Poker 101
January 1, 2013 8:05 AM   Subscribe

How to kick butt at poker!

Hey guys I recently learnt how to play poker, and I am really intrigued by it and more importantly am not very good at it! I know there are forums and books but my competitive streak is jumping ahead of my forum trawling skills!! Do you guys have any special tips and tricks you could share? Thanks :)
posted by dinosaurprincess to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Nate Silver's book The Signal and the Noise is excellent in general, and in particular, has a long chapter about his success at online poker.
posted by escabeche at 8:30 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Never draw to an inside straight.

If you're at a table, and you're not sure who the sucker is, it's you.
posted by musofire at 8:36 AM on January 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

There are no special tricks that are going to significantly help you. Poker is a game of skill; like any skill you need to learn and practice, practice, practice.

Ok, one tip; the basis for everything else in poker is math. You need to be able to quickly calculate in your head the likely odds of your hand winning the pot. That's how you know if raising, calling, etc are good bets or bad bets. It's only at that point when reading the other player comes in. If you don't know the odds of your hand being the high hand you have no basis trying to read the other player and deciding if he or she has you beat or not.

So if you don't have the basics of probability down cold start there.
posted by Justinian at 8:43 AM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm going to assume that you are referring to Texas Hold'Em, and that you are interested in playing for real money in a real casino / card club. (It also may be the case that you're playing with a group of students at University, based on a previous question).

In either case, the best advice I can give, as cliche as it is, is to practice. This gets you two things:

First and foremost, you will gain confidence. You are a woman, and this is a male-dominated game. Amateur poker guys have a tendency to be intimidated by a good female player, and as such you need to put forth an air of confidence; even aggressiveness. To do this you need to be comfortable with the game and with your play; to this end, play a lot of free online poker to start out. This won't teach you much about strategy, etc. since it's free, and the strategic dynamic is worlds different when there's money at stake. What it will do is make you comfortable with the game itself. If you spend your time in real games asking 'can I raise' or 'how much can I bet', you're not going to succeed. (There's an argument that you can purposely play the 'bubbly female' to your advantage, but this requires you to be good at all other aspects of your game first.)

Once you have that confidence, you will be able to focus on getting a feel for what types of hands you should and shouldn't be playing. You'll learn that chasing doesn't pay, no matter how many times you see someone else go runner-runner to a winner, because it will magically never happen to you. You'll understand that it's a good idea to fold hands like AQ or AJ preflop sometimes, like when 4 people raise in front of you. You'll learn that not every hand that has a card with a letter on it is a powerhouse worth playing.

Only once you have the confidence and the basic knowledge and ability to recognize a good hand from a bad hand and when to play, or get away from, either one, can you begin to consider things like pot odds, EV, etc. It won't pay to know how to calculate pot odds if you're playing bottom-of-the-barrel hands to begin with. If you're too worried about when it's your turn to bet or how much you can bet, you won't have the time or the mental faculties to calculate the math behind a call vs. fold decision.

If it's legal down under, once you have your confidence consider trying online for micro-stakes, like $.01/.02 games. This will introduce a live-money element that will give your decisions and thought processes much more meaning, with minimal risk (but even at this level - don't get carried away).

Oh, and watch Rounders. Won't teach you much about the game itself or how to be good, it's just the quintessential modern poker movie.
posted by SquidLips at 8:59 AM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Former professional/current part-timer here.

I am a big proponent of Two Plus Two, They are a book publishing company. Read their books that pertain to what you want to learn, and you will get much better very quickly. The vast majority of poker books are absolutely terrible...they basically make the only good ones.

Next, use their forum. Analyze hands you have played and post them there. Read other's hands. Try to deduce what the villian has in the hand before reading responses.

A few nuggets of wisdom:

- If you are checking with the intention of calling a bet, consider betting yourself. This is particularly true when holding a draw. If you are considering limping into a pot preflop, strongly consider raising.

- The key to poker isn't "math", but logic. You need to put your opponent on a range of hands, and gradually narrow their range based on their actions. You aren't a mind reader so don't put your opponent on one hand.

- That said, know how to calculate your outs (cards to improve hand) and chances to hit them.
posted by MikeyObviously at 10:01 AM on January 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

escabeche: "Nate Silver's book The Signal and the Noise is excellent in general, and in particular, has a long chapter about his success at online poker."

My biggest takeaway from that chapter was that Nate himself had to bow out when the supply of suckers dried up due to the US cracking down on online gaming. If a guy who basically thinks in Bayesian can't consistently make money, I'm going to stick to playing small-stakes games with friends.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:20 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've played poker for a long time.

