I started playing Texas holdem online before the poker boom ever started. I was a 7-card stud player on the internet before that, but I learned to play Texas holdem because there was a weekly game on Party Poker that a bunch of us gambling webmasters used to play in. If I wanted to participate in that game, I had to learn how to play Texas holdem.
So, yeah, I got lucky, but I did follow a strategy, too. I’d read the section on Texas holdem in How to Make $100,000 a Year Gambling for a Living by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth. That was the only information I had about playing strategy, but it was enough.
1- I Learned the Basics of the Game
Most people reading this post probably already know the basics of how to play Texas holdem, but if you don’t, I’ve covered it briefly here. Feel free to skip this section if you’ve mastered the basics already.
Texas holdem is a community card poker game—that means that you have some cards, but you also share cards with your opponents. In Texas holdem, the cards are dealt as follows, and there’s a betting round after each phase of the deal:
- The hole cards are dealt first. These are the 1st (and only) 2 cards everyone gets for their individual hands, and they’re dealt face down.
- The flop comes next. These are the 1st 3 cards “on the board.” These are most of the community cards for the game. They’re dealt face up and revealed simultaneously.
- The turn comes after the flop. That’s an additional face-up card. The bet sizes double after the turn is dealt.
- The river is the final community card. It’s one more face-up card.
So you start with 2 cards of your own, face-down, then you eventually have 5 community cards on the board. You share those with the other players in the game.
You use any combination of the cards in your hand with the cards on the board to make the best possible poker hand. You can use 2 cards from your hand and 3 cards from the board, 1 card from your hand and 4 cards from the board, or you can just use all 5 cards on the board and none from your hand. As with any poker game, there are forced bets, but in Texas holdem, these are blinds rather than antes. An ante is a forced bet that you pay every hand to play. In Texas holdem, you have a small blind and a big blind every hand.
The big blind is usually the same size as the bets during the first round. The small blind is usually half that. So if you’re playing in a $2/$4 Texas holdem game, the big blind would be $2, and the small blind, $1. The bets preflop and on the flop are done in increments of $2, while on the turn and the river the minimum bets go up to $4.
Texas holdem is often played in pot limit and no limit formats, too—especially in tournaments. In those cases, the minimum bets work the same way, but your maximum bet on every round is either the same as the size of the pot (in pot limit) or as the size of the chip stack in front of you (in no limit poker). And those are the basics of how to play Texas holdem. It’s a fast and exciting way to play poker. If you’ve only ever played draw poker or stud poker at your kitchen table, you’ll be surprised how much you like holdem, I thin.
2- I Entered a $10 Buy-In Satellite Tournament
A satellite tournament is the same thing as a qualifier tournament. It’s a tournament where the prize is an entry to a larger tournament. Here’s how that might work, although it can vary: You decide you want to play in the World Series of Poker Main Event, but the $10,000 entry fee is more than you want to spend. You find a “satellite tournament” online.
You find a 10-person tournament with an $1100 entry fee. (That’s $11,000 in prize money.) The winner of that tournament wins an entry to the World Series of Poker, which is worth $10,000. The online poker room keeps the additional $1000 in prize money—that’s how they stay in business. Of course, not all qualifiers or satellites are such a big deal. If memory serves, the qualifier I won entitled me to get into a $100 buy-in multi-table tournament.
3- I Tried to Figure Out What the Best Possible Hand Was on Every Hand, Whether I Had Folded or Not
One of the first things I learned from How to Make $100,000 a Year Gambling for a Living was that I needed to be able to recognize the best possible hand given the community cards on the table. If you can’t do that, you’ll fold what might be the best hand sometimes. Or you might play a hand you’re convinced is “the nuts”—the best possible hand—as if it were a monster.
Also, if you don’t have the nuts, pay attention to what’s going on with the other players. If there’s a lot of betting and raising, someone else probably DOES have the nuts. If you think one of your opponents has the nuts, you should fold. I folded a LOT in that tournament where I won $6000.
4- I Played VERY Tight
The 1st piece of strategy advice I learned was to pay attention to my position. The more players behind you who haven’t acted, the earlier your position is. You should play tighter from earlier position and loosen up from later position.
The reason for this is simple enough:
The later you get to decide, the more information you have before making your decision. Let’s say you have a pair of 5s and you’re the 1st person to act. 3 players behind you raise, re-raise, and re-raise again. Chances are, at least one of these players has your hand dominated–maybe even 2 of them or all of them. You shouldn’t be in a hand where your hand is dominated, so you have to fold.
In fact, if you had that hand in late position, you would certainly fold it in the face of those bets and raises. By limping in with that hand from early position, you lost a bet you shouldn’t have lost. The only hands I played from early position were hands I would have been happy to play from late position in the face of bets and raises. In late position, I could tell which hands I could get away with playing cheap. I’ll write more about that, but if it’s a speculative hand, I don’t mind limping in with it if I can—from late position.
5- I Raised with Large Pocket Pairs
Any pair of 10s or higher got played strongly from any position I was in. In other words, I bet and raised aggressively with those hands. I think I might have overplayed some 10s and jacks on some hands, but the cards were with me. In a tournament, one of your goals is to avoid busting out. In a ring game, if you have pocket aces, you make more money with more callers, even though you’ll lose with the hand more often. But in a tournament, the more opponents you have, the likelier you are to bust out of the tournament—if you bust out too early, you win nothing.
