This post is going to be quite a long one because I will try to at least touch on the most important aspects of learning the beautiful game of No Limit Texas Hold’em so feel free to jump between the chapters that you are most interested in.
I will list them below and provide short descriptions so that if you are a beginner player, you can get a fair idea of what a particular chapter involves.
Feel free to skim through the text looking for the information that is most valuable for you first and then come back here whenever you need some more information on how to learn poker.
Ideally, for beginner players, I would recommend reading all the chapters first, then setting up an account with an online poker room and practicing the game there playing the lowest possible stakes called micro stakes (usually $0.01/0.02) and coming back here to reread the topics as you regularly practice to get the best results.
You can learn how to play poker quite quickly, and to start winning versus recreational players, all you need is to learn poker fundamentals, but in order to beat regular players, you will need a lot more. You will need hours of practice and hours of studying the game. Your first hour of studying poker starts now.
Table of contents
- How the game of NL Texas Hold’em is played
– what happens in a usual poker hand, what actions are available to players, how the hand plays out, and how the winner is decided
- Hand Rankings
– how the winning hand is determined, what happens when two players have the same hand, what are the poker hand rankings
- Positions at the table
– what positions do we distinguish, how positions affect the play, what are the best positions, and which positions are the worst
- Starting Hands
– what hands you should play, what are the best hands in poker that you should always play, and what are the worst hands
- Bet Sizing
– how to size your bets, when to bet, how the sizing affects the play
- Player Types
– what types of players do we distinguish, what are their characteristics, how to play versus specific player types, what is the best player type
- Pot Odds
– what are pot odds, how to calculate pot odds, what are outs, how to calculate the probability of hitting your draws
- Expected Value
– what is expected value, how to calculate it, and how it can help you make better decisions
– what is bluffing, how to bluff, when to bluff, which types of players are the best to bluff, and which are the worst
- How to Play on The Flop
– some examples of how to make correct decisions on the Flop
- How to Play on The Turn
– some examples of how to make correct decisions on the Turn
- How to Play on The River
– some examples of how to make correct decisions on the River
- Bankroll Management
– how to manage your poker winnings to make a living playing poker and avoid going broke
In the future, there will probably be more topics added and some of the topics will be described in a nutshell and will include links to a more thorough article with examples.
How to play Texas Holdem?
No-Limit Texas Hold’em is a game played usually on 6-max or 9-max tables so tables consisting of up to 6 or up to 9 players. There are also heads-up tables so one on one, 4-max tables, and 10-max, but the most common are 6-max and 9-max (also called full ring).
This poker variant is played for cash (cash games) or for chips (tournaments) and in cash games, players buy-in for a certain amount of big blinds i.e. 100 big blinds at a $0.01/0.02 micro stakes is $2.00 and a player can usually buy in for anywhere between 20 and 400 big blinds depending on the rules at a given table/casino.
In cash games, a player can also always add more chips (big blinds) but it has to be done between hands. A player can also always leave the table cashing out his stack for money.
In tournaments, a player buys in for a certain amount (tournament buy-in) i.e. $1 and receives a certain number of chips i.e. 100 000. The blinds start at a low level i.e. 10/20 and increase with every level i.e. every 30 minutes so that the starting stack of 100k can be 500 big blinds at the first level of 10/20, but after a few hours, it can be just 1 big blind at a level of 50k/100k.
Tournaments are played until we have a winner and there is usually around 10% of places that pay money and the pay structure heavily favors the top 3 players with the winner taking anywhere from 15 to even 50% of the whole prize pool.
Tournaments can have small fields of just 1 or a couple of tables (sit-and-go) or can have huge fields of thousands of players (multi-table). SNG vs MTT.
An example cash game poker hand
Here is a great video showing and explaining a sample hand:
Preflop betting round
The game starts with the dealer shuffling the cards and dealing each player a face-up card to determine who will start at the best position which is the button position (the highest card wins).
Then the player seated directly to the left of the button posts a small blind and the next player on the left posts a big blind. In a cash game of $1/$2, the small blind is $1 and the big blind is $2.
After the blinds are posted, the dealer starts dealing the cards starting with the small blind. After everyone has received their hand (2 hole cards), the action starts with the player seated directly to the left of the big blind.
This player seating at a position called Under The Gun (UTG) has 3 options:
- call the previous bet (which is the big blind)
- raise to any amount (no less than the previous raise so at least 1BB)
- fold their hand (give up the cards and no longer participate in this hand
These are the 3 options that are always available to you in poker. Call (or check if there weren’t any bets before you), Raise (or bet if there weren’t any bets before you), Fold.
The UTG player raises to 3BB, the action then moves clockward to the next player who has the same 3 options and decides to fold.
All the other players fold as well up until the action is on the player on the Big Blind who can now close the betting round by calling or folding or reopen the betting by raising.
The BB player decides to raise to 9 BB and the action is now on the UTG player who calls the bet.
The preflop betting round is complete and the dealer burns 1 face-down card and deals out 3 face-up cards which are called The Flop – A♥K♣5♠
The Flop betting round
The action on all the streets except preflop starts with the Small Blind. In this case the SB has folded preflop so the action starts with the BB player who checks (checking means finishing your action without either betting or folding).
The action moves to the UTG player who decides to bet 10BB. The BB player can now call the bet, raise, or fold, and decides to call.
The action is now complete and the dealer again burns 1 face-down card and deals out 1 face-up card which is called The Turn. It is the 6♠
The Turn betting round
The action again starts with the BB player who checks again, and the UTG player checks as well this time so the turn betting round finishes without any bets.
The dealer now burns a face-down card and deals out the last face-up card which is called The River. It is the 7♦
The River betting round
To make it more interesting we will do 2 scenarios of the action on the river:
1) The action again starts with the BB player who now bets 10BB, the UTG player raises to 30BB, and the BB player calls the bet.
The action is now complete and we have a showdown. The UTG player shows his cards first because the BB player called his bet.
He shows his 2 hole cards and makes the best possible poker hand out of those 2 hole cards and 5 community cards that are on the board.
He has 5♥6♥ and the board is A♥K♣5♠6♠7♦ so he has two pair, sixes and fives.
Now the BB can show his hand but he can also muck it without showing (in this case the UTG player will win the pot automatically).
The BB player does show his hand and he has A♦7♠ so the best possible hand he can make from his hole cards and the board is two pair, aces and sevens.
