Any post with an ambitious title claiming that the concepts in the post are the most important is bound to generate controversy. Texas holdem is a complex enough game with enough levels of thinking that there are probably hundreds of concepts you could discuss in a blog post. Just thoroughly covering 7 concepts takes more space than most blog posts do.
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At any rate, I’m going to give it a shot. These are Texas Holdem concepts that are less related to the play of individual hands and have more to do with your overall approach to the game.
One of my favorite poker writers, Steve Badger, often points out that poker isn’t a game where you should slavishly follow a cookbook recipe. He told me once that it’s more like making a stew—the exact amounts of each ingredient are open for negotiation, but you want a reasonable balance of those ingredients.
That’s what I’ve tried to do with my blog posts related to Texas Holdem ideas.
1- Game Selection Is Important
Being able to choose the most profitable game for your skill-set might be the most important poker concept to learn. It’s also probably one of the lease talked about skills, too. In fact, you can be a relatively poor player and make more money than a better player if you’re better at choosing the appropriate game.
This skill comes in most handy when you’re dealing with online poker because you have such a large number of games to choose from at any time.
But game selection comes up and is important in live play at brick and mortar poker rooms, too. Your goal is to find a game with more players who call a lot and play a lot of hands. (These are called “loose passive” players.) You want to avoid games with a lot of players who only play a few hands but bet and raise with them when they play them. (These are called “tight aggressive” players.)
You can read more about categorizing poker players in the section on concept #5, below. For now, just know that your goal is to find a table where you’re at least one of the best players at the table, if not THE best. You can make money if there are better players than you at the table, but you’ll probably avoid confrontations with them. If you’re good, they’ll avoid confrontations with you, too.
Finally, unless you have a big bankroll, stay away from games where there’s a lot of loose, aggressive action. Even if you have an edge, you might not be able to withstand the swings of luck that are part and parcel of playing at such a table.
2- Attention Is an Important Prerequisite Skill for Learning to Read Hands
One of my biggest leaks as a new poker player was my tendency to not pay attention to any hand I wasn’t involved in. You’ll see plenty of players who do this. They’re often wearing earbuds. Sometimes they’re watching TV or just gabbing away with the other guys at the table.
When I learned to start watching what was going on more closely, my game improved dramatically. Paying attention gives you a better idea of your opponents’ playing tendencies (see concept #5 below). It will also help you figure out which hands are likelier to win in various situations.
I know from reading that big pairs win more often against smaller fields, but I need stronger hands to win against larger fields. Some of this depends on the texture of the overcards but getting a real feel for what wins in which situations requires attention and experience.
You might think that being patient enough to fold until you get premium cards is the most important Texas Holdem skill you could have. If that’s the only trick you have up your sleeve, you’re in trouble. That will beat a lot of competition at the lower levels, but even at low stakes holdem, you’ll find opponents who are paying attention to how you play and are compensating accordingly.
I’d suggest that being able to put your opponents on a range of hands is a more important skill. In fact, it might be the most important skill. This isn’t something someone has an innate talent for, either. You have to work for it, and that requires paying attention and thinking.
If you’re having trouble concentrating at 1st, I suggest singling out one opponent and pay attention to his playing tendencies. How aggressive is he? Does he bluff? Is he a calling station? Does he defend his blinds?
These are all questions you can answer about opponents if you pay attention to them for a while. Some players are easy to evaluate in this way. I often tell a story about a guy who played every hand preflop, and he raised with all of them, too. Putting him on a range of hands preflop was easy—he could have anything. He tightened up a little bit after the flop, though.
Most players are going to have subtler playing tendencies than this, though. The only way you’ll be able to pick up on these tendencies and put them on a range of hands is by paying attention to what they’re doing, even when you’ve folded and aren’t involved in the hand.
3- Bluffing Is Part of the Game, but It’s a Smaller Part of the Game than Some Beginners Think
People who watch poker on television or in the movies think that bluffing and tells are the 2 biggest components of the game. Both of those skills matter, but neither of them are hugely important compared to things like hand selection, aggression, and calculating outs and pot odds. But you can’t succeed in Texas Holdem if you never bluff at all, either—not unless you’re playing at the lowest limits imaginable.
One rule of thumb I learned early is that you should never try to bluff more than 2 opponents at a time. To win a bluff, all your opponents must fold so that you can win the pot. The more opponents you’re trying to bluff, the less likely you are to succeed. Your best option is to bluff against a single opponent.
Look at it this way:
If you’re bluffing one opponent who you estimate will fold 50% of the time, you don’t need a huge amount of money in the pot to make this a profitable play. You only need even money to break even.
But if you’re bluffing 2 opponents, each of whom has a 50% probability of folding, your chance of succeeding drops to 25%. (To calculate the probability of multiple events happening, you multiply the probability of each of them.) You need 3 to 1 to break even.
