An Introduction to Poker Strategy Concepts
Why should you play poker instead of other gambling games like slot machines or the lotteries?
For most poker players, the answer is the level of strategy and agency that’s involved.
When you play most gambling games, you’re at the mercy of Lady Luck. There are no effective strategies for playing the lottery or the slot machines, no matter what some of the sleazy snake oil salesmen on the internet might have you believe.
And with most gambling games, the payouts for your bets pay off at less than the odds of winning—usually much less. This means that over time, you’ll certainly lose your money. Your only hope is to get lucky and quit while you’re ahead.
Poker is a game of strategy AND agency, though. When you’re playing poker, you make decisions that affect your possible outcomes. That’s what we mean when we talk about “agency.” It’s the ability to make decisions that matter.
And if you can play a game with a strategy, you can possibly win more in the long run than you lose. Some of this is a function of how well you play compared to your opponents.
Every poker player started out as a beginner, so I’m going to cover some of the most basic of the basics of poker strategy.
The Basics of Poker Strategy for the Beginning Player
The 1st thing to understand when you’re devising a strategy for any endeavor is what your goals are. In poker, your goal should be to win more money in the long run than you lose. You must win pots to do so, but success isn’t measure in terms of pots won.
It’s measured in terms of profit.
If your goal was to win more pots than anyone else at the table, you’d play every hand you got all the way to the end. You’d succeed in your goal at most poker tables, too—you’d win more pots than most of the other players.
But you’d also lose so much money on the pots you lost that you’d show a net loss for the gambling session.
The cards you’re dealt are a big part of whether you win or lose. But an even bigger part of winning or losing depends on how you play those cards. And in poker, you only have 5 options to choose from during any betting round:
Most winning poker players go with option #4 than any of the other options. Game conditions might change how often you fold, but most of the time, the key to effective poker is putting money in the pot when the odds are in your favor. The rest of the time, you avoid putting money in the pot.
Decision Making in Poker
The decisions you make are what determine your levels of profits. When I learned to play Texas holdem, I learned the most basic of decisions was whether to even play in the hand based on the cards I’d been dealt.
If you have a big pair, like queens, kings, or aces, you should bet and raise with them preflop. The odds of winning with such a starting hand are good, and you want to get your money in the pot when you get a chance to.
Also, those kinds of hands work out better with fewer opponents. By betting and raising, you reduce the probability of someone drawing out on you by eliminating some of the players from the pot.
If you have a medium or small pair, you play more cautiously. Most of the time, you’ll fold in the face of aggression from players in earlier positions. In fact, you’ll only play these hands from middle or late position. Your goal is to get in cheap with a lot of other players.
Your hope is to flop a set. With a lot of opponents in the pot, you’ll win enough money to make playing these more borderline hands profitable.
Suited connectors are cards that are adjacent (or almost adjacent) in rank and are also of the same suit. I was taught to play these the same way I played those smaller pairs. Only now I’m hoping to get a straight or a flush on the flop, or at least a 4-card draw to such a hand.
Again, I’m going to miss my hand most of the time, so I want lots of people in the pot with me so that I get a big payoff when I do hit the hand.
Some suited connectors are also really high-ranked cards. Ace-king suited and Ace-queen suited are really strong starting hands, because you not only have a good chance at hitting the nut flush, but you also have the possibility of getting top pair and top kicker on the flop.
I was taught to raise with these last 2 hands, just like I would with the big pairs.
There are lots of subtleties to starting hand selection and play, most of which have to do with position and analyzing your opponents’ tendencies, but those are the basics for Texas holdem.
That action plan won me $6000 in my 1st online poker tournament. I was playing way too tight, especially in the later stages of the tournament.
But I did way better than I would have if I’d gone into that tournament with no game-plan at all.
The Importance of Forced Bets
It would be tempting to just fold continuously until you got perfect starting hands in perfect situations. That would make for a dull game indeed. An effective strategy would be to fold every hand except KK and AA preflop. You’d have no incentive to play any hand preflop worse than that.
But in Texas holdem, you have to make 2 forced bets every 10 hands—the small blind and the big blind.
In stud poker, on the other hand, you make a forced bet on every hand—it’s called the ante.
The antes and the blinds are what drive the action in poker games. Most of your decisions in the early betting rounds are based largely around the size of the antes and the blinds.