The BB player thus has a better hand and wins the pot.
2) The action starts with the BB player who bets 10BB, but this time the UTG player bets all in for 96BB.
The BB player thinks long about it, but decides to fold. Now there is no showdown, the UTG player wins the pot and he doesn’t even need to show his hand, which is indeed the weaker hand.
Hand Rankings in Poker
Here is a great video showing and explaining the poker hand rankings:
Let’s list them out starting with the best possible hand which is the straight flush and ending on the worst hand which is the high card.
- Straight Flush – 5 cards of sequential rank, all in the same suit
e.g. J♥10♥9♥8♥7♥ (jack high straight flush) or 5♠4♠3♠2♠A♠ (five high straigth flush)
- Four of a Kind (also known as quads) – 4 cards of the same rank with a kicker
(the highest card of a different rank) e.g. A♥A♠A♣A♦K♦ or 8♠8♣8♦8♥A♠
- Full House (also known as a boat) – 3 cards of the same rank with 2 cards of another rank (set+pair)
e.g. A♥A♠A♣K♦K♦ (aces full of kings) or 8♠8♣8♦A♥A♠ (eights full of aces)
- Flush – 5 cards of the same suit, not in sequential rank
e.g. A♥Q♥J♥7♥2♥ (ace high flush) or 9♠8♠4♠3♠2♠ (nine high flush)
- Straight – 5 cards of sequential rank, not in the same suit
e.g. A♥K♠Q♣J♥10♥ (ace high straight) or 5♠4♣3♦2♦A♠ (five high straigth)
- Three of a kind (also known as a set) – 3 cards of the same rank with 2 kickers
e.g. A♥A♠A♣K♦Q♦ (set of aces) or 8♠8♣8♦A♥K♠ (set of eights)
- Two Pair – 2 cards of the same rank with 2 cards of a different rank with a kicker
e.g. A♥A♠K♣K♦Q♦ (two pair, aces and kings) or Q♦Q♥8♠8♣K♠ (two pair, queens and eigths)
- One Pair – 2 cards of the same rank with 3 kickers
e.g. A♥A♠K♣Q♦J♦ (pair of aces) or 7♦7♥6♠J♣K♠ (pair of sevens)
- High Card – simply nothing, 5 kickers
e.g. A♥K♠J♣10♦9♦ (ace high) or 7♦6♥5♠4♣2♠ (seven high)
How to determine the winner if two players have the same hand?
In case two or more players have the same hand, the kickers are used to determine the winner.
For example if player A holds A♥K♠ and player B holds A♠J♣ and the board is A♦Q♠10♣5♦5♣
then both players have two pair, aces and fives, but player A has a higher kicker with the K♠
His hand is A♦A♥K♠5♦5♣ vs player B’s hand A♦A♠Q♠5♦5♣ and so player A wins the hand.
In case both players hold a flush or a straight, the winner is determined by the highest-ranking cards.
For example, an ace-high flush beats a king-high flush, and six-high straight beats five-high straight.
Positions at the table
Positions are very important in poker because having position on your opponent means that you are acting after them and thus have the informational advantage.
The best position at the poker table is the Button and in the long run the vast majority of your winnings (if you are a winning player that is :D) will come from the Button and Cut-Off, but first things first.
Having position over your opponent means you are acting after them and being out of position in a hand means you are acting before your opponent.
We can distinguish Early Positions, Middle Positions, Late Positions, and the Blinds. Let’s take a closer look at each group.
Early Positions are Under the Gun (UTG) and Under the Gun +1 and these are positions that act first pre-flop, and just after the blinds post-flop.
You can imagine what it means having many players act behind you. It means that each and every one of them can wake up with a premium hand and can raise reopening the betting preflop and will have position on you after the flop.
Playing from UTG or UTG+1 you can only have position over the blinds if they are in the hand so you should be playing the least amount of hands from these positions.
We will get more in-depth about what hands to play from which positions in the starting hands chapter, but for now what you can remember is that you should be playing the least amount of hands from early positions, something like the top 9-10% of hands.
The next category is middle positions and here we have Middle Position 1 (MP1) and Middle Positions 2 (MP2, also sometimes called LoJack) – not too creative names I must admit.
As you can imagine your position is better when playing from middle positions as opposed to early positions, but it is still not very good so you should be playing slightly looser, something like the top 13-15% of hands.
You should also be very careful when early position opens (puts in a raise) because you should assume they have a pretty good hand and there are still many people to act after you who may reraise (3-bet).
Now the best category of poker positions – late positions. These are your favorite positions and you will win the most often when playing from them because you will mostly be in position.
We can distinguish HiJack, CutOff, and Button with each being better than the previous because only being on the Button guarantees that you will have position in the hand.
If you raise from HiJack, there is still CutOff and Button that are left to act after you and may reraise.
Therefore from HiJack you should play something like the top 20% of your hands, from CutOff something like 27%, and from the Button something like 45%.
Position is king and the button is the most profitable one because pre-flop there are only the blinds left to act and post-flop the button is always in position.
The blinds are the worst positions as they have to put money in without seeing their cards and post-flop they are almost always out of position.
The Small Blind is the worst position at the table because you are always first to act post-flop and pre-flop you still have the Big Blind to act after you.
The Big Blind is a bit better position because even though it is the least profitable seat (you are posting 1BB without seeing your cards every time you are on the Big Blind), you often get to realize your equity as you are closing the action pre-flop and often have great pot-odds to see the flop with a hand that has great potential to hit big.
More on positions in poker
If you are interested to learn more about positions at the poker table, check out this full article on positions in poker.
Starting Hands in Hold’em
The hands you play determine your results by far so it is absolutely crucial that you understand and memorize what hands to play in Hold’em.
What are hands worth playing and what hands are considered trash and should be automatically folded no matter the position.
Let’s start with the base of hands that you can play from all the positions at the table unless there were some big raises or 3-bets before.
The base represents about 10% of all hands and it is the core of your game, these are hands you are almost always happy to play, but of course, these are not the only hands that you play.
You will add on other hands to your opening ranges depending on your position and I will give you some examples of the hands you will be adding on later on.
Big pocket pairs like A♦A♠, K♦K♠, Q♦Q♠, J♦J♠, or 10♦10♠ are very strong hands that often make overpairs to the board on the flop.
