If you are already winning at poker, this blog post probably will not be too useful to you. If you are losing or breaking even, it will be immensely beneficial. It goes without saying that you must be honest with yourself about your results. If you lie to yourself, or do not keep accurate records of your results, odds are you will not make it in the long run.
Once you know that you are a losing or break-even player, you have to accept that you almost certainly do not know what you are doing wrong. If you cannot beat the small stakes, you likely have huge flaws in your strategy. If you struggle in the middle or high stakes, perhaps you have lots of little flaws, or just a few large ones. Even if you are an excellent player, you must realize that there is always room for improvement. If you think you are amazing and refuse to listen to the advice of players who are better than you, you are certain to fail.
The interesting thing about trying to improve at poker is that it is often difficult to know what you are doing wrong. By talking about poker with people who are beating the game you are trying to beat, you will often be able to spot differences in your strategies. If you really want to speed up the learning curve, hire a qualified coach who will look through your hand histories and point out each little thing he or she thinks you are doing incorrectly.
Do not be the guy who thinks he is great at everything he does. While having confidence is a useful trait for a poker player, if it is not grounded in reality it will get in the way of improving your game. Understanding and accepting that you have a lot to learn is the first step toward success. There is no room for your ego at the poker table.
Many losing players only think about their exact hand. This implies they never think about their entire range. Your range is all hands you would play in a specific manner. For example, this may be your strategy from early position when the action is folded to you:
When you raise, you have one of the hands in red and when you limp, you have one of the hands in blue. If your opponents pay attention and figure out your strategy, they will know that when you raise, you have a strong hand and when you limp, you have marginal hand. You never want your opponents to be able to easily narrow your range, so instead, you should usually raise with your entire playable hand range before the flop when the action is folded to you. This will conceal the strength of your hand and make you more difficult to play against.
Whenever you have multiple options, if you take different lines with various hands, you split your range. In order to be difficult to play against, you should play different types of hands in the exact same manner. For example, after the flop you should often bet or raise with your best hands as well as your draws. By playing both your strong hands and semi-bluffs the same way, your opponent will have no idea whether you are value betting or bluffing.
Many amateurs instead play each part of their range in an obviously different way. For example, on the flop with a $10 pot, an amateur may bet $10 with his premium made hands, $7 with his draws, $4 with his marginal made hands, and check with his junk. Playing in this manner essentially turns his hand face-up. Instead, he should consider betting $8 with his premium made hands and draws, and checking with his marginal made hands and junk. This will make him much more difficult to play against.
Once you understand what a range is, it is important that you develop a default strategy of playing reasonable ranges. If your default strategy is too tight, your opponents will know to not give you action without a premium holding. If you play too loosely, your opponents will figure out that you often have junk and will stop folding their decent and marginal hands to your aggression. That said, it is important to understand that your strategy should frequently adjust based on your opponents’ tendencies and what they think about your strategy.
While it is somewhat easy to define a simple preflop strategy that will work well enough, in order to remain concise, here are a few charts to help you get started when playing with stacks larger than roughly 50 big blinds.
From early position when everyone folds to you, use this strategy:
From middle position when everyone folds to you, use this strategy:
From the hijack seat when everyone folds to you, use this strategy:
From the button when everyone folds to you, use this strategy:
As your position improves, you should raise with a wider range because there are fewer players yet to act who can wake up with a strong hand. As stacks get shorter, you should tighten up a bit, often folding the drawing hands, due to the lack of implied odds.
You should spend some time away from the table developing default ranges for all situations, such as when there are limpers, when someone raises before you, when you raise and get 3-bet, and when someone raises, you 3-bet, and they 4-bet.
For example, when you raise from middle position and the button 3-bets, you should perhaps use this strategy:
By thinking about common situations you are likely to encounter before you take a seat at the table, you will be able to implement your strategy with ease, instead of trying to figure out the right answer to each situation on the fly.