The bigger the forced bets are, the looser you have to play in order to make a profit. If you play too tight, those antes and blinds will eat into any potential profit you might have lying in front of you.
Forced bets like blinds and antes become even more important in tournament situations. These bets grow larger as the tournaments progress, otherwise a tournament might last nearly forever. The ratio of your chip stack versus the size of these forced bets determines how often and how aggressively you play your hands.
In most Texas holdem tournaments, if you only have between 4 and 10 blinds in front of you, it’s often a good idea to push all-in. If you’re lucky, everyone else will fold and you’ll pick up the blinds, which you really need.
That’s an example of the kind of thinking related to forced bets that you need to keep in mind.
Here’s another example from Texas holdem:
You’re the last person to act before the players in the blinds. Everyone else has folded.
Depending on how likely it is that the small blind and the big blind will call your bet, the profitable move is often to raise in this situation every time, so you can steal the blinds.
This holds true even if you have a marginal or nothing hand.
If you get some aggression in return from the blinds, you’ll have to decide whether to continue your aggressive play or fold.
But those blinds are what created that decision-making moment for you.
The Basics of Poker Probability
The basics of poker probability resemble the basics of any kind of gambling probability. You compare the odds of winning with the payout odds. If the payout odds exceed the odds of winning, you have a profitable bet. If the odds of winning are greater than the payout odds, you have a losing bet.
If you’re playing roulette, the odds of winning a single-number bet are 37 to 1. You have 37 ways to lose and only 1 way to win.
The payout for this bet is 35 to 1. If you win, you get 35 chips. If you lose, the casino gets your 1 chip.
In a mathematically perfect set of 38 spins, you’ll lose 37 units and win 35 units. The difference between the 2 is your expected loss. Divide that expected loss by 38 bets, and you’ll have an average amount you can expect to lose per bet.
Poker probabilities work the same way, but what makes poker interesting is the uncertainty factor. You don’t know what cards your opponents are holding, so you can’t estimate with 100% accuracy your odds of winning.
But you can estimate based on how likely it is that you think your opponent holds a certain hand.
The odds that the pot offers you on any particular bet is called “pot odds.”
Here’s an example:
You have suited connectors preflop in a $1/$2 Texas holdem game. Your position is late, and several players have limped in. There’s $7 in the pot, and it’s only $1 to call.
You’re getting 7 to 1 odds on that call.
If you estimate your odds of winning as being lower than that, you’re in a profitable situation. If you have a 6 to 1 or 5 to 1 shot at winning 7 units, you should take that bet all day long.
Things get more complicated in the later betting rounds, because at that point you have to put your opponent on a range of hands and estimate your odds of beating that hand.
Sometimes this means estimating how many “outs” you have and converting that into odds. For example, in a Texas holdem game, you have the ace and king of hearts in the hole. The flop comes with a jack of spades, a 3 of hearts, and a 4 of hearts.
You have 4 cards to the nut flush, which will probably win the hand. But anyone with even a small pair has you beat right now.
The question is whether there’s enough money in the pot to warrant staying in the hand.
You have 9 outs—cards left in the deck which will make your hand. The odds of filling your flush are close to 2 to 1. (That’s an estimate.)
But you also figure you stand to win if an ace or a king hits the turn or the river, giving you a big pair.
That’s 6 more outs. This increases your odds of winning to close to even, so it’s unlikely you’d ever feel the need to fold this hand.
Calculating outs and pot odds is an involved subject. I could (and probably will) write an entire post on the subject. For the beginner, though, it’s only important to have a rough idea of what those concepts are.
The Importance of Tight Play
I’ve written before about the difference between tight play and loose play, but in case you missed those other posts, here’s what you need to know:
You can categorize poker players by how likely they are to get involved in a hand. Some poker players play lots of hands. They see potential in every set of cards. These players are called “loose” players.
Other poker players only play above-average or better hands. They want their cards to prove to them that they’re worth playing. These players are called “tight” players.
You can measure how tight or loose a Texas holdem player is preflop by watching how often they put money in the pot. A player who plays 75% of her hands preflop is a loose player, at least preflop. A player who only plays 25% of her hands preflop is a much tighter player.
But some players are loose before the flop and tighten up on the flop. Others are tight preflop but have trouble getting away from a hand on the flop.