Medium pocket pairs like 9♦9♠, 8♦8♠ or 7♦7♠ are quite strong, which can make overpairs, but you are not going to want to build big pots with them unless you hit a set.
Small pocket pairs like 6♦6♠, 5♦5♠, 4♦4♠, 3♦3♠, or 2♦2♠ are really easy to play because you are mainly interested in hitting a set on the flop, or folding.
Big suited aces like A♦K♦, A♠Q♠, A♥J♥, or A♣10♣ have great potential for hitting the top pair with a good kicker, as well as nut flushes and straigths.
Big off-suited aces A♦K♠, A♦Q♠, A♦J♠ have good potential for hitting the top pair with a good kicker as well as the nut straigths.
King Queen suited
The only other hand that makes up the base is King-Queen suited e.g. K♦Q♦ and that is a hand with excellent potential.
And that is it. The base. All pocket pairs, big suited aces ATs+, big off-suited aces AJo+, and KQs. Pretty simple, right?
Other hands worth playing
If you read the part about positions in poker, you must be wondering what are the other 35% of hands you are supposed to play from the Button if the Base only makes up 10% of hands.
These are broadway cards, other suited and off-suited aces, and suited connectors and one- or two-gappers.
Any combination of AKQJT e.g. J♦10♥, Q♠10♣, K♠J♥ etc.
Most valuable are the suited and connected combinations e.g. J♣10♣, Q♠J♠, but the less connected suited combos like K♥10♥ or Q♦10♦ are still quite good hands.
The bigger the gap the weaker the hand i.e. K♦J♥ is better than K♠10♣.
Suited and off-suited Aces
Suited cards are always stronger than their offsuit combinations because of the added probability of hitting flushes so suited aces are hands you are almost always happy to play.
All suited aces starting with A♥2♥ and finishing on A♠9♠ are solid hands that can be played from middle and late positions.
Offsuited aces starting with A♣2♠ and finishing on A♦10♥ are good hands that can be played mainly from late positions.
Suited connectors and one-gappers
Suited connectors are hands that contain two consecutive cards in the same suit e.g. 6♦7♦, 4♥5♥, or 9♠10♠.
Suited connectors are excellent hands to see the flop with from middle and late positions as they have great potential for hitting straights and flushes.
One-gappers are quite similar, however, there is a 1-card gap between the ranks e.g. 5♣7♣, 4♥6♥, or 9♦J♦.
Similarily, two-gappers are hands with a 2-card gap between the ranks e.g. 4♠7♠, 4♦7♦, or 9♥Q♥.
Obviously, suited connectors are the most valuable hands in this category and of course the higher the cards, the better i.e. 8♦9♦ is slightly stronger than 7♥8♥.
Suited one-gappers are a bit weaker, and suited two-gappers are much weaker.
Offsuited connectors and one-gappers
This category is the same as the one above, except for the fact that the cards are not of the same suit.
These hands are much more common and they are weaker as they only have the potential for straights and not flushes.
They are usually played them from late positions.
Which hands to play and how to play them?
What I recommend is starting out playing pretty much just the base. It is a fool-proof way of making sure you are going to make money and what is better than making profit?
If you start your poker journey well, you will be more likely to stick and learn the game to compete with better players and on higher stakes.
Playing just the base is enough to win at micro stakes online or at home games with inexperienced players, but you won’t be able to get away with it when playing with better players.
In the chapter about positions, I showed some examples of what your range should look like from which position so if you take a look there now, it will make much more sense to you as you will see it is the base + other hands worth playing and the better your position is, the more hands you can play.
What I also recommend is increasing the number of hands you are playing from each position very gradually and starting with increasing the number of hands from late positions.
It is better to play too little hands than to play too many hands and playing too many hands for a beginner player will usually end up badly so take your time.
You should be starting out playing the micro stakes so by all means, play the first few thousand hands by just playing the base, and then start adding more hands slowly as you’re gaining experience through practice.
How to size your bets in No-Limit Texas Hold’em?
We can distinguish bet sizing pre-flop and post-flop and let’s start with the first one.
In cash games, if you are first to open the pot (there were no raises before you), the rule of thumb is to raise to something like 3BB + 1BB per every limper (player who just calls the big blind).
In tournaments, the stack sizes are much smaller so usually players open to anywhere from 2 BB to 2,5BB + something like 1BB per every limper.
In cash games, especially live cash games, it is not uncommon to see a raise to 10 or more BB even with just a couple of limpers.
When it comes to 3-betting (re-raising) pre-flop, usually players will 3-bet to anywhere between 2.5-4x the previous bet.
So if the open is to 3BB, the standard 3-bet may be to 9BB in cash games, and in tournaments, if the open is to 2.2BB, the 3-bet may be to 5.5BB.
These are just the standard sizings, each player may use a slightly different one, but in general, the majority of players will fall use sizings in this range.
After the flop, on all later streets, we use sizings that indicate the percentage of the pot we are betting i.e. 50% of the pot or 120% of the pot.
Of course, with practice, you will gravitate towards sizings that work best for you, but for beginner players, I would recommend using the following bet sizings:
Start out only using the first two ones, the 33%, and the 67% pot bet, and gradually as you gain experience add the third one, which is an overbet to 133%.
When to bet?
In poker, you may want to bet mainly for two reasons:
- For value
- As a bluff
If you are value-betting, it means you think you are likely to have the best hand and you want your opponent to pay you off so that you can win a big pot.
If you are bluffing, it means you think you are likely to have the worse hand and you want your opponent to fold his hand so that you can win the pot.
For beginner players, I suggest to start off focusing mainly on when to bet for value, but also trying to recognize good spots for bluffs and trying to pull off a bluff bet once in a while.
With practice, you will learn what are the good spots for bluffing and it will become second nature to you, but at the beginning, it is much better to bluff rarely and gradually increase the frequency as you gain more experience and can recognize the best spots for bluffing.
Which sizing to use?
In general, when you are betting for value, you want to bet as much as you think your opponent is likely to call and when you are bluffing, you want to bet as little as you think is enough to make your opponent fold.
It is very important to keep your sizings consistent in similar spots no matter if you are value betting or bluffing because otherwise, your opponents can pick up on your betting patterns and easily read your game.
For example, if the board is A♦5♦3♣8♣K♠, you want to use the same sizing for when you are betting for value with A♣K♦ and when you are bluffing with a missed flush and straight draw with6♦7♦.
