Texas Hold'Em for Beginners

About this Page

This page is not intended to teach you to be an expert Hold'Em player. This page is primarily for people who have never played before, or just played a little. I'll teach you the basics of poker, and enough tactics to play decently. Hopefully that means you can play with friends or go to Vegas and not get totally destroyed. The basic principles here are - understand why you are acting, and keep it simple. If you want to be an expert, there are plenty of web sites and books that will help you get there. Some are -

I'm going to primarily discuss Structured Limit Texas Hold'Em, because it's the simplest game to analyze. I'll discuss other variants a little at the end.

The Basics

Texas Hold'Em is all about chips. You start with some chips and your goal is to take your opponents chips. This is a crucial thing to remember!! The goal is not to win hands, and it's not to get good cards - it's to win chips!! Many people, even seemingly good players, fail to grasp this very simple first principle.

In Texas Hold'Em, each player is dealt two cards down, your "Hole" cards. Then comes a round of betting called the "pre-flop round". Anyone still in the game sees the "flop" - that is 3 community cards, dealt face up in the center of the table for all to play. Then comes another round of betting. Next comes another community card, the "turn". Then comes another round of betting. Finally the last community card, called "the river", and the final round of betting. Now, anyone still in the hand shows their hole cards, and the best hand wins.

Your hand is made up of the best 5 cards you can make from your 2 hole cards and the 5 community cards. You may use 0, 1, or 2 of your hole cards. Everyone plays the same community cards, but only you have your hole cards, and noone else can see them. The ranking of hands are normal 5-card poker hands (I'll list them in a moment).

The player who acts as the dealer is called the "button", and play proceeds clockwise from the button. The Player to the immediate left of the button must post the "small blind", which is half a "small bet". The next player on the left is the "big blind", and must post a whole "small bet". The two blinds are forced bets which make sure there's money in the pot on every hand. There's no ante in typical Hold'Em structure, but the blinds average out to be roughly equivalent to an ante. The money in the middle is the "pot", and all bets go into the pot. The winner takes the pot (or ties split it). The next player is "under the gun" (UTG), and is the first player to act pre-flop. Pre-flop action starts on the UTG player, who may now fold, call, or bet. In general you always have three choices - fold, call (check) or bet (raise). A "call" is called a "check" when the bet is zero to you. A "bet" is called a "raise" if it's already been bet, or a "re-raise" if it's already been raised. On each round, there's a certain amount you must call to "go", that is see the next round or get to the showdown on the river. On the pre-flop round the amount to go is the single small bet which the big blind has posted. On each round thereafter, the amount to go starts at zero, and goes up as people bet. You can already be in the pot for a certain amount, then you have to call the remainder. For example, if it's 3 bets "to go" and you're already in for 1, then it's 2 more to you to call.

Action is "live" until everyone at the table has responded to the last raiser. That is, whoever last raised, everyone at the table must respond, in order clockwise, by either folding, calling, or raising. If someone raises, then they are the last raiser, and everyone must respond to them. What that means is that you can only raise again if someone raises you. So, if you bet and everyone calls, you cannot act again, action is over.

In Structured Limit Hold'Em, the bet sizes are fixed. On the pre-flop and flop rounds, all bets must be the "small bet" size (2 chips, for example). On the turn and river, all bets must be the "big bet" size, usually double the small bet (4 chips, for example).

On the pre-flop round, action starts on the the player to the left of the big blind ("under the gun"), and action comes back around to the big blind. The small blind player must call the rest of the blind plus any raises. The big blind player then always has the option to raise; if noone raised, eg. it was called around, the big blind player may still check or raise.

Typical casino Hold'Em is 9 or 10 handed. It can be played with as many as 23 players (!!) or as few as 2.

Let's do a quick example. Four handed -

Player 0 is on the Button
Player 1 posts the small blind	(1)
Player 2 posts the big blind	(2)
Player 3 is under the gun, first to act
	Player 3 may call the big blind (2 chips), fold or raise (put in 4 chips).
	Player 3 calls (2)
Player 0 calls (2)
Player 1 calls (1 more chip)
	it's 2 chips "to go"
	Player 1 already posted the small blind, so it's only 1 more to him
Player 2 is in the big blind, and has the option to raise
	Player 2 checks
There're now 8 chips in the pot
We're gonna see a flop!
3 cards are dealt face up.
Now Player 1 is first to act.
It's 0 chips "to go"
Player 1 checks (calls 0)
Player 2 checks
Player 3 bets (2 chips)
It's 2 chips "to go"
Player 0 folds
Player 1 calls (2 chips)
Player 2 calls (2 chips)
There're now 14 chips in the pot
Player 3 cannot act again
Let's see the turn!
The 4th card is dealt face up.
Player 1 bets (4 chips) - the bet size has doubled on the turn
Player 2 folds
Player 3 calls (4 chips)
We're going to the river!
The 5th card is dealt face up.
Player 1 bets (4 chips)
Player 3 raises (8 chips)
Player 1 calls (4 chips)
Player 1 & 3 show down cards.
The best hand takes the pot.
Player 0 & 2 cannot win, they're out of the hand.

