Some concepts in poker are necessary to understand if you ever want to be able to play the game competently. This post explains what I think are the most important concepts to understand once you’ve got a basic grasp of the game. I’ve tried to include plenty of detailed examples to get you started.
Keep in mind that just reading a blog post explaining the most important concepts in the game isn’t a good substitute for experience at the table. Some poker players make a similar mistake in reverse—they think their experience is a substitute for learning fundamental concepts. You need both—experience and education.
The Ranking of Poker Hands
You CANNOT succeed at poker unless you know the ranking of poker hands thoroughly. Most people learn this at a young age. You absolutely must know what beats what in a game of poker. The standard poker hand rankings are listed below, from best to worst possible hand:
- Royal flush – The 10JQKA of one suit. This is just the best possible straight flush you could have, but it’s also the best possible hand in most games. (In games with wild cards, 5 of a kind beats a royal flush.)
- Straight flush – 5 cards of the same suit that have consecutive rankings, like 23456, all of spades or hearts.
- 4 of a kind – 4 cards of the same rank plus one other card. QQQQA would be a 4 of a kind with an ace “kicker.”
- Full house – 3 cards of one rank along with 2 cards of another rank. QQQAA would be an example of a full house.
- Flush – 5 cards of the same suit. 79JQA, all of hearts, would be a flush.
- Straight – 5 cards in consecutive order of rank. 45678 of different suits would count as a straight.
- 3 of a kind – 3 cards of one rank, and 2 cards of 2 different ranks. QQQKA is an example of a 3 of a kind.
- 2 pairs – 2 cards of one rank, 2 cards of another rank, and a 5th card of another rank. QQKKA would be 2 pairs.
- 1 pair – 2 cards of one rank, and 3 cards of 3 other ranks. JJQKA is an example of a hand with a pair of jacks.
- High card – Any hand that doesn’t qualify for one of the above beats another hand if the highest card in that hand is higher than the highest card in the opponent’s hand.
In some poker games, it’s important to understand what the low hand is, too. In most such games, straights don’t count as high for purposes of finding the low. As long as the 5 cards are 8 or below and don’t include a pair, they qualify as a low.
If multiple players have a low hand, the player with the lowest high card wins the low. 65432 beats 76543, for example. These points might seem too basic, but you cannot win at poker if you’re confused about whether your hand is a winner.
One of the 1st books I read about poker was a short book explaining Texas holdem, and the authors pointed out that one of the 1st skills you need to learn is to recognize what the nuts would be with any given board. If you can’t recognize that, you can’t accurately decide how to bet. These are the kinds of fundamental concepts you need to MASTER.
The Concept of Outs
“Outs” are cards that you need to get later in the game to make your hand the winner. This isn’t an exact science, because you don’t know what the other players have in their hands. Let’s look at an example:
You’re playing Texas holdem, and you have the ace and king of hearts. On the flop, you have the 2 of clubs, the 7 of hearts, and the 8 of hearts. You have 4 cards to an ace-high flush, which is probably going to beat most other hands.
How many cards left in the deck will make your hand? There are 13 cards in each suit, and 4 of them are already accounted for. This means you have 9 outs. You also know that there are 47 cards total that you don’t know about. (You have 2 cards in your hand and 3 on the board, for a total of 5 cards. There are 52 cards in the deck—less those 5 cards are 47 cards.)
In this example, though, you get 2 more cards—the turn and the river. The odds of making your hand are actually better because of this. Here’s another consideration: Suppose that the 2 of hearts is the card on the turn. Now you have a pair of 2s on the board. If someone has 28 or 27 in the hole, they now have a full house, which beats a flush. That’s unlikely, because most players—not all, but most—will fold a weak hand like 27 or 28. But are those your only outs?
It’s also possible that an ace could come out, which would give you the best possible pair with the best possible kicker—a pair of aces with a king kicker. Or a king could fall, giving you a pair of kings with an ace kicker. Those are fine hands, too, so you might count those 6 cards as outs, too, giving you a total of 15 outs. Some of those outs might not be good, depending on what kind of hand your opponent has.
Here are some examples of outs:
- If you have 2 pairs, there are 4 outs to make a full house.
- If you have a 3 of a kind, there is 1 out to make a 4 of a kind. There are 10 outs to make a full house.
