The Basics of Poker
This article is aimed at poker novices and casual players: maybe you've watched a few episodes of televised poker and you want to know why the players did what they did, or maybe you play in an occasional home game and wonder why you rarely win. Absorb the ideas in this tutorial and you'll improve markedly. For those of you who do play in a home game, I'll let you in on a little secret: even if the stakes you play for are modest, it's much more fun if you understand what you're doing, and why you're doing it. Not only will you win more often, but appreciating the strategy of poker makes playing the game much more engaging (even when you're simply watching those hands you're not involved in).
The form of poker I'm going to focus on is No Limit Texas Hold'Em (NLHE), which has long since eclipsed the other forms of the game in popularity. Note: I'm not going to go over the rules of NLHE here; if you need to, you can read the Wikipedia article and then come back.
NLHE's dominance is justified, since it demands the greatest amount of decision-making, and thus offers skilled players the most opportunities to win. Let's think about this for a minute. If you've ever watched an old Western movie, you'll doubtless have seen a bunch of n'er-do-wells sitting around a table in the saloon, playing poker. What kind of poker? Invariably, it's Five Card Draw. Everyone gets five cards, face down, there's a round of betting, everyone gets to make a single exchange of cards, there's a second round of betting, followed by the showdown (the kind with cards, and possibly also the kind with six-shooters). But this isn't very interesting; the only information available to a player concerning what their opponents may be holding is based on the opponents' betting and how many cards they exchange. That's better than nothing, and certainly a skilled draw player can make some fairly accurate inferences (especially if their opponents are well known to them), but this lack of information places a definite limit on the skill involved. Furthermore, with only two betting rounds, there's not even much scope for bluffing.
Now consider a game of no limit hold'em. Each player gets two hole cards, face down. There's a betting round. Now three community cards are dealt face up. Another betting round. A fourth community card, and another betting round. Then a final community card and a final betting round. In this situation, there's a huge amount of information available to an observant and skilled player. Each player gets four rounds to fold, call, bet, raise or re-raise. At least three of their cards are known to everyone else. Did they start betting after a third heart hit? Or when an ace came? Did they raise early but then back off when the ace hit? Have they been raising aggressively on almost every hand for the last couple of rounds? Did the most timid player at the table suddenly stifle a grin and reach for his chips?
As you can already see, there's a lot of information to take in. But so far we've only scratched the surface. So, to help make things clearer, let's go through a hand of NLHE. We'll run it twice, firstly as a novice might play it, then as a good player might. There will be plenty of digressions along the way to explain the many concepts involved.
Imagine we're playing a home game of NLHE. We've been playing for half an hour, and there are five other players. The game is 5¢/10¢ blinds, and everyone has $10-$15 on the table. We are in the dealer position (button), and after we deal the hole cards, we look down at a pair of black aces (AcAs). Perfect! We have the best possible starting hand. An annoying player who seems to win every week is first to speak (we'll call this early position, or EP for short), and he opens for 40¢. We try to keep calm: we've got him and now we can take some money off him, and maybe wipe the smug expression off his face. Even better, after the second player (mid position, MP) folds, the third player (cutoff) calls. More money coming our way! Now, we don't want to scare anyone off, so we don't raise yet, but instead cooly call. The small blind (SB) folds, and the big blind (BB) calls.
The positions in our six-handed poker game, with Player 6 dealing. The names for the positions are: 1 = small blind (SB), 2 = big blind (BB), 3 = early position (EP), 4 = mid position (MP), 5 = cutoff, 6 = button.
So there are four players left in the hand. We've had junk cards so far this evening, which have cost us money, so here we want to make as much back as possible. We deal the flop:
Kc 10h 4s
This seems innocuous enough, right? In fact, anyone who has a king has now made a worse pair than us, so they might stick around long enough for us to take some more money off them. The big blind checks, then the annoying guy (EP) bets $1.20. The cutoff folds. We want to string EP along, so we just call again. He's got no idea what's about to happen to him! The big blind folds. Two players left. We deal the turn card:
A nothing card. It'd be nice to get another ace, but no bother. EP checks. He must've been bluffing, but we're not letting him off that easy! We bet $1.00 more, just milking him. He calls. Excellent; we might be able to get even more off him after the river, which is:
EP looks at us, thinks for a few seconds, then moves $3.50 toward the middle! We almost beat him to the pot with our call. He flips over QhJh. Unbelievable, a straight on the river! No wonder this guy always wins; he's so lucky. And we didn't do anything wrong, did we? It's just more bad luck.
Actually, we made several mistakes. Let's discuss them to get an idea of how we could have played the hand better.