Get it?

Value of Hands

The basic values of 5-card poker hands are, in order from best to worst :

Straight flush, five cards of the same suit in sequence, such as 76543 of hearts. Ranked by the top card, so that AKQJT is the best straight flush, also called a royal flush. The ace can play low to make 5432A, the lowest straight flush.
Four of a kind, (aka quads) four cards of the same rank accompanied by a "kicker", like 44442. Ranked by the quads, so that 44442 beats 3333K, and then ranked by the side card, so that 4444A beats 4444K(*).
Full house, three cards of one rank accompanied by two of another, such as 777JJ. Ranked by the trips, so that 44422 beats 333AA, and then ranked by the pair, so that 444AA beats 444KK(*).
Flush, five cards of the same suit, such as AJ942 of hearts. Ranked by the top card, and then by the next card, so that AJ942 beats AJ876. Suits are not used to break ties.
Straight, five cards in sequence, such as 76543. The ace plays either high or low, making AKQJT and 5432A. "Around the corner" straights like 32AKQ are usually not allowed.
Three of a kind, (aka trips or a set) three cards of the same rank and two kickers of different ranks, such as KKK84. Ranked by the trips, so that KKK84 beats QQQAK, and then ranked by the two kickers, so that QQQAK beats QQQA7(*).
Two pair, two cards of one rank, two cards of another rank and a kicker of a third rank, such as KK449. Ranked by the top pair, then the bottom pair and finally the kicker, so that KK449 beats any of QQJJA, KK22Q, and KK445.
One pair, two cards of one rank accompanied by three kickers of different ranks, such as AAK53. Ranked by the pair, followed by each kicker in turn, so that AAK53 beats AAK52.
High card, any hand that does not qualify as one of the better hands above, such as KJ542 of mixed suits. Ranked by the top card, then the second card and so on, as for flushes. Suits are not used to break ties.

(taken from the rec.gambling.poker FAQ).

When you're judging how good your hand is, it's important to realize what's "out there" and how your hole cards are playing. In general, you want to be using both your hole cards to make your hand. If you're just "playing the board" (using all 5 cards on the board), then your opponents have *at least* as good a hand as you, so you're playing to tie at best. Similarly, some hands (like a pair of aces) can either be very good or not so good depending on the board.

On the pre-flop round, you only have your 2 hole cards, so you don't yet have a poker hand at all. The best hole cards you can have are AA (pocket aces). The next best is KK (pocket kings). In general, any "pocket pair" is pretty good, but low pocket pairs are not very good on their own. Any two high cards is pretty good, like KQ or AJ, but the concept of "domination" is important (more on all this later). At this phase your hole cards are all about their potential to make a hand.

On the flop, there are now 5 cards out, so you can make a poker hand. You'll always at least have a "high card" hand. There are also 2 more cards to come, so your hand has the potential to improve. For example, you might have a 4-card flush, which is worth nothing on its own but has good potential to become a 5-card flush, which is very good. On the turn, you have 6 cards, so there are several ways to make a hand, and some potential to improve. On the river, you have your final hand.

Hands that use your hole cards well are better than those that don't, because it makes it less likely that you can be beat. For example, having two-pair using both your hole cards is stronger than if there's a pair on the board. That is, consider these two cases :

1) You hold a 9 and a 7. The board shows 9,7,Q ; your hand is 9977Q - two pair 9's and 7's with a Queen.
2) You hold a 7 and a Q. The board show 9,9,7 ; your hand is 9977Q - the same hand!

You have the same hand in both cases, but in case 1 you like your hand better. The reason is that in case 1 there are fewer hands that beat you! The only hands that can beat you are a better two-pair (such as a 9Q hole) or three of a kind (a set), such as QQ in the hole. In case 2, any pocket pair above 7's beats you, such as 88 in the hole. Also, any higher 7 beats you, like 7K and 7A, and any 9 beats you - 9X.

Reading the Board

It's important to be able to "read the board" and know what hands are possible and what's likely to be out there. The first part of that is identifying "the nuts". The nuts is the best possible hand. If you hold the nuts, you know you cannot lose. (Of course, the nuts on the flop may turn into a losing hand on the river). Note that you can see your hole cards, so sometimes you can have the nuts even though the board

First consider a straight flush. A straight flush is only possible if there are 3 cards of the same suit on the board which are near enough in value to make a straight. For example, a 9TJ (Nine,Ten,Jack) of Hearts on the board could make a straight flush for anyone with a QK of Hearts, or a 78, or an 8Q. Similarly, 69T makes a straight for someone with a 78, etc.