In poker, there are two simple characteristics we can use to divide players into easily recognizable types.
We can look into how many hands they play and how they play their hands.
If a player plays a lot of hands we will say he is a loose player, and if he plays few hands, we will say he is a tight player.
If a player often bets or raises, instead of checking or calling, we will say he is an aggressive player, and if a player often checks or calls, rarely betting or raising, we will say he is a passive player.
The first player type we will analyze is the loose-aggressive player, also known as LAG or maniac.
This player plays a lot of hands and he plays them aggressively often betting or raising.
This is the hardest player to play against as they are capable of betting big on all streets with close to nothing and they love to make other players fold.
The aggressive style of LAGs makes it difficult to fight for pots with mediocre hands and makes bluffing more expensive as they do not like folding.
How to adjust to loose aggressive players?
First of all, do not bluff them, unless you are willing to go all the way. It will rarely take just one bet to get them to fold and they will strike back at the first sight of weakness.
Secondly, play tight versus them, make sure you’ve got the goods before getting involved in a big pot, but once you get involved, stick to your strategy and do not fold easily just because they are betting big.
Remember that it is just part of their style, they like to bet big and they bluff way too often so if you have a strong hand, take advantage of their style and allow them to come out blazing at you.
Lastly, play passively versus them, if you are out of position. Set traps on the Turn and River if you think they are likely to take the bait. Just check to let them smell weakness and force them to put out a big bet, and then raise it.
The second player type is your favorite kind of player and is often called a calling station or ATM.
Loose passive players play a lot of hands and they play them very passively, mostly checking or calling, and rarely if ever betting or raising.
This is the easiest player to play against as they do not like folding and the fact that they play a loose range of hands means they often hit something.
How to adjust to loose passive players?
Never, ever bluff them. It just doesn’t make sense, because they might call 3 streets with just a third pair.
If you have a good hand, bet and bet big. Remember, they don’t like folding and they will often keep calling with a weaker hand so take advantage of that.
You need to extract as much value from these players as you can so even with mediocre hands, you may often get some thin value.
That means you can play a slightly looser range versus these players preflop, but postflop, you shouldn’t build pots without hitting a decent hand as you will have to win on showdown versus calling stations.
The tight-aggressive player type is the one you should be aiming for and it is the most profitable playing style.
Tight aggressive players (also known as TAGs) play a carefully selected range of hands and they play those hands aggressively, often betting or raising.
Good hand selection pre-flop makes the decision-making process much easier on later streets and the aggressive way of playing allows TAGs to be the biggest winners in the game.
How to adjust to tight aggressive players?
You will often find that the regulars at micro stakes or small stakes will play the TAG style, but you should not fear them.
After all, if they were any good, would they be playing small stakes?
You can easily find leaks in their game. It might be not bluffing enough (you counter that by giving them more respect when they bet big).
Or bluffing too much (you counter that by giving them less respect when they bet).
It might be not 3-betting enough or folding to 3-bets too often (you counter that by opening a wider range of hands or 3-betting wider).
It might be having easily readable betting patterns (i.e. they bet close to full pot when they have it and they bet half pot when they are bluffing).
What is important here is the fact that TAG is indeed the optimal playing style, but there is a lot of terrible TAG players and in poker there is a ton of mistakes to be made and your goal when playing is to take advantage of your opponents mistakes and to try and make as few mistakes yourself as possible.
The tight-passive player (aka nit) is another playing style not to be feared.
These are players who play a tiny amount of hands and they play them passively, often checking and calling, rarely betting or raising.
How to adjust to tight passive players?
They are very easy to play against and they are often losing or at best break-even players.
Their tight hand selection pre-flop means they usually have a good hand when they enter the pot, but their passive playing style means you can often try to outdraw them cheaply.
When they bet, beware, as this means they hit big and you can easily fold pretty good hands.
You can get away with stealing their blinds 100% of the time as they will rarely fight back.
Which playing type is the best?
The tight aggressive player type is by far the most profitable one in the long run and this is the style you should aim for.
With time and practice, you will develop your own style which will be a variation of the TAG.
You will develop your own ranges which will be on the tighter side or on the looser side, and your aggression may be on a normal side or taken up a few notches, but it will never approach the LAG stats, as there is a certain number of hands you can profitably play and if you play more than that even if your game is excellent, you simply will be losing money on all those extra hands, thus lowering your overall win rate.
Pot odds in poker are a very important aspect of the game as they allow you to make better decisions.
Before discussing pot odds, I believe it is important to explain what are outs and how to calculate the probability of hitting your outs.
I recommend watching the following video which explains all these concepts:
What are outs?
An out is a card that can improve your hand for example if you hold an open-ended straight draw, there are 8 cards that can fall on later streets which will improve your hand to a straight and that means you have 8 outs.
e.g. you hold 9♥10♦ and the board is J♠Q♠5♥
There are four sevens i.e. 7♥7♦7♣7♠ and four kings i.e. K♥K♦K♣K♠ that can come on the Turn or on the River improving your hand to a straight.
Another example would be holding the same hand 9♥10♦ on a 2♠7♠8♥ board and assuming that a 9 or a T can also be enough for you to win the pot.
If that is the case, you have 14 outs – four sixes 6♥6♦6♣6♠, four jacks [invalid notations], three nines 9♦9♣9♠, and three tens 10♥10♣10♠
How to calculate the probability of hitting your outs?
Once you count the number of outs that you have, you can use that number to calculate the probability of hitting those cards on later streets.
To quickly calculate the probability of hitting your outs, you can just remember the rule of two and four.
On the flop multiply the number of your outs by 4 i.e. if you have 10 outs, you have a 40% probability of hitting them on the turn or river.
On the turn multiply the number of your outs by 2 i.e. if you have 10 outs, you have a 20% probability of hitting them on the river.
That’s it. Very easy to remember and extremely helpful when playing. Especially when you know how to calculate the pot odds.
How to calculate the pot odds?
Pot odds in poker represent the ratio between the size of the pot and the size of the bet that you need to put into the pot.
For example, imagine that you are heads-up on the river, there is $200 in the pot, and your opponent bets $100.
You have to call $100 to win a pot of $300 ($200 in the pot at the start of the betting round + $100 your opponent bet).
That means your pot odds are 300 to 100 or simply 3 to 1.