The same setup as before. Six players, 10¢ big blind, everyone has 100-150 big blinds. We deal ourselves a pair of black aces. EP open raises for 40¢, there's a fold from MP then a call from the cutoff and it's our turn to speak.
Firstly, let's be clear that we love our hand and we love that the pot was open-raised (even though the raiser is the best player at the table). AA is the best starting hand in hold'em and we can make some money here, but it's also only a starting hand and it is definitely vulnerable – you aren't entitled to win the pot just because you hold aces. The key point here is that AA play better against fewer opponents. Against a single opponent, you're around a 4-1 favourite to win the hand if it goes to showdown, no matter what hole cards your opponent has been dealt. Against three opponents with random hole cards, you're less than a 2-1 favourite, and against five opponents it's a coin flip. The more opponents we have, the greater the chance that someone will get lucky and hit a big hand that beats us. So we'd like to play our premium starting hands, amongst which aces are the best, against fewer opponents.
This is a good time to talk about starting hand strength. What hole cards should we be looking to play? The principle considerations here are the number of players and their playing styles, stack size (i.e., how much money each player has on the table, available to bet) in relation to the blinds, and our position at the table in relation to the button (dealer). Few casual players ever even consider the effect that position plays, but in fact position is one of the most crucial aspects of poker. Quite simply, the later you play in a hand, the more of an advantage you possess. Pre-flop, the big blind is last to speak and so has an advantage. However, in every betting round after the flop the dealer is last to speak and the blinds are in early position; they're at a distinct disadvantage. It's better to play last because you've got the most information – you've just seen what the other players have done and thus are better equipped to decide what to do yourself. So clearly, given the advantage that late position confers, our range of playable hands will be largest when we're the dealer, and smallest when we're first to speak. A small range consists of high-quality hole cards (big pairs, high cards like ace-king), while a large range also contains weaker hole cards (small pairs, weak aces like ace-nine, weak suited cards like king-ten of hearts).
Let's look at a specific example to see the importance of position. We might open (raise the big blind) from EP with a pair of eights, but then we'd have to wait to see what the other players do. If we get re-raised by the button, we either have to fold and lose the money we just bet, or continue with a marginal holding against a player who has position on us (acts later than us). Contrast this with the situation when we're in the big blind with 88, EP opens and the button re-raises. In this case, we know that our 88 are very likely no good, since two other players who both have position on us after the flop have shown strength and so can probably beat us. We can utilize this extra information, available because we're last to speak, to fold and thus not lose any money on the hand (other than the blind which no longer belongs to us anyway). This advantage of having good position is why everyone gets a turn at being the dealer, so that in each round everyone plays from each position at the table.
The next consideration when determining our playable starting hand range is the number of players and their playing styles. The first of these is simple; the fewer opponents we have, the larger our range of starting hands should be (because the average hand strength is relatively low). Playing style is a huge topic, which we'll consider in greater detail later on, but for now just consider its two main axes: loose—tight and passive—aggressive. The first concerns the proportion of hands a player will play. If you play lots of hands, you're loose, whereas if you play few hands you're tight. The second continuum refers to how you play those hands: if you tend to check and call a lot, you're passive; if you tend to bet and raise a lot you're aggressive. A reliable rule of thumb is to play the style opposite to your opponents' style; if most hands have many players calling many hands, the table is loose-passive and you want to play tight-aggressive (play a narrow range of hole cards, wait until the flop gives you a big hand, then keep betting and raising to get paid off by the passive players, who tend to call a lot with marginal hands). Most casual players are loose-passive, and are known as fish (presumably because they like to fish for cards, or maybe because they're easy to catch). Fish are also known as ATMs, since they'll give you money. The golden rule for playing against fish is you do not bluff; wait for a good hand and then bet it strongly (as they'll often call you with a worse hand). Another, less common, home-game type is the maniac. These guys like mindlessly to bet, raise and re-raise on almost every hand. Although it requires more nerve to play them, they're actually even easier to beat than the fish: since they're excessively loose-aggressive you play tight-passive against them. Wait to hit a big hand then let them bluff off all their chips to you (and don't forget to say thanks afterwards). There are many other playing styles, but minor variations on these two fundamental types account for the majority of players you'll find in a home game.
