A Lot to Know About Poker - Beyond When to Hold and When to Fold
For beginners, poker is about luck. It is about what cards you get, when you get them and whether they beat your opponent. Professionals are famous for saying that poker is a game of skill and strategy; not a game of luck. There is an inherent discrepancy in those two descriptions of poker, and yet that discrepancy is simply a part of the game.
Novices tend to play poker hand by hand, guided by lady luck. More experienced players take a longer view, but this is mostly because they know the ins and outs of the game so well that they are able to predict much more accurately what will happen.
This is especially true when it comes to Texas Hold ‘Em. One of the most famous forms of poker in the world, Texas Hold ‘Em is a variation on seven-card stud in which players are dealt two hold cards and then share the remaining five cards dealt. The first three of these cards are dealt as the flop, simultaneously, followed by a singular turn and the final, singular river card. Players then make the best five-card hand they can by combining their hold cards with the community cards. Because so many of the cards are shared, the combinations are generally limited, and players can devote a great deal of thought to strategy and play style.
This makes Texas Hold ‘Em incredibly popular, both in official tournaments and in casual settings. Indeed, this style of play is also quite prevalent in casino settings. There are variations, of course, with pot limits and no limit, blind raising and so on. The most common form of Texas Hold ‘Em is called no limit, because there is no limit to how much one may bet. For the beginner, there is a lot to learn, but once the basics are down, you can start focusing on your own strategies. This article will help transform your game from one of luck to one of skill, where your success will be determined by how well you can execute your own strategies.
Many people who sit down and start learning how to play Texas Hold ‘Em think it is all in the bluffing, or they think it is all about deciphering your opponents’ tells. Although that is an element of poker, it is much more important for new strategists to simply focus on their cards. Every pair of dealt hold cards, after all, has a certain, set chance of winning each hand. For example, if you are dealt an off-suit 7-2 for your hold cards and you are not in either of the blinds, you should fold. Immediately.
A 7-2 off-suit is a poor hand because there are not many ways to win. You could pair your 2, but that is a pretty low pair – and easily beaten. You could pair your 7, but you might run into the same problem. Even if you happen to strike two-pair, it is still too easy for someone else to beat you with such low cards. Add to that the fact that, because 7 and 2 are five numbers apart, it does not set you up to land a straight. There just are not a lot of great combinations.
This is literally the worst hand in poker. At a table with eight people, you have only a 5 percent chance of winning with 7-2 hold cards. When you are deciding whether to see the flop or not, you have got to think about how many possibilities you have. If your cards are relatively close together, your possibilities go up, because you could hit a straight. If your cards are suited, you can hit a flush. If you have no chance for either, save yourself the blind and fold.
Use Position Betting
In most forms of poker, you have to pay an ante to see any cards. This is not true of Texas Hold ‘Em, as only the blinds – big blind and small blind – have to put in any money before the hold cards are dealt. This means there are two positions you have to keep track of: the blinds and the dealer button. The dealer button will always bet last except pre-flop, in which case the big blind can either raise or check. This means, if you are the big blind you have significant power to knock people out before the flop. After the flop, your positional power is diminished, and it is instead the player with the dealer button that is last to act.
The point is that you can use your position to determine how strongly you want to act. In other words, if you have position, you might be able to afford to play some weaker cards. When you have the dealer button, you are last to act after the flop, the turn and the river, and this means you can evaluate how strong your opponents’ hands are based on how they bet. If you have mediocre cards and someone bets big, it is a good time to fold. If no one bets big and you have a middle pair, make a substantial bet. This will force anyone out of the hand who has similarly mediocre cards. Then again, if someone raises your substantial bet, they may have been slow-playing something strong.
Ultimately, using your position enables you to gather more information – and the more information you have before you act, the more confident you can be of how best to play your hand.
Know When You Are Pot Committed
Sometimes you get involved in a hand and you end up betting quite a bit of your stack before you see the turn card. There comes a point when you simply have to put the remainder of your chips in the pot – when you have to push all-in – regardless of your chances of winning. This is a condition known as being pot committed. Now, this does not mean that you should go all in at the drop of a hat, or push your last bit of wealth in when you know you are going to lose. Betting on a hand that has no way of winning is foolish.
However, that does not mean you should ignore pot odds. If the pot is $100, and you have $10 left, then the pot-to-stack ration is 10-1. At this point, you are pot committed as long as your opponent has less than a 10-1 chance of winning the hand. It should also be noted that this equation only works on a per-hand basis, not a per-game basis or a per-bet basis. Many players will look at an opponent’s bet in comparison to the pot size in order to determine whether they are pot committed, but this is not necessarily a helpful equation. Rather, players should look at the pot size in comparison to their own remaining chip stack to determine whether they are pot committed.