Knowing that your pot odds are 3 to 1 you also know that you need to win at least one out of four times (1/4) to break even.
In order to change the odds to percentages, you can divide your bet by the size of the pot with your bet so in our example $100/$400 = 1/4 = 25%.
Why are pot odds important in poker?
Knowing that you need to win at least 25% of the time allows you to make better decisions.
For example, if you have 10 outs on the turn, and you use the rule of two and four to calculate that your equity is 20%, you should not call a bet that is offering you 3 to 1 odds.
On the other hand, if your opponent bets $50 to the pot of $200, offering you odds of 5 to 1, you can comfortably call the bet knowing that your call is profitable because you will hit your hand more often than 1 out of 6 times (16.67%).
You should always consider the pot odds offered to you and be aware of what they mean. They illustrate how often you need to win (how much equity you need to have) in order for this call to be profitable.
Expected value in poker helps you make better decisions. Once you understand this concept, you will also use it to make better decisions in life in general.
Expected value is a concept used to describe the average outcome of a given scenario and it is best to describe it with some examples.
Coin flip example
You flip a coin that has a 50% probability of coming up heads and 50% probability of coming up tails. Someone offers you a $1 bet that if on the next throw the coin comes up heads, they will pay you $1 and if the coin comes up tails, you will lose your $1 bet.
What is the expected value (EV) of taking the bet?
In order to calculate it, you need to multiply the possible scenarios by their probabilities and their sum will be the EV.
So we have 50% * $1 (coin comes up heads) + 50% * (-$1) (coin comes up tails) = $0,50-$0,50 = $0.
The expected value of taking such a bet is zero. In the long run, if you flip the coin a million times each time taking this $1 bet, you will end up neither losing money or making profit.
Let’s say if the person offering the bet started paying $2 per each coin flip coming up heads.
The expected value would now be 50% * $2 + 50% * (-$1) = $1-$0,50 = $0,50.
If the expected value of a decision is positive, it means this decision is profitable in the long run so in our case if we take this bet and flip the coin 100 times, we will make about $50 (100*$0.50).
Expected Value in poker
We hold A♥A♦ on the river versus a single opponent and the board is A♥J♦9♦10♥5♠.
The pot is $1000 and our opponent bets $1000.
Based on the action on previous streets and our knowledge of the opponent, we estimate his range here to be:
- 50% straights (combinations of KQ or 87)
- 30% sets and two pair combos
- 20% missed flush draws or other bluffs
What is the expected value of calling this bet?
It is 50% * (-$1000) + 30% * ($2000) + 20% * ($2000) = -$500 + $600 + $400 = $500.
Whenever our opponent ends up having the straight, we will lose the $1000 bet, and in times where the opponent shows a set, a two-pair hand or a bluff, we will win a $2000 pot.
The expected value is positive $500 so we can comfortably call knowing that in the long run, we will make $500 on such a call.
Aces versus Kings all in preflop
What is important here is the fact that individual outcomes do not matter.
Let’s say you hold A♥A♦ and after a couple of raises and reraises you end up putting them all in versus another player holding K♥K♦.
Your pocket aces will win around 82,36% of the time so if the pot is $1000, your expected value is $823,60.
That doesn’t mean that you will win every time. The other player will win 17,09% of the time and his EV in this pot is $170,09.
So if this other player wins, his outcome will be $829,91 above EV and if you win, your score will be $176,40 above EV.
On the other hand, if you win, your opponent’s outcome will be $170,09 below EV and if your opponent wins, your outcome will be $823,60 below EV.
Running above or below expected value is a good indicator of luck in poker.
Even though you are a huge favourite, you may lose a couple of such situations in a row and have a session where you lost $500 but your EV was at +$500.
That means your session was very unlucky and you ran $1000 below EV. In the long run (millions of hands) it all averages out so if you are unlucky now, just keep playing and you will be lucky again :)
The beauty of No Limit Texas Holdem is that you can win a hand not only by having the actual best hand at showdown, but you can also win by forcing your opponent to fold.
Bluffing is when you have low or no chance of winning the pot at showdown, and you are betting for the sole purpose of making your opponents fold their hands.
Bluffing is an essential part of the game and you cannot become a good player without understanding when and how to bluff because if you never bluff, no thinking player will ever call your bets without having the nuts, and if you always bluff, good players will often call you down with mediocre hands.
To put it simply, good players are aware of other players’ strategy and adjust to it so when it comes to bluffing you have to find a sweet spot.
When to bluff?
The sweet spot in bluffing in poker is the point where your opponents cannot tell whether you are betting for value or bluffing.
They cannot tell and also no matter if they call or fold, you make money (EV-wise).
Imagine a spot where you are betting $50 to the pot of $100, giving your opponent pot odds of 3-1 to call (they have to call $50 to win $150).
If you are bluffing here one in four times and three out of four times you are value betting, your range is perfectly balanced, you are unexploitable, and your opponent is indifferent to calling.
It doesn’t matter if they call or fold because your ratio of value bets to bluffs is the same as the pot odds you are offering them.
3-1 odds mean that your opponent needs at least 25% equity to call – if they know you bluff more often than that, they can adjust and call more often.
If they know you bluff less than that, they can adjust and call less often, but if you are bluffing the perfect amount, they cannot exploit that and will likely make mistakes themselves.
So having the perfect ratio of bluffs allows you not just to be unexploitable, but it also assures that your value bets are getting paid off more often because your opponents know that you are capable of bluffing and have to adjust and call with weaker hands.
To sum up, you should have the same ratio of value bets to bluffs, as the pot odds you are offering your opponent with your bet.
How to bluff?
Now that you know how often you should bluff, let’s think about how to do it.
In general, it is a good idea to bluff more in the early stages of the hand and bluff less as the hand gets closer to showdown.
Those bluffs early in the hand are often called semi-bluffs – it is when you call with a hand that is not a made hand, but has great potential to become one.
e.g. you have 9♦10♦ on a 2♦7♦8♥ – from the previous chapter on outs, you know that this hand has a lot of them and you are likely ahead of your opponent’s range so you bet as if it was a made hand, even though it is only a draw.
As the hand progresses, your equity versus your opponent’s calling range diminishes, and thus you should be bluffing less and less often.
On the river, you should only be bluffing with the hands that have 0 equity versus your opponent’s calling range – if you think your opponent can call you with some weaker hands then you should not be betting.
