Travelers Championship

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The Loop

How to become good, or at least less terrible, at Texas hold ‘em: A novice's guide

April 13, 2020
Online poker


It’s no surprise that in the past month, in the midst of our national lockdown, online poker has boomed to the tune of a roughly 43% overall increase, with a 255% jump in first-time poker players. I’m one of the rookies, and my game is Texas hold ’em. For lack of my usual entertainment options, I began playing with a group of friends on Pokerstars (the group is about 30-strong, at this point), some of whom were newbies like me, and some of whom were very good, very experienced players that have played poker for a living in the past. I knew the game, and all its rules, so it wasn’t like hold ’em was completely foreign to me. Nevertheless, during the first few days of the quarantine, I lost early and often, to the point that even though the games were only five . . . um . . . fake dollars apiece, I found myself down almost 40 . . . fake . . . dollars. Granted, it was no more expensive over that time span than a dinner out, or a couple of movies, so it wasn’t like I was breaking the bank, but it was frustrating. I consider myself a smart guy, so it was hard to admit that I sucked. But there was no getting around it, so after a particularly bad performance late one night, I decided to quit.

One problem—bad as I was, the game intrigued me. It made me mad that I couldn’t crack it. I refused to believe I was too stupid, or too emotional, and so it picked at me. Since a couple of the very good poker players were friends, I decided to ask them for tips, and I also observed their own play more closely. Before long, I’d had a series of revelations that completely changed how I looked at the game. More importantly, it changed how I performed.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I’m great at hold ’em after a month. I’m not. But I now consider myself a decent player, and as of Thursday night, I had gone from down $40 (fake) to up $63 (fake) against the same group of people. It all happened within four weeks—I won a number of tournaments, I finished second or third in others, and it got to the point that each time I sat down to a nine-person table, I felt like I had a good chance to win or come close as long as I kept my emotions and impulses in check. More satisfying still, I began to feel like I understood the game for the first time, with all its nuances, strategies, and frustrations.

I am not somebody who calculates odds, or has studied poker tactics in books or videos. I still don’t know all the lingo. The tips that follow are meant for fellow novices, and to help you branch the chasm from “very bad” to “decent” without making poker your new lifestyle. What follows are the ten tips that helped me. If you’re in lockdown and your new entertainment diet includes hold ’em poker, these are for you.

(Note that I’m assuming a basic knowledge of the game here…if you don’t know the rules and want to learn, study up. Also, these tips are for tournament play, but are, I think, applicable to cash games as well.)

1. Understand the value of your hand

What is a “good” hand in hold ’em? Part of the complexity of the game is that there’s no easy answer to the question. When I began playing a month ago, a big part of my problem was that I thought having one high card at a big table was valuable. In fact, it’s not. You don’t have to understand odds to know that if you’re dealt K4 unsuited, for instance, you are in a weak position in a crowded game. Even if you hit a king on the flop, with enough people in the hand there’s a good chance someone has you beat, and if there’s an ace on the flop too, god help you—somebody likely has two aces, and you’re beat. Sadly, I didn’t understand this, and would lose money over and over chasing nothing. In some ways, it was worse when I caught a card, because it increased the chances that I’d bet more and lose.

That said, if the tournament is down to two or three people, K4 suddenly becomes a pretty strong hand, and getting a king on the flop makes it very likely that you’re ahead of everyone. So the measure of a “good” hand is situational…what’s bad in one position might be good in another. In general, hands like A5, K3, J9, when not suited, are weak with more than just a few players, and you should be smart enough to fold them in those cases. This will save you money and headache, and learning this was the start of my transformation into a solid player. If you have two face cards or a hand like K10, on the other hand, you should almost always stay in to see the flop. Interestingly—this also escaped me at first—consecutive low cards like 87 are more valuable than a hand like A4, and are worth playing (especially suited) since most people that stay in to see the flop will have higher cards, and if you end up hitting a straight or two pair, you could take a lot of money from them.

Similarly, know that if you hit a middle pair—if, for instance, you’re holding J9, and the flop comes K94, meaning you have a pair of 9s, with a king lingering on the board—you are very weak at a big table (since someone likely has another king), but stronger in a small group. Bet or fold accordingly.

2. Understand position

You know how I said above that some hands are good with only two or three players, but not so good with nine? Well, a nine-person table can quickly become smaller if enough people fold before the flop. Let’s say you’re the dealer, which means the small blind and big blind are to your left. If everyone else folds, and it’s your bet with just the blinds remaining, suddenly you’re at a three-person table, and the other two people haven’t bet yet. That A6 off-suit you’re holding looks pretty darn good now, and it’s worth calling the blinds or even betting over them to see the flop or win the hand outright. On the flip side, if you’re to the left of the big blind, and you have to choose whether to call first before the flop, know that unless you raise, you could end up in a hand with eight people. In that case, your middling cards aren’t so hot.