Now, for a four of a kind, there must be a pair on the board. Then, if someone holds that pair, they have four of a kind. If there are trips on the board, then someone just needs to have the one other card of that value. For example, with 33 on the board, a hole of 33 makes four of a kind. With 333 on the board, any hole 3X (like J3, 73) make four of a kind.

For a full house, you need the same thing - a pair on the board. For example, if the flop is 337, then a 37 hole or a 77 hole both make a full house. The 77 house is preferred. In this case 33 is the nuts, 77 is "second nuts", 73 is "third nuts".

For a flush, there need to be 3 of the same suit on the board. Then, anyone with 2 of that suit in the hole have a flush. If there are 4 of a suit on the board, you only need one of that suit in the hole.

For a straight, there need to be cards of nearby value. Generally on the river there's usually a straight possible if there's no pair on the board. A river like KQ268 has no straight possible.

When you have four to the flush or four to the straight, you're considered to be on a "flush draw" or "straight draw". That means you need one more card to come to make your hand. If you need two more cards to come, that's a "runner-runner" draw. Runner-runner is extremely unlikely, and you should essentially just forget about it, it will lead you to bad plays.

Let's look at a few cases :

2c 3c 4h Kd Qs

There's no flush because there's only 2 clubs. (this is called "rainbow")
There are straights, like A5 or 56 in the hole.
Top set would be KK in the hole, top two-pair would be KQ in the hole.
There's no 4 of a kind, straight-flush, or full house possible.
The nuts is "56" in the hole - the top straight.

7h 7d 9h Th As

A straight flush is possible, 8h,Jh in the hole, that's the nuts.
2nd nuts is four of a kind, 77 in the hole.
AA in the hole is the top full house, followed by TT, 99, and A7, T7, 97
A heart flush is posible for any two hearts in the hole.
Straights are 68 and 8J

In this case if you held 8hAh you have the "nut flush", and you know the straight flush is not possible.  You're
still beaten by four of a kind or any full house.

If you held A7 in the hole, the straight flush is still out, but 77 is now impossible.  You're still beaten by higher
houses like AA and TT and 99 in the hole.

The next thing to consider when reading the board is how likely it is that the better hands are out there. I'm not going to get into how to really do this correctly, that's a matter for experts. Basically you need to consider two things - 1) How many holes beat me, and 2) How likely is it that someone would have kept those cards to this point.

Now, there are 1326 possible holes (52*51/2). Once you see your own hole cards and 5 table cards, that eliminates a lot of possible holes, there are only 990 left (45*44/2). Basically you want to count how many holes make certain hands. Let's consider the 2nd example flop. There's only one hole that makes the straight flush, so all things being equal, that gives someone a 1/990 chance of having that hand. Similarly, there's just one way to have 77. To have AA there are 3 ways (3*2/2) - (AhAd) (AhAc) (AcAd). There are 45 ways to make the flush (10*9/2), that's about a 5% chance (45/990). I'm not suggesting that you actually need to do this math, just have to have some idea that there may be very few ways to make some hands, but a lot of ways to make others.

As for what's likely, basically you have to consider that people will fold hands which are junk at the time, if they have to call bets. If they can check along for free, then they'll stay with any hand. For example, consider this board :

Ac Kh 5d on the flop 6c on the turn 5c on the river

Now, if there was no betting, then people will stay along with any hand, and you have to consider that opponents many have things like any two clubs (which now make a flush).

If there was heavy betting on the flop, then people will be folding hands that don't look good on the flop. So, people are only keeping hands with A's and K's. In that case, a flush is very unlikely on the river.

One special case of this is in the pre-flop action. If there's any betting pre-flop, people are much more likely to see the flop with pocket pairs or high cards. That means hands like 37 are very rare on the flop (if there's been betting pre-flop!). Remember that all action is dictated by chips. People won't fold 37 unless they have been bet at. For example, if the big blind can just check and see the flop, he may have any 2 cards.

It's very important to think of your hand relative to the board. For example, if you have a straight, that's generally a very good hand, but if there are four cards of the same suit on the board, that's not so good! Similarly, two pair is a good hand, but if the board then pairs, that's not so good. For example :

You have TJ in the hole, a pretty decent hand
The flop comes TJA
Now you have 2 pair, that's mighty good, but QK and AJ and AT already beat you.
The turn comes K
Now, an opponent just needs a Q to have a straight, so you're not looking so good.
The river comes A
Your two pair has just disappeared! You no longer have a TTJJ hand - you play the AA on the board, and you have AAJJK as your 5-card poker hand. Your two pair is gone and it's just like you have just a pair of jacks. Furthermore, any opponent is quite likely to have an Ace, or a Queen, so you're quite likely to be beaten. You hand value looked good in the abstract, but compared to the board, it's quite poor.

