Some people have told me that they don’t know enough about poker to be able to follow my “Journey into poker” articles. So, today, I’ll write an article aimed at people who haven’t played poker at all, or have played it a few times.
I am not going to spend much time on the rules. I’ll focus on Texas Hold’em, as that is the only game I currently play myself.
Each player gets 2 cards for himself, which he should not show to the other players. These are called the hole cards. After the hole cards have been dealt, there is a round of bidding. Then, 3 cards are dealt face-up in the middle of the table: the flop. After the flop, there is another round of bidding. Then, 1 card is dealt face-up: the turn, followed by another round of bidding. Finally, 1 last card is dealt face-up: the river, followed by the last round of bidding.
Each player’s 5-card poker hand consists of the 5 best cards from the combined 7 cards of the hole cards and the community cards. The winner gets all the money that was bet over the course of the hand, also called the pot.
A full explanation can be found on the Wikipedia page about Texas Hold’em. I usually play No-Limit Hold’em (NLHE), which means there are no maximum bets.
Over the past 3-4 years, I had played NLHE a couple of times, with the family. Just some friendly games. I’m pretty competitive, so I tried to win, but my brother usually won in the end. He was the only one who knew what he was doing, while the rest of us was just almost randomly betting.
Now that I have studied poker for a while, I have learned that there is much more depth to it than I originally thought. I’d like to share some of the first, basic concepts that I have learned.
Position is where you are sitting, relative to the dealer. Except for the first round, the player to the left of the dealer is always first to act, and the dealer is last to act. That means that the dealer has much more information to act on. Generally, it’s always good to be in late position (you are the dealer, or just right of the dealer).
This is something that I read everywhere, but it took me a lot of hands to really start appreciating the importance of position. It is very important!
For example, if you are in an 8-person game, have A3 suited, and you are the first person to act after the blinds (also called under the gun), you should fold. There are 7 players after you who have unknown hands, and in the next bidding rounds, you will be one of the first players to act.
However, if you are the dealer (also called on the button) with the same A3 suited hand, and everyone before you has already folded, the situation is much different. Only 2 players have unknown hands, and in all consecutive bidding rounds, you will have the advantage of acting last. So, you should bet something here.
Stealing the blinds
That leads to the second thing I learned, which is called stealing the blinds. If you are on the button, and everyone folds to you, you are in a great position to steal the blinds, no matter what your hand is. You can (and often should) raise to 3 or 4 times the big blind, hoping that both blinds will fold as well.
So, what happens if you do that? If both blinds don’t have good hands (which is much more likely than them having good hands), and they fold, you win their blinds. If at least one of them has a good hand, you will end up playing the hand, but you will have the advantage of position.
Most of the time, even if the blinds have better hands than you, they will still fold. Imagine that you have J7 in the big blind, and everyone folds to the button. He bets 4 times the big blind, and the small blind folds. Are you going to put in an extra bet of 3 blinds to play this hand out of position? Generally not a good idea. So you fold. The button shows his “bluff”: he had 52.
Stealing the blinds is also important. It’s a good source of income.
I read the book Play Poker Like the Pros by Phil Hellmuth. There is a lot of useful information in it, and it’s a very good book for people who have just started playing poker. It really starts at the basics.
One of the realisations that this book gave me, is that you are not always betting money to win more money. During our family poker games, I usually did one of these three things when it was my turn: bet with a really good hand, bet as a pure bluff, or check.
Phil adds an extra option to this list. In several situations, he suggests to “bet on the flop to know where you’re at”. For example, let’s say that you have pocket Jacks. You decide to raise before the flop, and two players call your raise. The flop is Q-3-2. Now what? Does anyone have a Queen, and is your hand beaten? Or do you have the best hand?
A good way to find out whether you still have the best hand, is to bet in this situation. If an opponent folds to your bet, that’s great; if he calls, he probably has a weaker hand than you; and if he raises, he probably has a stronger hand (something like AQ comes to mind here). Such a bet like this, also called continuation bet, is used to gain information. You invest a small amount of money, to be able to make better decisions later on – usually for much more money.
Imagine you have JJ, and the board is A 10 5 5 K. The only other player who is still in the hand, bets $10. You think that he is likely to have an Ace or King, but he could also be bluffing. Do you call this bet?
Wait a minute, you are probably thinking now. Some information is missing! How much money is in the pot?
Good question, because that heavily influences your decision. Let’s say there is 70$ in the pot. That means you can win $70 by risking 10$, or 7 to 1 odds in your favour. If you would play this hand 8 times, winning it once for $70, and losing it seven times for $10 each, you would end up with exactly zero money in the end. So, if you can win this more often than once every 8 hands, you would end up winning money in the long run.
This is called pot odds. If you think your chances of winning the pot are larger than the pot odds, you should call that bet. You will still lose some pots, of course, but in the long run, this is a winning play that gives you profit.
In the example above, another way of looking at it is this: if you think there is at least a 12.5% chance (1/8 times 100%) that your opponent is bluffing, you should call the $10 bet. Otherwise, you should fold.
With knowledge of basic concepts like this, you can turn your poker game from “I’ll just randomly bet and see what happens” to a bit more “I’ll choose to bet/fold/raise/check here, because this is my plan” style. If you are a beginner and want to read more about playing poker with a plan, there are a ton of books available; one other good starting point is Doyle Brunson‘s Super/System.