This guide assumes you know the rules of Texas Hold’em and have already played a few times. If you’re looking to learn how to beat your friends at poker night, or maybe giving a shot at the local $1/$2 game at the casino, then you’re the right person for this guide.
Before I teach you anything about how to actually play poker, it’s important that you have the proper expectations on the game.
I played 3 sessions of poker at the Horseshoe Hammond on March 26th, 28th, and 30th. I was playing $2/$5 with a max buy-in of $500, and I played a total of 19 hours and 37 minutes. In total, I finished up $2,670 for an hourly of $136.11.
Understanding Variance in Poker
You might be thinking, “Woah! That’s a lot of money!” Maybe you’re calculating that most people work 2,087 working hours in a year, so I’m on track to making almost $300,000/yr just from playing a card game. So let’s touch on that idea.
Lets say you challenge me to a game of heads or tails, and being the degenerate gamblers that we both are, we agree to play for $500 each flip. But the trick to this is you have a rigged coin that will land heads 51% of the time. You know I’m a sucker who only picks tails, so you will always have that 1% edge.
I don’t want to bore you with the math, but in this case, your expected value (EV) is +$10 per flip. That means if we flipped the coin 100 times, you are expected to be ahead by $1,000.
But think of the swings you would go through! In the short term, it’s pretty much exactly the same as a normal coin flip. Have you ever seen a coin land heads 4 times in a row? Of course you have. There’s a 1/16 chance of that happening, so in our friendly degenerate game of gambling, there’s a very solid chance you would randomly drop $2,000 despite having an edge. In fact, it’s very possible that after 100 flips, I can end up ahead in cash.
If we extend this sample over, say, 10,000 coin flips, then that 1% edge would be much more likely to show, and it is extremely unlikely I would come out a winner.
This is the reality of poker. My 20 hours of live casino poker is a pretty laughable sample at determining my actual ability or hourly, and it’s almost just as possible that I could have lost $2,500 instead. It just so happens that I had one of those lucky streaks of heads landing 4 times. Movies like Rounders or Casino Royale like to portray poker as a game where you can beat someone every single time in a single session as long as you’re in the zone and focus really hard, but it’s far from the truth.
So regarding my wins above, the true win rate of a strong, winning poker player at $2/$5 is said to be somewhere between $20-50/hr. At the end of the day, I expect to make that sort of hourly, and with it are going to come crazy swings of going up and down thousands of dollars.
The way we combat the natural variance of poker is by having enough money dedicated to poker to withstand the swings, or a proper bankroll. The general rule of thumb for people starting out is use the 20 buy-in rule. In No Limit Texas Hold’em, the buy-in will generally be 100 big blinds.
This means if you want to be properly bankrolled for the lowest stakes online, 1c/2c or 2c/5c (some sites don’t have 1c/2c), you will need $40 or $100.
It’s actually a lot like a video game. Progression is simple; once you hit 20 buy-ins for the next limit, you can then take a shot at the next level. For example, when I was playing 25c/50c online, I grinded up to $2,000 before taking a 3 buy-in shot at 50c/$1. If I dropped down to $1,700, I would go back to 25c/50c until my bankroll was ready for 50c/$1 again. Once you start hitting higher stakes, you may want to employ a more conservative bankroll; perhaps 25 or 30 buy-ins. I personally started going with 25 buy-ins once I hit $1/$2. Many friends of mine employed much more conservative strategies, with 50 or even 100 buy-ins at these stakes.
So yes, if you’re looking to play at your local casino where $1/$2 is the lowest limit, you probably should have a $4,000 cushion to play it to maintain a low risk of ruin, and you probably shouldn’t go to $2/$5 unless you have at least $10,000.
For anyone that takes poker seriously, the cardinal rule of poker is to never play outside your bankroll. If you break the rule, you lack discipline, and will probably go broke. When I was playing poker as my primary source of income, I never once played outside of my bankroll.
Online vs Live Poker
As a beginner, if you’re starting out, I will always recommend online poker over live poker.
You might ask, “but what about physical tells?” which is a good question. When I first learned about pro poker players growing, I always thought they could look at someone’s left earlobe, see it twitch, and immediately figure out the dude has pocket aces.
I assume most people think you lose a significant edge playing online vs live since you can’t read physical tells. The truth of the matter is physical tells can definitely help, but they are vastly overrated. I’ll get more into this later, but the biggest reads you can get will come from your opponent’s actual decisions. Did they make a raise preflop? Did they check the turn? Did they bet really big or really small? These are the most important things a poker player thinks about. Trying to figure out what it means when they picked their nose is much less important than their actual poker actions.
So what makes online poker superior when you’re just starting? There’s three main reasons:
You can start off with a very small investment at the micro stakes. Casinos typically offer $1/$2 as their lowest stakes, so your buy-in should be $200. I can’t recommend anyone starting out risking that kind of money without having proven themselves.
Each table will get 2-5 times as many hands as live poker, AND you can play multiple tables at once. I often played 9-12 tables at once, averaging somewhere between 600-1,000 hands per hour. In live poker, you’re pretty much capped at 20-30 hands per hour, so it’s fairly obvious you’re going to learn much faster playing online than live.
For what it’s worth, I’ve played over a million hands of online poker. That would take about 40,000 hours to do at a casino with professional dealers!
You can save your hand histories and analyze your sessions with software. Pretty much all online sites allow you to download the hands you’ve played in a text file. Not only is this valuable when it comes to reviewing your play, but you can use software to further analyze the hand. In fact, you can send me individual hands and I’ll give you feedback on your play!
Despite all the pros of playing online, there is one very good reason to play live poker. The skill difference is gigantic. Online poker is highly concentrated with a bunch of competitive, video game playing nerds like myself, whereas your local casino will be mostly casual gamblers who have hundreds or thousands of dollars they’re willing to lose. I would say if you can beat the 5c/10c game online, you are probably capable of beating $2/$5 live.
You don’t have to be a math genius to play poker, but you will have to be able to do some basic multiplication and addition in your head. You also have to remember some basic odds for all-in situations. A common one you may have heard of is AK vs QQ being about a coin flip when you go all-in before the flop.
You are going to lose with the best hand because your opponent gets lucky. You are going to get Kings vs Aces. You’re going to have both of these things happen to you one after another. Twice. And when it does, you’re probably going to get upset. If you start feeling pretty tilted, you need to immediately stop playing, because it will almost certainly affect your future decisions. Don’t be the guy whose speech is slurring from drinking too much, and claims he can drive home.
This is the last thing I’ll talk about before getting into actual poker play. I cannot stress enough how important it is that you can step back and honestly evaluate your own play. As humans, we have selective memory when it comes to things like getting bad beats. We will easily remember the times we were unlucky, but we will not remember the times that we hit the miracle cards that balanced out our bad luck. Everyone does this, and you’re probably no exception.
In a sport like basketball, you might take a bad shot against a good defender. What happens? You get swatted.
You would learn pretty quickly that you can’t do the same thing again.
The thing with poker is you can make a bad play and be rewarded. Sometimes you will make a horrible call, and it happens to be that 1% of the time where your opponent is bluffing. If you’re not able to correctly assess that you made a mistake even though you won, the next time this situation occurs, you’re going to lose money. Never forget that winning a pot doesn’t necessarily mean you played well!
Next Chapter: Picking Your Seat and Preflop Play