The other consideration for determining a hand range is relative stack sizes (a player's stack is all the chips they have in front of them). If the players are deep stacked (they have more than 100 big blinds), the value of speculative hole cards (e.g., suited connectors like 9d8d, suited aces, and small pairs) increases. This is because speculative hole cards, as their name implies, don't make a big hand very often, and most of the time you'll end up having to fold. This leads to losing many small pots. So on those few occasions when you do get a big hand with your speculative hole cards (a small pair becoming three-of-a-kind (a set), or connectors making a straight or flush), you'll need to win a big pot to be profitable overall. For this to be able to happen, you and your opponents must each have a deep stack of chips. Conversely, if stack sizes are small (e.g., around 50 BB), speculative hands have little value and won't pay off over time, as you won't be able to win enough on the hands you hit to cover your losses from the majority of hands where you lose. In these situations, you'll want to play strong hole cards (high cards and big pairs), which typically start off best but whose value diminishes the further a hand progresses (due to the possibility of speculative hands improving to beat them). Be happy if your opponents continue to play speculative hands with small stack sizes – they won't make a big hand frequently enough to cover their losses.
Putting all this together, we see that in our hand example we have: deep stacks (100BB+; speculative hands are viable), excellent position (dealer; again increasing our playable hole card range), and an intermediate number of players (six; neutral). We don't yet know much about the other players' playing styles except for the EP, who is 'good' (and we'll take this to mean that he plays tight because the other players are likely fish and therefore play loose). In this situation, I'd play around 1/3 of the possible starting hands as the dealer, about 20% in EP and play the blinds based on pot odds (discussed below).
Before we continue with our sample hand, let's see some examples of actual hand ranges.
Preflop Hand Ranges
The following list gives you some example hand ranges that you can use as a starting point, both to determine which hands are playable in a specific situation, and also to put your opponents on a range. Note that you could make a range of a given size that is made up of different card combinations than those given here. I'm giving typical combinations.
Cards are abbreviated by the numbers 2-9, T for ten, J for Jack, Q for Queen, K for King and A for Ace. Hole cards of the same suit are suited and are indicated with an 's', e.g., AKs; hole cards of differing suits are offsuit and are indicated with an 'o', e.g., AKo. A '+' means the indicated strength or better, e.g. 88+ means a pair of eights or a higher pair. Broadway means a card that's a ten or higher, so broadway hole cards would be JT+. An 'x' refers to any card, e.g., Ax means an ace with any other card.
10% . . . 88+, all suited aces, AQo+, KQs, QJs
15% . . . 66+, all suited aces, ATo+, KJs+, QJs, KJo+, QJo, suited connectors T9s+
20% . . . all pairs, all suited aces, all broadways, suited connectors 87s+, suited gappers 97s+
25% . . . all pairs, all suited aces, all broadways, T9o, suited connectors 43s+, suited gappers 64s+
30% . . . all pairs, all suited aces, K8s+, A8o+, all broadways, T9o, suited connectors 43s+, suited gappers 53s+, suited double-gappers 74s+
35% . . . all pairs, all suited aces, all suited kings, A7o+, A5o, all broadways, suited connectors 43s+, suited gappers 53s+, suited double-gappers 63s+, non-suited connectors 87o+
40% . . . all pairs, all aces, all suited kings, all broadways, all suited connectors, all suited gappers, suited double-gappers 63s+, non-suited connectors 76o+
50% . . . all pairs, all suited cards, all Ax, all broadways, non-suited connectors 65o+
Going back to our example hand, we already know that the good player opened (raised the big blind) from first position, so given that he's playing tight, we'll put him on a range of around the best 20% of hole cards. From the list above, we see that this likely includes all pairs, all suited aces, all broadways, suited connectors 87s+ and some high suited-gappers. Against this range of hands, our AA have around an 84% chance to win if the hand goes to showdown (the river). The weak player in the cutoff position who just called likely has a much larger range of hands, but as he didn't raise he probably has nothing spectacular (although many casual players won't re-raise without a hand as strong as AA or KK). We'll put him on all but the best and worst hands, although assuming any two cards wouldn't be far off either. Against both these players combined, we're about a 2-1 favourite to win.
I've already mentioned pot odds, and now is a good time to discuss this concept in greater detail. It's quite simple, but still important. Let's say we decide to bet on the toss of a fair coin. If you bet $1 on heads, and I bet $1 on tails, we each have a 50% chance of winning $1 and a 50% chance of losing $1. This means that, over a long series of coin flips, we can expect to break even. Financially, there's no reason to take this bet, and no reason not to. But if we keep the rules the same, but this time I put up $1.10 and you still put up $1, now you should take the bet (as many times as I'll agree to it). Over time, you'll make a 5% profit. Note: in practice, you could still end up losing money over the short run, but the more you play, the closer to that 5% expected profit you'll get.
