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.
Previous chapter – Expectations and What You Need to Know
Before I begin, I would like to mention that there are two types of poker: cash and tournament style. In cash games you buy-in and cash out for exactly how much you win or lose. So if I buy-in for $100, I will get $100 in chips. If I go down to $30, I cash out for $30. In tournament style games, your buy-in will give you a fixed stack of a certain amount that is NOT tied to a dollar amount, such as 3,000 chips. There is no cashing out, and you will play until you bust out or win the entire thing.
I will be teaching you about cash game poker. Even though they’re both Texas Hold’em, they will often play VERY differently, with cash games being the more strategic game.
ALL RIGHT! It’s time to start teaching you how to actually win at poker. Pay close attention because this is important.
The biggest impact on your win rate happens before you sit down.
It’s not about making the craziest bluffs…
It’s not about folding the biggest hands…
It’s about playing people much worse than you.
Think of poker as a giant game of free-for-all dodgeball where you get money every time you hit someone. Right now, that jacked 250lb athletic dude could probably beat you up. But you sure as heck can destroy that scrawny 12-year old kid. And when you do, money is gonna come flying out of his pockets.
So what happens when you become a monstrous 300lb dodgeball pro? Isn’t it obvious? You go out there and beat up that 12-year old kid again. Why would you pick the harder fight?
In poker, it’s NOT just about winning or losing. It’s about winning the maximum and losing the minimum. Never forget that even if you can beat the good players, you will always beat the weaker players even harder.
“Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.”
If we have the option of choosing which table we want to play, it stands to reason that we should pick a table with as many fish as possible. So how can we spot these fish? Well to start, if anyone is sitting for less than 100 big blinds, they are almost certainly a weaker player. That means if you are playing in a 25c/50c game with a $50 max buy-in, and someone is sitting for $30, I would judge them to almost certainly be a fish.
You might be a bit confused, so let me explain. In poker, if you have a $10 stack and your opponent has $20 stack, you can only win up to $10 from your opponent. It goes without saying that if you have $20 stack or more, you can threaten to take his entire stack. Assuming you are sitting at a table where you believe you are a winner, you should ALWAYS have your opponents covered. This is common knowledge among all beginning players.
The second reason is that as the stacks between you and your opponent get bigger, the more skill is required to play the game. The opposite is true as well. If you are playing a 25c/50c game and you both have $2, just a single raise preflop will pretty much put you all-in. That means there are no decisions to be made on the flop, turn or river. Decision making is precisely why you can have an advantage on someone in poker, so if you reduce the number of decisions to be made, you are reducing the potential edge you can have on your opponents. Never forget that the player who makes the better decisions overall will be the winner in the long run.
So with all that being said, you should always be buying in for the max, and if you lose a chunk of money, you should immediately rebuy back to the max. One caveat here is that most casinos and online poker games typically cap the max buy-in at 100 big blinds. If you are in a game where you can buy-in for greater than that, I would actually suggest just to buy-in for 100 big blinds to keep things simple unless there is an extremely fishy player sitting with a lot of money. Once again, this is common knowledge among poker players, so anyone not practicing this is almost certainly a weaker player.
Where to Sit
In poker, the action always moves clockwise. What this means is that the majority of the time, you are able to make your decisions AFTER the players on your right. This puts you at a natural advantage against the players on your right, but likewise puts you at a disadvantage to the players on your left. Playing a hand where you can act after your opponents is called having position.
So where do we sit? You might argue that having position on the sharks will help you beat them, and you already should be able to beat the fish, so why would you need position against them? It sounds like a reasonable argument, but the fact of the matter is you will always make way more money from someone who has no idea what they’re doing. If you remember my earlier analogy, your focus shouldn’t be on battling the shark, but maximizing the damage you can do against the fish.
So sit to the left of those kids and show them no mercy with your dodgeballs.
Your Position Preflop
So we’re finally getting into some real poker. You’ve sat down at a 2c/5c table for the full buy-in of $5. Now we’re going to get into the fun stuff and talk about the types of hands you will be playing preflop. Before we start, lets briefly touch on the various positions before the flop, and how it’s going to affect what hands you should choose to play.
This picture shows a full ring (7-10 players) table with 9 players. The first person to act before the flop is player 4. This position is typically called Under the Gun, or UTG. In this position, you must play extremely conservatively (tight), because you literally have no information yet on the other 8 hands in front of you. The only thing you know is there is a high chance that a few of those 8 hands are going to be above average, so you have no option other than to play tight.
Let’s compare this to player 8, who is in a more middle-ish position. If players 4 through 7 all fold, this means you now only have 4 hands to beat, and therefore can play a wider range of hands than from UTG. In the event that one of the earlier positions opts to raise, this information will let you fold some hands you may have otherwise played.
Player 1 is in the absolute best position, which we call the button (aptly named because it’s signified by a little dealer button). The reason for this is you will be 3rd last to act preflop and you are ALWAYS the last to act post-flop. In fact, the only reason the button doesn’t act last preflop is because the blinds must put out a forced bet.
On that note, the blinds are the absolute worst position to be in. Remember how I mentioned a good, winning player at $2/$5 would make around $20-50 and hour? That means paying the blinds three times can turn a winning player into a loser. On top of actually having to pay the blind, the action starts with the small blind post-flop, meaning you will almost always have a positional disadvantage. Every single winning poker player is actually a loser from the blinds in the long run; it’s just that the money is made up from the other positions.
Basic Preflop Strategy
If you have never read any sort of material about basic preflop strategy before, you need to play close attention to the following points.
- Folding is your best friend. In general, a correct preflop strategy for a beginner will result in playing about 1 hand per rotation. So in a full ring game of 10 players, you’ll play 1 out of 10 hands. In a full 6-max game, you will play 1 out of 6 hands. The grim reality is that sometimes you will play for an hour at a live casino and the correct play would be to never play a single hand.
- If nobody has raised, go into the pot raising. The cardinal sin preflop is to open limp into the pot, and is one of the biggest ways you can instantly spot a fish. This means being the first person into the pot and simply calling the big blind (we’ve all done this before).
- Re-raise your monster hands big. These hands are generally going to be Aces, Kings, Queens and Ace-King. NEVER slow play these hands preflop. This is something in the poker community we call FPS, or Fancy Play Syndrome.
- Respect a raise preflop. When someone elects to raise, they are likely to be playing a hand that is in the range of the top 10% of hands in poker. If you have a hand like QJ, you only have about a 33% chance of winning by the river against that range. Even if your opponent is playing looser and raising a top 20% hand, this hand only wins by the river about 40% of the time.
- REALLY respect a re-raise. Assuming your opponent is also sitting with at least 100 big blinds, you should probably only continue against a re-raise with the four monster hands mentioned earlier.
If you haven’t figured this out by now, these rules are also exactly how you can spot a fish at a table. If you see someone playing half of the last ten hands dealt, they are likely to be a fish. If everyone folds to the button and that person opts to open limp, they are almost certainly a fish. If player A raises and player B makes the minimum re-raise, then I would expect player B to be a fish.
All that being said, as you get better at poker and depending on the situation, you can bend these rules a little bit. But until you have proven you can at least beat the lowest stakes, NEVER violate these rules!
Next Chapter: Preflop Hands and How to Play Them