Read books! I'd first and foremost recommend "Getting Started in Hold em" by Ed Miller, but really any book describing the basics of Poker Strategy. Harrington on hold 'em is also a good starting place.

Check out the Fundamental Theorm, which says that your optimal play is to play as if you know your opponents exact cards). Studying is the best way to get better, but only coupled with playing real situations to practice doing the correct thing in certain spots, and recognizing the spots when they appear!

Play for free online-- the WSOP and WPT have free poker schools. Don't pay anything to play or learn online, and don't deposit money anywhere.

Play with your friends! But keep in mind 99% of what they say about strategy is wrong, even if they've been playing for a long time. Poker is based on math not instincts or experience. Some of the best players are the worst teachers because they have no idea what they're doing right.

Dont play in a cardroom (even a friendly one) unless you have a bankroll (a separate poker account that you can afford to lose) of at least 10 buy-ins for the level. This means in a casino which usually spreads 1$-2$ blind poker an everyones buying in for 200$ you should have 2,000. I know that sounds like a lot, but believe me, it can go quickly. Stick to playing in tournaments and with friends for very low stakes (25c 50c is perfect) until you build up some cash.

Finally don't let all the rules and phony tough stares and occasional heated arguments and repetitive moronic table talk and such deter you--you are there to win not make friends right? Well actually don't let that deter you from making friends either--some of my best friends I've made over the years were met from playing poker at strangers' houses. Be friendly to everyone--it's better for business anyway and you're more likely to have a good time!

Good luck!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:27 AM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Another long time, winning player here.

In addition to the above (generally good) advice, I'll throw out one different piece of advice that may not be obvious, but needs to be remembered: unlike other forms of gambling, in poker you get to choose which hands to play. You pay a price for not playing a hand (via the ante and/or blinds), but that price is generally a lot less than the price of playing a hand and losing. So it pays to be selective in terms of which cards you play and which position you are in when you play them. Position = your position relative to the dealer, who (except for stud games) acts last on any given betting round. Later position means you get to act after others have acted, and that's one of the keys to extracting as much as you can from your winning hands, and losing as little as possible with your losing hands.

Stated differently: in a typical ring game (i.e., a typical multi-handed poker game of 7 or more people) patiently wait for good cards in good position, and when you play those cards, play them aggressively. There are some caveats and exceptions, obviously, but as generalized advice the above will take you pretty far. If you play in games with 6 or fewer people, you need to play more aggressively, both in terms of your hand selection and how you play those cards, but the mantra "good cards in good position" will actually take you pretty far, and put you several rungs above less disciplined competition, at least at the lower levels of play.
posted by mosk at 12:23 PM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Definitely check out as recommended above, along with their many books written by Sklansky, Miller, etc.

As for specific answers to your question, it depends on exactly what type of poker you're going to play. Even within the "holdem" world, there are different types and levels of holdem. There's limit versus no limit. There are many different levels of stakes. There's online versus live. There are different blind or betting structures. There are full ring games, short-handed games, and heads-up games.

And that's just holdem. There's also Omaha, Omaha Hi-Lo, Stud, etc. etc. etc.

Adding to that, there are many different levels of skill. Your strategy is substantially determined by the skill level of your opponents. And your own ability to play is obviously limited by your own skill. This all sounds obvious, but even after playing for many years, I am constantly amazed at how much more I have to learn, and how much more complicated the game can get. You can take the exact same game (say, limit holdem) and how that game is played at high limits is utterly different from the same game as played in a casual small stakes home game, for example. At high limits, the game becomes much more chess-like in its complexity (although serious chess fans will poo-poo the comparison; it's really apples and oranges).

So we're talking about games that can take a couple minutes to learn (in terms of the rules), but a lifetime to master.

There are a few basic principles that tend to apply to most types of poker. First, you should learn the concept of expected value, and how that determines whether it is profitable to bet given your odds and the size of the pot. This is absolutely critical to understanding proper play.

Second (and at the risk of sounding sexist, this is a characteristic that many-- but definitely not all -- women have trouble developing) you need to have the ability to play very aggressively -- what some people might call the "killer instinct". More specifically, you need to have the ability to put money on the line even when you don't have the best hand -- or even a hand at all! For example, most types of poker involve multiple rounds of betting; like in holdem, you start by betting with only two cards. You need to be able to bet aggressively starting right there, even though there is no guarantee you'll get a good hand in the end. Later in the hand, you might pick up a draw (a partial hand, e.g. four parts of a flush). It will often be good strategy to bet aggressively even with a partial hand like that, even though you only have a one in three chance of catching a full flush, say.