A lot of beginners make the mistake of getting too attached to their hole cards. If they get AA in the hole, they're convinced they're going to win. The problem is that the game is not just a matter of who has the best hole - you have to show down a full 5 card poker hand. If the board comes with something like a 4-straight or 4-flush, or if it pairs Kings or something like that, you have to consider that you're quite likely to be beaten (depending on the betting action and opponents).

Expected Value

Understanding the concept of Expected Value (EV) is very important. The EV of an action if how much you expect to make on average by doing that action if you do it many many times. For example, if you're betting on coin flips, your EV is zero, because over a long period you will always break even. All of gambling is about EV. You want to make moves that have EV > 0, this is called "Positive Expectation" or +EV for short. Moves that are -EV are "negative expectation" or losing moves. Simplistically, your entire goal in Hold'Em is to get into +EV situations. That is, win more on average than you lose. Now, any one move may lose you money, but it still may be a winning move in the long run. A lot beginners make the mistake of paying too much attention to how things turn out in individual hands. For example, let's say you get AA in the hole and raise. Against 10 players AA has something like a 30% of winning. That means 7 out of 10 times you're going to lose (if everyone goes to the river) !! So, you might play it, and lose on the river, and think "that was dumb, I wasted my money by raising". No! Raising is a +EV move, it will pay off in the long run, just because you lose money one time doesn't make it wise. The opposite happens too, players will limp in (just call) to see the flop with something terrible like 83o ("o" means "off suit", not of the same suit). Now the flop comes 883 and you just made a full house. You're going to make a lot of money on this hand, but does that mean it was wise to play 83o ? Probably not, it's a -EV move in the long run!!

The basic idea of EV goes like this. Lets say you are wagering some bet "b". You have a probability of winning "p" and if you win, you will get paid "w". The long-term EV of this wager is : EV = p * w - b This just says : you always put in your bet "b", so that's a term of "-b", and with chance "p" you win "w", so that's "p * w". So, for example, on an even coin flip p = 0.5 (50%), if b = 1, and w = 2, then EV = 0. What if you're flipping a coin and someone offers to pay you 3 if you win, and you only have to put up 1? Then your EV is 0.5 * 3 - 1 = 0.5 bets. Each time you take that wager, you win 0.5 on average, though on any one flip you will either lose 1 or win 2 (3 minus the 1 you put in).

One important thing about EV that many newbies miss is that very unlikely gambles can be very profitable. For example, if you have a 10% chance of winning, but it only costs you $1 to play and you get paid $100 if you win, then your EV is : 0.1 * 100 - 1 = $9 ; that's a very good proposition, even though you will lose money 9 out of 10 times.

The ratio "w : b" is called "pot odds" because it's the odds the pot is offering you. Your odds of winning must be better than that in order for it to be profitable. The basic principle is - if the pot is small, it's not worth chasing, but if the pot is big, you want to chase it with even very unlikely shots.

Probability and Outs

In order to play poker decently, you have to have some basic understanding of probability. You already saw a little before, when you were counting the number ways that certain hands can be made. There are two important things in poker - 1) what's the probability I currently have the best hand, and 2) what's the probability I will have the best hand at the showdown. These are often not the same; the difference is that you may have a good "made hand", but it may be "weak" - eg. unlikely to hold up. One example of this is the pocket pair 22 before the flop. It's actually one of the better holes (heads up), but just a pair of twos is unlikely to hold up on the river. Similarly, if you have a draw, like four to a flush, you have a very weak hand, but you could make a very good hand on the river.

It's useful to have a rough idea of how likely hands are in various scenarios. One important factor is that these probabilities change dramatically with the number of people in the hand. Let's say you have a hand that has a 50% chance of winning against one opponent. Then against 2 opponents you only have a 25% chance of winning, because you must beat both of them!! Against N players you only have an (0.5)^N chance - that's 0.1% !!! Marginal hands can be very good against one opponent, but very poor against many. It's extremely unlikely that everyone has junk.

Now, in addition to the probability that your hand is currently best, you need to think about your chance of improving. The number of cards that improve your hand are your "outs". For example, if you have two pair, then you can improve to a full house with 4 other cards - the other two of each of what you have. Specifically, if you have AK and the flop is AK9, then any A or K will give you a house, and there are 4 of them, so you have 4 "outs". Now, in terms of probabilities, one "out" is roughly a 2% chance of improving with one card to come. So, 4 outs is about an 8% chance of improving. With two cards to come it's roughly double. This all isn't quite right, but we're just getting a rough idea here. So, in the two-pair example above, you have 4 outs and 2 cards to come - that's about a 16% chance to improve.

