On Strategy: Basic Poker Strategy
By: Kathy Watterson and Lou Krieger ©
Kathy Watterson, who is my coauthor “Internet Poker: How
to Play and Beat Online Poker Games,” coauthored this article
with me. Some of this material appears in that book, though in a
somewhat different form. This piece is aimed at beginning players,
particularly newcomers to “brick and mortar” and online
casino poker, or those who might have been playing for a while,
but never stopped to think about what it takes to become a winning
Poker is a game of money played with cards; it’s not a game
of pots played with money. It’s also a game of skill, not
of chance, and players who go at it solely by the seat of their
pants stand no more chance of winning at poker than they do at roulette.
Without a solid basis for making decisions about whether to check,
bet, call, fold, raise, or re-raise, you might just as well play
the lottery. Winning poker players understand strategic concepts,
and they apply them with precision and discipline. Let’s look
Win Money Not Pots
Anyone can win pots, but winning money is the aim of the game. Pots
are only incidental. If your goal is to win the most pots, that’s
easy. Just play every hand and call every bet until the bitter end,
and you’ll win every pot you possibly can. But you’ll
lose a ton of money in the process. The very best players engage
in few hands, but when they get involved they’re usually aggressive
— they maximize the amount they win when the odds favor them.
If your goal is winning money, don’t look for reasons to
play hands or you’ll talk yourself into playing too many.
Money saved is just as valuable as money won, so knowing when to
release a hand that appears to be beaten is just as important as
knowing when to bet. Remind yourself of this every time you sit
down to play poker!
Remember: When it comes to poker, only
losing players hang in there hoping. Hope springs eternal, and the
hope of poor players is the meat and potatoes of every poker pro's
livelihood. While it's wonderful for many of life's endeavors, hope
is the kiss of death in poker. Play a solid game and hope for hopeful
Be Selective and Aggresive
Selective and aggressive play separates winning poker players from
consistent losers. There’s not a single consistent winner
who fails to practice this principle. Odds shift as cards are dealt
across the table or across the Internet. Winning players recognize
when they have the best of it, and they’re determined to get
more money in the pot when conditions are favorable. By the same
token, they’re extremely reluctant to commit chips to a hand
when the odds don’t favor them.
Aggression and selectivity generally don’t walk hand in hand,
so you’ll need to learn when to come in with guns blazing
and when to hunker down. If you’re too aggressive, particularly
when your cards don’t warrant it, your opponents will eventually
recognize your tendencies. They’ll then wait until they have
better hands than yours, allow you to do their betting for them,
and raise on late betting rounds to collect double bets when they
have the best of it. On the other hand, if you’re too passive,
you won’t win enough money with your good hands to overcome
the hands you lose, the blinds, and the rake.
Remember this: Aggressive players have two ways to win a hand.
The first is to wrest control of the pot by forcing opponents out.
Your bet or raise might cause someone to release the hand that would
have beat yours, had the hand been played to conclusion by all.
Passive players — those who check and call most of the time
— have only one way to win: presenting the best hand at showdown.
Play Only the Best Starting Hands
If you’re playing correctly, you’ll release all of your
weak starting hands unless you’re bluffing in a short-handed
game. Poker is all about minimizing losses with weak hands, and
maximizing wins with good ones. Since the cards figure to break
about even in the long run, if you’re not selective as well
as aggressive, the best you can hope for is a lifetime of breaking
even ¾ which really translates into a lifelong loss since
you have to overcome the cost of the rake. Poker is like any other
for-profit venture in that you have to overcome your cost of doing
business in order to turn a profit. The way to do this in poker
is through selectivity and aggression.
When Playing Online, use the Internet’s Cloak of
Anonymity to Study Your Opponents
Winning poker players scout playing styles of opponents as diligently
as football coaches study film of upcoming opponents. On the Internet,
take full advantage of anonymity by playing spy. Observe any game
before taking a virtual seat. The players won’t even know
you’re there, and you can take lots of notes while you’re
watching the game. Some players even sit there for extended periods
of time, not playing, but checking out the opposition and gathering
When hands are turned over at showdown, notice who’s holding
what, and try to recall betting patterns earlier in the hand. With
a little practice ¾ OK, OK, with a lot of it ¾ you’ll
be able to characterize opponents after a round or two. Got ‘em
nailed? Got plenty of notes in your hard drive? Great! Now jump
into the game and put that knowledge to work!
In poker, position means power. Acting after opponents is valuable
because you garner clues about their hands while giving out minimal
information regarding your own. Also, against one or two opponents,
you can often take the pot with a mere bet if they’ve checked
to you. In most things in life, you hate being last. In poker, you’ll
learn to love it.