Betting first, after the flop, comes with a lot of power. So in the situation where you know you’ll lead the betting post-flop, and there are only a few people playing, you can take a calculated risk and make a larger bet, knowing that in all likelihood nobody has hit the cards they want, and that even if you have nothing, there’s a decent chance everyone will fold to you. If they don’t, you can see another card and get out—you lost some money, but it was worth the risk.

3. Bluff Intelligently

In the scenario described above, you “bluffed” the other players in the hand. A bluff is often poorly understood, and a lot of people think of a bluff as going all-in with terrible cards. That’s almost always a bad idea, even if you succeed here and there, because if you make a habit out of it, eventually you’re going to get crushed by someone with great cards who calls you out. To bluff intelligently, on the other hand, is to understand when you have good position, to understand that on your average flop with a small group, chances are nobody is getting exactly what they want, and to make a calculated bet that looks ominous but won’t break your bank if somebody calls. The same is true if you’re fourth to bet, for instance, but everybody checks to you. Someone might be playing possum with great cards, but it’s worth putting out a larger bet to see if you can exploit their weakness and scare them into folding. In most cases, you’ll either win the hand, or somebody will call and you’ll at least get to the see the turn (fourth card), which could improve what you’re holding. And if somebody re-raises, you can flee.

4. Make your bluffs look just like legitimate bets

That bluff I described above? It should be very similar to how you bet if you have good cards and think there’s a good-to-great chance that you’ll win the hand. This creates a situation in your opponent’s mind that can lead to confusion—sometimes you have the cards, so when you’re bluffing, they might assume you’re strong, and fold. But one of my favorite pieces of advice came form my friend Jake, who said that if you get caught bluffing, that’s fine too—the next time, you might have great cards, and if you make a similar bet and they think you’re trying to bully them again, you’ll take all their money when they call or raise. Part of the fun of poker is creating an aura around of strength around yourself. I decided to pursue this after repeatedly playing one of the good players who scared the hell out of me and forced me to fold repeatedly. I wanted to be the scary one. A strong player provokes one of two reactions—people either get scared of you, or they want to defy you and take you down. And when they make the wrong decision, based on those emotions, you’ll take their money.

5. Know when to fold, be willing to get bluffed, and screw hope

Playing head-to-head recently with Jake, one of the very good players in my group, I watched him raise me a significant amount before the flop when I was big blind. My cards were bad—96, not suited. At that point, I had no idea what he had, but I knew based on his patterns that there was a good chance he was bluffing, and gambling that I didn’t have the cards to call him. I felt a surge of defiance—if he was bluffing, I should call! I won’t be bullied! But then I realized that it didn’t matter if he was bluffing or not, because my cards stunk, and I had little chance of success regardless of what he was holding. It wasn’t worth the possibility that his cards were good. I folded.

The point is, there are three emotions that can kill you in poker, and two those emotions are defiance and hope (we’ll get to the third in a second). Defiance makes you want to hold your own against someone throwing their weight against you, but it can lead to disaster if you don’t have the cards. Hope is worse—hope is the thing that keeps you in a hand, betting money that you shouldn’t bet, because maybe the turn or the river could give you that straight or that flush you wanted. If it’s free or very cheap to see those cards, great, but in a game with strong players, it will rarely be free. Every card will cost money, because other players around the table won’t need to get lucky…they’ll already have good cards, and they’re not interested in making it easy for you to see more. Don’t stick around calling just hoping to get that perfect 10 you need to complete the straight, or the two diamonds that would give you the flush, or whatever. That’s how you waste money, and it adds up quickly. Sometimes, you’ll make a smart fold, and the river will come up with the card you wanted. That’s okay. You made the right move, and in the long run that strategy is smarter even though it stings to know what might have been.

Know when to fold after a bluff, too. Sometimes, a smart player will check when he has good cards, and once you bluff with a strong bet, he’ll either call repeatedly, or re-raise. In that case, if you don’t have the goods, don’t throw good money after bad. Get out.

6. Force yourself to be aggressive when you have the cards

One thing I see over and over with certain new players in my group is that they’re content, even when they have good cards, to constantly check. Deep down, they’re afraid that if they bet, someone will call them, and then they’ll be scared and have to fold or be forced to call without knowing for sure they’ll win. That means that the only time they win hands is when they have really, really good cards, which happens rarely. This is the third damaging emotion I alluded to above: timidity. If you’re timid, you’ll always lose in the long-run, because at a table full of aggressive players, some will flame out, but others will stack their chips and be able to crush you. I played head-to-head at the end of a tournament recently with a timid player who had gotten very lucky with good cards, and we started out even. I bluffed constantly with controlled but aggressive amounts, he didn’t get the amazing cards he wanted, and he folded so reliably that I no longer cared what cards I had—I just bluffed and bluffed. His stack diminished steadily, and by the time he understood what was happening, he was so low that I could take him all-in on two consecutive hands without risking anything. Timidity killed him—when you have good cards, or good position, you have to throw your weight around, or good players will crush you every time.

On a similar note, always try to reduce the number of players you’re up against. If you have solid cards pre-flop, like AQ, bet enough that the others have to fold, so that by the time the flop comes, you’re only playing two or three others, and there’s less chance that somebody who doesn’t belong in the hand will beat you with an unlucky flop.

