Poker Strategy Guide
Playing excellent online poker is more than luck; it’s a skill. Most players forget this concept and play poker for fun, not profit. If you have already learned the basics of how to play poker, you are ready to step up and learn how to win regularly.
It’s not as tough as some people make it, but you do have to be disciplined and keep your wits about you. Drinking liquor will have an impact on your play, mostly for the worse. And losing your cool and going “on tilt” because you got beat for a big pot won’t help either. Poker doesn’t call for wildness; it calls for cool, calm aggression.
This guide will explain some basic concepts of strategy, game types, pot odds, when to call, raise, and even when to bluff. But there is much more to being a winning player. Keep reading, and you’ll find tips that took other players and me years to understand. Use the tips, and you’ll be far and away better than your friends who treat poker as just a diversion.
What Is Poker?
To begin with, poker is a fight for the antes. It doesn’t matter whether you are playing for cash, matchsticks, or Monopoly Money, as some of my friends used to do. You want to win what’s in the pot. To that end, poker games start with a token (small) wager from each player, such as 25 cents, before any cards are dealt.
In Texas Hold’em, the ante idea was converted into blinds. The first two players to the left of the button have a half and full bet that they must wager (in the blind) before they see any cards. That way, there is already a bet and a half in the pot to fight over.
Since the basic idea behind poker is to win chips/cash/money, the best strategy is to play good starting hands from a good position. Then, the more mistakes the other players make based on your hand and the fewer mistakes you make based on what the other players hold, the more money you will make.
Yeah, that’s a mouthful. Poker players lie. They misrepresent what their cards are, both purposely and accidentally. A bad player can fool you because they don’t know any better. Good players try to fool you so that they can make more money. It’s as simple as that. So, how do you fit in as a want-to-be winning player? You can win more by making fewer mistakes. And you can do this by learning the games, evaluating starting hands, understanding pot odds, and watching and categorizing the other players at the game.
Certain plays that work in no-limit because they involve large wagers simply won’t work at limit games. In a limit game, you must show down the best hand most of the time. If you are playing Seven-Card Stud and betting all the way with a pair of aces and never improve, betting or raising on the river isn’t always the best move against two or three opponents. You are going to get called.
If the pot contains a dozen bets, nobody is throwing a reasonable hand away. The only people you can beat are those that were going for a straight or a flush, and you don’t need to get them out unless you think they hit two small pair and might throw their hand away for one more bet. Usually, they won’t. So, let’s look at the overall structure of Texas Hold’em.
Texas Hold’em Game Structure
Hold’em is played with anywhere from two to ten players at a table. The more players, the higher your hand needs to be to open. If you are playing heads-up, most hands won’t be pairs or even high cards to start. With ten hands, multiple players may have a pair or hold an ace pre-flop.
The dealer button is the best player spot because they will be last to act after the flop, turn, and river. When calling the pre-flop bet under the gun (the first spot to act after the blinds), you’ll need a better hand than that dealer spot. If you call with K-J off-suit under the gun, you’re in a world of trouble if there is a raise.
Are you up against a big pair, like aces, kings, or queens? How about A-K, A-Q, A-J, or even K-Q? And if you do call a raise with a hand like K-J off-suit, what kind of a flop are you happy with? A lone king on the board? At this point, you’ve got to ask yourself, “How many hands will beat me?” If you don’t know, there are plenty. The only flop you might really like is one with a king and a jack, or a Broadway straight draw (or made straight like ace-queen-ten).
Unfortunately, those flops won’t happen enough to make you a profit, and if a king and a jack do hit the flop, someone else probably has a straight draw of their own. What will happen often is that you’ll get raised pre-flop and must fold, or you’ll call a raise and get in more trouble after the flop.
However, because of the way Hold’em is structured, you can play that K-J from late position. In fact, if you are in the cut-off or on the button, that’s probably a raising hand. And if nobody has yet called, you want to raise and try to steal the blinds. If you don’t try and steal the blinds, they will try to raise and bet you off your hand, or they’ll have a good chance of beating you after the flop.
Another advantage of acting last is that on the flop, the player on the button can bet or raise and possibly win the pot right there. And if they are on a draw, they can get a free card (or more accurately, a half-price card) on the turn.
You see, in a limit game of Hold’em, wagers pre-flop and on the flop are one unit, and those after the turn and on the river are for two units. So, suppose the game is $10-$20, and you bet $10 on the flop. Now the player on the button raises to $20, so you call and give them credit for holding a decent hand. Then the turn card comes, and you can check or bet $20. In this case, you check to their power.
Table position and aggression are so important in Hold’em that it can’t be emphasized enough that you must play good cards, mostly from later position, and you must play them fast! But what are good cards?