Now let's say we roll a die. You put up $1, and if you roll a 6 I give you $5, otherwise you lose the dollar. Should you take the bet? 5/6 times you lose $1, the other 1/6 you win $5 (plus your $1 stake which you also get back). Again this is a break-even proposition. We say that I'm offering you odds of five to one (5-1) against rolling a six, since for every $1 you bet, you win $5 when you roll a six. Note that 5-1 odds is equivalent to a 1 in 6 chance. Don't confuse the two: 1/6 means that something happens 1 time out of every six chances, which is the same as saying it happens 1 time and doesn't happen 5 times, hence 5-1 odds against it happening.
In order to be on the winning side when gambling, you need to have the odds in your favour. This is how casinos in Las Vegas make their money. For instance, in roulette you can bet on number 13 and you'll be given odds of 35-1. However, in addition to the numbers 1-36, the roulette wheel also has the numbers 0 and 00. So to be fair the casino should offer you 37-1, but as they want to make money they don't do this. Similarly, if you bet on red, you're offered even money (1-1), but because the 0 and 00 are green, 18 numbers are black and the other 18 numbers are red, you only have an 18/38 = 47.37% chance to win. This modest house edge multiplied by the huge volume of bets placed by the casino's customers makes billions of dollars of profit for casinos every year. Other casino games also have a small, built-in edge to the house, with similar results.
Poker is different, though, because in addition to chance there is a large element of skill involved. The players who make better decisions will, over time, take money off the players who make worse decisions. It should now be clear that a good decision in this context means betting when the odds are in your favour. Being a good poker player is like being the casino in roulette: you have a built-in edge that will make you money.
Let's take an easy example. We're playing NLHE and we have 9h8h. The board is Ah Kc 2h 5s. We currently have a flush draw, with just the river card to come. There's one opponent left in the hand, who bets his last $1 into a pot of $3. From his actions during the hand, we think he's got a pair of aces. Should we call (remember, we can't raise since he's all-in)? First, note that we're getting odds of 4-1 (the pot is $4 and we must put in $1 to call). It's a safe assumption that if we don't hit the flush we'll lose the hand, and we'll assume that if we do hit the flush we'll win. So, to see if these pot odds are sufficient to justify a call, we need to know the number of cards left in the deck that will give us the flush (which poker players refer to as the number of outs). A pack of cards contains 13 cards of each of the four suits. Four hearts are out already (two on the board and our two hole cards). That leaves 9 hearts in the deck (9 outs). There are 46 out of 52 cards remaining in the deck, so that gives us a 9/46 chance = 37-9 odds against hitting our flush. This is slightly over 4-1 (about 4.1-1), so in fact we shouldn't call in this case, since we need the odds to be below the pot odds of 4-1. If our opponent had gone all-in with $2 into a pot of $4, he'd only be offering us odds of 6-2 (= 3-1), and the fold would be even clearer. Conversely, if he'd only had 50¢ left, and bet that into $4, we'd be getting 9-1 and it would be an easy call. So it's vital to always be aware of the pot odds when making decisions during each hand you play.
This naturally leads us to conclude that, in no-limit poker, we can often choose a bet size that doesn't give our opponent the correct odds to call – we can induce him to make a mistake. And his mistakes are our profit. This is one of the ways we went wrong in the first run-through of our sample hand. On the turn with our pair of aces, EP had checked to us and we only bet $1 into a pot of $4.05, thus offering our opponent odds greater than 5-1 to hit his straight. Even though it was a 5-1 shot against him getting a straight on the river, he knew that there was a real chance that we'd call a river bet if he got the straight, so the implied odds (which are the pot odds plus any extra value we get from bets when we make a winning hand) were better than 5-1. His assessment proved to be accurate, as he got us to call another $3.50 after he made his straight on the river.
So with all this insight, the correct pre-flop play in our sample hand where we have the two aces is clear: we want to make a healthy re-raise. Ideally, the first player would re-raise back and all the money would go in the pot pre-flop. If this happened against a good player who was deep stacked, it's extremely likely that you've got him crushed (he'd most likely have KK, but QQ and AK are also possible; all these possibilities play terribly against AA. Of course he could also have AA, but this is extremely unlikely as between us we'd have to have all the aces). So we raise. But how much to raise? To know this, we need to know what pot odds to offer him that would be favourable to us; and to know this, we must be aware of several pieces of information.
Firstly, what is the effective stack size? This is equal to the smallest stack of chips that any of the players in the hand has in front of them (and therefore the maximum that can be bet on the hand). For the sake of argument, we'll say that all live players in this hand have $10. Next we need to know the pot size. There is 15¢ from the blinds, 40¢ from the raiser and another 40¢ from the caller, which totals 95¢. This gives us a baseline to work from (because we'll usually bet a certain fraction of the pot size, depending on the pot odds we want to offer). All the players are still deep stacked (with a pot-to-stack ratio above 10).