Two of the most common drawing cases are when you have a 4-flush or 4-straight. With a 4-flush, you have 9 outs - the 9 other cards of that suit. With a 4-straight you have 8 outs - 4 of the rank above and 4 of the rank below. If you have a 4-flush on the flop, you have about a 35% chance of making it by the river. This is a good common reference point to keep in mind. We can use this now to decide whether drawing is +EV. You have EV = 0.35 * w - b , so that's greater than zero if 0.35 * w - b > 0 , or w > b * 2.86 ; this tells you how big the pot needs to be for you to call a bet when you're on a draw. Now, don't actually use these numbers, just try to understand the concepts.

Now I'll give you a good rule of thumb for draws. It goes like this - someone bets at you, and it's "B" to call, *after* you call the pot will be of size "W" (that's what you'll win). Take your number of outs, O, and compute the "Index number" I : I = O * W / B (in the common case where B is one bet, and you measure W in terms of bets, this is just O*W). Now compare this number to 45. I won't tell you how I got 45; it involves EV and odds and implied odds, but it's just a good index number. If your Index is >= 45 -> then call. If it's <= 45, then fold. Obviously if your hand is good enough to raise, you don't need to do this computation at all.

For example - you have a 4-flush, so you have 9 outs. Someone bets 1 bet at you. The pot contains 6 bets, so it'll be 7 after you call. We compute : I = 9 * 7 = 63. That's better than 45, so you should play. Now, what if you've got an inside straight draw? You only have 4 outs. In the same situation you compute I = 4 * 7 = 28 - fold!

Now, obviously if I is near 45, you can use your judgement on whether to call or not. The main thing is that if I is much lower than 45, you better fold, and if it's much higher, you better call. One thing to keep in the back of your head is - "what if I make my draw and still don't win?". For example, let's say you have a pair. You're drawing to 2 pair or a set, and you basically have 5 outs (2 from your paired cards to make a set, or 3 from your unpaired hole card to make 2 pair) (I'm ignoring pairing the board because that may improve your opponent as much or more than you). Now, if your opponent already has a better set (three of a kind), then you are actually "drawing dead" - that is, even if you improve, it won't beat him. So, your chance of winning here is really 0% even though you counted 5 outs. So, you have to keep in your head that your outs might not be "real". This mainly happens when you're drawing to something like the low end of a straight, or to a low flush. For example, if there's a 3-flush on the board, and you have a low card of that suit, you are drawing to a flush, but it's a low flush that's likely to be beat.

Betting Strategy

Now we'll talk about betting strategy a bit (the outs discussion is about calling strategy). So, you must decide when betting is +EV. The key here is that you don't just bet when you have a good hand, though that's a decent start. You bet for two reasons -
1. To get people to fold better hands (or dangerous hands) and win the pot right now, or
2. To get inferior hands to call (so they'll pay off on the show-down).
Notice that if you bet and inferior hands fold, or better hands call (or raise) - your bet was a losing action (even though you may still win the pot).

Now, betting in the early rounds is usually simpler. The basic idea is this - if you're on a "draw" or have a weak hand, you want to see more cards for as cheaply as possible. If you have a pretty good made hand, you want to bet, so that other people are charged to see cards. The key principles of poker are - you make money when other people make mistakes, and it's good for you to put them in hard decisions, and you never want to let them do what they want. eg. if they want to see free cards, you need to charge them.

Whenever you have a chance of winning better than 1/N for N players, it's good for you to get more money in the pot (though it may be even better for other players). For example, if you're just on a flush draw, if there are 6 players, it's profitable for you to get as much money in the pot as possible (assuming everyone will call). Of course if you have a chance of winning >= 50%, it's profitable for you to get money in the pot no matter how many opponents there are. Remember that you have two ways of winning - if they fold now, or if they call and you show down and win. Sometimes you may have only like a 30% chance of winning a showdown, but there's also a 30% chance your opponent will fold. The result is that you have a 60% chance of winning overall, and betting is profitable. In fact, this is so important that if you know your opponent won't fold, it's rarely profitable to raise.

Also note that if they fold they're giving you the *whole* pot, and you're only risking a bet. So, say the pot contains 20 bets, and you know your opponent will fold to a bet 10% of the time. If he calls, he has a better hand than you and wins the pot. You only have a 10% chance of winning, but you should always bet. The reason is that he is folding too often, so your EV is positive. EV = p * w - b = 20 * 0.1 - 1 = 1 bet. On average you win 1 bet by betting. You should be able to see that a correct amount of folding would be more like 5%. So, if he's folding 10%, that's clearly too much, that's a mistake by him, so it's profitable for you.