Playable Texas Hold’em Hands
Generally, successful poker players choose to play only their best starting hands. Playing every hand is a recipe for disaster. If you can get in cheap, you can see more hands, but that’s based on your read of your fellow players, and I’ll get to more of that a bit later.
As for starting hands, everyone knows that A-A is the best. And some players figure it’s good to get lots of callers in the pot so that they don’t raise pre-flop. That’s a mistake with any big hand in Hold’em. You see, big pairs play better against fewer opponents, so it’s better to raise and narrow the field. That helps get players pot-committed to their hands (where they will call to the river) and to improve your chances of winning.
Against a single player, A-A will win about 80% of the time. But against five players, it will win less than half of the time, and you are likely to get trapped for extra bets when someone makes a flush or straight against you. That’s less likely with only one or two callers.
Large pairs are great in Hold’em, but smaller pairs don’t play nearly as well. New players often over-value small pairs like 5-5 and 6-6. These pairs will barely win 20% of the time against four callers, and if you are forced to call several bets preflop, you are likely to lose more than you’ll ever win. Any over-cards (cards above your pair) are likely to pair another player and make your hand worthless.
If you are playing no-limit Hold’em, those pocket pairs go up in value if you can get in cheap to see a flop or know you can double up against a player holding a big pocket pair if you flop trips. Then it is the implied odds or the implied size of the pot that makes a call worthwhile (more on that later).
Pairs only come around about once every seventeen hands. In between, you’ll get plenty of hands like J-6, 9-4, and 8-3. The worst hand, 7-2, is one that can make the smallest pair and that can’t flop a straight. It’s junk. Why play it?
Suppose every hand was turned face-up before the flop. Would you play every hand? Of course not. You’re not crazy; you’d only play the few hands when you held the best or one of the best hands. Would you win every pot? Nope, not even if you saw every hand.
If you throw away 6-5 against six players because it only wins about 12% of the time, playing it suited doesn’t make much sense, either, since it still only wins 15% of the time. Toss it; it’s a rag hand. So, what hands should be played? Overall, pairs larger than 7s, aces with at least a nine, and any two face cards are going to win most of the pots. Any hand can win, but those will win the most.
There are 169 starting hands in Texas Hold’em. The best is A-A. If you got aces every hand, you’d win somewhere between 80% and 35% of all the pots, based on the number of callers. Sweet! If you exclusively play the top 20 hands, you can expect to win quite often. But variance is a tough mother at poker.
Even pocket aces can be beat over and over. A hand like 7-2 (the worst starting hand in Hold’em) can beat aces by catching two pair, making a straight, a flush, or a full house. It happens. How often? Rarely enough that playing 7-2, or even hands like Q-6 suited, will cost you a fortune in the long run. But people like to gamble.
You are going to play these starts fast and heavy, narrowing down the field and betting on the flop, regardless of what hits the board. You’ll have to use some logic on the turn and river. Sometimes you just have to throw away the best starts to heavy re-raises and boards that suggest straights and flushes you can’t beat.
If you flop a monster and cripple the board (a full house or quads, maybe trip aces), you can just call or even check and let players think they might have you beat. Waiting until the turn to get more money in the pot and letting them catch a little something won’t hurt you.
The second five starting hands include K-Q, J-J, T-T, J-T, 9-9. With these hands, raise from late position and call from middle or early spots. You can call a raise with J-J, K-Q, T-T, and 9-9. I might call a raise in late position with J-T suited, but I’d toss it otherwise. Toss the unsuited variety to a raise in any position.
The third-five group of hands is worth playing in late position; calling a raise is a judgment call. Remember, you need a stronger hand to call a raise than you do to raise yourself. This group includes A-J, A-T, K-J, K-T, and Q-J.
You can’t be fast and loose with this group, because any raise is likely from a better hand. It’s possible to call and then get away from your hand on the flop if there is nothing there. Calling would likely be when there is a Broadway straight draw or if you have a chance at a big flush. Heavy action with an ace or king on the flop is trouble!
In no-limit, you don’t want to call a raise with A-Q, A-J, A-T, and see an ace on the flop because you won’t know where you are. If there’s a decent bet on the flop, you are likely looking at pocket aces or A-K. What did you call that raise for?
The forth-five hands include A-9, K-J, Q-T, 8-8, and T-9 suited. You must be cautious with this group. These are hands you’ll routinely call with from late or middle position, raising in late position if there are no callers yet.
That same appeal applies to the final group of hands that smaller pairs that can trip up on the board and crack big pocket pairs like aces and kings for good pots. This final group is for pairs of deuces through sevens and suited connectors like 6-7, 7-8, and 8-9.
With these hands, you’ll consider calling in middle position if your table rarely produces raises pre-flop. If there is a lot of action, you might still call, hoping to make a big pot. Still, you won’t hit very often and will experience plenty of variance in your bankroll.