Some players will simply ignore this aspect of the game – and that is OK. For players who are looking for a long-term strategy, paying attention to pot odds is a facet of your game to work on improving.
Do Not Overcommit
In other words, when you are calculating pot odds, be sure that you are comfortable with your selection of cards. As you run up that pot and you are looking at your hand, be sure that you would be comfortable going all-in with those cards. If you are not comfortable with that, then you could be overcommitting yourself.
Be Careful About Bluffing
Many novice players think it is all about the bluff. They act overconfident when they have a weak hand, and they act weak when they have a strong hand. Unfortunately, most of these acts are relatively easy to see through – if not at a casual home game, then certainly at a more professional-level event. Remember, a bluff is not about how you behave; it is about how you bet. So putting on an act is not going to do you any favors – it is just going to distract from the message you are sending with your bets.
You have to know when to bluff. Many players focus on bluffing for the fun of it – and that is OK, but it is not a viable long-term strategy. Likewise, many new players think the time to bluff is at the end of the hand, after they have seen the river. This is actually the worst time to bluff, because you have given your opponent every chance to catch a better break than you did. Instead, you should focus on bluffing after the turn or, even better, after the flop. After all, bluffing is not a long-term strategy for winning big. Rather, bluffing is a tool used to recoup your money when you paid to see a flop or a turn card.
Play With Players of Your Own Caliber
Chances are you are looking for a good time. If you win some coin, even better – but most people do not sit down at a table looking to earn a living. There is some virtue to sitting at a table with players who are beyond your skill level, but likely you will end up out of money and frustrated. Part of the fun of poker, after all, is winning every once in a while. So yes, you may learn something from better players – and it is good to engage in that from time to time – but it does not hurt to scope out the venue and choose some opponents of your own caliber.
Play Your Hand, Not the Player
Along the same lines, many new players – who have perhaps watched “Rounders” a few too many times – think that poker is a game of skill only because you are supposed to play your opponents and not your cards. This might be true for seasoned pros, who have seen every combination under the sun, but it takes decades to accrue that kind of experience. Every player is different and every player has a unique style. It can be difficult to predict exactly what will happen with any given opponent, especially when seven of them are sitting at the table with you.
Instead, you should focus on your cards. Only play good cards and only play when you have a lot of outs. There is nothing wrong with folding or opting out of a hand. Sure, there are always going to be the ones you would have won had you stayed in – but if you are taking a long view, you cannot really be concerned with those lucky breaks. The trick, instead, is to maximize your chances of winning. You can do that by only playing good cards – and playing them for what they are worth.
Indeed, many players think that acting is the way to trick an opponent into falling for a trap of a bluff, but acts are generally easy to see through. Rather, you should simply focus on being stoic – after you bet, set your eyes to the pot, and try not to express any emotions whatsoever. This will make you much harder to read than any act you can conjure up.
Keep Track of Outs
To be successful long-term you need to keep track of the outs you have available. Professional players can do this instantly – they have all the combinations locked away in their heads. If you do not have decades of experience, it can be a little more challenging to do. When you are sweating it out playing heads up against a big stack – the tension mounting, that itch to push all-in building – you are going to want to know how many cards in that deck can save you.
If you do not have very many outs, it is probably not a good time to bluff or to push all in. You want to give yourself as many options as possible. This seems like common sense, but many people get caught up in the emotion of the game. Checking yourself, and taking a moment to calculate those outs before you commit, can save you from making an expensive mistake.
Play the Long Game
Poker is a game of skill because, over time, you can learn to play the odds and maximize your chances of winning. Indeed, most poker strategies are designed to balance your odds of winning this hand with your odds of winning over the long term. As such, poker has become a game about long-term strategy, not only playing your cards, but playing the pot and the players next to you. As your skill level increases, you can add new facets to your game and become a more well-rounded player.
If you are just sitting down at a table, looking for a good time, remember that at its core, poker is a game. It is supposed to be fun. Play the way you will have fun playing. There are some things you can do to increase your chances of winning – such as giving yourself outs, emphasizing any strong hand you get and knowing when to bluff. Keep your eye on the prize and you are sure to have a good time. You do not have to win every hand to win the game, and there is no shame in folding.
After all, you have to know when to fold ‘em … Well, you know the rest. It is time to put all this to use and put yourself to the test.