Basic Poker Strategy
by Gideon Chung
Photo courtesy of the World Poker Tour
It’s a great time to be a poker player. With the help of televised poker tournaments and online gambling, there has been a tremendous increase in new players joining the millions already in the U.S. and around the world. I’ve personally noticed a surge of new faces in the brick-and-mortar casinos, both young and old. That’s the beauty of poker. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, what color your skin is, or even what gender you belong to. Anyone can enjoy and play poker.
Although new players are good for the game, new players should have at least a minimum amount of knowledge of the game and some basic guidelines. I notice too many people stroll into the casino and sit down at the table where I’m playing with absolutely no knowledge of the game and with little or no strategy. This article will present to the beginner what one should learn before ever stepping into a card room.
1. Learn how to play the game.
SOAK’s October/November 2003 issue showed you how to play Texas Hold’em and also included a glossary of commonly used poker terminology. Also outlined were the ranking of hands. I also recommend reading books and magazines related to poker for the specific game you are interested in. Most of the information stated in this article will refer to the very popular Texas Hold’em (Hold’em). Any brick-and-mortar casino or cardroom will supply free copies of poker magazines and newsletters. Many books on poker strategy can be found at your local bookstore and will give the novice a general knowledge of the game itself.
2. Know the rules of the casino.
All casinos and card rooms have different rules for limit games. The amount of the small and big blinds may vary from casino to casino. Before you sit down, ask a casino employee or just watch a game from the side to see how the betting is structured. Notice how many chips people are putting in for their blinds before the cards are dealt. Generally, the small blind is half the amount of the big blind. For an uneven number, the small blind will usually be 1/3 or 2/3 of the big blind. The big blind also equals the amount of the first two rounds of betting in Hold’em. The final two rounds of betting equal twice the amount of the big blind. For example, if you’re playing $10-20 Hold’em, the small and big blinds may be $5 and $10, respectively. The betting structure would be $10 on the first two rounds of betting and $20 for the last two rounds. All raises must also be in increments of the amount of that particular round of betting. Some casinos also force an additional bet for the player on the button. This acts as the rake (or casino take) for that hand. The rake (also called drop) is the amount of money the casino pulls out from every pot.
3. Play only selective hands.
Hand selection is a big part of lasting a long time at the tables. If you play every hand that you’re dealt, the chances of you winning in the long run diminish greatly. If you only enter the pot with premium hands, and medium value hands on occasion (depending on the situation), you’ll have a better chance at winning more pots. It’s okay to fold most of the hands that you’re dealt. The listing of premium hands that should be played can be found in most poker strategy books. When you enter a pot with weak holdings, you’ll often find yourself with no help on the flop, in which case you’ll have to fold. This adds up fast and you may find yourself having to buy some more chips quickly.
4. Patience is a virtue.
Hold’em is a waiting game. Without the patience required to wait for correct hand, you will most likely lose in the long run. Anyone can get lucky and win with any two cards, but this will not keep you at the tables for very long. Play only hands that will give you the best chance of winning. It isn’t unusual for me to go several rounds without playing one hand. This may seem boring to some and may even be considered to be too tight, but you’ll see that playing tight pays off in the long run. Patience will allow you to play for hours and hours, even when you’re not winning. Your time will come eventually, and you will hit your mini-run of good cards that’ll get you back even or come out ahead for the session.
5. Watch the other players.
Almost all players have tells, whether they realize it or not. You can gain a lot of information about the cards they’re holding just by watching their gestures and the way they bet. In the same way, remember that other players are watching you as well, so practice keeping that poker face. There’s an old saying in poker: “If you can’t find the sucker at the table, you’re the sucker.” When you’re sitting out of a hand, watch the other players and try to put a read on their cards. You’ll feel good about yourself when you can correctly guess the hand that they’re holding by watching their actions. If you’re in a hand, you should make your decisions based on the read you have on your opponent(s).
6. Play within your means.
Money management is a great factor in success at poker. You should never play poker with money you can’t afford to lose. Always have enough of a bankroll to cover your losses. Not having enough money for a particular session will affect how you play, as you will constantly be focusing on how much money you have left. Believe me, you’ll have plenty of losing sessions, especially when you’re just starting out. Even the best professional poker players in the world have losing days. A good measure of how much you should have as a bankroll could be 100 times the small bet amount (also the amount of the big blind). I usually buy in for 1/3 of the total bankroll required for any given session.
7. Practice makes perfect.
Experience is the best learning tool. You can read as many books as you want, but the only way to understand what the books are teaching you is to play live action poker. Of course you may lose a lot of money learning the game at first, but you need to have both winning and losing sessions to learn more about the game. There’s so much to learn about poker. Even after years of experience, I often find myself looking back at how poor my skills were, when at the time I thought that I was a good player. You can always get better at the game and learn new techniques. If you find yourself saying, “Man, I’ve never seen that happen before,” then you have a long way to go. Nothing should surprise you when you have enough experience, because you will have seen almost every situation possible.
8. Control your emotions.
Learn how to take a bad beat. There will be times when you see the results of a hand at showdown and say, “I can’t believe he called me with that horrible hand!” This will usually come at a time when you flop three Aces and your opponent catches his gut-shot straight on the river. This is enough to make any normal person blow a fuse. The best thing to do is to stay calm and state, “Nice hand” and rap the table. Bad beats will happen often, especially in lower limit games. Although it’s hard to take, you should not let this affect your emotions. If you need to, get up and walk around to burn your anger off. Never show your anger at the table. It is both bad strategy and bad etiquette.
9. Know the importance of position.
In terms of utilizing strategy, position is one of the most important aspects of the game. The later your position is, the more of an advantage you’ll have against your opponents. This being said, if you’re the button (or designated dealer) for that hand, you should play more aggressively, because you will be acting last on all subsequent rounds of betting after the flop. If you are in early position, you should play tighter and fold more often. Having good position will allow you to play a weaker hand stronger and often raising to earn a free card. Raising in late position will often scare the early position better into checking on the next round of betting.
10. Play to win.
Although you may meet new people and there will often be friendly chatter at the table, remember that your goal is to win money. If you don’t mind losing money and just have time to kill, then this should not be your goal. If your long-term goal is to win money consistently, you must stay focused and concentrate on everything that’s going on in the game. You’re not at the casino to make new friends. You should try your best to consistently be at the top of your game so that you can book a winning session. On the other hand, you don’t want to make enemies at the table. To quote The Godfather, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Be courteous to others at the table, but don’t consider them to be your best friends. Remember that no matter how nice another player may be, they’re out to win your money.
These are just some basic guidelines for beginners to keep in mind when playing in casinos and card rooms. Through experience, you will learn how to play certain hands given certain situations. Read books on poker strategy and put in as many hours as you can. Good luck!