More than regularly, I’ll just limp in with these from the middle or late positions for a call. You can also play A-x the same way. Still, for the most part, I’ll toss these cards as often as I’ll call with them. You aren’t losing anything by not playing them.
Of course, some of your blind hands will be playable, and that means you’ll probably see closer to 25% of the flops. That’s not too tight to make money. If you are playing more than 30% of the pots, you’ll probably be losing money.
Raising, Calling, and Folding
Since the main idea behind poker is to make money, you’ll want to raise or re-raise when you start with the best hand, or flop/turn/river what you think is the best hand. Get the money in the pot! That’s the basics, but let’s dig deeper.
Now suppose you raise with your aces pre-flop, and everyone folds except for the button, who raises. Should you re-raise? Yes, most of the time. However, there can be something to gain by letting the button take the lead on rare occasions. In this instance, you want just to call, and check the flop. The button will most likely bet, and you can call.
The thinking here is that you’ll gain back that bet by re-raising on the turn and almost guarantee that the player will misread your hand. If nothing else, it adds deception to your play and will keep players from constantly playing back and bullying you.
Calling a raise pre-flop requires a strong hand. I’ll raise with K-Q and sometimes K-J depending on my position, but I don’t like calling with them any more than I like calling with A-Q (especially in no-limit). If I am calling, it’s because I know the player to be overly aggressive and as likely to have 6-6 as A-K.
That can happen when you call pre-flop and get trapped for a raise against a half-dozen players. On the flop, if you are almost last to act and there are another five bets in there, well, the pot odds are about right (see “pot odds”).
Raises don’t always have to be about getting more money in the pot. Sometimes they are defensive or deceptive. Suppose that pesky aggressive player is on the button and he loves to raise a lot of flops. In this case, you might put the raise in yourself if you are somewhere in the middle of the table. That puts more pressure on him, and he might fold.
If you don’t raise, he probably will, which costs you the same number of bets. But if he folds, you get to be last to act on the turn and the river. Sometimes you even win the pot right there, whether you have made a hand or not.
Also, if you miss on the turn, you can either bet again as a bluff or check and take a free card. Most often you’ll want to just call with a flush or straight draw, especially in a fairly loose game with lots of bets. You don’t want to put in an early bet and have to call a raise yourself if you can avoid it.
Wondering when to fold? Well, we covered all those hands you should fold before the flop, but you’ll want to pass on a straight or flush draw against just one player most of the time because you won’t get good enough pot odds. And you can forget about a gut-shot draw unless you get closer to 11-1 odds from the pot.
You’ll also need to consider folding, even when you start with a strong pair like kings, queens, and jacks if there is heavy action and flops that consist of suited cards, cards that make a straight, or an over-card. Likewise when you played A-Q or a lower kicker ace to a similar board.
You also want to bet or raise on the flop when you have top pair if there is a four straight or four flush possible. Don’t let them draw cheaply. And don’t give them a free card on the turn, either! If they are going to draw out on you, make them pay.
When you don’t hit the flop and hold nothing, don’t be afraid to fold. It’s better to give up then and there than to keep calling on wishes and dreams.
With many hands, you’ll need to know whether it makes sense to call, raise, or fold. The decision is usually made for you if you count the money in the pot (actually count it by bets).
However, suppose player one bets and the other player folds. Now you are going to call $5 and then $10 on the turn if you missed your flush. So you are committing $15 to win a minimum of $25, maybe $35. Subtract the rake and dealer toke, and you’ll put up $15 to win $25 or hopefully $35. That makes calling a bad deal.
It gets worse if there are two players and a raise, or you have that aggressive player behind you. Then your pot odds will shrink. Don’t forget that you need to be drawing at the nut straight or nut flush most of the time. Sometimes you’ll make your hand and still get beat by a full house or higher.
Pot odds are more dramatic in no-limit, where players will raise to protect their top pair or made straight against a flush draw. They do this by counting the pot and offering you a bad deal for your money. Suppose again that you flop an open-ended straight (which you will make about 31% of the time) in a three-handed pot with $100 at stake.
Now suppose both player one and two went all in for $250 each, making the pot $600. In this instance, you would happily call because this returns a profit. In three similar instances, you would risk the same $750 but get back $850 on your one win. Your call wins you $33 on average.
Here’s another $5-$10 limit game example when there are four callers for two bets each to see the flop. The first player bets, and the other two call. Now it’s your turn. The pot holds $55, and you flopped a gut-shot straight. You won’t make it very often, but the 11-to-1 odds the pot is offering is good. If you hit it on the turn, great. If you miss the turn and there is a $10 bet and two callers, the pot has grown to $85. You might think you need $110 to call and get those 11-to-1 odds, but you don’t.