Conversely, as you start out, you will find that bluffing is not nearly as important as it appears on TV. At amateur levels, you will find that most players bluff too much and play weak hands too strongly, failing to fold when they should. This means that your counter-strategy should be to bluff less often, and simply stick with playing strong hands straight-forwardly: Bet strong hands aggressively, and fold (or when appropriate, call) with weak/middling hands. Sticking to that basic strategy will serve you well until you get to somewhat more advanced levels, where players know how to balance their play more effectively. That's when poker really starts to get difficult.

Poker is an awesome game, and I'm really glad I picked it up. Not only has it improved my strategic thinking, but I have made many friends and social connections through it. One of my favorite social events is hosting a monthly game for my friends. (For these reasons, I have a strong bias towards live play versus online play. The latter is much more robotic, and lacks much of the human element that gives poker a whole other dimension -- spotting physical tells, sizing up a new player based on nothing more than their outward appearance, etc.)

Good luck, and work hard at it!
posted by mikeand1 at 1:50 PM on January 1, 2013

I haven't poked around there much in the past few years, but I enjoyed the 2+2 forums when I did. Caveat: there's a big noise/signal ratio going on there, not to mention trolls and misogynistic douchebags. It's a bit old, now, but I really enjoyed Lee Jones' "Winning Low-Limit Hold 'em" when I was first ramping up my poker skills.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:58 PM on January 1, 2013

What, no recommendation for Doyle Brunson's Super/System? It's kind of a cliche to recommend the thing, but that's because almost every page of it has good advice.

I'd go so far as to say that you should read both the original and the 2nd. edition.

I'm also assuming you're talking about Hold'em, because different poker games demand wildly different styles. The nice thing about Doyle's book, 2nd edition, is that he has a chapter on the most popular games outside of of Hold'em written by people who've had great success at them.

I also really liked Barry Greenstein's Ace On The River. I tend to play tight myself, so reading a guy with a similar style was nice. He does have some freaky kind of asides (when and when not to have sex at a tournament? wut?) but the combination of knowing the math but more importantly, the psychology, is nice.

Because let's face it -- among all the different kinds of poker, Hold'em probably requires the least math. Knowing the math never hurts, but there are professionals who've done very well for themselves playing 90% through instinct. In No Limit, psychology trumps math, always.

That said, as somebody who probably plays No Limit Hold'em and a bit of Omaha once a month or two at my local casino, my own personal advice as very much an amateur is this -- why limp or check when you can raise? There are some kamikazes aggressive guys at my table usually, and the worst I've ever done has been trying to slow play them. Letting those guys stick around to suck out on you is painful, and it's also your fault. You didn't show enough aggression to get them to fold, so why should they respect you, at that moment or in the future?

Playing tight is OK but raise when you think you have the best hand and fold when you don't think you have the best hand.

Or, bluff.

But avoid slow plays like the plague.
posted by bardic at 10:16 PM on January 1, 2013

Position position position.
posted by p1nkdaisy at 12:28 AM on January 2, 2013

Super/System is pretty awesome, but I would suggest a bit more entry-level reading before diving into that tome.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:09 AM on January 2, 2013

A lot of good advice here.

One tangible skill for playing live that can have an instant impact - if you've done some homework, anyhow - is keeping a running total of every pot you play (at first) and every pot played at the table (once your brain stops hurting). Most new live players have NO idea how much money is (or how many tournament chips are) in the pot - but this is critical information for almost every decision you're going to make.

If you start counting (or calculating) the pot on an ongoing basis you have a big advantage over most novice players.

The tangible way this can help - novice players usually make too-small bets on the flop. Trickiness aside (and even then...) betting $10 into an $80 pot is almost never correct. If you're counting the pot you'll a) recognize when someone has done that and b) not do that yourself.

Also - reading is important, but playing is more important. If you have the low-end basics down pat (hand values, how the game flows, how betting/raising/calling/etc works) you have enough information to play some hands and start to think through problems on your own. If you're that much of a novice your solutions will almost always be wrong - and that's where reading comes in, to give yourself better, more advanced analytical tools to (metaphorically) bring to the table.

Poker is a game of pattern recognition and acting on incomplete information - and there's no substitute for experience.
posted by mikel at 11:44 AM on January 2, 2013

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