Everyone knows that poker is a game of skill.
But most people don’t understand what skills are involved in playing poker with a strategy.
This post lists the 10 poker strategy concepts you should be familiar with if you’re serious about improving your game.
Some of these concepts are more important than others, but they all matter.
1- The Fundamental Theorem of Poker
In his book The Theory of Poker, David Sklansky put forward his “Fundamental Theorem of Poker.” It’s a simple concept, really, but most people don’t think about it.
This is the concept behind tactics like bluffing and slow-playing.
The reason that this theorem is true is simple math. Every decision in a poker game can be looked at in terms of its mathematical expectation, which is a function of your probability of winning versus losing and the amount you stand to win or lose.
The correct poker decision is always the one with the highest expected value. What makes poker interesting is that it’s game of partial information; you don’t know what your opponents’ cards are, so you can’t always make the mathematically correct decision.
2- Pot Odds
Pot odds are a way of measuring how much money you’ll win versus your probability of winning, and it accounts for how much money you’ll lose versus your probability of losing. Pot odds are just a ratio that looks at how much money is in the pot versus how much it costs you to stay in that pot.
Pot odds are only the beginning of this concept, though. You should also take into account “implied odds.” This is a way of looking at the pot in terms of how much money is in the pot now AND how much money will be in the pot at the end of the hand.
Sometimes a pot won’t have enough money in it to warrant a call, but if you’re playing with several loose players, you might be reasonably sure that the pot will be big enough at the showdown to make it worthwhile to stay in the pot.
The other concept related to pot odds is the idea of “outs.” An out is a card that should improve your hand to the point where it will win.
Hitting a flush draw happens roughly once out of every 3 draws, so if the pot is offering more than 3 to 1 odds, it’s worth it to call a bet.
Outs are more complicated than this, though. You also need to understand the concept of partial outs.
Some cards might improve your hand, but they might not be good enough to make your hand a winner, either.
If an out would improve your hand, but you estimate that you’d still only have a 50% chance of winning the hand, you would count that as 0.5 outs.
Position might be the most important strategic concept on this list. Like most of the concepts on this list, position is a deceptively simple concept:
The order in which the poker players act has a tremendous effect on your strategy. Players who act first are said to be in “early position.”
They’re acting with the least amount of information about what their opponents are going to do.
Players who act last are in “late position.” They’re acting after the other players have made their decisions, so they have more information with which to make their decision.
The earlier your position, the stronger your hand needs to be to play.
In low-stakes and some mid-stakes games, you might as well only have 2 position—early and late. But in more complicated games, you’ll need a different strategy for being in early, middle, or late position.
One of my favorite poker buddies insists that I don’t pay nearly enough attention to position.
But I’m learning.
Bluffing is a simple enough concept, although many novice players think it’s a more important part of the game than it actually is. Bluffing just means that you’re betting or raising with a hand that probably won’t win a showdown. Your goal is to win the pot by getting the other players to fold.
A related move, which I think is more profitable and useful, is a semi-bluff. This is when you bet or raise with a hand which probably isn’t the best, but it might improve and become the best hand by the time you get to the showdown.
With a semi-bluff, you have 2 chances to win. You win if all your opponents fold, but you also win if you get called and hit your hand.
Bluffing works best against fewer opponents. The more opponents, the lower the probability is that you’ll succeed in driving the other players out of the pot.
Like every other move in poker, you should look at bluffing in terms of expected value. How much money is in the pot versus the probability of your bluff succeeding.
Aggression just refers to how likely you are to bet or raise versus check or call. Generally, being more aggressive is a better poker strategy. You get more money into the pot when you have a good hand, and you win more pots when all your opponents fold.
Every time an opponent folds in the face of your bet or raise, the number of players you have to beat at the showdown decreases, too.
Aggression does not measure how many hands you play compared to how many hands you’re dealt. That’s an example of being loose or tight.
You could theoretically play every hand you’re dealt, and as long as you’re betting and raising with those hands, you’re playing aggressive poker. This can even be a winning approach at some tables versus some players.
For the most part, I try to follow this rule of thumb:
If a hand isn’t good enough to raise with, it isn’t good enough to call with, either. This leads to a really easy philosophy when someone bets into me:
Raise or fold.
That might not be correct poker strategy in every situation, but it’s closer than what I would get if I were to play passively.
6- Tight Play
The other way to analyze your play (and your opponents’ play) is by looking at how many hands they play versus how many hands they fold. A tight player folds more often than not. The more often you fold, the tighter you are as a player.
The opposite of a tight player is a loose player. The idea is that if you’re playing poker intelligently, you’ll fold the hands which don’t stand a good chance of winning—only putting money into the pot when the odds are likely to be in your favor.
