If you’re a fan of Texas holdem poker, January has been a banner month for watching the game’s great’s play for pots potentially worth millions. The global online poker leader PokerStars treated the community to an inaugural Players No Limit holdem Championship, a $25,000 buy-in event with an additional $1 million pumped into the prize pool. But unlike any other big buy-in tournament on the planet, PokerStars gave away hundreds of “Platinum Passes” – or complimentary entries into the high-profile event.
In the end, with thousands watching the action via Twitch live stream, Platinum Pass winner Ramon Colillas of Spain outlasted over 1,000 opponents to claim the crown in dramatic fashion – earning $5.1 million in winnings along the way. The novel new event was followed by the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA), historically one of the most fun-filled stops on the tournament circuit. With buy-ins ranging from a few hundred bucks to $100,000, the PCA treated poker fans watching at home to nearly two weeks of nonstop flops, folds, and monster pots.
If you’re like me, you probably watched your fill of Texas holdem over the last few weeks – alternating with the NFL Playoffs on the weekend of course. But while I gorged on this smorgasbord of top-notch poker, I couldn’t help but focus on the multitude of mistakes I witnessed playing out on the felt. Thanks to PokerStars’ commitment to uninterrupted live streaming of its live events, poker fans like myself were able to watch hours upon hours of unfiltered footage. Every hole card was shown, and every street of action from preflop to showdown was aired for all to see.
As a result, we were given a glimpse into just how complex and complicated playing sound poker can be. And with so many amateur players on hand thanks to the Platinum Pass promotion, the game’s sheer complexity created many opportunities for mistakes to be made.
Succeeding in this game requires study and discipline, along with a willingness to evaluate your own skills and strategies objectively. With that in mind, make a mental checklist as you read the rest of this page, and pledge to work on avoiding the mistakes below as your Texas holdem journey continues.
1 – Playing Too Many Hands Preflop Out of Boredom or Aggression
When you watch poker on TV, rather than the aforementioned continuous live streams, the onscreen product can be extremely deceptive. Editors have sifted through hours, or even days, of coverage searching specifically for dramatic hands. These hands are then strung together to create a compelling narrative, usually involving rivalries or runaway chip leaders.
Here’s the rub though… even active and creative players like Negreanu and Ivey aren’t playing much more than 10 percent of their preflop holdings. It might seem like they’re in every hand, battling for every pot and “going to war” with any two cards, but that’s simply a byproduct of edited poker productions. In reality, the best players do like Kenny Rogers once said and “know when to fold ‘em.”
Remember, leaving aside suits, the 52-card deck can produce a whopping 169 possible two-card starting hands in Texas holdem. Of the 169, you’ll have 13 pocket pairs that are usually playable (more on this in a minute), along with your premium non-pairs like A-K, A-Q, A-J, K-Q, Q-J, and J-10. Even when we throw in a few decent suited connectors such as 6-7, 7-8, 8-9, and 9-10 suited for good measure, that makes it 23 hands that are immediately playable in most situations.
You can learn more about the 169 starting hands in Texas holdem here, but suffice to say, a disciplined preflop strategy only gives you 13 percent of them to work with. OK, but what about folks who adopt a loose and aggressive style before the flop?
Despite all of these facts and figures, I invariably watched lesser skilled players wind up in tricky spots while holding nothing but rags. Naturally, tournament circumstances like short stacked play and the bubble will necessitate opening your preflop range up quite a bit, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. No, the biggest mistake I saw while watching wall-to-wall tournament coverage involved players succumbing to boredom.
Remember, live poker plays out much more slowly than it does online – especially in a pressure-packed tournament setting. You might see 15 or 20 hands over the course of an hour, and most of them won’t be worth playing. Thus, barring a hot run of starting hands, most poker players are forced to be extremely patient, biding their time and picking up enough blinds and antes to keep their stack intact until the premiums finally arrive.
Unfortunately for many recreational players, the combination of TV-inspired recklessness with basic boredom attributed to folding over and over creates a temptation too strong to resist. After dutifully folding a series like 2-9 / K-4 / 10-6 / Q-7 / 3-J / 8-5 / Q-5 / 4-10 for an entire orbit, picking up something like A-2 or Q-10 can suddenly look like Aces in the hole.