You should also develop rough ideas for how to play after the flop. In general, you should bet with your premium made hands and draws while checking with your marginal made hands and junk. The main time you should bet with most of your hands is when the board should connect well with your preflop range and should not connect too well with your opponent’s range, such as when you raise from under the gun, the big blind calls, and the flop comes A-7-3. Conversely, you should check with most of your range when the board should not connect well with your range and should connect well with your opponent’s range, such as when you raise from under the gun, the big blind calls, and the flop comes 8c-7c-6d.
Once you have developed strong default strategies, you should adjust them to take advantage of the mistakes that your specific opponent is prone to make. Before the flop, if everyone folds to you on the button, if the players in the blinds are incredibly tight, you should usually raise with any two cards. This is because your opponents will not defend their blinds often enough, allowing you to immediately profit by stealing the blinds way more often than is required to show a profit.
To determine how often a total bluff needs to succeed in order to profit, you take the amount you are risking and divide it by the pot you will win plus your bet. So, when everyone folds to you before the flop, you are risking 2.5 big blinds to win the 1.5 big blind pot, meaning if you steal the pot more than 62.5% of the time, you will immediately profit (2.5/(2.5 + 1.5) = 62.5%). Even when you get called, you will win the pot sometimes. If both players in the blinds will only play the top 15% of hands (most of the hands traditionally thought to be “strong”), raising the button with any two cards will be incredibly profitable.
If everyone folds to you on the button and the players in the blinds are world-class, or if they will generally play in an aggressive manner with a wide range, perhaps you should use this strategy:
While this range would normally be much too tight, if you expect to frequently get 3-bet, tightening up is often a wise adjustment.
After the flop, if you expect your opponent to fold unless he improved to a pair or a strong draw, you should continuation bet almost every time, regardless of your hand’s strength. This is because you will steal the pot about 60% of the time and even if you make a large pot-sized bet, you only need to win the pot 50% of the time to show a profit (1/(1+1) = 50%).
If instead, your opponent is a maniac who will never fold and will often respond in an aggressive manner, you should adjust by betting your premium made hands and draws what can withstand a raise and checking with most of your decent and marginal hands that cannot withstand a raise. If your opponent is a calling station who will call with an incredibly wide range and will only raise with his best hands, you should continuation bet with your premium made hands, draws, and marginal made hands, and check your junk.
It is important that you develop a sound default strategy, but if you want to succeed in the long run against competent opponents, you have to learn to identify and take advantage of their individual tendencies.
While it is far from sexy, you must understand that a penny saved really is a penny earned. When playing in the small stakes, it is quite common for the casino to rake a huge amount of the pot. At $1/$2, it is common for the casino rake 10% of the pot, up to $4. This means that most of the time, you are losing 10% of every pot you win. This may not sound like much, but when you realize that the best players in the world tend to win at a rate of 15 big blinds per hour, if you pay 10 big blinds per hour in rake, you are barely beating the game. This 10% rake up to $4 is actually quite low compared to what many casinos charge. If your $1/$2 game rakes $6 per hand and also takes $1 each hand for a bad beat jackpot, even the best players will have a difficult time winning in the long run.
Many small stakes tournaments are equally rough. A world-class player may have a 40% return on investment in a fast-paced live tournament. If the casino rakes 25%, which is common in many small stakes tournaments, the world-class player will barely have a positive win rate. Clearly if a world-class player will barely win, if you are merely decent, you will either break even or lose.
While I understand that your options for small stakes games may be limited, I strongly suggest you shop around and find games that are beatable. Understand that if the only games available to you rake a huge amount, you do not have to play (assuming you care about having the potential to profit in the long run). In order to succeed, you must be disciplined and only invest your money when you expect to have a positive expectation. Even if the players in a game are clearly bad, if the rake is too high no one will win except the house.
I hope you learned something from this blog post. If you enjoyed it, please share it with your friends. If you want to take the next step to improving your poker skills, check out my interactive training site PokerCoaching.com. There are lots of quizzes available there for you to hone your skills and I also present a homework review webinar each month. Yes, I assign homework and grade it. It is like I am a professor. If you want to take your game to the next level, check out PokerCoaching.com.