Poker Strategy and Tips

Poker Strategy and Tips
Here are some basic tips designed to help NL beginners to grasp strategies of playing profitable poker.

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Making too many showdown losses?

Many inexperienced players will go to the river with what started out as a great hand. The flop was just magic and held enormous promise! It is hard to accept that on such a great potential flop that you may now be beat on the river. After all, you had such great odds after the flop and maybe you still have top pair even though you missed the nuts hand you looked like you might make. So what now? Inside something is telling you that now you have missed your nuts hand, then maybe your top pair ain't no good after all. But you have invested so much in the pot to this point and you still have a decent hand. So what now? You check the river and your oponent makes a normal size bet and you call it.....and lose. This is a great article by Ed Miller that really shows this typical situation very well;

Missing the Flop

I often get asked about when to make a bet and when to check if you miss the flop. Of course it depends on a whole number of factors but in simple terms  missing the flop is still no good reason to check your hand. It is also no reason to give the hand up to a bet from your opponent. You will still need to give consideration to factors like position, your pre-flop aggression and your number of outs. Firstly assess the strength of your hand and the likely strength of your opponents hand. The more you play poker the most accurate you will become in assessing the likely range of hands your opponent may have played, based on how they played their hand pre-flop and from what position. Hopefully if you are coached well, you played the right hand from the right position in the first instance, so missing the flop maybe ain't so bad (i.e. you may still end up with the best hand after the turn or river).

Then we can reach a judgement as to whether we are likely to succeed in a continuation bet (induce a fold) or whether we can call or raise a bet from our opponent. If we were the pre-flop aggressor (which we hopefully were) against a weaker player who called our raise then we may decide to post a continuation bet. Knowing our opponent is unlikely to hold a pocket pair (he didn't re-raise and the odds on him being dealt a pocket pair are 6%) and his chances of hitting a pair were only around 12%, the odds are in our favour to induce a fold (depending on our table reputation so far). We have to play this tactic carefully and we prefer to do it in a semi-bluff with overcards or a draw to the flop. The important starting factor will be the pre-flop card selection and after that how careful you are with your post flop play. We discuss all aspects of this in coaching.

Bluffing - What's your story?

I often get asked about bluffing and when to make a play at the pot and when to quit. The important thing to decide upon is - "what is my story"? If you do NOT make a bet consistent with that story, or the hand you are representing, then your cover will be blown. Often players make a bet too large in order to force a fold, but that is not consistent with how you might play the hand if you were really strong. They also make the bet too quick! In online poker we can make "tells" by the time it takes an opponent to make his bet. A quick stab at a pot on the river, often an "all in" for instance, is a classic mistake of a poor player who already was terrified on the turn about the amount of money he had committed and he is determined to make a massive statement on the river to try and fold his opponent out and save his position. So he rushed it. He makes the play much quicker than he would if he was actually thinking "I am ahead here, so what size bet will get me maximum value". He jumps in with a massive over bet. The experienced player may well see a huge flag raised here (depending on the river card) and see weakness rather than strength. So think about your story and how you might bet the hand if you were ahead and if you were really strong. Might you check the hand for instance after the flop to allow your opponent to catch up, or maybe check raise? If you had flopped top pair what size bet would you normally make in relation to pot size? Work out what your story is and play it accordingly.

Two players raise in front of me with a standard 3 times the big blind bet. I decide to make a play at the pot with only a pair of 4's. I raise it up to say 8 or 9 times the blind. For me I have no problem with this move (particularly if my session reputation is tight and my opponents relatively passive). The only issue here is if I do not get the fold from both players then I am well odds against to hit a set and therefore I best hope my opponent misses also and my story holds up. In this example, however, I get one fold and one caller. The flop comes down dead with say 2 7 Q rainbow. Now I was the aggressor so I am going to make a continuation bet. Not too big - big might look weak - so maybe I bet three quarter pot size or maybe a bit less. This is consistent with a strong bet to protect my hand, in the same way I would if I were in fact ahead (I may well be ahead anyway - this is a semi-bluff). I get called. Now what? Think about what hand you are representing here in your story that started pre-flop. What kind of hand would your opponent consider you would make a sizeable re-raise pre-flop and what kind of hands might call you? The turn card comes down an Ace. Is this the time to slow down and quit the hand or a time to continue with your pre-flop story. Your opponent may consider you made a raise pre-flop with a range of hands that might have included an Ace, possible AK, AA, maybe AQ suited even. What kind of hands have you been seen to win with after such a bet previously? Your opponents will have already decided what range of hands you are likely to be playing. So is this really time to quit on your story? You have several things that are still in your favour here - 1. you were the aggressor - your opponent is likely to be concerned about the strength of your hand - so in the battle of minds you are likely ahead 2. you still have a chance to hit your 4 and make a set, so any bet you make is still a semi-bluff (you still have have outs - ok  - very limited!), 3. you can still win the hand with one pair (it is unlikely but possible) 5. you can still win the hand by default (your opponent folds) - if your opponent has something like A10, AJ, he was already worried when he made the call pre-flop (he made a loose call with maybe suited cards knowing his kicker was weak). So are you going to quit or fire another bet? What size bet?

