Everyone knows by now that poker isn’t just a game of chance; it’s also a game of skill. It’s not a big leap from understanding that to understanding that poker pros know some secrets that you and I just aren’t aware of.
In fact, most poker pros would prefer that you didn’t learn their secrets. They make money when you lose money. If you learn their secrets to making money at the table, they won’t earn as much.
It’s impossible to learn everything you need to know to win at poker from a single blog post, but you can get started from a blog post like this.
Here are 20 poker secrets to get you started traveling down the road of winning at poker:
1- Winning at Poker Requires Insane Amounts of Discipline
Poker is a game of small edges that are applied repeatedly over time. Most people aren’t patient enough or disciplined enough to wait for those small edges to pay off. In fact, even the people who know what’s required don’t tend to realize just how much discipline is required.
You need to be willing to lose with pocket aces in Texas hold’em 5 or 6 times in a row without being discouraged or going on tilt. You need to be willing to face a seemingly endless string of bad beats without changing the way you play.
Poker can be a mind-numbingly boring experience, especially if you’re folding as often as you should be folding.
2- Most People Don’t Have What It Takes to Play Poker Professionally
The best estimates I’ve seen said that fewer than 10% of the people playing poker are showing a net profit at the end of the year. I’ve seen other estimates that said only 5% of poker players make a consistent profit. Being in the top 10% of the players means that at a full table, you’re the best player at the table. How often has that been the case?
I play at the Winstar in Oklahoma pretty regularly. I’m sometimes one of the best 2 or 3 players at the table, but I’m rarely the best player at the table. If you’re shooting for that top 5% echelon, you need to be the best player at your table and the table next to it.
Most people think it’s easier to play poker professionally than it actually is. They probably don’t keep good records of their wins and losses, either.
3- Poker Math Probably Isn’t as Hard as You Think
Most of what you need to know about poker math has to do with counting outs. An “out” is just a card that will make your hand the winner. Any cards you need that will make your hand the nuts—the best possible hand—count at full value.
For example, if you need an ace to make your hand, and there’s an ace in your hand and one on the board, you have 2 outs. When you know that, you can compare that with the number of unknown cards to calculate the odds of hitting your hand. That’s just a ratio of cards that won’t improve your hand to the cards that will help your hand.
If there are 47 cards left in the deck, and you need one of the 2 aces, the odds are 45 to 2. You can reduce that to 22.5 to 1. Then you can compare that to the pot odds—the payoff if you win the pot compared to the size of the bet you need to make. If there’s $40 in the pot, but it’s $10 to call, you’re getting 4 to 1 pot odds.
If your odds of winning are 22.5 to 1, but you only get paid off at 4 to 1, you’re in a negative expectation situation. Those are the basics. Anyone can handle that, because it’s just addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. You also need to be able to think fast and do some estimating. But it ain’t rocket surgery.
4- Losing Isn’t as Big a Deal as You Think
If you’re playing correctly, you’re getting a long-term positive expectation. In the short run, though, you will lose money. If that weren’t true, no one would play poker.
Some players get frustrated and think they would earn more money if their opponents respected their raises when they had a better hand. The truth is, you stand to gain more in the long run if your opponent calls your raises with inferior hands.
This is why bad beats are a good thing. And yeah, you’ll lose sometimes. In fact, you might lose most of the time. But if you’re playing correctly, you’ll win enough when you win to compensate for those losses and still profit.
5- You’ll Lose a Lot of Money if You Can’t Let Go of a Hand
Situations change in poker, especially Texas holdem. You can easily have the best hand preflop and need to fold it because the flop doesn’t fit. If you can’t let go of a hand because it’s not developing the way you’d like, you’re destined to lose a lot of money at the poker tables.
You get into a pot with pocket jacks, but the flop comes with an ace and a queen on it. Furthermore, all 3 cards are suited, and it’s not matching the suit of either of your jacks. Anyone with an ace, a queen, or 2 suited cards that match the flop has you overpowered at this point. Pocket jacks are a premium preflop hand, but you have to let it go in some situations.
6- Going on Tilt Is Awful but Avoidable
It’s hard to maintain iron-clad control over your emotions all the time, but if you want to win at poker, you have to learn how to do it. If you get angry and emotional, you’ll make bad decisions. In poker, the more rational your decisions are, the better off you’ll be.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have emotions. You just need to know that when your emotions are running high, it’s time to step away from the table until you calm down. Meditation helps, too, believe it or not.
7- Most of Your Opponents Play as Badly as You Do or Worse
It’s easy to think that you’re the worst, most inexperienced player at the table. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they call this “reverse pride.” The truth is that 90% of poker players aren’t profitable. The other players at the table are probably as bad as you are or worse.
Don’t stress out no matter what they say about your play. If they were really THAT much better than you, they’d be playing for higher stakes.
8- Even When You Have an Edge, It’s Usually Small
Poker is a game of small edges that you repeat again and again over time. This means you’ll lose a lot of the time. That’s part of the game. It’s hard to get a big edge at poker. It happens when you get hit by the deck and start getting monster hands.
The rest of the time, you’re trying to exploit small edges that you gain from paying attention to the cards and the other players.
9- You Should Be Paying Attention ALL the Time
One of the easiest mistakes to make at the poker table is to pay attention to something else besides the action at the table. Players commonly make this mistake when they’re not involved in the hand.
If you believed me when I said that poker is a game of small edges, then you’ll understand that gaining information about your opponents’ tendencies even after you’ve folded is worth doing. It gives you a small edge. You need to milk the game for every tiny fraction of a percentage of edge that you can if you want to be a winner.
