No limit texas hold'em poker strategy

An overview of the most important poker strategy fundamentals

Poker is a very complex game. It is a game that involves many subtleties and variables on which the poker player can base his or her decisions. These decisions can sometimes be very creative or risky. They can be planned out over multiple streets of betting, culminating in an elaborate bluff on the river with an absolute rubbish hand.

But before a poker player will be able to make functional creative and elaborate plays it is very important for this player to have a solid ABC-game at his or her disposal. That is: being aware of the most important subtleties and variables on which to base your decisions; being able to make the correct decisions in at least the most 'standard' spots and to some extent being able to differentiate between functional creativity and unnecessary 'fancy play syndrome' (FPS): a solid foundation in poker strategy.

The purpose of this strategy guide is to provide you with exactly this kind of poker strategy foundation for no limit Texas hold'em. If you are able to master the basic principles outlined here and combine this with the necessary discipline and patience to correctly implement them at the tables, then you are well on your way to beating at least the micro stakes for a healthy win rate. It is important that you know the rules of no limit hold'em and the poker hand rankings very well for a good understanding of this no limit hold'em strategy guide.

Texas hold'em strategy - Table of contents

Relative hand strength in no limit Texas hold'em

Reading the board

It is one thing to be able to determine your hand value by combining the community cards with your hole cards to form the highest five card combination. To determine the strength of your hand relative to the hands that could be out there in the hands of your opponents however is at least as important a skill to have in order to make the most correct decisions. Reading the board is an essential part of determining your relative hand strength. This becomes obvious when you hold a set (three-of-a-kind) on a river that brings the fourth card of the same suit:

Hole cards Board
6 of clubs6 of spades king of diamonds2 of diamonds6 of diamonds5 of spadesjack of diamonds

A set is generally a very strong hand in Texas hold'em. In this case however, your opponent only needs to have a diamond to beat your hand and you certainly wouldn't want to put all your chips in the middle to see a showdown. Your otherwise strong hand has become pretty marginal to say the least; it won't be more than just a 'bluff catcher'.

Hole cards Board
ace of diamondsking of spades 9 of heartsace of clubsjack of spades2 of spadesqueen of diamonds
ace of diamondsking of spades ace of spades2 of diamonds6 of hearts2 of hearts4 of clubs

Although you hold the same top pair top kicker (TPTK) in both hands, hand two is relatively stronger. There are much more hands that your opponent is likely to hold on the river that beat your one pair hand in the upper example (AQ, AJ, TK, QJ, A9, J9, etc.) than in the second example (the odd 2, sometimes 66 or A6).

Relative hand strength also includes the vulnerability of your hand on earlier streets to possible draws. A board is said to be 'wet' when there are many draws and strong hands possible. Conversely a 'dry' board doesn't connect well with a lot of the holdings people tend to play:

Dry board Wet board
6 of clubs2 of spadesace of diamonds jack of diamonds7 of heartsqueen of hearts

If you have a strong hand like two pair or a set on the dry board then you don't have to bet as strong as on the wet board. On the wet board there are a lot of cards in the deck that could fall on the turn and make your hand second best (completing flush or straight draws). Further more, if your opponent does not have a draw but a weaker made hand, these cards might scare your opponent as much as they scare you and you could lose value by not betting strong on the flop.

When you are in a hand and have determined your absolute hand strength, always ask yourself where your hand stands relative to the hands that are in your opponents range. Which range of hands could your opponent hold given the community cards and his actions? Are there any possible draws out there which he could have and stick around with? Did the turn or river complete any of these draws? Is it likely for your opponent to play the cards that would give him a better hand than yours? This last question already goes beyond reading the board and also takes your opponents tendencies into account. This will be addressed later in this poker strategy article. First, let's take a look at another key concept involving relative hand strength: the importance of your position at the table.

Positional awareness

In poker, your position (and that of your opponents) relative to the dealer button is a very important fact to take into consideration mainly when deciding which hands to play pre-flop and which to fold. A well known saying in the world of poker even goes as far as stating that 'position is everything'.

The value of being 'in position', that is being one of the last players to act, comes in multiple ways. First of all, when there are fewer people to act behind you, there is a smaller chance that one of them wakes up with a very strong hand. Secondly, if you are last to act then you get to know exactly what your opponent does before you have to make a decision.