If you’re bluffing 3 opponents like that, your probability drops to 12.5%. Now you need 7 to 1 to break even. You won’t usually be getting pot odds good enough to warrant bluffing in this situation.
The best times to bluff are when you see scare cards come up on the flop or the turn or when an otherwise strong player starts acting weak. If you can find a situation where both situations are true, then you’re well-positioned to win a bluff.
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The worst times to bluff are when you’re dealing with calling stations. These are players who play passively but rarely fold. Often they’ll check in front of you, but then when you bet into them, they call you down.
4- Don’t Tilt
Poker players are said to go “on tilt” when they get upset about how a hand turns out. They start betting and raising aggressively with lousy cards. Or sometimes they’ll start calling bets with hands they should fold. Players on tilt are trying to force an outcome.
If you’re going to play winning Texas Holdem, you absolutely must learn how to avoid going on tilt.
If you’re new to the game, you might think you’re immune to going on tilt. That’s a common beginner mistake, too. Until you’ve experienced getting your aces or kings cracked several times in a single session, you don’t know how you’re going to react emotionally. It’s easy to get discouraged and think that short-term variance means that everything you know about poker is meaningless in the face of random chance.
The best thing to do if you go on tilt is to quit playing temporarily. You can lose tremendous amounts of money while you’re on tilt. The money you save by getting away from the table when you’re upset is worth just as much as that same amount of money in a pot.
Learning to keep calm and handle the swings of the game is a skill like any other and takes practice. It’s also easy to tilt and not realize you’ve tilted. Recognizing when you’re not playing your best game because of your emotions is a critical skill.
One way to develop this skill is by practicing meditation, by the way. People who meditate pay better attention. They’re more easily able to recognize what’s going on, both inside and outside. I’m not sure about other benefits of meditation, but I’m convinced that poker players who meditate on a regular basis have better luck than those who don’t.
5- Categorizing Your Opponents Is a Crucial Skill
One of the 1st things I learned about poker strategy had to do with playing styles. I’d never given the concept of playing style much thought until I read Andy Bellin’s book, Poker Nation—which was my 1st poker book, by the way.
The different styles of play make poker so interesting. Luckily, the number of styles can be categorized into a handful of groups. How you should play against opponents of a specific style varies based on how they play.
If you pay attention to your opponents’ general tendencies, you can put them into 1 of 4 categories:
- Tight and aggressive
- Tight and passive
- Loose and aggressive
- Loose and passive
Think of these as being 2 continuums. One—the tight-loose continuum—describes how often a player participates in a hand. Tight players fold a lot and only play premium hands. Loose players don’t fold often, so they might have any kind of cards.
The other continuum—the aggressive and passive continuum—describes how often a player bets and raises versus checking and calling. Aggressive players drive the action by betting and raising. Passive players, on the other hand, check and call more often.
But these aren’t binary categories, either. You can face a tight player who folds 90% of his hands preflop, or a tight player who folds 80% of his hands preflop. You can face a loose player who only folds 50% of his hands preflop, or you could even face a player so loose that he plays 100% of his hands preflop. (I played a guy like this at the Winstar in Oklahoma not long ago.)
Also, some players play looser from the blinds even if they play tight the rest of the time. Other players might play loose before the flop but tighten up considerably on the flop and the turn.
That’s why I suggested that these categories are continuums.
The consensus is that tight aggressive is the best playing style, so that’s the style you should emulate. Don’t play many hands, but when you do, bet and raise with those hands. Go big or go home.
The 2nd best approach is loose aggressive. If you’re facing the right opponents, being willing to bet and raise a lot is enough to get you an edge at the poker table. You get extra equity if you’re facing tight players because you win a certain percentage of pots just because your opponents fold. And even if you have 2nd best cards, you’ll occasionally hit your draw.
A passive poker player is always the worst. Rocks (tight-passive players) tend to lose their money in the face of aggression. Calling stations (loose-passive players) tend to pay off their tighter opponents. Passive players of either persuasion never (or rarely) give their opponents an opportunity to fold.
When you categorize your opponents, you can make better-educated guesses about what kinds of cards they might be playing. If you get good enough at that, it’s like playing poker with someone whose hole cards are always exposed.
6- Learn When to Play for Higher Stakes
If you’re a winning player at the $2/$4 tables, you might also be a winner at the $5/$10 tables. You won’t know until you take a shot at that level. If you ARE able to win at the higher limits, you should be able to make more money just because there are larger amounts of money in play in those situations.
One thing to think about is how big your bankroll is. Even if you have an edge, short-term variance (i.e. bad luck) can cause you to lose all your money and go broke. You should have about 300 big bets at a given level if you want to avoid risking going broke. Of course, if you’re a bad player, it won’t matter how big your bankroll is. The size of your bankroll only starts to matter when you’re a winning player.
That’s only one aspect of moving up in stakes, though. You also need to be skilled enough to win at that next level. You might be ready; you might not.