10- You Can Improve Your Game Dramatically by Discussing Specific Hands in Online Poker Forums
Not everyone is comfortable discussing how they play specific hands with strangers, but sometimes there’s no better way to get feedback on how you’re doing. Just keep in mind that 90% of the players in the poker forums are no better at poker than you are.
11- ABC Poker Is All You Need to Win at the Lower Limits
If you’re trying to use tricky thinking and multiple-level thinking at the $1/$2 no limit holdem tables at the Choctaw Casino in Oklahoma, you’re engaged in a fool’s errand. The players at that level aren’t paying enough attention for any of that to matter. Most of them are just there to gamble. They might as well be playing a slot machine.
ABC poker is just poker where you bet and raise when you have good cards. You check and fold when you don’t. It doesn’t work at the higher limits because it makes you predictable. But at lower stakes tables, it doesn’t matter.
12- Bullies in Poker Are Just Like Bullies on the Playground
The trick to dealing with bullies on the playground is to stand up to them. If you do the same thing at the poker table, you’ll be less likely to get bullied repeatedly. This doesn’t mean you need to bet and raise into these bullies. Just call their bets more often. Let them know that you’re not going to be pushed around.
Sometimes you can even use Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope technique against a bully. Fold in the face of his aggression a lot. He’ll keep trying those bets and raises. When you get some cards, you’ve got him.
13- You Can’t Bluff a Player Who Isn’t Paying Attention No Matter How Tight You’ve Been Playing
Bluffing too often is one of the biggest mistakes you can make at lower limit games. I mentioned earlier that the low stakes holdem games are often called “no foldem holdem.” That’s because players fall in love with their hands, and there’s almost always a showdown for the pot.
You can’t bluff someone who refuses to fold no matter how bad his cards are. Your best bet at lower levels is to get the cards, then bet the cards. You might try a semi-bluff if you’re facing a single opponent, or even 2 opponents who play weak. You win if they fold, but you also win if you draw out on them.
14- Poker Tournament Strategy Is Significantly Different from Cash Game Strategy
In a poker tournament, the value of your chips change as the game goes on. The chips represent your equity in the prize pool. In a cash game, the chips are worth what the chips are worth. This has huge implications in terms of strategy, especially since the blinds go up as the tournament goes on. Early in the tournament, when the blinds are small, you should play tight. You don’t want to bust out early even if you have a pretty good hand.
Later in the tournament, when the blinds are higher, you have no choice but to loosen up and start raising. If you don’t, you’re going to get into a situation where you bust out of the tournament just because you couldn’t afford the blinds.
15- You Should Specialize in One Game When You’re Starting Out
I had a boss who used to tell me that the man who chases 2 rabbits catches neither. If you want to be an expert at Texas holdem, stop trying to learn how to play 7 card stud. Master Texas holdem first, and once you’re confident in that game, move on to other games.
Texas holdem, by the way, is the obvious choice of a poker game to specialize in at first. It’s the most commonly played variation, so you’ll always be able to find plenty of action. If you just can’t bring yourself to master Texas holdem, try studying Omaha.
16- You Can Go Broke if You Don’t Manage Your Bankroll Appropriately, Even if You’re in the Top 5% of Players Skill-wise
Anyone can lose a hand because of bad luck. Anyone can have a losing session because of bad luck. In fact, anyone can lose several sessions even if they’re playing perfectly. That’s why you need a big enough bankroll to avoid going broke in the short term. Your skill doesn’t show up until you get into the long term.
You can find plenty of pages on this site and other that offer specific bankroll advice. But it’s a good starting point to understand that if you’re uncomfortable with the buy-in, your bankroll probably isn’t big enough.
17- Poker Is about Making Repeated Good Decisions
Poker isn’t about winning pots, although many players think it is. It’s actually about making mathematically sound decisions on a repeated basis. Sometimes this means you’re going to lose several times in a row. You have to become zen-like in your acceptance of these kinds of losses. I used to play with a guy who told me, “DBSRO.” That was short for “don’t be so results oriented.”
If you’re not orienting yourself around results, you’re orienting yourself around the process. And in poker, that process is a matter of making mathematically sound decisions over and over again.
18- Online Poker Is a Riskier Proposition than You Might Think
I’m not as paranoid about online cheaters in poker as some people, but it’s still a problem to consider before depositing money in an online poker site. I’d be more worried about a poker room that might not have the funds to pay my withdrawal when I try to make it.
They’re lucky to have gotten their money back at all. Play online poker if you want to, but only use fun money for this purpose. The more money you risk, the worse off you are.
19- Position Is Incredibly Important
The biggest mistake I see at the low limit Texas holdem tables is playing cards that are too weak considering your position. The rule of thumb is easy:
If you act before other players, you’re acting earlier than they are. The more players who are left to act behind you, the earlier your position is. You can be in early position, middle position, or late position.
What position you’re in should inform your choice of hands to play in a big way. If you’re not accounting for this when you’re deciding whether to play a hand, you have a major leak.
20- The Hands You Fold Are More Important than the Hands You Play
You absolutely cannot win at poker if you keep getting into hands with cards that are dominated. This means you need to fold junk. It also means you need to fold mediocre hands from early position.
How often do you think you’ll win against him? Playing good hands is the equivalent of giving yourself a head start. Folding mediocre hands is the equivalent of sitting out the race when someone else has a head start. You can find plenty of articles explaining starting hand requirements. They’re all more or less the same, but with subtle differences. Read any of them today.
Poker pros don’t want you to know ANY of the secrets of the game. In fact, if you hear what seems like well-meaning advice from a serious poker player, consider doing the opposite. I’ve given other players bad advice in the past, myself.
This post is only the beginning of poker wisdom. You have dozens if not hundreds of books to read. There are thousands of hands to play. Even after all that, you might not know everything you need to know to win at poker consistently. But you’ll have gotten a good start.