My strategy with these pairs on the flop was simple enough—if I hit 3 of a kind, or if I had an overpair or top pair with a good kicker, I bet and raised aggressively. Otherwise, I folded. This is an oversimplification of the correct strategy for these hands, by the way. I was brand-new to the game and had no idea how strategy worked. By keeping it simple, I was able to compete. One of the reason I was able to compete, by the way, was because the other players in the tournament played terribly.
6- I Played Small and Middle Pairs Conservatively
I wish you could have seen the notes I made before playing in this tournament. I was nervous, and I didn’t want to spoil my chance at a big payday. I scribbled as much stuff about how to play various hands on a single sheet of paper as I could. I was so new to the game that I had no other choice.
The advice in the book I read was to play middle and small pairs conservatively. So if I had a pair of 9s or lower, I tried to get into the pot only if I could meet 3 conditions:
- I was in late position.
- I could get into the pot cheap.
- I could get into the pot with at least 4 other players.
Position might be most important. I won’t know how cheap or expensive it is to play a hand if I haven’t seen what the other players are going to do. With hands that I’m supposed to play conservatively, it’s essential that I have an idea of what it’s going to cost to play a specific hand.
Finally, having additional players in the pot was necessary to make sure I won enough chips from the hand to make it worth playing at all. With a small or middle pair, you’re really hoping to hit 3 of a kind on the flop. Since you already have 2 of the cards you need, there are only 2 cards that can help you make your hand on the flop. Those aren’t great odds. Most of the time, you’ll have to fold a small or medium pair when the flop hits. This means that when you do hit, you need to win more money to compensate for the chips you lost on those other hands.
7- I Folded High Cards if They Weren’t Connected or Suited (Except for Ace-King and Ace-Queen)
A lot of Texas holdem players love big cards, and bigger cards are definitely bigger than lower cards. But if they’re not suited and don’t have much connectivity, they’re really speculative.
For example, I folded every time I got something like K-10 offsuit. That’s a playable hand for a lot of people, especially when you have position in a ring game. But I was the rankest of rank amateurs during this tournament. It’s too easy to get into a questionable situation with a hand like that. Suppose the flop came with an ace, a king, and a 6?
I’d have top pair, and an okay kicker, but other players also love aces. Should I fold there or put some money in? Those situations are too common and those decisions too difficult for me to mess with at this stage in my development. On the other hand, if I had KQ suited, I’m playing it. The cards are connected and suited and high enough in rank that I might even have my opponents dominated before the flop.
8- I Played Big Little Suited Cards Conservatively
My favorite hand in Texas holdem is an ace with a smaller card of the same suit. They call this big little suited. Some players also include a king and a smaller card of the same suit, but I think a hand like that is a little more speculative than I’d want to play.
The best case scenario is to flop the flush, but flopping a flush draw AND pairing the ace at the same time is probably the next best scenario. But this is just another speculative hand, so the strategy for playing it is the same as for the other speculative hands: Get in cheap with a lot of other players, then play aggressively when you hit your hand on the flop and fold fast if you miss it.
9- I Played Suited Connectors Conservatively, Too
Strangely, suited connectors are my least favorite hand to play. I’ve read that Doyle Brunson loves suited connectors, though. Of course, Doyle Brunson is a world-class poker player. I’m not a rank amateur anymore, but I’m a FAR cry from Doyle Brunson.
Suited connectors are just 2 cards of the same suit that have ranks adjacent to each other. For example, if you have the 7 of hearts and the 8 of hearts, you have suited connectors. You have multiple possibilities with a hand like this:
- You could make a straight.
- You could make a flush.
- You could make a straight flush.
- You could hit a pair, 2 pairs, or 3 of a kind.
The nice thing about suited connectors is that it’s easy to know where you’re at on the flop. I like hands where I don’t have to make hard decisions. You usually don’t have to make hard decisions with suited connectors.
But in a poker tournament, you need to keep in mind that the value of the chips change as the tournament continues. The poker chips in a Texas holdem tournament have no intrinsic value. They’re just representative of your equity in the prize pool. The best case scenario is to hit your straight or flush right on the flop. But if you make a straight on the flop, be careful of suited cards. One of your opponents might hit a flush.
Winning 6th place in that 1st online Texas holdem tournament was probably the biggest the biggest thrill of my poker career. (The 2nd biggest was when I won $1000 in one night at an underground cardroom in Plano, Texas, but that’s another blog post.)
There were 2 reasons I won 6th place in this particular tournament:
- I was lucky.
- I played super tight.
You can’t win a poker tournament without luck on your side even if you’re a skilled poker professional. If you’re an amateur or beginner, luck becomes even more important. You can do some things to increase your probability of being lucky, but probably not much. Playing super tight is the 2nd most important thing. Most beginners bust out of the tournament before landing in the money. If you’re playing with a field of players who aren’t very skilled, you can often just fold your way into the money.
It’s hard to fold too often in Texas holdem when you’re new to the game. In the later rounds, the railbirds could tell I was new to the game because I was folding entirely too often. I didn’t do anything to protect my blinds. I didn’t use any kind of selective aggression to steal other players’ blinds, either. It didn’t matter that day, though. I hit enough hands that I hung in there and made the final table. You could do the same thing.