The answer to this will be a combination of a number of factors which might include;

  • his likely hand range for calling pre-flop
  • your read of the opponents play in this session (is he tight / loose?)
  • what is your own reputation during this session? Did you cultivate a rep for being tight? Is your story likely to be accepted at all if you have been playing loose?
  • is your opponent passive or aggressive? - remember he simply called your bet on the flop. What did that signify if he is a very tight passive player? What did that signify if he is a loose or aggressive player? what is his fold equity now and after calling a turn bet

There is no correct answer here and you will play it different each time depending on your read of the situation (although I am sure many of you would have a preference for checking the turn and folding to any bet). You must make a judgement to effectively give up on your hand and your story or stick at it and play your story out. You often do not get the fold until the river bet as it takes weaker players longer to process your story and give up on their marginal hand.


Choose your game

It is very important when you start your career in poker to decide on which game suits your personality and skill set. Then set about mastering it. Don't try and be great at everything. being a jack of all trades is not as strong as being an ace in just one game. so by the fact you are reading this I guess you have chosen NLH short handed cash games. This is a very different game from say tournament play or heads up play. Each facet of poker requires a different set of skills.


Playing on line cash poker has some requirements in terms of approach and therefore your own personality requirements. You cannot be an over emotional character. You will lose your entire stack in NLH quite frequently and often against a lesser starting hand and or a bad beat. If you are the kind of character that becomes emotional and gets easily stressed or negative, then this is not the game for you. You must have the capacity to remain analytical about losses. You want lesser hands to raise you or put you all-in or you want them to call your all-in. That's the fundamental theory of poker. You want a player to make a decision that he wouldn't have made if he could have seen your cards. Anytime you get a player to make the wrong decision, then you are playing correct poker. But by the nature of poker, we are dealing with random cards (luck), you will lose even when you are playing great poker. If you cannot deal with this then you must find a new game. An expert poker player can only hope that he wins more often than he loses, which produces an overall return on investment and therefore a profit. When you force your opponent all-in pre-flop with his QQ, for instance, and you are holding AA, then you have played perfect poker. You will win about eight times out of ten. That's great odds and you probably won't get many better chances to make some cash! You will lose, however, about two times out of ten. How you deal with the two losses will determine how you play in future hands and your suitability to NLH. There are some ways to control your emotional states and we will discuss this later on.


Find your level

The most common error I find from poker clients is playing at the wrong level. You can be a profitable player at blinds of say 25c/50c and a losing player at blinds of 50c/$1.00. Each blinds level has subtle differences that cannot be detected by inexperienced players. The reality is these subtle differences in player skills will make for huge swings in your profit and loss. If you can fully embrace this, even though you may not fully understand the differences now, then you have made a great step in playing profitable poker.

You must start to regard each blind level as a football division. Sure enough you will get poor players who join premiership tables and they may even get a win from time to time, but the truth is quite simple: play for long enough at a level above your ability and you will get murdered on a regular basis. You will make horrendous losses month on month. The way you will make a profit is sitting down at a table where your skills are better than those around you. This is the only way you will make consistent profits. The majority of players on your poker site will be losing or break even players at best. The winning players will be seated at tables where their opponents have weaker skills than they do. You make money when your opponent makes a mistake. The weaker your opponent, the more mistakes they will make. It is that simple. If you are losing at the level you are playing at now, then the first thing you must do is move down to a lower league, to smaller blinds. If you are starting out in real money poker play then start at the micro blinds level until you can make a clear profit. If you have been playing for a year or two then I am recommending you still do not move higher then 50c/£1.00 blinds until you can demonstrate clear and consistent profits at this level.


Bring only your A-game

Professional athletes understand the concept of muscle memory. When an athlete repeatedly trains movement, often of the same activity, they are making an effort to stimulate the mind's adaptation process. The intended outcome is to induce physiological changes which bring increased levels of accuracy through repetition. A poker professional must approach poker in a similar way. This does not mean playing the same style of poker at every session. You will always vary your play and betting patterns to confuse. It means bringing your best game on every occasion you play. Being absolutely prepared and focused each time you start a session. Being prepared to make the decisions that you know are correct. Fold when you should fold and stick to your very best poker. Making a profit is really all about reducing losses and you can only do this by playing your A-game on every single occasion you sit down for a session. Don't play "fun" poker. Don't make bad calls and raises with no objective. The more you play bad poker the more your brain will become adapted to this kind of play. You need to train your brain in the same way athletes are training their muscles.