In this instance, you need to consider the implied odds. With that size pot, even if everyone checks to you on the river, the pot is $95, and if you bet and get just one caller, you get almost an 11-to-1 return. Sure, you were gambling, but with a positive return. When you gamble at poker with an expected return lower than your cost, you will lose in the long run.
If they are aggressive, they might have anything, so it could be a bluff. If the pot holds $100 and you can call for $10, consider it. If you think they might bluff 15% of the time, that’s a positive call because you only have to be right 11% of the time to make a profit. If the player is tight and unlikely to bluff, it’s wiser to toss your hand if you can’t beat what they are representing.
Another way of figuring pot odds is to count all of the ways you can win (or at least improve) a hand. Suppose you have a four flush and a four straight. How many cards can make your hand on the river? There will be nine flush cards and eight straight cards with an open-ender, two of which are also flush cards. That gives you 15 outs. You’ve seen four community cards and your two cards, so 15 times in 47 you will improve. That’s close to once in three draws. You only need 2-to-1 odds from the pot.
Betting for value is slightly different. This usually happens when you have been betting all the way, and a third straight or flush card hits the river. You should still usually bet in the limit, but it’s tricky. Again, you need to know your players. Go back to the pre-flop action and remember how they played there. How about the flop? Does it make sense that they were on a draw all that way? If it does, don’t bet; just check and call.
There is a multitude of player types, but for this discussion, we’ll just look at the four most popular poker styles, which includes loose players, tight players, aggressive players, and passive players. The toughest players are those who are tight when it comes to which hands to play but aggressive afterward.
In Hold’em, they will show you nothing but the best, starting with a pair of aces and faces, A-K and A-Q, and K-Q. They like suited cards, won’t call a pre-flop raise without premium hands, and hate to gamble on straights and flushes. If they bet pre-flop, you’re better off tossing your hand unless it is a group one. They won’t get action from other players either, so their pots will be small.
Aggressive players will often be loose, raising with anything that looks interesting. They will play back with marginal hands and love to steal the blinds. You’ll have to be careful playing drawing hands because it will get expensive. When you do have a big pair to start, they will often re-raise.
Keep betting against these players and get full value for your own hands. Take your lumps with a grain of salt and move on to the next hand. At the end of each hand, try to reconstruct what the original raiser was thinking. If you see the final hand, what did they have? Then, make mental notes not only about what kind of hands each player raises but what kind of hands they will call with.
After a while, you will be able to put a player on a range of hands based on your observations. You might note that the passive player raised with aces and nothing else, while the loose or aggressive player even raised with baby pairs. Getting to know your players will pay huge dividends. Beginners will probably be the toughest to categorize since they often don’t know exactly what they are doing. You’ll just play your best against them and see what happens.
Stealing blinds, especially in a tournament, can keep you alive in a game. The blind hands are at a terrible disadvantage. They are first to act after the flop, turn, and river, and they got their money in their before seeing their cards. Often, they will have little to defend.
On the flip side, you can prevent having players steal your blinds by immediately raising with any marginal hand and playing fast and loose a few times. Players will think twice if you play back at them occasionally.
The Art of the Bluff
Bluffing takes real skill and art. You can’t just jam a big bet out there on the turn or the river and expect everyone to fold. You must know your players and pick your spots. And if you get caught, you probably won’t get away with a bluff later, either. But use that to your advantage by over-betting your best hands.
You can’t bluff a bad player because they won’t recognize what you are trying to represent. They will just call your final bet and show you a winner. Bummer. You’ll also have trouble bluffing a loose but aggressive player. They want action and can’t stand to lose. And finally, you can’t bluff a calling station because pretty much no matter what they have on the end, if they went that far, they will call in a limit game. You have to show them the best hand.
Who you can bluff at times are tight players who you just know don’t have the nuts and players who are complaining about their hands, taking beats, and who are looking to get beat. They are in a mind frame that tells that you likely beat them. And you usually can’t bluff more than one player, two tops. More than that, and someone will call for value.
Ideally, you will be up against a single player, and you raised pre-flop with a drawing hand like A-K. You assume you have the best hand and hope you hit something on the flop. Unfortunately, you miss the flop, but you confidently bet, and bet the turn. If they seem weak, as though they are also on a drawing hand or small pair, you may get them to toss their hand on the turn or river.
Once again, your ability to bluff will depend on your assessment of the other players, the situation, and your own image at the game. If you have been playing only quality hands and been fairly tight, you’ve got a chance to succeed. If, on the other hand, you have been playing lots of hands and have shown down some questionable starts, you’ll probably get called.
You have to take your thinking to the next level. You always want to guess what cards your opponents are playing and what hands they might be trying for or have already made, but there is more. You want to figure out what they think you have. When you can do that, you’ll be able to make better decisions.