Take advantage of the Information Explosion
More has been written about poker since 1990 than had previously
been written in the entire history of the game. Along with reaping
a literary harvest, you can also jumpstart your poker learning by
using Wilson Software’s sophisticated poker programs that
allow you to practice against opponents programmed to act just like
players you’ll find in traditional casinos and on the Internet
too. You can even tweak the programs if you’re so inclined,
changing the player profiles and other factors to create a game
tailor-made for your purposes.
You can also use the software for research purposes. It’s
easy to set up almost any sort of simulation to test the strength
of one hand versus another in a heads-up situation or against a
table full of player profiles of your choosing. Your authors have
been using this product for years to do just that sort of thing.
Frequent Decisions are Important
Decisions, decisions, decisions. Poker is a game of decisions. But
not all of them are equally important, and not all of them are critical.
Things that occur all the time are important. Even when a loss attributed
to a wrong decision is small, it eventually adds up.
Always defending your small blind in Hold’em, for example,
illustrates the point. Suppose while playing online in $2-$4 Texas
hold’em, with $1 and $2 blinds, you always defend your small
blind — even with abysmally weak hands like 7h-2c. Based on
the random distribution of cards, you’re typically dealt such
a throwaway hand about one-third of the time.
At 60 online hands per hour — a typical pace in cyberspace
cardrooms if the game is running efficiently and most players are
attentive and have good Internet connections — you’re
dealt the small blind six times every 60 minutes. If you always
call, you wind up calling twice each hour when you really shouldn’t.
That’s only $2 each hour, but if you play ten hours per week,
at the end of the year you’ve given away well over a thousand
dollars unnecessarily. Sobering thought, isn’t it?
Costly Decsisions Matter Too
Decisions costing a significant amount of money, while not occurring
often, are very important. Suppose all the cards have been dealt,
and your opponent bets into a fairly large pot. If you call when
you should have folded and your opponent wins the pot, that’s
an error, but not a critical one. It cost only one bet. But if you
fold the winning hand, that’s a grievous error, because now
the cost of that mistake is the entire pot.
We’re certainly not advising you to call every time someone
bets on the river. But remember: Calling doesn’t have to be
correct too often to pay off handsomely over time. If the cost of
a mistaken fold is ten times the price of a mistaken call, you need
to be correct only slightly more than ten percent of the time to
make calling worthwhile.
Early Decsions Matter Most
Early choices usually mean more than later ones because of their
impact on subsequent decisions. Whenever you make an incorrect move
up front, you run the risk of rendering each subsequent decision
incorrect as well. That’s why your choice of starting hands
is usually much more critical than how you play on future betting
Keeping Your Equilibrium When Your Luck Goes South
No magic elixir can eliminate the troughs everyone experiences now
and then at poker. Losing streaks are no fun. Even the realization
that you’re not the only poor soul tossing about in the same
sinking boat sheds little consolation when you’ve been buffeted
by the vicissitudes of fate.
At such times, remind yourself that poker is a lifetime endeavor,
and that as long as you continue to play your usual solid game based
on good decisions, your discipline will eventually pay off.
We recommend one course of action to any player mired in a losing
streak: Shift gears. We all change gears during a poker game. Sometimes
we do this consciously, as a planned strategy, while other times
we just wind up playing differently later on than we did when we
first sat down.
When you’re losing, consider gearing down . . . way down,
by playing fewer hands. Losing means it’s time for lots of
traction and not much speed. It’s a time for playing only
the best starting hands. Not marginal hands, not good ¾ or
even very good ¾ starting hands, but only the best hands.
That means you’ll throw away hand after hand. It takes discipline
to do this, particularly when some of the hands would have won.
But here’s the recipe for gearing down:
· Stay away from troublesome, marginal hands. Go with the
· Make opponents pay to draw out on you. Most of the time
they won’t get lucky, and that extra money in the pot will
wind up in your stack of chips.
· Never play weak starting hands from early position.
These concepts apply to all forms of poker. But by themselves they’re
not enough. Each form of poker is quite different, and each demands
the application of specific strategies and tactics if you’re
to win consistently. Once you’ve learned to blend general
poker strategy with game-specific tactics, you’ll be on your
way to becoming a solid, dangerous poker player, online or off.
Kathy Watterson & Lou Krieger
Read more about how to raise your poker game
here . Lou Krieger is the co-author of 'Poker for Dummies' and the host
Royal Vegas Poker . To learn about the promotions offered at the site visit our Royal
Vegas Poker Bonus Page