Next we need to know how many other players are in the hand. There is the raiser and the caller of course, but don't forget that both blinds are still to play. If we just call here, the pot size would go up to $1.35, and the small blind would have to put another 35¢ in to call, so he'd be getting odds of 135-35 or almost 4-1. This would mean he should call with a fairly wide range of hole cards. And if the small blind called, the big blind would have to put 30¢ into a pot of $1.70, which offers him almost 6-1, added to which he is the last to speak so he knows that he'd be closing the betting round (the preflop betting would be concluded and the flop would be dealt). He'd call with just about any two cards. As we established above, having this many opponents would be awful for us with our two aces. We'd like the blinds to go away, and we'd like to get some value off one of the other two players. Ideally we'd like one or two callers, rather than having everyone fold. As we're in a home game where players tend to make loose calls (they play multiple streets on many hands), I'd go with a fairly large bet here, around pot-size or even slightly higher. High enough to offer poor odds to speculative hands, but not so high that we scare everyone off. So we re-raise $1.
As in the first example, the small blind folds. But this time the big blind also folds. In the previous example, the BB had to call 30¢ into a pot of $1.35. He was getting odds of 9-2 and he was closing the action, so he could reasonably do this with many starting hands. But in this example, he's seen an open-raise followed by a call then a re-raise from the dealer. Now he'd have to call 90¢ in a pot of $1.95, only getting odds a little over 2-1. But even worse, there are three players left to speak behind him, two of whom could re-raise again, and two of whom have already raised (suggesting they have strong hole cards). Now the BB will fold a large proportion of the hands he'd have called with previously. And indeed he correctly elects to fold (his Ad5d) here.
Next to speak is the EP, who made the original open-raise. This is more interesting. We know from before that he's got QhJh, and he's also out of position against us (he must act before us on each betting round), and we've shown a lot of strength by re-raising his open-raise (he knows we play tight and thus we'd rarely re-raise him with a weak hand as a bluff. The two of us are the best players at the table, so there's little to be gained by playing fast against each other with marginal hands when the other players are easy to beat). His QhJh is objectively quite weak in this situation. Even if he was to make top pair with a queen on the flop, he'd have little confidence that his hand was the strongest, because a lot of our hole cards would have his cards dominated (i.e., we could hit the same pair but with a higher other hole card (kicker)). In addition to having an overpair with AA or KK, we could have top pair with a better kicker (AQ or KQ) or a set with QQ (and similar considerations apply if it was a J-high flop; our range certainly includes AJ, KJ and JJ), so on a Q- or J-high flop he'd often still be second best. In fact, against our likely range of cards (i.e. the hole cards we'd put in a re-raise with), he's got about a 1/3 chance of beating us. Realistically, he'd want two pairs or better on the flop, or at least a flush draw or an open-ended straight draw. He's also still got to worry about the cutoff, who is still live in the hand. So calling is marginal at best. It would be very reckless of him to put in another re-raise here (unless we've shown a tendency to regularly re-raise on a bluff). In an actual situation like this, a good player would tend to fold.
EP indeed folds, the cutoff also folds, and we take a pot of 95¢. Unfortunately, we didn't get any callers, but we still took down a small pot, and avoided exposing ourselves to losing a big one by letting our opponents draw cheaply. Contrast this result with what happened in the first example, when we played the hand passively (we lost $6.10).
At this point, let's think more about the differences between individual players. In our first example we considered player types in broad terms, but of course every player is different and thus they handle specific situations differently. Every player projects a certain image to the other players (tight, loose, weak, strong, predictable, wild, etc.). We must include ourself in this; the other players will think of us as a certain type of player, based on our personality and actions at the table. A player with a reputation for bluffing too much will get their bets and raises called far more often than a player who is usually very timid. However, note that many casual players are more or less oblivious both to the image they project to others and to the images of their opponents. That's why, for a small stakes home game, we can just put our opponents into one of a few simple categories and play them accordingly. Just bear in mind that some players actually know what they're doing, and if one of these players is in your game, you must be aware of your image when you play a hand with them. Furthermore, if you closely observe your opponents, you'll probably pick up on specific weaknesses in the way they play and be able to exploit them. For example, a common weakness is for a player to start playing much looser after they lose a big hand, especially if they feel they were unlucky.