Maybe you think this sounds simple. It is one of the toughest things that any poker professional faces on a day to day basis. Other factors can override your will to play your best poker. Frustration, boredom, competitive emotions or anger, chasing losses, to name but a few. Train yourself to ask questions while you are playing - "is this the correct thing to do?" - "is this the right decision based on all the skills and knowledge I have?" - "Should I really make this call with just a pair of jacks?". Keep understanding when you have let your A-game slip and the reason why. Because you will let it slip. Learn to get back on track quickly and the more you understand you're A game the better you can apply it each time. I will deal with some other techniques later in this book to make sure you are on track - like checking your stats for instance. I know what my winning stats look like. I know what my percentage hands played should look like over an hour's session. I will help you analyse this later on.

Frame of Mind - Controlling Emotional State

In coaching sessions I often use NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) techniques in order to control emotional state. You can research this online or find some basic self help books that will show you simple methods for controlling emotions.

There is another simple way to control emotions and that is make sure you are never playing with a stake that will "hurt" you if you lose it. This means playing at a level well within your bankroll each session you play and banking your winnings when you reach a certain target profit. In simple terms you are not aiming to get rich each time you sit down. You want lots of smaller wins, and some inevitable small losses, that will accumulate to provide a monthly profit. Poker is gambling, albeit with a level of high degree of skill involved, and therefore you need control in order to succeed.


Continuation Betting

Continuation betting is used so badly and so often these days. Most NLH players have learned that when they raise pre-flop, and only get one caller in particular, they can get away with taking another stab at most flops, even when they miss. So how do you deal with this? You can find tools to assist you with this and give you an advantage. Using certain poker software packages will give you a clue to your opponents use or misuse of continuation betting. Check out Flop vs Flop continuation betting stats. These will give you a clue as to when you might fold a player out by using a continuation bet or when you are likely to get paid off for your hand when you hit.

Faced with an aggressive player who is using this tactic far too often you need to tighten your game. Don't try and play the table sheriff by calling him down with nothing (he will hit sometimes). It is far more sensible to enter fewer pots with stronger hands and make sure you have position. Now you can call his raise with your strong hand and the advantage of position. If you get a piece of the flop you will more then likely to get paid off and he will quickly alter his play after taking a few losses. If you miss and the continuation bet comes, then fold or raise if you think you have the best hand. Don't keep calling his bets chasing cards that may never come.


Playing pocket Queens

This is a really tough one for many new poker players. So how should you play it in NLH? The fact is, of course, there as many different ways to play it correctly. But here are some helpful guidelines. QQ is a nice hand. It is not a monster hand. Certainly a raising hand from any position. Not a hand you want to slow play. Anyone holding something like A8 or KJ, you want to make them pay dearly to see the flop. You ideally want a heads up fight here, not a multiway pot. Raise it up strongly. Possibly QQ is a re-raising hand to narrow the field or where the play is a little loose. What you have to remember is, there are two overcards and a caller or raiser to your queens will most likely have them. If you get a solid player in front of you raise and another tight player calls his raise, chances are you may already be beat. If I get a chance to see the flop, I may call and see it. I may catch a hand giving me other outs, such as a straight, maybe J 10 9 flops for instance. If, however, I catch a Q on the flop and make trips them I am going all the way of course. If my opponent has made higher trips or a straight, then I will take my loss and move on.

So what about a rainbow flop like 5h 7s Jc for instance? I bet at the flop and I get raised by a tight player. I continue, of course, and re-raise strongly. Now the tight player pushes me all in. Now what? I will not continue and commit all my chips if I am raised and re-raised by a tight player and the flop came down blank for me. I will have to know my opponent well enough here to make the play and consider him loose enough to make a play at the pot. I want also to have him well covered in cash.  I don't like my hand at all if an A or K hits the board. I will fire off a continuation bet here if I am first to act, but I want the fold and not the call or raise. I do not like my hand so much if I get re-raised all in (by a tight player) after the flop, to a dead board. He is telling me quite clearly he has a stronger hand and I am, more often than not, inclined to believe him and throw my queens away.

There are times when you should consider an all in move pre-flop of course. If I can put my opponent on AK for instance and I am out of position, then I may call his all in re-raise in order to negate his position and make sure we get to see all the cards. In this instance I am hoping I have him well covered in chips because I am not that keen on committing all my chips to a 56% chance after two hours of tight play.

Decide on your strategy with QQ - Play them strongly and positively - Don't slow play them if other players are still to act behind you. But the real key to success here is simple - Be prepared to throw them away if a tight player raises and re-raises you (particularly if the raises come from early position).

