Most casino game strategy articles are going to say the same thing–the best strategy is to understand that in the long run, you can’t win, because the house has an edge over the player. But a poker strategy article has to take a completely different approach, because it’s one of only a handful of gambling activities where a skilled player can use strategy to improve her chances of winning.
Poker Strategy for Beginners
My assumption with most of the strategy articles I’m writing for this site, at least the initial strategy articles, are for beginners. If you already play a lot of poker, and you’re a winning player, you might not find a lot of new stuff on this page. The strategy tips here are for people who want to get into the hobby (or maybe even the profession) of poker, and they want to minimize their losses by getting some strategic insight right out of the gate.
So here are some fundamental pieces of poker strategy advice for beginners.
Learn the Poker Hand Rankings
If you’re not a beginner, you’re going to laugh at this piece of advice, but you’d be amazed at how many games I’ve played in where someone didn’t know whether a straight beat a flush or vice versa. The entire game of poker is based on the likelihood of certain hands coming up compared to the likelihood of certain other hands coming up, so you should get a firm grip on how that works before you ever sit down to play for real money.
The first concept related to poker hand rankings is that each card has two attributes: a rank and a suit. The rank is the number on the card. The cards are numbered from one to ten. The one is the ace, and it can usually count as a high card or a low card, depending on which poker variant you’re playing. There are also face cards, which are ranked jack, queen, and king–and that’s in ascending order of value. So a king outranks a queen, a queen outranks a jack, and a jack outranks a ten, and so on.
The suit is the colored symbol on each card. There are four suits: clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds. In most poker games (if not all) no suit is ranked higher than another one. Suits are just used to determine the presence of a flush, which is a fairly high ranking hand.
The actual poker hand rankings are below, in ascending order, from least valuable to most valuable:
- A single high card
- A pair – The hand contains two cards of the same rank.
- Two pair – The hand contains two cards of the same rank, and two other cards that share a rank.
- Three of a kind – The hand contains three cards of the same rank.
- Straight – The hand contains five cards of consecutive rank.
- Flush – The hand contains five cards of the same suit.
- Full House – The hand contains a three of a kind AND a pair.
- Four of a Kind – The hand contains four cards of the same rank.
- Straight Flush – The hand contains five cards of consecutive ranks and of the same suit.
Many poker hand ranking charts include a “royal flush” in the listing, but a royal flush is really just a straight flush with the highest possible cards you could have in a straight flush, ten through ace.
In the event of a tie, the higher ranking cards beat the lower ranking cards. For example, if two players have a pair, the higher pair wins the pot. If two players have a straight, the straight with the highest ranking card would win the pot.
Understanding Pot Odds
Winning at poker means putting yourself into situations where you stand to win a lot of money while risking very little money. Understanding pot odds is how you do this. It’s not an exact science, because poker is a game of limited information–you don’t know what cards your opponent has.
But here’s an example of why pot odds are so important. Suppose you have four cards to a flush, and you have the opportunity to get two additional cards. (You’re playing Texas hold’em, and you’re on the flop with four to a flush.) Your chances of hitting that flush are close to 2 to 1.
If someone bets $1 into the pot, and there are $6 already in the pot, then you’ll get paid off $6 for the $1 you bet it you win. Since you’re getting pot odds of 6 to 1 on a bet that’s offering odds of 2 to 1, you have an edge, and you should take it.
On the other hand, suppose you’re playing no limit hold’em, and there’s $6 in the pot, and your opponent bets $12 into the pot. If you call, you’re investing $12 to win $18, which is only a payoff of 1.5 to 1. Since 1.5 to 1 on a bet that you only have a 2 to 1 chance of winning is lower, you’re getting the worst of it, and you should fold.
That’s a HUGE over-simplification, but it’s one of the most fundamental concepts of poker strategy you’ll see, and it’s something you need to understand sooner rather than later.
Poker Playing Styles
Different players have different playing styles. You’ll not only want to be able to recognize those styles, you’ll want to decide which style works best for you.
One way to look at a player’s style is to measure whether or not she’s an aggressive or passive player. An aggressive player bets and raises a lot, while a passive player calls and checks a lot. Aggressive poker players tend to make more money, because they get more money into the pot when they have a good hand, and they win more pots when their opponents fold.
Another way to look at a player’s style is to measure how selective they are with the hands they play. A loose player plays a lot of hands, while a tight player only plays select hands. If a player folds a lot, then she’s a tight player, but if she’s involved in a lot of pots, she’s a loose player. Tight players are often more profitable than loose players, but aggression levels play into profitability more than selectivity.
You can combine the two ways of looking at a player’s style to get an overall gauge of how well they play. A tight aggressive player is a dangerous opponent who usually does very well. She doesn’t play a lot of hands, but when she does play a hand, she’s in their betting and raising with it. Her aggression will win her a lot of pots because of the other players’ folding. And her tight approach will earn her respect from the other players, which will encourage even more folds. And if she’s being selective with which hands she’s playing, she’s more likely to win the pot at a showdown than she would be if she were in there playing a lot of hands regardless of how strong or weak they are.
On the other hand, a loose aggressive player can also be a dangerous opponent, because they can intimidate tight and passive players. They can often win so many pots uncontested by just bullying the other players with raises that they can afford to gamble on drawing out even when they don’t have the best hand going into a showdown.
A loose passive player is the best kind of player you can hope to play with. It’s also the playing style you should do your best to avoid. This kind of player plays lots of hands, even ones that have little likelihood of winning, but she usually calls or checks. So she never has the opportunity to run someone else out of the pot, and she also wins a small pot on the occasions she does win a showdown.
A tight passive player is also called a rock. They’re a drag to play with. You can’t win much money from them, but they don’t tend to win much money either, because they’re afraid to bet and raise when they get good cards.
More Poker Strategy
Entire books, and lots of them, have been written about poker strategy, so this page can only hope to scratch the surface. Start thinking about these aspects of the game, and start doing some reading and practicing with these concepts in mind, and you can become a winning player in no time. The trick is to continue to play AND continue to learn. A lot of poker players start to learn how to play, but they stop learning once they’ve reach a certain level of expertise. But if you’re dedicated, you can probably take your poker career as far as you want to.