A lot of poker strategy articles focus on what you should be doing at the tables. That’s not a bad approach to explaining the basics of poker strategy. But poker is counter-intuitive in this respect: What you don’t do is often just as important as what you do.
In poker, most players underestimate how important and effective it is to fold hands. If you’re playing well, folding is your default move. You’ll bet and raise, too, but rarely will you check and call. This is called being a tight aggressive player.
The 7 poker mistakes below all include an element of the importance of folding. That’s not the only skill you need to win at poker, but it’s higher on the list than most people realize. And folding a lot is more important for beginners, because it keeps them out of the deep water while they’re still learning to swim.
1- Not Folding When You Think You’ll Lose
If I had to pick a single guideline for playing poker that I could teach every new player, it would be this: If you think you’re going to lose the hand, fold. We all have a voice in our head telling us things. Some of us even have multiple voices in our heads. Is that voice telling you that you’re on the road to losing a showdown? Listen to it. Fold.
You’ll even hear players grumble about how sure they are that you have the better hand, then they’ll keep putting money in the pot. This is the biggest leak in most players’ games—continuing to put money in the pot even though they’re pretty sure they’re going to lose.
The good cards are out there somewhere. Give the other players credit. You don’t have to fold everything except the nuts, but you should be willing to fold anytime you think you’re going to lose.
2- Donking Off Lots of Chips Early
You have plenty of time to lose money after you sit down at the poker table. You don’t have to do it on the first hand, the first 10 hands, or even during the first hour. If you get way behind at the beginning of the game, you’ll spend the rest of the game playing catch-up. That’s not a fun way to play poker at all.
I once sat down at a no limit holdem game at a private, underground cardroom in McKinney, Texas with $200. I probably only had $400 to my name. On the first hand, I was dealt AQ suited, and I was in middle position. There was an Asian guy in early position whose nickname was “Rock.” He put in a pot-sized preflop raise. The next guy to act also raised, but I wasn’t paying close attention, so I thought I was going to be heads-up, so I pushed all $200 of my chips into the middle.
There’s nothing wrong with taking things slow at the poker table when you first sit down. Take the time to watch the other players. Who’s tight? Who’s loose? Who’s passive, and who’s aggressive? Every game has its own atmosphere and texture. Take the first hour or so to get a feel for what this specific game is like now and what it’s going to be like.
You don’t need to do anything flashy when you first sit down. I read some advice in one of John Vorhaus’s Killer Poker books about raising with the first 5 hands you’re dealt, regardless of the cards. I think that advice is nuts—definitely –EV. I understand his point, but in practice, I think that’s the wrong way to start in a poker game.
3- Starting Off with Marginal Hands
If you’re starting off with mediocre hands or worse, you’re bound to be a net loser at the game of poker. It’s hard to win a race when you’re starting from behind. It’s better to sit the race out until you get a chance to run in one where you start off ahead.
When you get marginal hands, only play them when you’re in position and can get into the pot cheap. Be willing to fold those cards later in the hand if things don’t go your way. When you get premium hands, don’t worry about being deceptive. Bet and raise with these hands. You’re going to win small amounts of money when everyone folds in the face of your naked aggression. You’ll also win large amounts of money when players with inferior hands lose at the showdown.
But also, be willing to get away from a premium starting hand if the cards don’t fall your way in later rounds. If you start with pocket aces, and all 4 cards on the board are suited, it’s likely your aces are going to get beat by that possible flush. Playing poker is like driving a car. You have a set of brakes for a reason. Don’t be afraid to use them. Money saved is worth just as much as money won.
4- Not Understanding Where the Money Goes
Where does the money go in poker? It goes from the players playing marginal hands to the players playing solid hands. This seems like no-brainer, and it is, but it’s surprising—especially with new players—how many folks don’t understand that the difference between winning players and losing players is the difference between good cards and mediocre cards.
In one of my more recent trips to the Winstar in Oklahoma, I watched a player raise pre-flop every hand. He amassed a huge pile of chips early on, many of them from getting everyone else to fold. He eventually got called down and lost all his money. He was a nice guy. I’d play poker with him again any time he wanted to.
5- Not Correcting Your Mistakes Quickly
Everyone makes mistakes at the poker table. Beginners do so more often. The problem is that a lot of players who make a mistake early in a hand keep compounding that mistake with further mistakes. If you raise preflop with a hand you shouldn’t have raised with, and the flop isn’t a perfect fit, it’s preferable to fold and get away from that hand.