My suggestion is to start with a bankroll that will get you through to the lowest limit game in the cardroom. If you’re playing $2/$4, then you should have a $1200 bankroll.
Set yourself a goal of winning enough money to move up to the $3/$6 tables. That means you have to win $600 at that level before moving up.
If you lose that $600 and get back down to $1200, you go back to the $2/$4 tables.
But if you’re winning, you move up in stakes to the $4/$8 tables once your bankroll has increased to $2400.
This kind of approach guarantees that your skills are improving, because it’s almost impossible to grow your bankroll like that without being able to win at the higher stakes, too.
In other words, you’ll know when you’re ready to move up because your bankroll will tell you.
7- Tells Can Take Your Profits to the Next Level
If you watch TV or movies about poker, you might think that picking up tells is the #1 most important skill in poker.
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But learning to read your opponents’ tells can help you win more money than you might win otherwise. It won’t make up for a lack of ability to fold or a lack of ability to read other players. But if you’ve mastered the basics, looking for and finding tells can take your game and profits to the next level.
Not all tells are individual, either. Some players fall into predictable categories. You can read Caro’s Book of Tells by Mike Caro or Read ‘Em and Reap by Joe Navarro to learn about some common tells that apply to most players.
Here are some tells you can look for without reading an entire book on the subject, though:
Shaking hands – A player whose hands are shaking when he goes to bet or raise isn’t bluffing, usually. That’s a release of subconscious excitement about how strong is hand is. Keep this in mind when putting that opponent on a range of hands.
Are they going to play the hand? – Most players learn pretty quickly that they’re not supposed to act out of turn. But if you watch the players to your left, you can often see clues to what they’re planning to do before they do it. It’s obvious when a player puts his chips on top of his cards that he’s planning to play his hand. If he’s picking up his chips even though it isn’t his turn to act, he’s getting ready to call, bet, or raise. Paying attention to this tell can help you avoid some of the disadvantages of playing out of position.
Weak is strong, and strong is weak. – Players who act one way are usually representing the opposite. A player who’s trying to stare you down when he’s betting or raising into you often has a weak hand and is hoping you’ll bluff. A player who’s staring at the television and calling in a disinterested manner probably has a monster and is hoping to get some action with it. Most of the time, players try to be deceptive and act in the manner opposite of their hand strength.
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It’s easier to pick up on your opponents’ tells when you’re not involved in a hand. See concepts #2 and #5 above.
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that “most important Texas Holdem concepts” is a highly subjective idea. These are the concepts I think are most important, especially if you’re just getting started. I’ve tried to focus on concepts that apply to the game as a whole and your overall approach to it.
You’ll find other blog posts with specific details about how to play hands of certain types from certain positions at certain levels. There’s nothing wrong with those posts, either. I just think you need to grasp some of these other elements of poker first, or at least concurrently, with those tactics.
The game was Texas Hold ’Em. About $300 bought a place at the table in the back room of a warehouse on Staten Island, where waitresses floated around with food and drinks and the play lasted until breakfast.
The pot went not to the luckiest among them but to the most deft — the player who could guess his opponents’ intentions and disguise his own, make calculated decisions on when to hold and fold, and quickly decide how much to wager. That, anyhow, is how one federal judge saw it from his chambers in the Federal District Court in Brooklyn.
In a ruling that goes to the heart of what it means to play poker, Judge tossed out the conviction and vacated the indictment of the man who ran that gambling business. The judge’s reason: poker is more a game of skill than a game of chance, so game operators should not be prosecuted under the federal law the prohibits running an illegal gambling business.
“The most skillful professionals earn the same celestial salaries as professional ballplayers,” he wrote in the exhaustive 120-page ruling that detailed the history of poker in the United States. The decision comes as state courts across the country are grappling with whether playing poker defies the law. No federal court had ever ruled directly on whether poker constituted gambling. The United States attorney’s office, which was reviewing the decision, did not say whether it would appeal the case.
The Poker Player’s Alliance, an organization that works to decriminalize poker and that filed an amicus brief in the case, released a statement lauding the decision.
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“As we worked for years defending players against vague gambling laws, we have patiently waited for the right opportunity to raise the issue in federal court,” John Pappas, the executive director of the organization, said in a statement. “Today’s federal court ruling is a major victory for the game of poker and the millions of Americans who enjoy playing it.”Continue reading the main story
Lawrence DiCristina ran the warehouse where the games took place — that was not in dispute — taking 5 percent of each night’s pot to cover the cost of his staff and profit for himself. He was arrested last summer, charged with operating an illegal gambling business, of which he was convicted in July. He faced up to 10 years in prison.
But Mr. DiCristina’s lawyer, Kannan Sundaram, a public defender, said poker was not a game of chance and therefore not subject to the law. He called an expert witness, Randal D. Heeb, an economist, statistician and poker player in national tournaments, who testified in a special hearing about the skill involved.
Judge Weinstein put off ruling on the issue until after the trial, allowing the jury to render its verdict first.