The impact of these advantages should be reflected in your hand selection. The closer you are to the button, the wider the range of hands that you can profitably play will be. Also note that although the blinds act last pre-flop, you should be very tight from the blinds because the blinds are always out of position (first to act) post-flop. This concept is shown in figure 1.

Positional awareness in poker
Figure 1: Positional awareness in poker. Actual percentages
are just a very rough guideline.

In addition, if another player, also being very positionally aware, decides to make a pre-flop raise from early position (thus with many players left to act behind him) you can narrow his range of hands down to the stronger hands (AK, AQ, big pairs, etc.). Against this range of hands, hole cards like KQ or even AJ and AQ are relatively weak and you should be very careful with playing these hands after an early position raise. The advantage of being in position and therefore of getting to know what your opponent does before you have to act often won't make up for the difference in hand strength. Therefore folding is often the correct play. If you were in the same late position with the same hands (KQ, AJ or AQ) and it was folded to you however, than these hands are relatively very strong.

It is very important to develop a high level of positional awareness. Let this awareness be translated into playing fewer hands out of position and more in position, while at the same time taking your opponents' position into account when deciding what range of hands they could hold.

The power of initiative

In a situation where a player shows aggression pre-flop by raising and gets called by one or two opponents, the flop often doesn't hit any of the players still in the hand. In such a situation the aggressor has a controlling position and can most often take down the pot by continuing his aggression with another bet (a continuation bet or c-bet). This clearly shows the power of initiative.

Because of the power of initiative, you need a stronger hand to call an opponent's raise with than to open the pot with yourself. This principle is called 'the gap-concept'. How much stronger your hand should be (how big the gap should be) to call a raise is dependent on many aspects and is something you have to develop a sense of for yourself through experience.

For example, a very tight and aggressive (TAG) opponent will surely take advantage of his initiative by continuation-betting after the flop and it will be harder to play against him or her than a player who is more passive post-flop. You might want to call very tight against such a TAG player.

It also works the other way around in that you should try to take the initiative yourself if possible. Not that you should start raising every bet of your opponents, but, for instance, try to open the pot pre-flop with a raise instead of just calling the big blind (limping). This will instantly make you a tougher opponent to play against.

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Knowing the odds in hold'em pokerů approximately

Yes, there is a mathematical side to poker. And although it is very important to have an understanding of the basic math behind poker to play a winning game, this doesn't mean that those who are less skilled when it comes to math should find another hobby. The most common odds in poker (and those aren't too many) can be learned by heart leaving very little need to do any calculations on the fly at the poker table. And if there are any calculations to be done, then some simple rules of thumb will help you out. It might take some practice, but mostly anyone can do it. Let's first see why odds in poker are so important before we start calculating them like crazy.

Why knowing the percentages in poker is important

In order to play winning poker you have to make profitable plays. A profitable play could be betting when you are ahead in the hand or not calling too much when you are behind and need to catch a card to make the winning hand (you are on a draw).

In order to know whether you are paying too much for your draw there are two things to take into account: the size of the bet to call in relation to the size of the pot (your pot odds) and the chance of completing your draw (card odds, drawing odds or just odds). If the amount you have to pay in relation to the size of the pot is relatively smaller than the chance of you completing your draw then you can call profitably. If you call on a draw when the amount you have to pay in relation to the pot is relatively larger than the chance of completing your draw, then you are making an unprofitable call. And as unprofitable calls are a mistake in poker, this is something you should be willing to avoid (saves a lot of money in the long run).

This basic rule is somewhat of a generalization as will become apparent later, but for now it will do just fine. Note that you can't say that your pot odds have to be larger than your drawing odds as 'large pot odds' refers to a small amount to be paid in relation to the total size of the pot while 'large drawing odds' refers to just that: large odds to hit your draw.

Pot odds

Pot odds are relatively easy to determine and can be expressed in percentages and in ratios. Which of the two you use is just a matter of personal preference. Pot odds are the amount you have to call in relation to the total pot size. When expressing pot odds in ratios, the total pot size is any money in the pot from previous betting rounds plus the bets of your opponent(s) so far in the current betting round. When expressing pot odds in percentages you have to add your call to the total size of the pot.