Much of betting strategy is based on them making mistakes. If they fold too much - you should bet more often. If they call too much, you should bet your good hands, but not your bad ones. If they check-raise too much, just check behind them with weak hands and bet with very good ones (expecting a raise).

One thing to consider with betting is whether you want to get people out of the hand or not. Often by betting you will put pressure on people and possibly make them fold. Generally, you want people to fold if you have pure junk (a bluff) or a weak hand which you don't expect to hold up at showdown. If you are pretty sure your hand will hold up at showdown, you want as many people as possible to stay in and call lots of bets. Also, if you have a strong draw, you want a lot of people in calling lots of bets. A draw like a flush draw is good against 3 or 4 people, but is very poor heads up. The reason is that heads up, you are only getting paid 2:1 instead of 3:1 or 4:1, and you only have a 35% chance of making your flush over two cards.

Let's consider an example. On the flop, you make a full house! You have a monster; someone before you bets. What do you do? Typically just call; you don't want to raise, because you want as many callers behind you as possible. If you did raise, it would be two bets for them to call and many would fold. Also, recall that on the turn the bet limit is doubling, so you may want to wait until then for a check-raise. This is a form of "slow-playing" or "sand-bagging". Basically you are disguising your hand, pretending it's weaker than it is, trying to get more people to stay in the pot and bet at it.

Let me briefly discuss the check-raise. The purpose of a check-raise is to disguise your hand so that people will get their money in the pot. You lead out with a check hoping someone will bet so you can raise. Their bet is now "trapped" in the pot, so at least you win that. I advise almost never check-raising. You just don't need to worry about this kind of play, and you're likely to get it wrong. Keep it simple, and your play will still seem erratic enough.

Similarly, slow-playing big hands should be done very rarely in Limit Hold'Em. The problem is that many hands are not as big as you think. If your hand is weak, you need to bet to make other people pay to draw. If you have something like two-pair, you better bet! Almost anything weaker than a low flush should be considered weak enough that you need to defend it by betting.

Adjusting to the Table

A lot of the skill in poker is in adjusting to the table. I'll just describe a couple of concepts here. As noted above, you make money when other people make mistakes, and it's good to encourage them to make mistakes. If someone is "tight-weak", (eg. folds too much and rarely plays back at you), then you should get at them with lots of holdings. They will then fold too much. By betting at them, you give them the *opportunity* to make a mistake. The typical poker adjectives are :

Now, the most common player you will encounter in Casinos is the "calling station". This is a "loose-weak" player. The mistake they make is just calling along with too many hands, often calling when beaten, and rarely betting and playing back at you. You can easily take advantage of them by playing "tight-aggressive". When you do this, you first tighten up, so you're pretty sure you have them beaten when you're in the pot. Then you play aggressive, betting at them often, because they call too much, you're giving them the opportunity to call and make that mistake.

Another player you see a lot is "Loose-Aggressive". This is the maniac who plays almost everything and bets it fiercely. One mistake they make is way overplaying bad hands and bluffing too much. You can do well against them by playing "Tight-Normal". First you tighten up so that you have a good chance of having them beat. Then, if you have weak holdings, go ahead and fold to them, but if you have even mediocre holdings (like middle pair on the flop), you play back hard. They will way over-commit when they're beaten, and you can win very large pots from them.

Remember that the goal of poker is to win *chips* not *hands*. Against a Loose-Aggressive player, you might lose a lot of small hands, eg. lose your blinds often. But when you win a pot, you'll win a lot of *chips*, and be way up over all. Your goal is to lose the small pots and win the big ones, not the other way around.

Pre-Flop Play

I'm going to run through basic play on the various rounds. Pre-flop play is perhaps the most important. The first thing is to look at how many people are in the hand and what's your position. Fewer people = you play more hands. Later position (eg. closer to the button) = you play more hands. If it's 10-handed and you're under the gun, you should play only very premium hands, like QQ or better, AK. You also need to be aware of the character of the table; if it's very loose, you can play some more hands, very tight, you need to also tighten up (but also bluff more!). There are a lot of tables of hands around if you want to see that kind of thing. I'll give just a quick guide. If someone early comes in for a raise, that means they probably have a quite good hand, so you need a good hand to come in. If lots of people limp in, that means the pot is offering you very good odds, so you can call with more hands.