Different players play at different levels of thinking. Weak players just play their own cards. If weak Player A has As5s and the board is Ah 9c Tc 8c 7c, they think “Wow! I've got a pair of aces and there's no way I'm folding.” A slightly more reflective Player B in the same situation thinks “Oh no! My aces are almost worthless because there are four cards to a straight flush on the board. I lose to anyone with a 6 or a J, or any club, ace-6 or higher, plus there are several likely two-pair combinations for anyone playing a wide range of medium connectors. I'm out.” In other words, these players don't just consider their own cards, they also think about what their opponents are likely to have, given an opponent's card range, playing style, and betting patterns. An even stronger Player C would know that Player B would be thinking about what he (Player C) has, and so would think to himself “What does Player B think that I have?” If Player B played weakly in this situation (by checking or making a small river bet), Player C would realize Player B didn't have much and would often put in a large bet or raise to bluff Player B out of the hand. But Player C would not do this against Player A, because Player A has top pair and fishes won't fold top pair. The even-stronger-yet Player D would play Player A and Player B in the same way that Player C did, but against Player C he'd think “What does he think that I think that he has?” Player D might try to win holding top pair by playing weakly against Player C to induce a bluff, then call or even re-raise. And so on. As you can see, this quickly gets complicated. The key point to take away here is that you must know your opponent. Try to think one level higher than they do, and you'll have their number.
Home Game Common Player Types
Fish/ATM . . . By far the most common type of player. These guys play passively (usually loose-passive) before the flop, and also tend to stick around post-flop too, maybe with as little as ace-high or a backdoor draw (a draw requiring running cards on two streets). We discussed how to beat them earlier, and it's quite straightforward: play a tight range and play it aggressively. Don't bluff, and don't slowplay. They usually have something if they bet on a couple of streets, and be especially wary if they raise. It's not very exciting to play against fish, but they're easy to read and easy to beat.
Maniac . . . This is the other type we talked about. They also like to play loose, but they're way too aggressive, raising and re-raising with moronic abandon. Play tight, and play passive – let them bet into you. You can often call for a couple of streets with a monster (very strong hand), only putting in a raise on the river (and when you do, bet a small enough fraction of the pot so they're priced in to call). It's great if you can sit to their immediate left, to take maximum advantage of their weaknesses.
Note that many good players play a genuine loose-aggressive style, but you'll hardly ever see one in a home game. What you likely have instead is your classic maniac. Cherish their presence, as they'll give you your biggest wins.
Mouse . . . Mice play tight-passive and are very conservative. The few hands they do play, they check and call most of the time. They don't like putting money into the pot. You should bully them. You won't win much with your good hands, but you can bluff them when you've got nothing, and semi-bluffing (see below) with draws is an effective tactic. Be scared if they raise.
Rock . . . These guys are also tight-passive preflop, but they play aggressively when they've got a good hand. It's profitable to play speculative hands against them, as they'll usually only start betting after they've seen the flop and think they're best, so you can often see a cheap flop. If you hit a big hand you can let them bet into you.
TAG . . . Tight-aggressive. In a home game, these are the smug guys who take all the money. They know all the basics, as described in this article, and so it's often okay to just avoid playing many hands with them. However, some of them play quite predictably (an approach known as ABC poker). In this case, once you figure out how they think, they are beatable – especially if they think you're a fish. Just use the above advice in reverse, imagining yourself as a fish, and think how they'll try to exploit your fishy play.
We've already discussed hand reading a little, so we know that we should be trying to put each of our opponents on a likely range of cards, given their temperament, playing style, position, etc. Note that we rarely put them on a specific hand – this is mostly a myth that you see in movies. Once we've played at a table for a while, we should have a good idea of the range that each player likes to play pre-flop from a given position (because even when we fold early, we're still paying attention to what the other players do, right?). But, as I'm sure you can appreciate, there's more to it than this. Throughout the course of a hand, we also need to narrow our opponents' ranges based on their actions. I said near the beginning of this article that the reason NLHE is so much more skillful than draw poker is down to the much greater number of decisions that must be made during the play of a hand. At every point in a hand, you can gain information from each player. The most important factor is betting patterns. Did they check, call, bet small, bet big, go all-in, raise small, raise big, re-raise big, etc.? Whenever more cards are dealt, more decisions must be made by each player remaining in the hand, and more information is there for the taking. Let's look at an example of hand reading.