Don’t throw good money after bad. Once that money’s in the pot, it’s not yours anymore. It’s part of the pot. At that point, you must decide whether to go after the money in the pot based on the strength of your hand, your reads on your opponent’s, and the pot odds that are being offered. Don’t make that decision based on how much money you’ve already put in the pot.
You’ll see a lot of beginner poker players make a bad call early in a hand—preflop or on the flop. It’s only a single bet, but then they act pot-committed. That’s a mistake. Always be willing to fold even if you screwed up earlier in the hand.
6- Not Realizing that There’s Always another Hand Right around the Corner
It’s easy to get starved for action and start putting money into the pot with hands that are only “so-so.” It’s hard to be patient. But think about it. How long does waiting for the next hand actually take most of the time?
Most hands play out on average in 2 minutes or less. That’s not long to wait for a better hand. If you lose a lot of money on a hand that you don’t like much, that’s money you could have kept and bet on a hand you did like—if you were patient and willing to wait for it.
Yes, you should be present when you’re playing and stay in the moment. That doesn’t mean this is the last hand you’ll ever get to play. There’s another hand just 2 minutes away, and you might like those cards a lot better.
7- Being Too Enthusiastic about Playing
Everyone should be enthusiastic about anything they do. But here, I’m talking about “enthusiastic” in the sense of being eager. If you’re too excited about getting to play, you’ll probably be playing a lot of hands you’d be better off folding. These players are easy to spot, too. They’re anxious. They’re tapping their feet. They’ll even mention that they’re eager to play.
I played with a guy in Oklahoma once who looked at me after I’d been folding for about 30 minutes, and he said, “You don’t play many hands, do you?” “I’m not getting good cards,” I replied. But you could tell, he was there to play, and he didn’t want to wait for something like a good hand.
Here’s another reality about poker you should realize sooner rather than later: It’s a slow-paced game. You’ll rarely get good hands. That’s what makes them good hands, in fact. You should be folding the hands that aren’t good. Prepare yourself for this mentally.
One of the tactics I use mentally to stay tight enough is to track how many hands in a row I’ve folded. I want to make a hand prove itself to me before I play it. Some people think I’m playing too tight. But I think I’m playing just right. In fact, for live poker in Oklahoma, you need a good hand to win. You’re not going to run the other players out of the pot there, at least not in the $4/$8 games.
If you’re willing to fold a lot, though, you’re basically going to see a return in the form of free money and entertainment. When you do play a hand, you’ll almost always win money with it—if you’re folding often enough. And hanging out in a cardroom talking with the other rounders is an entertaining reward in itself. It’s surprising how hard it is to fold a lot in poker, but it’s an essential skill.
You’ll read other blog posts and strategy articles about the importance of aggression in poker, and about how important it is to read other players, but the biggest leak I see in most beginners’ games is a lack of willingness to fold a lot.
Bonus Tip! How to Avoid this Common Mistake
Watch out for weak aces in Texas holdem. One of the biggest leaks new poker players have is overvaluing their hole cards when the ace’s kicker is low. Anyone with an ace and a higher kicker has you beat. It’s common for players to call with this kind of hand when they’d be better off betting, folding, or raising.
But be careful. Sometimes the card you represent is your opponent’s kicker. I tend to be a cautious player, so I fold in this situation more often than betting or raising. Your mileage may vary. The nature of your opponents makes a big difference, too.
Bonus Tip #2 – Stop Trying to Bluff Bad Players
In Oklahoma, especially at the lower stakes tables, the game ought to be called “no foldem holdem.” This is because almost every hand goes to a showdown. You can’t win a bluff if your opponents aren’t willing to fold. You need to be realistic about the likelihood that they’ll fold in the face of your aggression.
Getting multiple players to fold in that situation is even harder. Bluffing works best against 1 or 2 opponents. It also helps to have some possible hand you can hit, just in case. But with a lot of players, you can just forget about bluffing altogether and do better. That’s the case at many of the games I play in at the Winstar Casino in Oklahoma.
I’ve listed what I think are the 7 biggest mistakes most beginner poker players make, but they all have a running theme—it’s important to fold a lot. I could have, in fact, probably just written an entire post about the importance of folding.
I think a lot of folks would have trouble with that concept. It’s not the sexiest idea to talk about when discussing poker strategy. It’s not the sexy stuff that makes you the most money.
With poker, what you don’t do is probably just as important or more important than what you do. The hands you don’t play are more important than the hands you play. Once you realize this, you’re on your way to becoming the tight aggressive player that other players fear being at the table with.