Example: You're playing a game of no limit hold'em and see the turn with one other opponent. The pot size is $3. Your opponent bets half the pot or $1.50. This makes the total pot $4.50 and you have to call $1.50 to continue in the hand making your pot odds 3:1 or 25%.

Table 1 summarizes the pot odds in ratios and percentages when facing some bet sizes (expressed in pot size bets (PSB's)) from your opponent that are very common in no limit hold'em.

Table 1: Pot odds when facing common bet sizes in pot sized bets (PSB).
Bet size Odds ratio Odds percentage
1/4 PSB 5:1 17%
1/3 PSB 4:1 20%
1/2 PSB 3:1 25%
2/3 PSB 2.5:1 29%
3/4 PSB 2.3:1 30%
1 PSB 2:1 33%
11/2 PSB 1.7:1 38%

The odds of hitting a draw - counting outs

If you want to calculate the odds of hitting your draw then you need to know how many cards left in the deck will make your draw; how many outs you have. A couple of tips when you try to count your number of outs correctly:

Example 1:
Hole cards Board
8 of clubs9 of spades 7 of heartsking of diamonds6 of spades

In this case any 10 (4 total) and any 5 (also 4) will complete your open ended straight draw. You have got a total of 8 outs if you think that you can only win with the straight.
Example 2:
Hole cards Board
8 of clubs9 of clubs 7 of heartsqueen of diamonds6 of clubs2 of clubs

The straight draw gives you 8 outs, the flush draw gives you 9 outs. With these two draws combined you have 15 outs and not 17, because the 5♣ and T♣ complete both draws but only count once.
Example 3:
Hole cards Board
8 of clubs9 of clubs 7 of heartsqueen of diamonds6 of clubsqueen of clubs

Although you have the same draw as in example 2, this one is much weaker. Because the board is paired you aren't drawing to the best possible hand (the nuts) and you could even be drawing dead (have 0 outs) if your opponent already has a full-house or better. In addition, some cards that complete your draw and seem to be outs could give your opponent a better hand at the same time.

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The odds of hitting a draw - the actual percentages (or ratios)

When knowing the number of outs and the number of cards left in the deck you can calculate the chance of hitting one of your outs:

Example: say you have 8 outs to a straight draw and you are on the flop. There are 5 cards known to you (your hole cards and the three community cards) and therefore 47 cards are left in the deck and unknown (note: include your opponent's cards as these are equally unknown to you). The odds of hitting your draw on the turn are 8/47th or 17% or 39:8 (roughly 4.9:1). The chance of hitting it on the river when you missed the turn is 8/46th or 17.4% or 38:8 (4.75:1). The chance of hitting your draw on either the turn or the river is 31.5% or 2.2:1 (17% + (odds of missing the turn) x 17.4%)

Of course you aren't going to calculate it that exactly in the heat of battle, instead you can use the following rule of thumb: multiply your number of outs by 2 for the odds with one card to come, multiply the number of outs by 4 with 2 cards to come. Also take a look at (memorize?) the following table to get a feel for the odds of hitting certain draws:

Table 2: maximum # of outs and odds of hitting (in ratios and percentages) for 1 and 2 cards to come on the flop with different draws (SD = straight draw, OESD = open ended straight draw, FD = flush draw, OESFD = open ended straight flush draw).
Draw Outs Ratio (1 card) % (1 card) Ratio (2 cards) % (2 cards)
Inside SD 4 10.8:1 8.5 5.1:1 16.5
OESD 8 4.9:1 17 2.2:1 31.5
FD 9 4.2:1 19.1 1.9:1 35
FD + 2 overcards 15 2.1:1 31.9 0.8:1 54.1
OESFD 15 2.1:1 31.9 0.8:1 54.1
OESFD + pair 20 1.4:1 42.6 0.5:1 67.5

Note: these odds are the odds when the flop has been dealt. The odds of hitting your draw with one card to come on the turn are slightly different, because there will be one less unknown card left in the deck, just like calculated in the last example. One quick tip about how many cards you should use for estimating your odds: if you are facing a bet on the flop (two cards to come) and it isn't an all-in bet, then you are not very likely to see both the turn and river card for just that single bet. You will very likely be facing another bet on the turn. Therefore you have to look at the odds of hitting your draw with just one card to come.