In our previous example of bluffing with 3-1 odds, we said that we should have 1 bluff per every 3 value bets in such a spot.
That means that if you can get to this particular spot with 30 combinations of value hands, your range should also include 10 combinations of bluffs.
So you are betting with those 40 combinations and checking behind with everything else.
Those 10 bluff combinations should be the worst hands from your range and ideally, ones that are blocking your opponent’s value range (i.e. limiting his ability to have good hands on the board e.g. the board is 457QK and you have 66, you can be pretty sure it is unlikely your opponent has 63 or 68 because there are only two sixes left in the deck).
How to get started with bluffing?
For beginner players, I recommend starting small and trying to find the best spots for bluffing and only bluffing every 5 value bets, gradually increasing this amount with practice.
Most players are not bluffing enough, the crazy maniacs are bluffing way too much, and your goal is to find the sweet spot, which is not an easy thing to do.
So do not worry about it – simply keep in mind that your goal is to eventually be fully balanced so that you are unexploitable, but you are not going to reach this goal quickly.
It will take a few million hands to get really good at it and to reach GTO levels, it will take much more, but the good thing about it is that all it requires is practice – both on and off the tables.
So by all means go and practice, start small, observe and adjust, review and improve, rinse and repeat :)
How to play on the Flop?
Preflop play in poker is quite easy. All you need to do is memorize what hands to play and what ranges players tend to play depending on their position at the table.
There is also bet sizing and 3-betting, but preflop is not really complicated too much.
The most important street in poker is without a doubt The Flop and that is when we first see the 3 community cards.
Well, the Flop is the most important street because on the Flop you will make the biggest amount of decisions and the quality of those decisions will determine your results.
If you play poorly on the Flop, you will have a difficult time making money, even if your decisions on the Turn and River will be much better.
The Flop is really when you need to make the decision on the rest of the hand. This is when you need to come up with the plan for the Turn and River.
There is a bunch of things you need to analyze before making your decision and whilst it may take a long time when you are first starting out playing poker, with experience it will take you a second or two.
First, you need to analyze the flop texture so whether the board is wet or dry.
Wet board is one that has many different straight and/or flush possibilities, such as K♣J♠10♠.
Dry board is one that does not have many drawing possibilities such as K♣7♠2♦.
As you can imagine, the action on a dry board differs significantly from the action on a wet board, because on wet boards your opponents may be calling with all kinds of different draws, and on dry boards, your opponents will usually be calling only with made hands.
It is good to also be thinking about what hands are the best hands to hold on this particular board and whether it is likely that your opponents may be holding them.
Number of players in the hand
Second, it is important to consider the number of players in the hand.
Multiway pots play completely differently than heads-up pots.
As you can imagine, the more players are in the hand, the more likely it is, one of them has hit a big hand and therefore you need a much stronger hand to continue in the hand.
On the other hand, if you are playing heads-up, the probability of your opponent hitting a big hand is much lower so you can continue with a much wider range of hands.
In general, the more players are in the hand, the more you should believe their actions, especially if it is the first or second person to lead out with a bet into 2 or more other players.
Strength of your hand
Third, once you have analyzed the flop texture and the number of players in the hand, you need to look at the strength of your hand.
There are basically 3 scenarios – you’ve hit the flop, you’ve missed the flop completely, and you have a draw.
You have hit the flop
Perfect, you have something now, but how good is it?
Well, to answer this question you need to look at the flop texture and the number of players in the hand.
If the board is dry and you are head’s up, top pair with any kicker is considered a pretty strong hand e.g. you have K♦9♦ on a K♣7♠2♦ board.
On the other hand, if there are 4 players in the pot and the board is wet, top pair top kicker is maybe good for a bet, but usually worthless if they start raising and reraising e.g. you have A♣K♣ on a K♦J♠10♦ board.
In general, you want to bet with your strong and very strong hands to extract value and you want to check/call with some of your medium-strength hands to protect your checking range. The weakest hands (e.g. a third pair) you simply want to check/fold
You have missed completely
This is super easy – just check/fold if you are in a multi-way pot. If you are heads-up and in position, you may sometimes take a stab at the pot and try to win it with a continuation bet.
In general, when you’ve missed completely and have low equity e.g. you have 5♦6♦ on a K♣Q♠9♠ board, you are looking to either give up on the hand or turn it into a bluff.
You have a draw
Having a draw is definitely better than having nothing, but the selection of drawing hands is quite wide.
There are excellent draws like the nut flush draw with overcards e.g. A♦K♦ on a 8♣7♦2♦ board.
There are good draws like the open ended straight draw e.g. 8♦7♠ on a 6♣5♦2♥ board.
There are weak draws like a gutshot e.g. 8♦7♠ on a 5♣4♦3♥ board.
The strength of your draw is determined by the number of outs that you have and whether these outs are to the nuts (for example if you have a Q-high flush draw, you are not drawing to the nuts because another player might be drawing to a K-high or A-high flush).
If you have a strong draw, you want to treat it similarly to as if you had a made hand so if it’s a multiway pot, you should make a continuation bet most of the time if you were the preflop aggressor or simply check/call if you weren’t the aggressor.
If it’s a heads-up pot, you should continue most of the time with your strong draws if you were the aggressor and mostly check/call if you weren’t the aggressor, sometimes lead out.
If you have a weak draw in a multiway pot, you need to look at the pot odds being offered to you and whether there is a possibility of other players reraising after you call. If you are closing the action or there is a low chance of someone reopening the betting after you, you should make decisions based solely on pot odds. If you have favorable pot odds, call – if you don’t, fold.
If you are heads-up with a weak draw, you should continue in most spots, if you were the preflop raiser. If you weren’t, you should mostly check/fold, sometimes check/call, and sometimes lead out, depending on the flop texture.
There is obviously a lot of other factors, like your opponent’s ranges, their playstyles, stack sizes, action preflop, your position, etc., but I think these 3 are the most important and should be most helpful to consider at the beginning stages of learning poker.
They should simplify your decisions. Whenever you see a flop, you should ask yourself 3 questions:
- Is this flop dry or wet?
- How many players are in the hand?
- How strong is my hand relative to the board?
The answers to these questions with time will give you all the information you need to construct a plan for the hand.
The third question is obviously the most difficult one and it’s the one that you will learn with practice so don’t worry about it.
You will surely get it wrong a lot of times, but every time you get it wrong will increase the frequency with which you get it right the next time.