Your goal is to become a tight player. Being tight means you’re only getting into hands if you have better than average cards. It ALSO means only staying in hands when you have better than average cards.
Think of being a tight player as being like a jockey in a horse race who only races when his horse has a head start. That’s how you win at poker. Only get into the race if you have a head start.
In poker, the money you save by refusing to play inferior cards is just as valuable as money you win when you get lucky or have the best cards.
So learn how to fold a lot.
The Importance of Aggressive Play
You can also categorize players according to how often they bet and raise compared to how often they check or call. This doesn’t have anything to do with how tight the player is. It has to do with how aggressive the player is.
Players who bet and raise a lot are called “aggressive” poker players.
Players who check and call a lot are called “passive” poker players.
Aggressive poker play tends to win more money for obvious reasons. The most obvious reason is that by betting and raising, you’re getting more money into the pot. With more money in the pot, you win more money when you win a hand.
Passive poker play, on the other hand, is timid. You don’t put money into the pot unless you have to. And when you do put money into the pot, you’re only calling other players bets.
A lot of times when you check instead of betting, your opponents check, too. This gives them a free card with which to improve their hand.
When you only check and call, you’re not putting any pressure on your opponents to fold, either. Many hands in Texas holdem are won without a showdown. You can’t win a hand without a showdown without betting or raising, because you never give your opponents the opportunity to fold.
When you combine aggression with tight play, you become a fearful opponent. The worst strategy in poker is loose passive play. Players with those tendencies are called “calling stations.”
Don’t be a calling station.
Fold a lot.
But when you do play a hand, bet and/or raise with it most of the time.
The Importance of Position
My friend Wes often tells me that my biggest weakness as a Texas holdem player is that I don’t put enough value on position.
That’s just a fancy way of saying when you get to act. If you act early in the round, you’re in early position. If a lot of people get to act before you, then you’re in late position.
Since you have more information about your opponents’ actions in late position, you can play a wider variety of hands. Generally, you should play tighter poker from early position and looser poker from late position.
You’re the 1st player to act, and you have a pair of 9s in the hole. (You’re playing Texas holdem, by the way.) The player behind you raises. The player behind her raises, too. Then a 3rd players re-raises the 1st two.
With that many players raising that aggressively into the pot, you almost certainly are behind. At least one of these players has a pocket pair bigger than yours. You pretty much have to fold in that situation, losing that bet you made.
On the other hand, if you were in late position, you could have seen what the other players before you did and acted accordingly. You might have thought it was worthwhile to get into the hand, because you might hit a 3 of a kind on the flop. If you don’t, it’s an easy hand to get away from.
Understanding position is an important basic element of poker strategy.
Being Patient and Avoiding Tilt
Waiting for good cards can be boring. No one visits a casino cardroom with the intention of folding a lot of hands. You go there to play a few hands, not to fold a few hands, right?
But patiently waiting for opportunities to win big is a key component of winning poker.
I played in a local underground cardroom in Plano, Texas many years ago with a guy we called “Big Jim.” He played a lot looser than I did. One night he called my bet preflop, but he told me beforehand, “You’ve folded preflop 34 times in a row. I just HAVE to see what kind of cards you think are worth playing.”
We were playing a $2/$5 pot limit game. I won $1000 that night after 8 hours of play. I only saw 3 showdowns all night, and I picked up several pots without a showdown. Once I’d won those 3 big pots with the nuts, I was able to steamroll the table for a couple of hours.
Avoiding tilt is a related concept because being patient and staying calm are both psychological challenges for a lot of players. A player is said to be “on tilt” when he starts betting and raising with inferior cards because he’s mad about how his luck has been going.
Players often go on tilt after a bad beat.
Just remember that bad beats mean you’re playing well. You can’t get a bad beat unless you got into the hand with better cards than your opponent, which means you’re playing good poker.
Good poker always wins in the long run.
But you have to be patient.
Entire books have been written about the fundamentals of poker strategy. One of the best is The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky. If you’re looking for an introduction to poker strategy concepts that apply to all kinds of poker games, that’s the next thing to read.
Entire books have also been written about specific strategies for specific games. Some of these are better than others. I’m fond of the poker strategy books from Two Plus Two publishing.
Understanding the basics is necessary if you want to master the game, though. I hope this post put you on that road to mastery by introducing some of those basics.