Beginner poker tips

by ~ November 26th, 2010. Filed under: Basics of poker, Instructional posts.


If you want to win more than the other beginners, here’s how:

  • Know what constitutes a good hand, for that position, for that situation. And stick with it.

If you don’t know your starting hands to play for Texas no limit holdem poker, see here. Keep in mind that how good your hand is depends on:

  1. your position at the table,
  2. how badly or how aggressively your opponents play,
  3. your stack size and your opponent(s) stack size.

AT is a strong hand in late position, but it is too weak in early position at a large table. It’s a strong hand against a weak player that plays too many hands, but a weak hand against someone who plays almost no hands. It’s a strong hand when you have less than 10 big blinds in your stack, not so strong when you have 100 big blinds, but becomes stronger again when the effective stacks get to 250 or more big blinds deep.

Even if you try to memorize a good starting poker hand chart, memory becomes faulty over time. Go back and review your hand chart and review your recent play to see if you are sticking with it.

  • Play tight and aggressive.
  1. Tight (play only your best hands) and
  2. aggressive (bet/raise with your best hands)

is the easiest way to playing winning poker.

Playing tight means you are only playing hands that have a good chance of being the best hand. It also keeps you from playing marginal hands, and marginal hands are the ones that can be difficult to play and can cost you money because of the difficulty of playing them. Make the game simple and avoid losing money by folding the difficult hands, especially from early position or from in the blinds where you will be out of position for the rest of the hand.

Playing aggressively means getting value for these good hands when you win as well, as making the other players pay money to take a chance with their weaker hands against yours. Tight and aggressive is not the only winning way to play, but it’s the easiest way to play winning poker.

Sometimes I’ll play freerolls. Not the kind where the players have earned the right to play, but the ones where it’s open to anyone with an account. Here you’ll see hands where more than half of the table (at least, of the ones who aren’t sitting out) has called, no one raises, and 4-8 players see the flop. Why? Because no one knows what a good hand is, no one knows how bad their chances are with K5, no one knows that they should thin the field with AK.

The natural tendency is to want to play, not to fold. You didn’t sit down at the poker table with the plan to sit out most hands, so when the table is full of people who don’t know how to play, everyone wants to call. And in holdem you only get two cards of the seven that will be part of your hand, so beginners are afraid that an Ace will come when they have two Queens, or that no Ace or King comes when they hold AK. This is why they figure that it’s safer to “just call and see what the flop brings“. That is one of the worst phrases that comes from a beginner’s thought process. Never call just to see what the flop brings.

  • Be prepared for wild swings in your results.

This is true for poker players at all levels because after all, when you are a 80% favorite to win, that means that you also expect to lose 20% of the time. But

  1. you will lose a bunch of 80% situations in a row. You will also win a bunch of 65% situations in a row. You will also
  2. win a bunch of 20% situations in a row. You will also win a bunch of 35% situations in a row.

Neither means that you are a good or a bad player, it’s just part of the game.

Wild swings are prevalent at high stakes where players press their draws and chances harder, but wild swings are also very prevalent at the beginner stakes because so many players don’t understand their chances and will go with a hand, not realizing that the odds are so strongly against them. Because of this you will often win against hands that had no business playing, but sometimes you will lose against those same hands when they hit their longshot outs. High stakes players accept chances because they understand odds. Beginners gamble because they don’t know their odds.

Keep getting your money in when you are ahead and you’ll win in the long run. But keep in mind that this will happen over the long run, and in the short run (short run being anything under 2,000, 10,000, maybe even 20,000 hands) you are heavily in the hands of the poker variance gods.

Be patient, review your play, make sure that you’re still playing only recommended hands and playing them with appropriate aggression.

  • Keep your head level.

It can be frustrating, waiting for the long run at the penny tables, watching bad players suck out, trying to grind up a bankroll which will allow you to move up to higher stakes.

But think of it as cheap training. Sure, you could take your $100 deposit and sit down at a $50 cash table or $10 sit and go and learn, but you’ll be broke in a few hundred hands. At the penny tables you can spend hours learning to read your own hands quicker, evaluating the strength of your draws, learning to calculate pot odds, critiquing your opponent’s play and seeing where they make mistakes, reviewing your own play to see how close to optimal you are, learning all the basics, and cheaply.

Sklansky’s Fundamental Theorem of Poker states that you make money when your opponents make mistakes, and it’s players at the lowest levels who make the most mistakes. Learn to laugh off the suckouts by bad players without being bitter, and be patient and levelheaded with your play. If you can’t do this, then you’re tilting and it’s time to take a break.

  • Stay within your bankroll.

If you only play once month, perhaps your poker money is your “fun” money. If you play only once a week, maybe it’s still just money that you’d otherwise be spending on a movie or an evening out. I talked with a paramedic once during an ambulance ride and he said that it costs him $5 a week to play. If his guess is actually accurate, then that’s no big deal.

But if you play online poker more than once a week, you need to have a poker bankroll that is money set aside for playing poker. It remains entirely separate from your money for rent, groceries, school, beer, or other necessities.

There are many different recommendations for bankroll sizes, but here’s a basic one:

  • No more than 5% of your bankroll at any cash table
  • No more than 2% of your bankroll for one table sit and goes
  • No more than 1% of your bankroll for multi table tournaments

For a $100 starting bankroll then:

  • Max $ 5 cash table
  • Max $ 2 (not counting rake) one table sit and go
  • Max $ 1 (not counting rake) multi table tournament

Bankroll management is what allows you to survive the swings of variance, helps you to be able to continue to get your money in as a 66/33 favorite and sometimes win, sometimes lose, helps keep you from tilting, allows you to play today and, more importantly, to still be able to play six months from today.

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