There are three basic types of hole cards at this stage. 1. Pocket pairs (eg. JJ), 2. High cards, (eg. AQ), 3. Suited Connecters (67s). I don't consider "Suited cards" or "Connecters" to be a hands at all, fold that junk. These hands play generally like this - 1. Pocket pairs are a made hand; high pocket pairs have some chance of holding up; low pocket pairs probably need to make a set or house to win. Low pocket pairs are "dominated" by high pocket pairs. 2. High cards are trying to make a pair; the idea is that if you make a pair, it's probably the top pair; high suited cards can also make very good flushes and straights. High cards are dominated by higher pocket pairs or higher cards, eg. AT is dominated by AJ. 3. Suited Connecters are trying to make a straight or flush; you can also make two-pair, but if you make just a pair, it's probably low and often beaten. So, the way you play these is roughly like this - 1. High pocket pairs are always good. Low pocket pairs are probably good if heads up, but not good several-way. Low pocket pairs are a drawing hand, trying to make a set, which may then be good again against many players who are just limping. 2. High cards are good against any number of players, but you must be very careful of domination. If you have something like AT, you are easily dominated (by AK,AQ,AJ), so if an Ace does come on the flop, you may be in trouble. Thus, don't play them if you think there's a reasonable chance of those better hands being in the game, eg. don't play them from early position when it's 10-handed. 3. Suited Connecters are basically never dominated, but they have a low chance of making any hand at all. You want to see a flop cheaply against many players. Ideally you get 10 players in the hand all limping, and you can just limp and see a flop. If it "hits you" (eg. you make a straight or flush draw) you play on, otherwise you fold.

Note that if you have a great hand, like AA or AKs, you don't really want to get people out. Your goal is to get as much money in the pot as possible. Usually the best way to do that is a moderate raise. If you raise too much (in no-limit), it's likely everyone will fold. In a Limit game, it's usually appropriate to bet the fixed bet, though you may slow-play and try a check-raise.

Also note that if no-one bets before the flop, then people may be limping through with almost any hand. That's not bad play, remember that *chips* are what drive the action, if you don't put pressure on them, it's perfectly fine for them to limp through with terrible hands like T7.

Flop Play

When you see the flop, you typically know what's happening to your hand. If you haven't made it on the flop, you're usually going to let it go at this stage. There are three cards on the flop, and we categorize the pairs made from these as "top pair", "middle pair", and "bottom pair". Generally if you have top pair or better, you're doing well. With middle pair, that's pretty good heads up, but not against several. Bottom pair or worse is quite weak. Note that your pocket pairs get classified by this too; a pocket pair over the top card is an "over-pair" and is quite good. Anything lower is pretty weak. You're also looking for straights and flushes on the flop, not just for yourself, but for others. Say you make top pair, you bet, as you should, and someone calls. What do they have? Well, if there are straight and flush draws on the board, it's somewhat likely they have those.

Your "kicker" is coming into play here too. Your "kicker" is your other hole card that's not directly used in the hand. For example, if you make top pair, your other card is your kicker. So if you have AJ and pair your A, you have a J kicker. Quite often people will play their Aces, so when an Ace comes on the flop it's often a battle of kickers. This is how AJ often beats AT.

If you have a decent draw (eg. 8 "outs" or more), you want to see more cards as cheaply as possible. Sometimes that can be done best by betting. By betting yourself, you disguise your hand, and often get people to just call. This may also lead to you getting a "free card" on the turn, as the others will check to the raiser (aka you).

Almost never chase bad draws!! A big mistake people make is chasing with weak draws. For example, if you have bottom pair and are pretty sure someone has middle or top pair (because they bet at you), then you have basically 5 outs to make trips or two-pair. 5 outs is not very good. By my "45" rule of thumb, the pot would have to have 9 bets in it after you call (so 8 before you call). Similarly, if you have an inside straight draw, eg. where you have something like 56 in the hole with 89K on the board, so you need a 7 to come, that's 4 outs, which is very bad. You need the pot to have 11 bets in it after you call, which rarely happens.

If you have a true monster (eg. a house or high flush), you may slow-play it, but that's quite rare.

Usually on the flop the made hands will just be pairs. Obviously you should watch the board for the possibility of made flushes or straights, eg. three to a flush, or like a TJQ flop. Even if someone doesn't have a made flush or straight with that board, they certainly have a draw for it. And if they don't have a draw, they may still represent it! The concept of "top pair", "middle pair", "bottom pair" is very important here. If you have top pair, that's a pair using the highest card on the flop, that's generally pretty good, but against several people your kicker will probably come into play, since someone else may have top pair as well. For example, if you have AK and the board is AQ7 you have top-pair with top-kicker. That means you beat or tie any other person with just top-pair. If you have A2 you also have top-pair, but you are in severe kicker trouble, since almost any other kicker will beat you. Remember that your best 5 cards play; currently you are playing {AAQ72} , but there are two more cards to come, and they'll probably not be deuces. Say an 8 comes next - suddenly your deuce is not playing at all, your 5-card hand is {AAQ87}. That means anyone with a 7 or better kicker beats you. All other low aces (A6) tie you. Note that on a flop like AQ7 you have to be a little scared of two-pair from the AQ, since that's a hand people will always play.