We're in a home game, 5¢/10¢ blinds, six players. Everyone has 100BB ($10). Early- and Mid-Position both fold, then a fish in the cutoff limps in (calls the big blind), the button (that's us) raises to 40¢, the blinds fold and the cutoff calls. So two players see the flop and there's 95¢ in the pot. Our raising range from the button with a single fish limper is about 25% of hands, but in this case we have KhQh, which is in the upper third of our range (not that the fish is thinking about any of this, of course). From earlier play, we estimate the cutoff to play around 35% of his hands in this way (limp in, then call a raise out of position). So we put him on a range consisting of all pairs, all suited aces and most offsuit aces, most suited kings and queens, all broadway (both cards T+), plus most suited connectors and suited gappers and a few offsuit connectors. Many fish play any two suited cards, but in this case he's playing a little tighter. Here's the flop:
As Jh 2h
This is a good flop for us! We have the nut (highest) straight draw, plus a big flush draw. What does the cutoff have? Think about how the flop affected the hole cards we decided were in his range. The A and J on the board make his small and medium pocket pairs look weak. A lot of the time he has nothing. If he has a flush draw he's usually in trouble, since we have the second-nut flush draw, so almost all his suited connectors and suited gappers are no good (except he could have KQ to give him the same straight draw as us or QT for an inside straight draw to a king, or a suited ace of hearts for the nut flush draw). There's a sizeable chance that he has a pocket ace, in which case he's got top pair and is ahead of us. Lots of his broadways have hit, and there's a chance he's got two pairs with AJ or even A2. Given his preflop play, it's very unlikely he's got a set of aces, although a set of jacks can't be ruled out. Overall, given our big draws, I'd estimate that we're around a 2-1 favourite at this point against his range, should the hand go to showdown. Worst case, he has a set of jacks, and even here we're only a 2-1 underdog due to our flush draw. If he has made a pair of aces, he's only slightly better than even money to still be best by the river. If he's made a pair of jacks, our king and queen are still both live to make us a bigger pair later in the hand, in addition to our straight and flush draws.
He checks. What does this mean? He's a fish, so it's not surprising he checked because he usually plays passively. But he would sometimes bet aces here; with top pair or better, a fish will often decide to bet. So, whilst we certainly won't rule out that he has an ace or two pair, it's just become less likely. His check also means that it's very unlikely he has a set. Most likely he either has nothing, a pair of jacks, or a straight draw or (no good) flush draw. If he has nothing or a draw, we're already ahead with our king-high. If he has a jack, we're a healthy favourite, since in this case we not only have all our straight and flush outs (which total 12), but also 4 extra outs from the other kings and queens (although since our opponent may have an ace, and could also have a jack plus a king or a queen, let's not actually count these outs because there's a high probability they wouldn't be good. Note also that a king would give QT a straight and so might actually be bad for us). So if we have 12 outs, what chance do we have to get one of them?
In these situations, there's a handy rule of thumb – the 4/2 rule. You can get a close approximation of your chances of filling a specific hand on the next street (flop to turn or turn to river) by multiplying your outs by 2. So the rule says that our 12 outs give us a ~24% chance of having a straight or flush after the turn card. The other half of the 4/2 rule states that we can multiply our outs by 4 if there are two more cards to come i.e., from flop to river. So this would indicate that we have an approximately 48% chance of hitting one of our outs by the river. However, in this situation we don't want to just assume that we can see the river without having to put more money into the pot, so we won't use the 4-rule here (you should only use it when an opponent goes all-in on the flop and you're deciding whether to call with the turn and river cards still to come).
He checked to us. Do we check back, or make a bet? If we do bet, how much should we wager? Let's assess the situation. We think he most likely has either nothing or a pair of jacks, and there's a smaller chance he has a pair of aces, and (given he checked) a much smaller chance he has two-pair or better. If we bet, what would he do in those situations? If he has nothing, he'll usually fold. If he has a jack he'll usually call. If he has an ace or better he'll nearly always call. So he'll only call if his hand is better than ours, and only fold if it's worse. This isn't a nice state of affairs to be in; we want the opposite to occur – for a bet to be worthwhile we want our opponent to call with a worse hand or fold with a better hand. The only better hand he'd be likely to fold would be a small pair, and the only worse hand he'd call with would be a smaller flush draw or a straight draw. These only constitute a small fraction of his range, so on balance I'd say it's best to check back here.
Note that the correct play for our opponent if he had an ace or a jack would have been to put in a bet on the flop most of the time. This is because the board texture – how connected the community cards are – is wet (i.e., the board has flush- and straight-draw possibilities). If you have a made hand with a wet board, you generally don't want to give your opponent free cards to draw to a hand that would beat you. Of course, given that we raised preflop, there's a good chance that we have an ace and our opponent's jack would not be good. Even a fish is usually aware that a pre-flop raise often indicates an ace. In this case, our opponent might be checking with the intention of folding to a continuation bet (a bet on the flop by a player who raised preflop) from us. This is why our opponent shouldn't have played the way he did before the flop; if you regularly limp-call out of position with mediocre cards like JT or KJ and then fold your pair to a continuation bet because your opponent might have an ace, you won't be a winning player.
