Poker strategy is based on a combination of calculating probabilities, an understanding of human nature, and staying patient. The best poker players understand the mathematics underpinning Texas holdem and other games like seven card stud and Omaha. These players know how to calculate pot odds and they understand what the chances of winning with any given hand are. That’s not all, though. The top professional players also know how to read their opponents.
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Mastering poker is a bit of an art and a bit of a science. We want to teach a bit of each method, to give new poker room gamblers tips for success.
Don’t play as many hands as you do now. In online poker you should only be seeing the flop in Texas holdem about 25% of the time. Almost everybody breaks that rule, but a good 3 out of 4 hands should be folded. It might be better for players to fold all but about 15% of hands altogether. That’s almost 6 out of 7 hands you should set aside.
Being a good, selective player can be a grind. Seeing fewer flops can be boring, but think about it. If you play at a table with 8 other players, you’re only going to have the strongest hand 1 out of 9 hands. Players who learn how to get out of the way are like prize fighters who learn to box: they take less damage.
That doesn’t mean you should be passive when you decide to start betting. Learn to avoid most of the damage by getting into as few showdowns as possible. That means playing tight, then making aggressive bets when you do play a hand. Both are meant to avoid showdowns.
Gamblers complain about bad beats all the time. Most of the time, they should have taken the pot before it ever came to a showdown. Eliminate the competition by pushing them out of pots with an aggressive bet. If you don’t think you should be making a strong play, you probably shouldn’t be in the hand at all.
Don’t be a calling station. If your hand is iffy enough you have only feel good calling, most of the time you’re setting yourself up for a losing showdown. If it’s not a good enough hand to make a raise, it’s not good enough to make a call.
Some of the best decisions you’ll ever make in poker is laying down your cards. It’s not the macho thing to do, but staying in hands when you know you’re beat just isn’t smart.
Understand the difference in good and bad hands. It’s easy to know whether a 7-2 offsuit is good or not. It’s easy to know that a pair of aces is real nice. Players need to know if a K-8 offsuit is good or not. They need to know how strong an 8-7 suited hand is. Start building your knowledge of the strongest and weakest hands, then start filling in everything in between.
Anyone who’s watched poker on television is familiar with the graphics which tell which player has the best chance of winning the hand. Great card players learn how to make those calculations in their head. Even if they aren’t math whizzes who know exactly what their odds are, they have a pretty good idea where they stand at each point along the way. Learn to calculate pot odds. This follows the concept of risk/reward. Pot odds tell you if math tells you whether it’s a better bet to raise or fold.
Study the tendencies of your opponents. Sketch a mental picture of the ones who are tight/aggressive, loose/aggressive, tight/passive, and loose/passive. Make mental notes of their personality types and fit it into your strategy. If a player is mouthing at you, don’t get angry, offended, or frustrated. Use that conversation as information for your notes. Be a student of human nature. Do your best to figure out what makes your rivals tick. Then use it against them. And if you’re wrong, add that information to your notes.
Players talks about dramatic stare-downs where you look for the sweat on their brow or signs of fear. That’s the Hollywood way of looking at poker, though. While gamblers no doubt sweat and shake in the casinos near you, that behaviour could mean something entirely different than what you think.
Shaking usually means the player hit their hand and got excited, so their body is shaking from an adrenaline surge. Sweating could mean the same thing. The fact is, if you wait until the chips are all-in and the two of you are staring at one another, you’ve missed the boat.
The trick of being an observant player is to look at your opponents when they don’t think they’re being watched. When everyone is focusing on the game, you should be focusing on the players. The best time to find telling behaviour is when the cards are revealed. Don’t look at the flop. The cards will be there 5-10 seconds from now.
Instead, look at the other players still in the pot. See how they react. A player who stares at the cards is likely to have missed the flop. A player who looks back at their cards quickly or looks at their chips is thinking about betting, so they got the card they wanted. This is just one example of tells. Learn more, because mastering a few of these tricks and tips makes you a better player.
This is easier said than done sometimes. The key is to maintain your presence. Stay patient. Don’t let others play mind games with you. Even more, don’t play mind games on yourself. Disappointment can turn to frustration. Understand the game of poker has a luck factor. It’s a game of skill, but it’s a game of chance, also. Sometimes the cards don’t fall your way. Like a champion boxer, you’ve got to pull yourself off the canvas and survive the barrage. When a bad beat happens, don’t try to win it all back on the next hand. The wobbled boxer who comes up swinging often gets knocked out. The one who clutches and waits for the bell often survives.
Using that analogy, the great thing about poker is you can ring the bell any time you want. Step away from the table for a minute or two, if you feel the pressure building up too much. Get a breath of fresh air. Stretch your legs. Leave your cards sitting. Get your mind right, then get back to the basics. Calculate odds. Study your opponents’ tendencies. Stay patient. Doing all these things won’t assure you’ll win, but they sure will increase the odds of you winning. That’s what poker strategy is about: stacking the odds in your favour as much as you can and hoping you catch a few breaks.