The importance of setting targets

One key area of coaching is setting targets for my clients. Any of you that have worked in management will under the concept and importance of targets. It is amazing what can be achieved when you are focused to achieve a particular outcome. I recommend strongly that you cash players out there, set a target before you start playing and stick to it rigidly. If you are sitting down to a game then know how long you can maintain your maximum focus and what you want to achieve from the session. Do not play for any longer than your concentration allows. We all differ in this regard and only your own data can provide the answer.
Set a win target based on your initial stake. To double your stake is a sensible and achievable target for beginners. I recommend you don't play for any longer than two hours (make sure you have water or liquid refreshment to hand - and never alcohol!!). Make sure you quit whenever you hit your target winnings. This is really to
ugh to do for many people. If you can master this you will massively improve your rewards from poker. You must play your A game at all times and know when to quit!

Frustrated in re-buy tournaments?

A common issue I often hear with clients is their apparent frustration with re-buy tournaments. They are getting confused and frustrated with the poor play of "fish" around the table calling their raises and all in's with weak hands and catching cards. What they don't realize is these players are more than likely experienced re-buy players who understand the strategy for the first hour of re-buy tournaments. They have more than likely set a budget of four to five rebuys and they are strategically playing "loose" in this phase of the game. They will plan to get to a minimum of three or four times the starting chips before the freezeout. They will revert to another style of play in phase two of the tournament. Be prepared to vary your style in re-buys. Start loose and be prepared to re-buy and add-on to build your stack before the freezeout. Then you can revert to your normal tight game at a later date to make sure you make that final table.
Don't assume a player that played loose during the re-buy phase will be holding crap when you meet him later in the tournament and he raises you up. You need to re-assess his play during this later phase of play. You have plenty of time to do this because you are not going to be playing many hands during this first phase after the freezeout. You will switch to playing more hands later in the tournament when we move to phase three.

Playing draws

Avoid drawing to the "idiot" end of a straight
If the flop comes J 10 9 for example, you want to be playing KQ and not 87. You don't want to be taking too much heat with Q 8 either. If your opponent raised pre-flop then holding 87 or even Q8 might not see you ahead at the river. He is likely holding a made hand already with KQ or is hoping to make a higher straight if he holds AQ or AK. You have to think very carefully any time you are holding the lower or "idiot" end of the straight.

Play aggressively when you have multiple chances of a draw after the flop
If the flop comes down with two suited cards matching your hole cards and you have an up and down straight draw then this is the time to be getting aggressive. I see many inexperienced players pushing too often with only a flush draw. Not a great move as the odds are likely against you if your opponent holds even one pair. If you can make a straight and you are holding two suited hole cards that can make a flush, then this is your time to get aggressive with two cards still to come (raise and re-raise). This is the kind of draw you may be prepared to "squeeze" or push all in against a bet.

Beware of "baby flushes"
I don't like playing flushes without an ace in my hole cards in 6 or more handed games. I have seen it all too often, the chips going in with say JT suited against an opponent holding say A 8 suited. It is tough when you make the flush on the turn or river to give your hand up to a re-raise when you are holding cards like JT and you have hit your flush. If your opponent raised or called a sizeable raise pre-flop, then you have to give them credit for the higher nuts flush. Tough to lay it down? My advice is to avoid having to make the decision to often. You can pick up a few pots with baby flushes sure enough, particularly when you have a fair idea of what your opponent might be playing, but do you really want to commit all your chips? So my advice here is simple - try to manage the pot size and therefore your potential risk. I am much happier building a smaller pot when my holding does not include the nuts flush. If I am re-raised all in on the river having made my flush then I must know my opponent pretty well (and figure him a weak player) to consider making the call and risking my entire stack.

Beware when the board pairs
You have made your flush and you opponent is still betting and raising you? Has the board paired? For instance you hold Ad10d suited and the flop comes Jd 9d 9. You bet and you get called. The turn comes 6d and the the river Qh. Your thinking you like your nuts flush right? But your opponent is calling your bets on the turn and raising you on the river. I don't like playing flushes aggressively once the board has paired. If you are taking heat with your flush then your opponent has likely hit his full house. Are you gonna call an all in against a good opponent with a paired board even with your nuts flush - suicide!

Make sure you get caught bluffing
There is something to be said for developing a reputation at the table of a tight player during a long session. Used correctly you can play some well timed bluffs and fold out better hands. You can also raise up smaller pairs or suited connectors from time to time and win some pots when your opponent is putting you on a big pair or AK and is convinced his two pair is better - only for you to show your trip 3's or straight. But once in a while I don't mind if I get caught playing a bluff against weaker or inexperienced players. I figure the investment in losing the pot now, will pay me back big in future hands. Making some loose bluffs early on against weak players may not be a bad strategy. In this situation you will confuse opponents and later down the line you will catch weaker opponents when you are holding a strong hand and you do really need their action. They will figure you for another bluff and believe thier pair of pocket queens are best. When they push all in against your perceived bluff bet, you can turn over your AA and clean them out.