And when in doubt, keep the following data in mind concerning the odds and probabilities of picking up certain hands. When you know exactly how likely and unlikely getting a premium pocket pair (just over 54 to 1 against) or a suited connector (24.5 to 1), staying patient simply becomes a matter of mathematics:
|A-Ks (or any two suited cards)||0.00302||331 to 1|
|A-A (or any specific pocket pair)||0.00453||220 to 1|
|A-Ks, K-Qs, Q-Js, or J-10s (suited cards)||0.0121||81.9 to 1|
|A-K (or any specific non-paired hand)||0.0121||81.9 to 1|
|A-A, K-K, or Q-Q||0.0136||72.7 to 1|
|A-A, K-K, Q-Q, or J-J||0.0181||54.3 to 1|
|Suited cards, jack or better||0.0181||54.3 to 1|
|A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J, or 10-10||0.0226||43.2 to 1|
|Suited cards, 10 or better||0.0302||32.2 to 1|
|Suited connectors||0.0392||24.5 to 1|
|Connected cards (10 or higher)||0.0483||19.7 to 1|
|Any two cards with rank at least queen||0.0498||19.1 to 1|
|Any pocket pair||0.0588||16 to 1|
|Any two cards with rank at least jack||0.0905||10.1 to 1|
|Any two cards with rank at least 10||0.143||5.98 to 1|
|Connected cards (consecutive; 6-7 etc.)||0.157||5.38 to 1|
|Any two cards with rank at least 9||0.208||3.81 to 1|
|Neither connected nor suited||0.534||0.873 to 1|
2 – Overvaluing Popular Hands That Aren’t as Powerful As They Seem
On the same note, many Texas holdem rookies – and even longtime players who can’t beat the game – have a tendency to overvalue certain hands. Speaking strictly for myself, I know I have a weakness for “set mining” whenever I find a small- to mid- pocket pair. Give me deuces through nines in the hole and chances are good I’ll find a way to see the flop, even though I know deep down I’ll hit my set only just under 12 percent of the time.
Part of this phenomenon is confirmation bias, as our minds naturally remember those heated hands when 2-2 spikes a set on the A-9-2 to stack off big slick. Similarly, players who prefer suited aces always call back to times when they nailed the nut flush on the turn. What we don’t remember, however, are the other 6.5 instances (on average) where the same pair of ducks fail to find a third, or the suited cards wind up with a useless four-flush for a busted draw. The mind can be a funny thing, especially when it’s challenged by the rigors of a Texas holdem table.
To help you remedy the all too common mistake of overvaluing certain hands, keep the following probabilities and odds against in mind going forward:
|Flopped Hand||Odds Against||Probability|
|118 to 1||0.8 percent||Flush|
|Straight (with connected cards J-10 through 5-4)||76 to 1||1.3 percent|
|Set (three of a kind) with a pocket pair||7.5 to 1||11.8 percent|
|Any pair (matching one of your hole cards)||2.45 to 1||29.0 percent|
That J-10 might look pretty enough preflop, especially when you start thinking about all of the nut straights you can spike on the flop. But when you realize that J-10 – or any other connector for that matter – only flops a straight on 1 out of 100 hands, finding the fold button will be far easier.
3 – Blindly C-Betting in Position After Missing the Flop
Another common mistake employed by recreational players is following up a preflop raise with a continuation bet on the flop by default. At one point in the strategic evolution of Texas holdem, the “c-bet” was used almost automatically, with most hands playing out in clockwork fashion. The preflop opener would raise in position and pick up a call or two out of the blinds. Then, when the blinds wound up missing altogether, a single small bet from the aggressor was enough to take the pot down without a further fight.
Nowadays, if you fall into a predictable pattern of opening in position preflop and then following through with a c-bet, you’ll be eaten alive by thinking opponents. These guys and gals will prey upon your predictability, baiting you into a “standard” c-bet only to check-raise big on a stone cold bluff. Or perhaps they’ll simply call your c-bet and check for a second time, knowing most players are hesitant to fire a second barrel holding nothing but air. From there, after you check back to see a turn card, they can fire out a bet of their own to drag an easy pot.
Instead of relying on the c-bet each and every time you open preflop, try to work a variety of plays into your post-flop arsenal. The young guns like to go for a “delayed c-bet,” meaning they’ll check the flop back and fire their first bet on the turn, when the board’s texture is much more crystallized. However you approach the post-flop game though, make a point to be unpredictable by eschewing the one-dimensional reliance on c-bets.
