To develop a working poker strategy, it's crucial to understand the interaction between players, the odds, and the advantages of table position. There are many different poker games, but aside from some play differences, some strategies remain the same. To play successfully, you need to have a basic grasp of the odds and know what good and bad hands look like.
An important factor in Texas Holdem is your position at the table. The dealer is always the strongest player at the table because he is on the button and has the ability to bet last. The player who bets last has the most information, and therefore can make the most educated decision about how to continue in the course of the game play. The person to the right of the dealer, sometimes known as the “cutoff”, potentially has more power than the dealer, because he could raise the bet and knock the dealer out of play, therefore positioning himself as the strongest player on the board. Players who are in early positions are considered the weakest because they have the least amount of information about the table, so they cannot make as much of an educated decision as the dealer.
For more on Position Strategy visit our page on Player Position
Narrowing the field
Many players start out with the idea that to win big, a lot of players must be involved. Technically, this is true, but you're also far more likely to lose big. It's better to force out as many opponents as possible, leaving only a few people in play, and take many small pots…winning consistently is a better winning strategy over the long run than winning big. Keep your play tight in the early rounds – be conservative and watch the habits of the other players. You'll start to notice a pattern of aggressive play and big bluffs from some players, and once you've got a handle on it, you can use their style against them to take their chips. Pick your hands carefully and keep your play tight and conservative until you've got a read on the table or a really good hand. Then get aggressive. By varying your playing style, you can psyche many players into folding.
When to Raise
- If you think you have the best hand, raise big. You'll scare weaker players in to folding, narrow the field, and raise the stakes.
- If you have a made hand and don't need to draw any cards to win, raising may force players with drawing hands (that need cards to make a winning hand) to fold.
- Raise to bluff or semi-bluff. If you've got nothing but you think you can outmaneuver your opponents with a raise by making them think you've got a winning hand, give it a shot. It's a risk that may pay off. Even if your bluff is called, you may be able to improve on the draw.
- Raise to gain information. If you raise, your opponents have to raise, call, or fold. This can give you information about how strong their hands are. You may also get a check from your opponent on the next betting round, and with it the opportunity to improve your hand with a free card.
Going All In
Going all in just sounds so exciting, doesn't it? It's both the biggest payoff and the biggest risk, so don't do it unless you're sure you have the best hand, you've set up a very convincing bluff, or you have nothing to lose because your stack is short and you need to double up to stay in the action. If you've played tight and built a weak table image on purpose, an all in gambit may pay off big. Your opponents may be convinced that you wouldn't dare risk anything unless you have a winning hand.
When to Call
- If you have an excellent hand but want to hide it to raise the stakes in later betting rounds, calling is a good move. It's a psychological move that may be considered almost a reverse-bluff. Calling is a neutral move that may give later positions more confidence to stay in the game and raise the pot.
- If you're on the button, you can close the betting action with a call.
- Another reason to call is when you have pretty good odds and want to stay in the game but limit potential losses.
- If you want to bluff later in the game, calls in the early rounds can camouflage your intentions and make your opponents think you've got a much better hand than you have.
Tells are involuntary reactions that are hard to avoid. The best poker players are those most sensitive to their opponents' tells. A tell might be any repetitive gesture, like touching the face, obsessively peeking at good/bad cards or chip stack, twitching of the eyebrows or darting of the eyes, or it might be a change in the timbre of the voice…anything that telegraphs anxiety or excitement. Professional players use tells to "read" their opponents’ hands. There's no way to know what is in another player's hand, but if you can read the player's reaction and compare it to previous reactions, you can often accurately predict whether they have a good or bad hand and whether they are bluffing. Reading tells takes instinct, a great deal of concentration and a good memory.
One thing you should understand is that, while you're trying to read and psyche out your opponents, they are doing the same thing to you. Most players employ an "opposite strategy" by trying to appear strong when their hand is weak and vice versa. So if a player suddenly appears to be aggressive, and stares you down or tries to intimidate you, he is most likely bluffing to get you to fold. If he acts quiet and hesitant, he probably has a strong hand. Behavioral changes are a dead giveaway, especially when a player becomes very still and quiet. He's doing his best not to scare you because the longer he keeps you in, the bigger the pot he knows he's going to win. Better players are less obvious and their acting is kept to a minimum.
One of the most common bluff tells is covering part of the face. Most people aren't very good liars and will put a hand up to their face to distract you from what you might see in their eyes. Watch for hand-to-face movements, and avoid doing that yourself…or use it to your advantage when you have a great hand.
Not every player has a tell, and some are aware of tells and have trained themselves to show you what they want you to see, so it’s not something you can rely on. But most players you'll be up against are amateurs and won't be able to help themselves. Paying attention to tells can keep you in play until you come up against the really good players.
Calculating the odds
A surprising number of people enter into play without a clue about how to calculate the odds, the poker equivalent of driving on the autobahn blindfolded. You might get lucky once in a while, but you’re far more likely to get run over.
The easiest way to calculate pot odds is to consider the number of unknown cards to the number of outs, or cards that will help you. For example, if you're trying to fill a flush on the draw and you already have four suited cards, there are 46 unknown cards; out of 52 cards, you have 2 pocket cards and 4 on the board. Since there are 13 cards in a suit and you have 4, 9 are somewhere in the deck, making your odds about 4 to 1 against drawing what you need. Those odds worsen when you consider that each of the other players also holds cards and you have no way of knowing how many of your suit cards are completely unavailable. If you know the odds, you know when to play tight. Only make that gamble if the value of the pot is worth the potential loss.
Poker strategy is a necessary component of play, but winning requires putting it all together to play smart. You have to think ahead of the game and develop an instinct for situational play. Every table is different, every game is different and every situation is different. Your winning strategy is to develop some basic weaponry and then use that knowledge to adapt to the game at hand.