Comparing the odds - drawing correctly in poker

Once you've determined the rough pot odds and odds of hitting your draw, than you can compare them to find out if calling on a draw would be profitable. We already know that:

"If the amount you have to pay in relation to the size of the pot is relatively smaller than the chance of you completing your draw then you can call profitably. If you call on a draw when the amount you have to pay in relation to the pot is relatively larger than the chance of completing your draw, then you are making an unprofitable call."
Now we also know that this means that the pot odds as a percentage have to be smaller than the odds of hitting the draw, while the odds ratio has to be larger.

Example: on the flop you hold a low flush draw. You are first to act and bet $1.50 into a pot of $3. Your opponent has $7.50 behind and goes all-in. Do you call? Your pot odds are $6 to call in a pot of $12 which comes down to 2:1 or 33.3%. The odds of making your flush (9 outs, 2 cards to come) are 1.9:1 or 35%. It seems to be a profitable call. However, you might be overestimating your number of outs here. Sometimes your opponent might have a higher flush draw and you would be in bad shape. Your opponent might sometimes also improve to a better hand when you hit your flush if he holds a set on the flop for example. If you include all those possible hands in the range of hands of your opponent, then you will see that this call would actually be unprofitable. If you had the ace-high flush draw, then a call is more likely to be profitable.

Regarding the example above: you can calculate the percentage of actually winning with your draw versus certain holdings using an odds calculator. Another program called PokerStove makes it possible to calculate the chance of winning (your equity in the hand) versus a range of possible holdings. PokerStove is free to download and it is highly recommended that you play around with some hand match ups on different board types to develop a sense of how the odds of winning might differ from the odds of hitting your draws.

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Other important odds in poker - Implied odds

As long as you aren't calling (an) all-in with a draw than there is money left to be bet on later streets. The money that could possibly be won when you hit your draw besides what is already in the pot when making the call can make a play profitable that would appear to be a mistake when only considering the pot odds. These extra odds are called implied odds.

The concept of implied odds is very important to apply correctly as in many occasions pot odds alone won't justify a call. By disregarding implied odds you could often be folding in spots where calling would be very profitable instead. By regarding and overestimating implied odds however, you could just as often be calling in unprofitable spots. There are several factors to consider when making an estimate of the implied odds:

As you can see implied odds are impossible to determine exactly, because they depend on some variables you can only estimate. Of the three factors mentioned, stack size will surely be the most important one to pay attention to at the micro stakes no limit games.

Effective stack sizes can be determined exactly and they form the upper threshold of your implied odds. Your opponent's tendencies, your own image and the concealed nature of your draw determine how much lower than this threshold your implied odds will eventually be. This is very important to realize in order to not structurally overestimate your implied odds.

An example of implied odds - set mining correctly

A very common mistake that a lot of people make at the micro stakes no limit hold'em games is incorrectly 'set mining' (or 'set farming'). That is: without the implied odds necessary people call pre-flop raises with a small or medium pocket pair in the hopes of hitting a set (three-of-a-kind) and winning a big pot from someone holding a very strong hand like pocket aces.

As most of the nano and micro stakes players are of the kind that doesn't let his or her hands go too easily it won't be the lack of attention to the opponent's tendencies that causes people to set mine without implied odds but rather the lack of attention to stack sizes. A lot of people will buy in with a short stack that doesn't leave much money to be bet after the flop and hence doesn't offer any implied odds, neither for the short stacked player's opponents nor for the player in question himself.

Because people don't let go of their hand in the micro stakes very easily, correct set mining will be very profitable and certainly should be part of a basic winning poker strategy. So, let's take a closer look at some facts concerning set mining:

The odds of hitting a set on the flop when holding a pocket pair are 11.8% or 7.5:1. If you call a normal pre-flop raise of 4 big blinds then you have to win 8.5 times your pre-flop call after the flop on average every time you hit your set just to break even. This equals 34 big blinds and assumes no rake is taken from the pot.

However: rake is taken from the pot, reducing your winnings; your opponent does not always have a strong hand when you finally hit your set and therefore you sometimes won't win any extra bet with it; you might sometimes hit a set and loose to a higher set and finally you could missclick fold your set once in a while after your opponent went all-in on the flop.