4 – Bluffing Too Often Because You See the Pros Play That Way on TV
Among all of the insidious consequences TV poker has had on general strategy, the emphasis on bluffing has to take the cake. On some level, I understand why the editors behind the scenes love a good bluff. I mean, it’s been more than 15 years now, and I still get goosebumps watching Moneymaker pull off the “Bluff of the Century” against Farha in the ’03 Main Event. Bluffs are inherently appealing to everyone who enjoys poker, as it’s the players and not the cards who are deciding the ultimate outcome.
What I am saying, however, is to stop bluffing at every available opportunity. Way too many players believe they must win any and all pots they put a chip into. Under this mistaken belief, “over-bluffers” simply don’t know how to give up and live to fight another day. Nope, they decide that waving the white flag – even when it’s clear that their opponent has the goods – is a sign of weakness.
Just watch Kalidou Sow punt away his $25,000 entry into the PokerStars Player’s Championship on a disastrous bluff to get my drift. Here, Sow – no slouch mind you, as he’s won over $1.6 million by capturing several European Poker Tour titles in recent years – starts the hand with just under 50,000 chips. At the 250/500 blind level, that gives him 100 blinds to work with, plenty enough to make a push towards the final table and the big bucks.
It’s a courageous play, I’ll admit, but why not size the river bet at 20,000 or so? That way, even if the bluff fails, Sow still has 14,000 – still a comfortable 28 big blinds – with which to attempt a comeback. Instead, his all-in bluff is picked off and Sow is eliminated in a snap. Bluffing definitely has its place in poker, but it shouldn’t be a staple play you use whenever the board fails to cooperate.
5 – Trying for the Big Check-Raise Trap Every Time You Flop a Monster
When a poker rookie raises big before the flop, only to silently tap the table after three cards hit the felt, they’re trapping 9 times out of 10. Remember the tendency to fire off c-bets whenever you miss? Well, the opposite of that coin involves checking when you do indeed flop a monster. Recreational players always worry about scaring people out of the pot when they hold the goods. Thus, after flopping a set or some other monster, they invariably check with the intention of check-raising.
When you connect perfectly on the flop and you’re out of position, try firing out a wager the pros call a “donk bet.” You’ll be surprised to see how often this play actually works better than the check-raise, as your mark mistakes the donk bet for a basic c-bet and responds with a raise. From there, you’re sitting in the catbird seat, as you can either reraise and go for stacks right then and there, or flat call and give them just enough rope to hang themselves on the turn or river.
6 – Worrying Too Much About Physical Tells Against Unsophisticated Opponents
This mistake has become so overblown that I won’t even waste my time – “tells” don’t work like they do on TV. Every poker scene in the movies, and even edited coverage like the WSOP and WPT, finds a way to depict physical tells influencing the action. A player might smile involuntarily after a bluff, trying to signal strength but giving up the ghost instead. Or maybe they use a certain mannerism when they have it, like “Teddy KGB” infamously did with his Oreo cookies in the cult classic Rounders.
But leaving aside dramatic license, tells just aren’t a factor in your typical Texas holdem game. First off, you’ll largely be playing with strangers for a one-off session, so parsing the hidden meaning of their gestures and behavior is nothing but a guessing game.
The next time you play and want to gain insight into what an opponent might hold, try to focus on tangible metrics like timing tells (how quickly they act when its on them), range tells (which hands they regularly showdown), and other useful patterns. By honing in on what an opponent is actually doing, as opposed to what you believe they’re doing, you’re ability to read will improve by leaps and bounds.
Texas holdem was famously dubbed the “Cadillac of Poker” by Doyle Brunson for a reason. Using just two hole cards and five community cards, the game creates an infinite array of possibilities in terms of how to play every conceivable situation. Accordingly, players who aren’t perfect have an infinite array of opportunities to make mistakes.
Errors in judgment at the poker table are to be expected, as nobody on the face of the planet plays Texas holdem to perfection. Nonetheless, the best players in the world strive to identify and eliminate mistakes at every juncture. Now that you know about the basic mistakes listed above, do your best to spot them and purge them from your process as soon as possible.