Turn Play

On the turn, the bet doubles. You generally want to stop slow-playing if you were, and bet if you think you have the best hand. If you were on a draw you want to continue to try to get a cheap card to see the river, but often your pot-odds have gotten worse because of the double bet, and you may have to fold if someone bets at you.

River Play

There are no more cards to come, so everyone has their hand. It's now a pure betting game, and you want to use the strategy in the betting section above. You can generally tell if people missed their draws eg. if the straight or flush didn't make it (only 2 suited cards, for example).


There are two reasons to bluff, 1) to vary your play and disguise your moves, 2) to get people to fold and win the pot. I wouldn't worry about #1 too much unless your play is getting too predictable. You should bluff a bit to get people to fold. The key here is sensing weakness. If one player bets and other raises, you probably should not re-raise bluff; they're not both going to fold. Also, the bigger the pot, the less likely people are to fold, and people are more likely to fold to the bigger turn/river bets than the small flop bet.

Stealing from the button is a very common bluffing situation. On the flop, for example, if you are on the button (last to act) and it goes check-check-check to you, everyone has shown weakness, and you can often bet and win the pot. A bet in this situation is almost automatic at some tables because people lay down their hands too often. Sometimes a raise-bluff on the river can work very well, if the flop and turn go check-check and then someone bets the river, they're often trying to steal the pot, so a raise back at them will often make them fold. Reading players and the situation is crucial to bluffing, and it's a skill that comes over time. Don't do too much of it too early.

One crucial thing about bluffing is that it doesn't have to work very often to be profitable. As I noted before, if the pot is 20 bets and your opponent will fold 10% of the time, you should always bet.

Bluffing works best when your opponent doesn't think you're bluffing - they think you have a hand that beats them, so they have to lay it down. Sometimes bluffing even works when they know you're bluffing, just because their hand is so bad that they think you'll still win, or because they don't want to risk their stack. That applies best in no-limit hold'em (see below). Note that if you bluff a lot, people will pick it up and adjust and start calling you down.

No Limit Hold'Em

Finally, a brief word on No Limit Hold'Em. Unlike Limit Hold'Em, the size of bets is not fixed, each player may bet as much as they want. Usually, each raise must be at least as large the previous bet, starting with the big blind. You need to play No Limit rather differently. Two big factors arise - for one thing, you will be chasing draws far less often, because the bets are bigger and the odds offered are not as good; also, when you have a made hand, you want to bet bigger so that the draws drop out. Generally you want to win your hand while you are ahead, don't give them a chance to make a better hand.

No Limit Hold'Em also becomes a game of "implied odds". That is, if you make a big hand, you might win someone's entire stack. That means you can chase with some very bad odds sometimes, because if you make your hand, you're going to get big money. For example, say you know someone has a flush and you have two pair. You're beat, but you have 4 outs to make a house. With one card to come, that's about an 8% chance. Now, say they bet $100 at you, you know they will go all-in with their flush even if you make your house, and their stack is $2000. You stand to make $2000 if you hit your flush, so your EV is EV = $2000 * 0.08 - $100 = $60 , it's a good play. Note that if you weren't going to win most of his stack, it would be a bad idea to chase here, but because the "implied odds" are so huge, you can chase. This makes it good to play some strange hands preflop, because if you hit, you can win huge. For example, hands like 8Ts are nice because they make deceptive straights with flops like 79J, and you can win lots of money from two-pairs like 9J.

You can make big bluffs in No Limit Hold'Em. This works best when your stack is bigger than theirs, and you're putting a big hurt on them. This is also very risky. It doesn't work at all if your stack is small or if they are almost all-in already. For example, let's say you have 1000 chips and someone else has 200. You are going to go all-in and force them to decide if they want to risk all their chips. Many people won't call unless they have a good hand because they don't want to risk all their chips. However, if the pot already has 1000 chips in it, they're calling 200 to win 1400 (the 1000 in the pot, plus their 200 and your 200). In that case, they'll call with almost anything, so you can't bluff, you must show down a winning hand. On the other hand, if the pot has only 20 chips in it, they would be foolish to call unless they have quite a good hand. Note that this does NOT necessarilly make a bluff at a small pot a good play. Yes, if you bet 200 you will usually win those 20 chips. But who cares? It's only 20 chips! When you get caught by a better hand, you will lose 200 chips! That means you have to succeed 10 times for every 1 time you fail. This bluff is only profitable in the long run if it will succeed MORE than 10:1.

Charles Blooom [cb][at][cbloom][dot][com]
Send Me Email

Back to the Index

The free web counter says you are visitor number