Loose players aren’t automatically losers, either, as I’ve already mentioned.
But most poker experts agree that a tight-aggressive approach to poker is a winning style of poker. You don’t play a lot of hands, but when you do play, you bet and raise with it.
7- Reading Opponents
Reading your opponents is the skill of estimating what kinds of cards your opponent might be holding. This can inform your decisions.
One of the first ways to read an opponent is to categorize him as being tight or loose and as being aggressive or passive. Once you’ve recognized these general tendencies, you can start focusing more on what cards your opponents might be holding in specific situations.
Reading opponents also has to do with deciding whether your opponents are bluffing or not. This isn’t as big an issue as many novices, think, though. Most of the time, if you give your opponent credit for having the cards he represents, you’ll do all right.
Entire books have been written around the concept of poker tells. My favorite is Caro’s Book of Tells by Mike Caro. It’s illustrated with examples of tells that can clue you in on your opponents’ general tendencies and their specific tendencies.
Phil Hellmuth Presents Read ‘Em and Reap: A Career FBI Agent’s Guide to Decoding Poker Tells by Joe Navarro is another, newer book on the subject that’s worth your time. Start with the Caro book, but move on to the Navarro book as soon as you’re finished.
8- Table Image
While you’re trying to read your opponents, they’re also often trying to read you. They’re trying to decide whether you’re a tight or loose player, an aggressive or a passive player. It’s better for you if they categorize you incorrectly.
At lower limits, table image isn’t that big a deal. Most players at those limits play so poorly that plain ol’ ABC poker is good enough to win. You just wait until you get good cards, then you bet and raise with them. When your cards are mediocre or bad, you just fold them.
But at higher limits, you must avoid playing predictably. Expert poker players will just fold every time you bet or raise if they see you playing ABC poker. Your goal with such players is to get them to misjudge you and your playing tendencies.
The relationship between this concept and The Fundamental Theorem of Poker should be obvious.
If your opponents are sophisticated enough to understand these kinds of tells, deceiving them becomes easy. You just start representing your actual hands some of the time, and representing hands you’re not holding the other half of the time.
This ties into a concept called “game theory,” too. I’ll get into that concept in a future blog post.
Entire books have been written about psychology and how it relates to poker. One of the best is The Psychology of Poker by Alan Schoonmaker. In it, he discusses how the psychology of winning players differs from that of losing players.
But that barely scratches the surface of how important psychology is to poker strategy. Deciding which opponents you can bully and which ones you can’t is another aspect of poker psychology you should be aware of.
That being said, being a master of poker psychology does you know good if you don’t understand the math behind the game. How psychological factors affect the math of the game is what makes poker psychology so important.
This is true of weaker players, for sure. They’re delusional about which stakes they’re qualified to play at. They’re delusional about how skilled they are. They’re delusional about the strength of their hand and the likelihood that their opponents are bluffing.
The more delusional your opponents are, the better off you are. And the less delusional you are, the better off you are. You can consider this my personal poker psychology theorem, but it’s closely related to The Fundamental Theorem of Poker.
Basically, when you understand the psychology of your opponents, you can make better quality decisions about how to play against them.
When you start talking about discipline and its role in poker strategy, you’re starting to look at big picture stuff. That’s what a strategy is supposed to be about, anyway—the rest of the details are tactical.
If you know how to calculate pot odds and outs, that’s great.
But that’s useless if you don’t have enough discipline to make the correct decisions related to that information.
Un-disciplined poker players take weak hands too long, and they lose money because of it. They get mad because they’re losing, and they start making bad decisions because of that. They assume that poker is all about luck just because they’ve suffered a couple of bad beats.
Smart, disciplined players can smile to themselves and take these players’ money.
How do you develop more discipline as a poker player?
Start with something small in your daily life. Make your bed every morning. That can set the tone for your day. It’s a quick, easy victory.
It’s hard to make good decisions about health eating 3 meals a day, 7 days a week. It’s hard to go to bed early and get up early.
Covey suggests that you start with small decisions and work your way up. Maybe you start by just getting into the habit of getting out of bed at the same time every morning, even if it’s not as early as you’d prefer. Just getting into the routine is enough.
Then set the alarm 15 minutes earlier, and get used to that.
Or if you’re not used to eating healthy, maybe you start by adding a serving of fruit to your breakfast instead of trying to overhaul all 3 meals every day of the week.
These might seem like unrelated concepts, but the discipline you develop in other areas of your life will help you be more disciplined in your approach to poker.
Everyone knows that poker is a game of skill.
But how do you become more skilled at the game?
I think if you start be developing an understanding of the poker strategy concepts in this post, you’ll be well on your way.
Which of these poker concepts are you most and least familiar with, and how are you going to change how you play the game based on this information?