What all this means is that you should be looking for implied odds of at the very least 10 times the pre-flop call when set mining. Or in other words: the pre-flop call should be no more than 10% of the effective stacks. There is a simple rule of thumb for correctly set mining called the '5-10 rule'. If the pre-flop call is 5% or less of the effective stack size then it is always profitable to call. If it is between 5 and 10% then you should only call if the opponent is very likely to have a strong hand and/or this opponent has a hard time folding marginal hands. If it is more than 10% then calling to set mine will not be profitable in the long run.

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Putting it all together - micro stakes online poker strategy

You might have noticed that very little actual plays have been discussed. We briefly discussed continuation betting and maybe dug a little deeper into set mining. Nothing was mentioned about bluffing, bet sizing, stealing blinds, how to play aces, when to check-raise and exactly what hands to play and which not. And I have to admit that just knowing all of the above concepts won't get you very far if you don't truly understand them and correctly implement them at the tables. I do believe however, that an understanding of these concepts automatically leads you to making correct plays in many occasions. Let's take a closer look at some of the plays mentioned just now and see how to use or execute them at the micro stakes with the basic poker strategy fundamentals as a starting point.

Some actual micro stakes cash game strategy

At the online micro stakes cash games you will find a lot of loose and passive opponents. They generally tend to call a lot, even with very marginal holdings. These opponents don't have a very good understanding of the game and therefore won't pay attention to most of the variables and subtleties to which you do pay attention from now on :-). Because of this they tend to offer good implied odds (if they have enough chips at the table); they offer good pot odds for your draws by not betting strong post-flop; they don't take the initiative in the hand very often and they have a wide range of possible holdings.

Bluffing will not be a very effective tool against such opponents. Bluffing is essentially trying to let your opponent fold the best hand by telling him or her with your betting pattern that your hand is the better one. Bluffs can only work if the story is right (adds up) and if the opponent picks up on it. Most of the loose and passive opponents described above won't pick up on your betting pattern and call when they should not.

Therefore the level of understanding your opponents have of the game of poker is often the key to whether a play can be seen as creative and well thought out or just as dumb FPS (see first paragraph).

You can bluff successfully at the lower stakes, but the right spots for it are just so few that not bluffing at all will not hurt your profitability very much. On the contrary, it might even prevent you from bluffing in wrong spots where you get called and therefore save you money. Also note that c-betting is a form of bluffing and be less inclined to c-bet against particularly loose opponents and/or on very wet flops.
By sizing your bets well, you get value out of your opponents and can let them make mistakes you wouldn't make yourself. When having a strong hand, look for any possible draws that might be out there and bet at least enough to deny them the proper odds to call. Try to take advantage of the 'calling stations' by betting even more if that is what it takes to get your whole stack in the middle by the end of the hand.

If you find, for instance, pocket aces pre-flop and face a raise from your opponent, see if you can make a re-raise that is large enough so that set mining against you won't be profitable. Don't make the minimum re-raise (min-raise)! Of course, if the initial raise was small and stacks are large (deep) then denying proper set odds won't be possible and you shouldn't make excessively large re-raises (anything larger than 4 times the initial raise) just for this purpose.
Stealing blinds is opening the pot in late position with the primary goal of picking up the blinds. This way you take advantage of your position and of the power of initiative. Against opponents in the blinds that are very loose and positionally unaware this strategy might not work out to be very profitable when you try to steal too liberally (with weak holdings). Then you just need good hands to win a showdown.

The most important no limit texas hold'em strategy fundamentals - conclusion

Think about the strength of your hand as being relative. Think of where it stands compared to the range of hands your opponent can have. Look at the board, your own and your opponent's position, your opponent's betting pattern. Try to take the initiative in hands and always see bet sizes in relation to the pot size. Know your odds of hitting a draw roughly and compare them with your pot odds. Don't forget to take implied odds into account and you are already playing with a big edge over your opponents at the lower stakes. Keep improving your game by playing a lot, analyzing your play and reading forums (or this website :-)) and who knows where your journey will end!

Further reading at First Time Poker Player:

Tired of reading and anxious to finally practice your newly acquired poker skills online? PokerStars is an excellent room to play online poker at for everyone. You could also turn the the strategic knowledge from this article into some cold hard cash: receive a free $50 starting bankroll for passing a poker strategy quiz (how cool is that?). Have fun!

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