How to play on the Turn?
All right, so you made your decision on the Flop and you are now seeing the 4th community card.
Your decisions on the Turn are equally as important as on the Flop, maybe even more important because with each street, the pot gets bigger and mistakes get more costly thus the quality of your decisions has to be carefully monitored and honed.
The good news is that if you make good decisions preflop (hand selection), and then on the Flop, your decisions on the Turn are much, much easier.
What factors to consider on the Turn?
Well, usually by the time the hand gets to the Turn, there is already quite a bit of information available to all the players, and you should already have a plan for what you are going to do.
First of all, the number of players in the pot gets significantly lower than on the Flop – you rarely get Turns with more than 2-3 players in the hand.
Secondly, the size of the pot gets bigger because of all the action on the Flop – it is not uncommon for the pot to triple on the Flop (e.g. full pot bet called by 1 player).
Thirdly, the probability of hitting your draws gets smaller because there will only be 1 more card on the River.
What are the most important factors to consider before making your decision on the Turn?
Action Preflop and on the Flop
This is probably the most important piece of information because it helps you significantly narrow down the range of hands your opponents may have. If you take into account what your opponent did preflop and on the flop, you can estimate what are the most likely hands they may have.
For example, you raised 9♦10♦ from the button and got called by the big blind. On a 2♦7♦8♥ flop, your opponent checked-raised your continuation bet.
The Turn comes J♥ giving you the straight and your opponent bets full pot. Based on all this action, you can assume that their range here is something like a set, a straight, two pair, or a nut flush draw, more or less. Depending on your opponent’s style, they can have more or fewer bluffs/semi-bluffs here of course.
You get the gist – knowing what actions your opponents took and how they reacted to the play on previous streets gives you a lot of information that allows you to narrow down their range.
The texture of the board is important because it allows you to further narrow down the range of hands of your opponent.
In the example above, we have quite a wet board and therefore we can estimate the villain’s range with a good degree of accuracy even without knowing any additional information about the player and their tendencies. We know that there is quite a bit of bluffs and semi-bluffs in the villain’s range because of the flush possibilities.
On the other hand, if we had the same action on a dry board e.g. 2♦A♠8♥2♣, we would know that the villain’s range is value heavy – that is they have a lot of made hands and not many bluffs because there simply aren’t many bluffing hands which would make sense to take such a line.
Strength of our hand
Once we have analyzed the action up to this point and the board texture, we have a pretty good idea of how our opponent’s range of hands looks like.
It makes sense to then look at our hand and see how it compares to the villain’s range.
It also makes sense to think about what our opponent might think about our range based on the action we took and the board texture.
If our hand is strong relative to the board and our opponent’s range, we should look to bet or raise, sometimes check/call.
With our medium-strength hands, we should look to mostly check/call, and with our weak hands, we should look to mostly check/fold, sometimes bet or raise.
This is connected to the action on the flop and preflop, but the size of the pot is a good factor to consider.
You should only look to play big pots with big hands so if the pot is growing rapidly and you have a mediocre hand, the turn is the time to let go of it.
On the other hand, if the pot is small, it gives you more possibilities. Your mediocre hand might still be good and your drawing hands may get a decent price (in pot odds or in implied pot odds) to try and hit it on the river.
Another factor worth considering is the stack depth so how much money/chips you and your opponents have behind.
If the effective stacks are small e.g. your opponent only has a full pot-sized bet behind, they are likely not folding so you should not be bluffing.
On the other hand, if the effective stacks are deep e.g. 100 BB or more, it might make sense to call the turn bet trying to hit your draw, if there is a high chance of stacking your opponent and getting paid off on the River (implied odds).
There are of course also different factors like your opponent’s playing styles, their tendencies and so on, but in general, the factors we have already covered are more than enough to help you make better decisions on the Turn.
Last thing you need to remember is that if you are not folding on the Turn, you need to have a plan for the River. What are you going to do if the draws complete? What are you going to do when it is a blank? What are you going to do if your opponent shoves all in? And so on and so forth. You need to consider all the scenarios and have a game plan ready.
How to play on the River?
By the time the hand gets to the River, you should have a fairly good idea of what you are going to do, however, you should still think through the entire hand and analyze all the information to make sure the decision you are about to make is the optimal decision.
It always makes sense to reevaluate the hand on each street because you could have missed something before or made some questionable calls.
We have already covered how to play on the flop and how to play on the turn so you have a good idea of all the factors you should consider before making your decisions.
What to consider on the River?
Well, you will once again go through the most important factors:
- the action up to this point, which should give you a good idea of your opponent’s range of hands
- what does your opponent think of your range based on how you have acted so far?
- how strong is your hand relative to the board?
- how big is the pot?
- what kind of player your opponent is and what is your image at the table?
And usually you will find yourself in the three following scenarios:
You have a strong hand on the River
This is of course the preferred scenario and one you are always happy to find yourself in.
You are at the top of your range so there is little or no chance of you being beat, and your goal is to extract the most value.
How to do that? Well, every spot is different, but in general, if you are in position and it is checked to you, you should bet big. Full pot or close to it.
If you have position and the villain leads, in most cases you should raise it at least 3x, and often a raise on the river will be an all-in play.
If you are out of position, you should also bet most of the time and bet big. Sometimes, you may want to check, especially in spots where it will be likely that your opponent has lots of missed draws in his range and is likely to bluff at the pot, but unlikely to call if you bet. But that shouldn’t happen too often. Mostly you should just bet because you are trying to extract value.
You have a medium-strength hand on the River
This is a spot where you beat many hands in your opponent’s range but also are beat by many hands in your opponent’s range.
Your goal here is to realize your equity because you know you have a good claim on the pot.
This is probably the majority of spots you will encounter so it is impossible to cover each and every scenario.
I will try to give you a few tips. In general, you should mostly check/call with your medium-strength hands.
You do not want to blow the pot out of proportion because when that happens, you will mostly be behind.
Sometimes it might make sense to make a thin value bet to extract some more value, but you will learn to recognize those spots with practice. If you are a beginner, try to go for half pot bets every once in a while just to test the waters but only in position and when the board is dry and you have no reason to believe you are often beat here.
You have a weak hand on the River
This is a spot where you have very low equity so almost no chances of winning at showdown.
Usually, these will be spots where you have missed draws or third pair kind of hands, and are at the bottom of your range.