7. Understand your opponents

Part of the romance of hold’em is “reading” your opponents, and I think this is a little overrated from moment to moment (especially online, but I don’t recommend trying psychoanalysis in person either). However, you can definitely remember patterns. One of the people I play regularly will call just about anything, but will never raise, which means you have to be very careful playing against him, since it’s hard to understand if he’s chasing a straight or has very good cards. When we’re head to head, I check when I’m uncertain, knowing he’ll check back (and if he actually raises, I run for the hills), but if I have a winning hand, I bet medium amounts because I know he’ll keep calling, and I can take money off him. Other players are especially timid, so if I have a “decent” hand when it’s just me and them, such as a middle pair, and there’s a chance that they could be chasing a flush or straight, or even have the top pair, I’ll make a very large bet to test them. If they come back, I know I’m probably beat, but more often they’ll fold and I’ll win the hand. Against the very good players, I stick to basics on an average hand—bet large if I have position, be willing to fold otherwise.

8. Understand the value of pocket pairs

AA is supposedly the dream hand in hold’em, but I hate it. When I have AA, even if this is not the textbook play, I’ll often just go all-in and force the others to call me. Yes, if everyone folds then I’ve “wasted” a good hand, but too often I’ve simply called only to watch the flop destroy me, and suddenly my aces are worthless. Because of that, I’d rather take the chance that somebody calls me and I have a great shot at a big payday. (Good players would probably tell me this advice is stupid, but hey, we all have our hang-ups.) Pocket pairs in general are tricky, but my rule is that with KK or QQ or JJ I’ll make an aggressive bet pre-flop (sometimes it’s an all-in with KK too), and with anything lower than that, I’ll simply call (“limp in”) and wait like a snake in the grass. The truth is, low pocket pairs aren’t so hot at a big table. 55 might look nice, but the minute the flop comes up as AQ10, you’re done—someone has a higher pair. For me, it’s worth sitting back and waiting to see if that third five comes to give me three of a kind. If it does, and there’s no straight or flush to worry about, I’ll check or call the bets on the table, waiting for someone to do something crazy, at which point there’s money to be gained. Which leads me to…

9. If you have great cards, play them slow

To have the “nuts” means to have the best possible hand on the table, and when that happens, you want to extract as much profit as you can. In a recent hand, I had KQ of clubs, and the flop came up A75—all clubs. That meant I had the flush, and nothing could beat it…and nothing was likely to, regardless of the turn and river. Instead of going all-in or making some huge bet, I just checked, then called a small bet. I kept doing that through the turn, at which point another player made a large bet that caused everyone but me to fold. I waited 20 seconds, as though I were struggling deep in thought, before calling. Then came the river, which didn’t change my status as the best possible hand (no full house possibility, no straight flush). I checked, and another big bet came. This time, I raised all-in, and suddenly the other player had to reckon with the fact that he’d bet a ton of chips already. He had to decide if he thought I was bluffing, and if so, whether it was worth it to call to find out. There was some psychology at play on his end—the sunk cost fallacy (“I’ve spent this many chips already, so…”), ego-related defiance (“I have good cards, can I let him bully me?”), and the looming thrill of calling a big bluff. He couldn’t resist calling, and he walked straight into my flush. I got all his money, and it was more by far than I could have hoped for if I played the best hand aggressively from the start. It sounds paradoxical, but put aggression aside when you’re a sure winner.

10. Focus and discipline are more important than anything, especially in the face of bad luck or boredom

No matter how much people want to portray good poker as clinical and stoic, it’s an emotional game, especially at the amateur level. Once you’ve synthesized the tips above, it all comes down to discipline. Those words are very easy to type, and very difficult to put into practice, especially if you’re tired or bored. On Friday night, after a run of very good poker, I failed to stay disciplined because the cards were horrible, bad luck cost me a big payout early, and I was starting to get frustrated and restless. Before long, I’d made a couple of foolhardy, reckless bets, forcing me to re-buy, and then I did it again and lost $10 (fake). It was stupid, I knew it was stupid, but I did it anyway because discipline and focus are hard, and I didn’t have it in me. I was “on tilt,” and not strong enough to stop it.

Human nature will always try to derail you. Maybe you’re a timid player by nature, and you’ll want to play too cautious. Maybe you’re aggressive, and you’ll want to make a bad call or an ill-advised bluff. Maybe you waver between the two. Whatever the case, the temptation will always, always, always be present. To win at poker, you have to stick to your plan even when it’s boring or frustrating. You have to be willing to fall victim to terrible luck, to lose hands on bad beats when you did everything right—this is a game of skill and chance, after all—and yet remain focused and disciplined afterward. It’s hard, but it pays off.

Ultimately, poker can be a test of, and a window onto, human nature. The element of luck that can bolster or tank even a good player probably makes it more lifelike than most sports, and to to understand the intricacies, and how to become a force at your table, is both deeply satisfying and well worth the gamble.