10 playing tips, essential poker strategyCardspiel

10 Basic Playing Tips

1) You should fold most hands pre-flop. Yes, it’s tempting to ‘see the flop’ – who knows what magically lucky combination it might give you? But because you have to at least match the blinds, and there is likely also to be at least one raise pre-flop, it’s an expensive habit. A good range of starting hands for beginners to play is: a high pair (tens or more); and any combination of Aces and picture cards, especially if suited. Always be prepared to fold if a higher card comes on the flop and a player bets it. You can play low pairs if you can see the flop cheaply – but fold if you don’t hit your 1 in 8 chance of making a ‘set’ (three of a kind).

2) Don’t let your Aces get ‘cracked’. Many novices complain that when they get dealt pocket Aces, some lucky straight or flush always takes their money. Usually, it’s because they allow too many people to see the flop. Aces are a massive favourite against one other player, and a strong favourite against two. Against more players, anything can happen. Raise big enough for speculative hands to fold; but not so big that a strong hand will fold. You actually have better odds against a traditionally strong hand such as AK or AQ than you do against, say, 810; and you’re more likely to get money from them if they do hit a pair.

3) Don’t be a ‘calling station’. Most beginners are scared to raise, but point 2) applies to many hands. If you think you’re ahead, raise (about a half to two thirds of the pot is a normal size). There are three advantages to doing so: you increase the size of the pot you can win; you discourage ‘drawing hands’, ie people hoping to hit a straight, flush, or two pairs; and you get information about the other player – if a conservative player re-raises you, they will be beating a pair; if an aggressive player re-raises you, they may have a monster hand but are more likely to have a draw to a monster hand, or to be semi-bluffing with a weak pair. If you can’t work out which, it’s safest then to fold unless you too have better than a strong pair.

4) Watch the other players. Even when you’ve folded, watch how everyone bets; try to work out what they may have; and test that theory to the reality whenever you get to see their cards at a showdown. When you get good at this, you can often ‘see’ what cards people have just from the way they bet. Also look at how often they bet pre-flop. The player who suddenly raises pre-flop for the first time in an hour is likely to have a monster such as Kings, Aces or Ace-King. The player who bets every other hand is often doing so with speculative hands like 79 suited.

5) Always remember the old saying: ‘People who chase flushes go home on buses.’ It’s tempting to try to get a straight, or a flush, but it’s an expensive game to play; even with the right four cards on the flop, your odds of making a flush or straight by the river are still only 1 in 3. The more people are in a hand, the more worthwhile it is (if five people are in, you have a 1 in 3 chance to make 5x your money), but always be wary that unless you have a high card one of them may have a higher flush. Against just one other person, it makes no sense at all to stay in on a draw.

6) Don’t bluff. Yes, it’s fun. Yes, it gets the heart pounding. Yes, you see it in all the movies. But unless the blinds are so high, in a tournament, that you are forced into it, isn’t it more sensible just to wait for the best hand, and then bet it? If you do feel the need to bluff, make sure you play safely and conservatively for several rounds beforehand, so that no one expects it of you; and do it on a pot large enough to be worth the trouble.

7) Know your position. This is somewhat advanced poker, but absolutely vital to the game. The basics of position are that the last person to bet in any particular round has an advantage. If everyone is betting weakly, with no or small raises, you can be more confident in your hand by the time you do bet (this is also a good time to bluff, see point 6); or if someone before you raises big, you can fold without having lost anything. The reverse is also true: if you are first to act, you need a stronger hand than usual in order to raise.

8) Don’t be ‘scared money’. There’s a reason why poker pros are called ‘sharks’ – when they smell blood, they’ll go in for the kill. You have to be playing at low enough stakes that you are not frightened to lose everything, if you get unlucky; but high enough to keep it interesting for you and maximise your potential profit. How big those stakes are will depend on your income, experience, and temperament, so there are no hard-and-fast rules. But if you find yourself folding what you’re pretty sure is the best hand, just because you are scared to call a big raise, you should be in a lower-stakes game.

9) Know the odds. Unless you know roughly how likely your hand is to be winning, or how likely you are to improve with the next deal of cards, you can’t know when and how much to bet. Unless you’re a maths whizz, read up on the odds. Start with our table of starting hand odds, above.

10) Poker is a science, an art, a sport – with a big dollop of luck thrown in, of course. You can get better and better with practice and learning, but it should also be fun. Play some low-stakes games, make some wild moves, experiment a little. But when you’re playing for serious money, make sure you bring your A game.

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