Learning how to play poker is a lifelong
pursuit for those who want to play the game
at a high level.
Moreover, the how part of playing poker can differ tremendously, both in terms of game rules and strategic considerations, depending on what version of poker you're playing.
Nevertheless, the most important how to play poker instruction can be applied to all forms of poker; this is why you will often find that someone who knows how to play one version of poker knows how to play other versions of poker also, or can learn very easily.
If you want to be that someone who knows how to play poker over and above the technical rules of each particular game, here are three things that you must constantly keep in mind:
1. Table Image: Tight vs. Loose
One extremely important aspect of learning how to play poker is learning how to create, maintain, and manipulate your "table image." Table image refers to the perception of other players, how they see you. Because the goal of every type of poker is to win the chips of other players by causing them to misjudge you and make mistakes, table image is crucial.
Broadly speaking, poker table image can be broken down into two main categories:
Tight players are just that: they're tight. The money means something to them so they're not looking to
gamble at every opportunity, they fold a lot of hands when their hands are weak, they bet when their hands are good, and they try to calculate odds of winning before betting.
- Tight Players
- Loose Players
In poker, calling someone tight is not an insult. Some of the best poker players currently and throughout history would classify themselves as tight. If you read David Sklansky's seminal, outstanding book Theory of Poker, you can see the power of a tight player.
And then you've got the loose geese. These individuals came to the poker table to get action, they bet with hands that are not likely to win in a showdown, they may be intoxicated while they're playing, they raise frequently, they go in all in at the slightest provocation, and so forth.
Loose players--or at least players whose table image causes others to perceive them as loose--can also enjoy great success in the game of poker. Phil Hellmuth is sometimes seen as belonging to this loose crowd, though this may be somewhat deceptive in true poker pro fashion.
What kind of poker player are you, tight or loose? DO NOT CHOOSE ONE OR THE OTHER AND ALWAYS STICK TO IT. This will make you too predictable and thus a guaranteed loser.
Still, take care to understand that your opponents will be constantly seeking to discover where you fall on the tight-loose spectrum; control how they see you and you can control them.
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2. What Are The Odds?
Poker is a game that has a strong element of math to it. No matter what version of poker you're playing, you have to discover the percentages that apply to a given situation if you're going to succeed in poker over the long or even intermediate term. Don't rely on getting lucky!
There are a number of different math-based odds calculations that you must concern yourself with in poker, and we don't have room in this article to get into all the intricacies of this topic. Instead, let's take a quick look at the most important odds that every player needs to consider.
The first calculation would be your odds of holding a winning hand. Duh, right? But once you get into the game of poker, you realize how complicated this calculation can become.
Sure you can memorize the fact that if you start with two Aces in Hold'em and there are seven players in the game, your odds of winning the pot are 44 percent--tables that show you the percentages of success for each hand at each stage of a poker game can be very valuable.
However, the reality is that your odds of holding a winning hand are usually much less straightforward than Pocket Aces, and highly dependent upon a wide range of factors. You have to calculate how many "outs" (ways to make your hand) you have, what cards your opponent might hold, how many outs he has, how possible it is that you could be "drawing dead" (he has a hand that you can't beat even if you make your hand)…
And many other factors, this list goes on. The point for our purposes here is that you have to calculate your odds of holding the winning hand, constantly, in order to be a good poker player.
However, at the same time that you're calculating your odds of holding the winning hand, you have to calculate what's called your "pot odds." This goes to the idea that you can be an underdog to win the pot but it can still be worth trying to win the pot if it's big enough.
To take a simple example, let's say that you've calculated that there's only a 20 percent that you currently have a better hand than your last remaining opponent, with no more cards to come for either of you. Your opponent bets $20 and now it's your turn, and the pot is $300.
Call that bet with alacrity, underdog! Put in your $20 because a 20 percent chance to win $300 is worth $60--and you're getting it for $20. That pot is on sale!
Pot odds are why experienced poker players speak about "getting the right price" to make a particular play. Implied odds and reverse implied odds are variations on this concept.
We could go on and on about odds and poker math--suffice it to say for the time being that the best poker players make these kinds of calculations every single time they act.
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3. Money Management is Key
The third major idea we'd highlight for anyone looking to learn how to play poker, or how to play poker better, is money management. This, too, is a subject that is infinitely expandable and more subtle than beginning poker players may suspect.
Choosing the right limit for your bankroll is an essential basic of good money management; obviously if you're playing for stakes that are higher than you can afford, you can go broke quickly. But how much is enough?
Mason Malmuth developed the helpful formula that your bankroll for poker should be at least 300 times the big bet of the game you choose. By this logic, if you want to play $10/$20 Limit Hold'em, you need $6,000 to play in this type of game over any prolonged period of time and if you're playing with a bankroll smaller than $6,000 you should choose a lower limit game.
Malmuth's guidance in this area has stood the test of time and is helpful.
Another and quite underrated principle of effective poker money management is that you have to bet aggressively when you have the best of it. It may seem counterintuitive to assert that the best way to protect your bankroll is to risk it, but this is the truth. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but the only way to win over the long run is to win big when you have the best of it!
Thirdly, good poker money management means planning for losses. Especially when you're starting out, you WILL lose money. This is called paying for lessons and is something that every single poker player who ever lived has endured. It's unavoidable. Even super-pro Phil Ivey has talked about how he used to go to Atlantic City as an 18 year old poker novice, lose all his money playing poker, and one night he even ended up sleeping under a pier.
Knowing how to play poker means knowing how to accept and manage losses. Poker players who don't learn to lose correctly may end up sleeping under a pier for more than one night.
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