Poker is my favorite gambling game, and it should probably be your favorite, too. No other gambling game offers as much of an opportunity to make profits (other than sports betting).
In this post, I offer some thoughts on which poker strategies are most effective if you want to win at the game consistently.
Being Intimately Familiar with the Poker Variation You’re Playing Is a Good Strategy
I had a light bulb moment early in my poker career when I read a short book about Texas holdem from David Sklansky. In that book, he points out that you absolutely must be able to recognize which hand is the nuts with any given board.
It never occurred to me that something that simple was an underpinning of poker strategy, but think about it.
And if you think you’re holding the nuts when you’re really not, you can put insane amounts of money into the pot just to lose it.
If you don’t understand the basics of the game you’re playing exceptionally well, you have no hope of beating the more experienced players at the table who understand the game you’re playing.
I always recommend trying the play money versions of the games on the internet to learn how the betting and action work before trying a real money table live or online.
Being a Loose, Passive Player
The worst poker strategy is to be a loose, passive player. A loose player is the opposite of a tight player, and that just means a loose player participates in a lot of hands. In other words, loose players don’t fold often.
You can gauge how loose or tight a player is by looking at how many pots she participates in. For example, a player who folds 85% of their hands before the flop is tighter than a player who only folds 60% of their hands before the flop.
Players can also have varying degrees of looseness or tightness during different phases of the game, too. You might play too loose before the flop and too tight after the flop.
A passive player is a player who calls a lot of bets and raises but seldom bets or raises himself. This means her opponents get to draw free cards to try to improve their hands. It also means that when she does have a winning hand, she doesn’t get as much money from her opponents as she could if she were betting or raising.
The opposite of a passive player is an aggressive player. An aggressive player bets and raises a lot.
Someone who plays loose and passive poker is called a “calling station,” and good poker players love being at tables with loose-passive players.
Being a Tight, Passive Player Is Bad, Too
Playing tight and folding a lot is a better approach, generally, than being loose.
But if you combine that with passive play, you don’t win enough money on the few hands that you get involved in to make it worth your while to play.
- Tight, passive players are called “rocks.”
- Most people prefer not to play against rocks because it’s hard to win a lot of money from them.
- But it’s also easy to defeat a rock player.
Just pay attention and fold when a rock starts playing a hand more aggressively. A player with this approach to the game is almost always going to have the nuts or close to it if he’s betting or raising.
Most of the time, he’ll just call even with his best hands.
Being a Loose, Aggressive Player Is an Approach that Can Work
A loose, aggressive player plays in a high percentage of hands, but he bets and raises regardless of what kind of cards he’s holding. Such a player can pick up a lot of antes and blinds. This approach can make participating in a drawing hand later a freeroll. He’s just playing with the money he picked up by running over all the other players.
This is still not the optimal approach to the game. Imagine the ultimate loose, aggressive player. He goes all-in preflop on every hand.
You just keep folding until you have a high pair like queens or better.
It’s just a question of patience at that point.
Most loose aggressive players aren’t that extreme, though. They’ll bet and raise, but they’ll usually have something in their hand.
Your job is to figure out what range of hands your opponent might have and play accordingly.
Still, loose, aggressive players are easy to beat if you just wait for the right cards and bet and raise back into them.
They’ll pay you off.
Bluffing Isn’t as Great a Strategy as You Thought
Bluffing is closely related to being a loose, aggressive player. Bluffing is when you’re betting and raising with a hand that almost certainly can’t win at a showdown. Your only hope of winning the pot is for all your opponents to fold in the face of your aggression.
Most beginners bluff too often and pay for it in the long run.
One way to think about bluffing is by considering how many opponents you’re dealing with. If you’re trying to bluff 5 other players, your odds of succeeding are dramatically lower than they are if you’re trying to bluff a single opponent.
Of course, those are just arbitrary percentages. The actual percentage of opponents who will fold depends on what cards they’re holding and how tight they play.
This is one of the reasons you must pay attention.
You can do well at lower stakes poker without ever bluffing.
A Tight, Aggressive Strategy Is Probably Best for Most Beginners
A tight player only plays good hands. This means a better-than-average hand before the flop and a solid flop that fits your hole cards—otherwise, a tight player folds.
Since the tight, aggressive player only plays strong hands, she gets more money into the pot by betting and raising.
She wins a lot of pots when her opponents fold because they respect her bets and raises.
After all, they’ve seen her folding a lot, so they know if she’s betting or raising, she’s got good cards.
When another player recognizes a tight, aggressive player’s style, he usually figures out that it’s easier to get that player to fold than it is to get most players to fold.
All you have to do is re-raise the tight, aggressive player.
The Importance of Bankroll Management
I’ve written about money management as a poor casino game strategy, but bankroll management is subtly different. Managing a poker bankroll means maintaining enough money set aside for playing poker that you won’t go broke because of a short-term streak of luck.
After all, that’s how gambling games like poker work. Even though poker’s a game of skill, in the long run, each hand is still a product of random chance. It’s easy to have a streak of bad luck.
This doesn’t mean you can’t take an occasional shot. I thought this was a terrible idea until I discussed it with my poker mentor. He told me that it’s fine to take a rare shot at a game above your bankroll. You can always put together a new bankroll or drop down in stakes if you lose a large percentage of your bankroll.
Most gamblers aren’t good enough poker players to see a profit consistently. Even if you’re more skilled than the average player at the table, you still need to win enough money to overcome the rake.
To get good enough at poker to win consistently, you must master the basics first. It’s like riding a bicycle. You shouldn’t be trying to pop wheelies until you can keep the bike under control in normal road conditions.