- If you have an open-ended straight draw, you have 8 outs. An open-ended straight draw is a sequence of 4 cards in order of ranking, like 4567. Any 3 or any 8 will complete your straight, and there are 4 of those, which gives you 8 outs.
- If you have an inside straight draw, you only have 4 outs. That’s a sequence of 4 cards with a gap in the middle, like 4578. Any 6 will complete your straight, but there are only 4 of them.
- If you have 4 cards to a flush, you have 9 outs.
You then compare the number of cards in the deck that won’t help your hand with the number of cards in the deck that will help your hand. Those are your odds.
In Texas holdem, on the flop, there are 47 cards unknown, so the odds are calculated by subtracting the number of outs from 47 and then comparing that result with the number of outs. In the flush draw example above, you have 38 cards that won’t help your hand versus 9 that will, so the odds are 38 to 9. And you get 2 shots at it on the flop.
Pot Odds Are the Next Concept
Okay, so knowing what the odds of making your hand are is important, but it’s incomplete without knowing how much you’ll get paid off when you make your hand. If you’ve read any of my casino game posts, you already know that expected value is a function of how much you get paid versus how likely it is that you’ll win.
Without both pieces of information, you don’t know if a specific situation has a positive expected value or a negative expected value. Pot odds are simply the amount of money in the pot divided by how much it costs to stay in the pot.
For example, if there’s $100 in the pot, and it costs you $10 to stay in, the pot odds are 10 to 1. If your odds of winning are 9 to 1 or less, then it’s a profitable call. You’ll lose 9 times out of 10, but the time you win, you’ll recoup your losses plus a profit.
Then you also need to take into account how large the pot will get by the showdown. These are called implied odds. If the pot looks like it will get a lot bigger by the time of the showdown, then the pot odds are better than you’d expect.
These are all going to be estimates based on incomplete information. That’s what makes poker interesting—it’s a game of unknowns. If it were a game where you had all the information, it would be just like playing chess. And where’s the fun in that?
Also, the stakes you play for make a difference in terms of how important these concepts are. In lower stakes games, you can usually count on a “schooling effect” which will increase your implied odds. That’s because a lot of the players at the lower stakes games are calling stations. They’ll keep calling bets with inferior hands, and that dead money increases your expected value. And in fact, that’s the next concept I should cover—expected value.
+EV and –EV: The Concept of Expected Value in Poker
Expected value is just the probability of winning multiplied by the amount you stand to win minus the probability of losing multiplied by the amount you stand to lose. If the result is positive, then it’s a good bet. If the result is negative, it’s a bad bet. And when a real poker player talks about good bets and bad bets, he means +EV bets and –EV bets.
A +EV bet is a bet with a positive expectation. It’s a bet that stands to show a profit in the long run. If you make a long enough string of +EV bets, you should eventually show a profit. A –EV bet is a bet with a negative expectation. It’s a bet that stands to show a loss in the long run. If you make a long enough string of –EV bets, you’ll eventually show a net loss.
Here’s an example: You have a lousy starting hand, but you want to try to bluff and win the pot preflop. 4 players have limped in before it’s your turn to act. You estimate that each player has a 50% chance of bluffing if you raise.
The probability of all 4 players folding is 50% X 50% X 50% X50%, or 6.25%. That’s better than 20 to 1, but not by much. The pot only has 4 bets in it plus the blinds. So you’re only getting 5 to 1 on your money on a 20 to 1 shot. This is clearly a negative expectation bluff.
On the other hand, suppose the pot has $5 in it, and you’re heads up on the flop. You have a feeling that your opponent has nothing, and neither do you, but you still estimate his probability of folding at 50%. If he folds, you win $5. If it costs you less than $2.50 to bet and get him to fold, this is a positive expectation bet.
These are, of course, oversimplifications. Most situations are a little more complicated than this, but once you’ve mastered calculating outs, converting them to odds, and comparing them to pot odds, you can master poker. The only extra step is putting your opponents on a range of hands.
The biggest and most important concepts to learn in poker are also some of the most basic:
- The hand rankings
- Pot odds
- Expected value
If you have a good understanding of these concepts, you’re well on your way to becoming a profitable poker player. Keep studying and pay attention to what happens. Also, keep in mind that expected value is a long-term prediction or average. In the short run, you can and will often lose.
But as long as you keep making +EV bets and raises, while avoiding –EV calls, you’ll eventually start showing the profit you’d expect. It will just take longer to realize than you might expect.