Most of the time, you will be check/folding those hands, but sometimes you should be betting/raising.
The reason for sometimes betting/raising these hands is that you want to be somewhat balanced so that your opponents can never be too sure if you have it or not when you are betting full pot or raising all-in on the river.
This is important because if you only bet big/raise with your strong hands, your opponents will quickly pick up on it and they will just fold unless they have you beat. You will be easily exploitable and that is the last thing you want to be in poker.
The importance of having a balanced range
Betting/raising with your low equity hands will allow you to win some pots when you don’t get called, but when you do get called and your opponent sees that you are capable of bluffing in such spots, they will be much more likely to pay you off next time when you do have it.
Just keep in mind to do it rarely if you are only just starting out playing poker – try to look for the best spots for it and these are when you are blocking some of the villain’s value range, and/or unblocking some of the villain’s bluffing range e.g. you have 8♥7♥ on a J♣6♥7♥9♣6♦ board.
You are unblocking a fair bit of flush draws and blocking a fair bit of straights – depending on how the hand played out, this might be the spot to sometimes bet/raise, but like I said, start small and increase the ratio of bluffs with experience.
A lot of beginner players make the mistake of bluffing way too often and that is why it is best to start small.
The other thing worth mentioning is that you don’t even need to bluff at micro stakes because the players there are so bad that all you need to do in order to win is play straightforward poker and value bet like crazy.
Poker is a game of skill, but only in the long run. In the short term, it involves quite a bit of luck and that is why it is important to manage your poker winnings properly.
Bankroll is simply all the money that you have dedicated for playing poker and only for playing poker. It is important to make this distinction because you need to have a completely separate budget for your living expenses, accommodation, insurance, car payments, etc.
If you play poker for a living then your budget for living and your poker bankroll will be somewhat connected, but the rule needs to be you can only move money from your poker bankroll to your living budget for example every month (pay yourself a salary).
Why is bankroll management important?
Your poker bankroll needs to be only dedicated for playing poker, nothing else. This is to assure you have enough “bullets” to live through the worst downswing you can imagine and recover afterwards.
Bankroll management is important in poker, but also other games of skill with the element of luck because in the short term you can be unlucky (or very unlucky) and lose a few bets, but in the long term the element of luck is diminished because you will on average be about as many times lucky as unlucky and what really matters is the quality of your game.
Proper bankroll management assures that you have enough bets in your arsenal to withstand an unlucky period. It also assures you are never risking too big of a portion of your overall winnings on one game.
How to manage your bankroll?
Well, it depends on the games that you want to be playing. The higher the variance (the luck element), the more buy-ins you will want to have in your bankroll.
You always want to look at your bankroll as the number of buy-ins for the given game you are considering playing e.g. if you have a bankroll of $100 and are playing $0.01/$0.02 cash games buying in for $2, that means you have 50 buy-ins in your bankroll for this given game.
If you were to play a $100 MTT with the same bankroll, you would only have 1 buy-in. Now, would it make sense to play a game where you are putting your entire bankroll at stake?
Some useful rules
Of course, if you are not planning to play poker professionally and only play occasionally, then you do not need to worry too much about bankroll management. You should probably just set a bankroll simply for each game that you are going to play and set it at an amount that you are comfortable losing.
However, if you are thinking about playing poker for a living, you will need quite a big bankroll. Below are my minimum recommendations for No Limit Texas Hold’em:
- 100 buy-ins for cash games i.e. $200 if you’re playing the $0.01/$0.02 games and buying in for $2
- 100 buy-ins for 1-table SNG regular speed i.e. $100 if you’re playing $1 SNGs
- 150 buy-ins for 1-table SNG turbo speed i.e. $150 if you’re playing $1 SNGs
- 300 buy-ins for 1-table SNG hyper turbo speed i.e. $300 if you’re playing $1 SNGs
- 300 buy-ins for MTT regular speed i.e. $300 if you’re playing $1 MTTs
- 500 buy-ins for MTT turbo speed i.e. $500 if you’re playing $1 MTTs
These are numbers I feel comfortable with, but of course, everyone has different risk tolerance and you may want to modify those rules to better suit your specific situation.
It is very important to have some rules in place, though, and in the examples above you can see that if you stick to such rules, you are only risking 0,33%-1% of your bankroll on a given game.
What about moving up or down the stakes?
The other set of rules that you should have is about moving up and down the stakes. Your goal should be to keep moving up the stakes, of course, but sometimes a huge downswing can bring you down the stakes as well.
The rules for moving up and down the stakes should tell you when it is OK for you to try playing higher e.g. you have been playing $1 SNGs and are wondering when you should start playing $2 ones, and when you should move down the stakes e.g. you have lost a big portion of your bankroll on a bad streak and are wondering when you should move from playing $1 SNGs to playing $0.50 SNGs.
It also depends heavily on the player, but I would recommend starting to take shots at higher stakes whenever you are 20% over your amount of buy-ins for the given stake e.g. you are playing $1 SNG and have $120 in your bankroll. For example, if you’re playing 10 tables, you can add 1 or 2 of the $2 SNG and as you are building your bankroll up, you can add more and more of the $2 SNGs until you are at $200 bankroll and are playing only $2 SNGs.
The same goes with moving down the stakes. If you took a loss of 20% on your bankroll, you should start opening lower stakes tables, and if you’re at 50% on your bankroll, you should move completely to playing on the lower stakes. For example, you were playing $2 SNGs, and you went down to $180 so you started adding some $1 SNGs again to your sessions. Your bankroll kept going down and you kept adding more $1 SNGs in your sessions and eventually, you found yourself back at $100 bankroll and playing only $1 SNGs in your sessions once again.
The psychological effect
Having proper bankroll management rules gives you peace of mind because you can detach from results, focusing on playing good poker and not caring about short term swings in either direction.
You avoid situations where you would be risking too much in any one game and in poker, we call this playing scary money. It happens when a player has more on the table than they can afford to lose and it affects their decisions. You cannot make optimal decisions if your judgment is clouded by emotions.
To play your A-game, you need to be detached from results and focused on making optimal decisions. Of course, you need to analyze your hands and make sure you are making the right decisions, and trying to improve your game constantly. Especially, if you are on a losing streak. It is easy to overlook some errors in your game if you believe you are losing only because you are super unlucky so you need to be on the lookout for things like that.