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.
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:
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'.
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|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
|Bet size||Odds ratio||Odds percentage|
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:
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:
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:
|Draw||Outs||Ratio (1 card)||% (1 card)||Ratio (2 cards)||% (2 cards)|
|FD + 2 overcards||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.
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:
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.
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:
Effective stack size
This is the smallest stack of the players battling it out. There won't be any more money to be bet after the person with the smallest stack is all-in (unless 3+ players are in a hand and a side-pot will be built). The bigger the effective stacks, the higher the implied odds.
How well concealed is your draw when it hits?
A straight draw with one hole card and three cards to a straight on the board does not offer the implied odds of a straight draw for which you use two of your hole cards. In the first case, mostly every opponent will become very cautious when you hit your straight and therefore your implied odds are low.
Your opponent's tendencies
Some players just can't let go of their holdings although all the obvious draws completed and you scream at them you've got it with a large raise. These players offer high implied odds. Conversely, weak players might let easily go of their hand after a draw completes and don't offer high implied odds.
Your own image
If you are generally tight and only bet with very strong holdings your opponents might be aware of that and are less likely to pay you off when you hit your draw. This point will be less valid at the lower stakes where your opponents will generally stay unaware of a tight playing style.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!