up and generally have a torrid time at the tables. You may feel you’re able to beat the $2/$4 game, and maybe your results even prove that, but if you’re not able to sustain even a five buy-in downswing then you’re definitely playing at the wrong level. There’s nothing wrong with dropping limits and making sure you’re playing within your comfort zone. If you’re able to beat the $2/$4 games, then you have to be able to beat $0.25/$0.50. Don’t be one of those players who claim they can only compete at a higher level. A good poker player adapts to whatever table they’re playing at. Start from a solid base and work your way up as your poker bankroll grows – this is the essence of good money management.
7. Table image
Your table image should inform every action you make while playing. If you re-raise preflop and shove all-in on the flop, your foe’s decision to call or not depends on the range of hands they think you may have and how you might play them. If you’ve been tight they’ll likely fold most hands, whereas if you’ve been hyper-aggressive their calling range will be much wider. Table image, both your own and other players’, is something to respect and exploit. (Though obviously the concept goes out the window somewhat if the other player isn’t even paying attention.)
Have a reason for every play you make. Are you checking to call, fold or raise? If you bet, are you going to call a raise? Before you make a pre-flop raise with 9c-10c ask yourself what you’re hoping to achieve. Will you attack the flop if a weak-passive player calls but only bet it against a tight player if you connect? Is there a short-stack you’ll be committed to call if they shove? It’s important to start thinking about what other players may have, without specifically putting them on one hand, and then try to think about what they may think you have. If in doubt use the most ABC route, as most players – particularly at the lower levels – will play their hands face-up.