An alternative to checking back would be to bet as a semi-bluff. This is where you bet with a unmade hand with lots of outs. The idea is that if you bet, for example, a flush draw, then you have two ways to win the hand: your opponent could fold, or he could call and you win if you hit your flush. Semi-bluffing is most effective against tight players, since, as we now know, loose players like our opponent here are unlikely to fold a made hand. That's why I'd normally check back on the flop in this situation.
So we check back. Let's see the turn:
A blank. He checks again. The same logic applies here as on the flop. We check back. Here comes the river:
We missed our straight and flush draws. The good news is that the pair of kings we just got beats a large fraction of his range; unless he has KJ (for two pairs) or QT (for a straight), we're likely best here (he would almost certainly have bet two pairs or better earlier in the hand, so we're mostly worried that he does after all have a pair of aces that he just decided not to bet with). And more good news is that if he does indeed have a pair of jacks, he'll likely call a river bet of around ¾ of the pot. But while we're thinking about exactly how much to bet, rather than checking to us again he bets $1! Guess what: this pot-size bet means he has KJ or QT or some other weird combination that beats us. Maybe even an ace. We're getting less than 2-1 on a call, against a player we've never seen bluffing. Easy fold. He flips over KJ and complains that we never pay him off.
We've now covered all the ideas most relevant to casual players. I've spent little time discussing bluffing in this guide because it's not a very effective tactic in most home games. Most or all of your opponents will be loose players who won't fold better hands to you often enough for regular bluffing to be profitable. However, over time, it may dawn on some of your opponents that you never bluff, but are instead value betting them to death. At this point, you will gain a little bit of fold equity in certain situations, so you'll be able profitably to incorporate the occasional bluff into your repertoire, for example when you miss a draw or by representing filling an obvious straight or flush that you in fact don't have. But you'll spend most of your time grinding down the fish and, if you're lucky, letting the odd maniac bluff off all their chips to you. Have fun!
But maybe you're now thinking that this isn't how they play on television. It's true: on the telly, every hand seems to be a big one. One guy raises preflop with nothing, another guy reraises him with even worse, the first guy reraises again, the second guy goes all in and the first guy folds. Or it's pocket aces versus pocket kings, all-in preflop. Or one player has a monster on the flop but loses to an unlikely series of running cards on the turn and river.
The thing to realize here is that most poker shows are edited highlights. There might be many hours of play on multiple tables, all squeezed into a one hour show. So which hands are picked to be broadcast? You guessed it: the exciting ones. That's why you see lots of all-in race situations and huge bluffs. They don't often show you the hands where there's two players on the flop, and one bets and the other immediately folds. As ever, television lies to you!
Despite of necessity being a fairly lengthy article, this guide has been a meer overview of some of the most important factors that casual players should be aware of. If you only have a passing interest in poker, then learning and applying the above material should be sufficient to make you a winner in your home game. Just be aware that there is a great deal more to learn; you could fill entire bookshelves with poker books, which range from novice level to very advanced. I've listed what I consider to be a few of the most useful of these below, in case you're interested in delving deeper.
In addition to theoretical knowledge, a good poker player develops an instinct for the correct play. There are no shortcuts here; this only comes from the experience of playing a huge number of hands over a long period of time. As in so many things, we must often learn the hard way, which in the case of poker can become expensive.
I hope you've enjoyed this article, and that it's at least opened your eyes to the amount of skill and knowledge that are required to play poker well. It's not a game of luck; if you're regularly losing in your home game, it's because your opponents are better than you (or they're cheating).
I give here only a small sample of what's available. Poker books range from amazing to awful. I've listed some excellent ones below. In addition to these, the Harrington series of books is great for novices, and you should always be on the lookout for positively-reviewed alternatives.
No-Limit Hold'em: Theory and Practice by Sklansky and Miller This offers a good theoretical background on all aspects of NLHE.
The Poker Mindset by Taylor and Hilger The psychological side of the game.
How to Read Hands at No-Limit Hold'em by Miller The fundamentals of hand-reading.
Professional No-Limit Hold'em by Flynn, Mehta and Miller More advanced. Gives a comprehensive approach to developing a solid thought process.
There's an excellent software package called PokerStove which can be used to evaluate hands. You can learn a lot just by playing around with it, and I highly recommend trying this. It can be found here.
Note: This article was first published 11th April 2015