Poker has the distinction of being one of only a handful of gambling games where you can get an edge. That’s why I’m proud to offer 7 ways to win at poker that will work for anyone.
Understand up front that even though poker is a game of skill, it’s ALSO a game of chance. Yes, you can win consistently in the long run. You do that by making better quality decisions than your opponents most of the time.
But in the short run, you can (and often will), get unlucky. The cards run bad for everyone, eventually.
Here’s how to think about that:
If the most skilled poker player won every time she played, no one would play with her. Poker would be like chess. And people don’t make big money playing chess.
In fact, you WANT unskilled players to put money in the pot when they have the worst of it. That’s where your long term profit comes from. Bad poker players overestimate how good they are at the game.
You want them to win some of the time so they’ll keep playing.
Casinos have this attitude. They don’t mind when a player wins. In fact, they love it, because they know the player will keep playing. The longer they play, the likelier it is that the house edge will kick in and the casino will win.
Here are 7 simple ways to win at poker that will work for you even if (especially if) you’re a beginner:
1- Make sure you have a big enough poker bankroll.
Remember what I said about long term expectation?
Poker is a game of luck in the short term. It’s only a game of skill in the long run.
This means you have to be able to play without going broke long enough for your edge to kick in. If you have a small bankroll, it’s okay to take a shot.
But if you want to play professionally or win consistently, you need enough money to stay in the game without going broke.
How much of a bankroll do you need?
Matthew Hilger, one of the poker players and writers I most respect, suggests having 250 to 400 times the big bet in your poker bankroll.
That means if you’re playing in the $3/$6 limit games at the Winstar Casino in Oklahoma, you need at least $1500 in bankroll. $3000 is better, especially if you’re a beginner.
Why do you need so much money?
Because luck runs in streaks. When you hit a losing streak, you need to be able to stay in the game long enough for your skill level to kick in.
Also, a gambling bankroll is money you’ve set aside specifically for gambling. You can’t roll your rent money into your gambling bankroll. It has to be separate.
Because you’ll make mathematically less optimal decisions if you’re gambling for the rent money.
You’ve heard the expression “scared money always loses”?
That’s where it comes from.
2- Master the list of poker hand rankings.
The biggest mistake beginner poker players make is not knowing the ranking of hand in poker cold. They’re simple enough, especially if you already know them.
But here they are again if you’re a beginner. I’ve listed them from best possible hand to worst:
- Straight flush- 5 cards of the same suit with consecutive rankings. Some people list a “royal flush” as the best possible hand, but that’s really just the highest possible straight flush you can get. (It’s not a different hand.)
- 4 of a kind – 4 cards of the same rank along with another card of another rank.
- Full house – 3 cards of one rank along with 2 cards of another rank. Think of this as a 3 of a kind and a pair in the same hand.
- Flush – 5 cards of the same suit. They’re not consecutive in rank, though.
- Straight – 5 cards of consecutive ranks. They’re not of the same suit, though.
- 3 of a kind – 3 cards of one rank along with 2 more cards of different ranks.
- 2 pairs – 2 cards of one rank, 2 cards of another rank, and a 5th card of another rank.
- One pair – 2 cards of one rank along with 3 cards, all of different ranks.
When 2 poker players have the same hand, you compare the highest card of each hand to determine the winner. For example, if you have 3 kings, and your opponent has 3 queens, you win. Kings are higher than queens.
If you don’t understand hand rankings, you’ll make mistakes.
Those will cost you money in the long run. You cannot win at poker if you don’t know the rankings of hands backward and forward.
3- Study The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky.
The definitive book about strategic poker concepts is The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky. Unlike most poker books, The Theory of Poker doesn’t cover a single game. It covers concepts that apply to all poker variations.
It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to know how to win at poker.
Here’s the table of contents:
- Beyond Beginning Poker
- Expectation and Hourly Rate
- The Fundamental Theorem of Poker
- The Ante Structure
- Pot Odds
- Effective Odds
- Implied Odds and Reverse Implied Odds
- The Value of Deception
- Win the Big Pots Right Away
- The Free Card
- The Semi-Bluff
- Defense Against the Semi-Bluff
- Loose and Tight Play
- Game Theory and Bluffing
- Inducing and Stopping Bluffs
- Heads-Up on the End
- Reading Hands
- The Psychology of Poker
- Analysis at the Table
- Evaluating the Game
As you can see, The Theory of Poker covers almost every aspect of the game in general as you could imagine. The chapter on semi-bluffs alone is worth the cost of the book.
4- Become a tight-aggressive player.
When you look at a poker player’s overall style, you can look at 2 tendencies:
- How often does she tend to fold or not?
- How often she tend to bet or raised (as opposed to checking and calling)?
The tendency of folding a lot versus playing lots of hand is a measurement of how “tight” or “loose” a player is. A tight player folds a lot. She only plays hands that stand a good chance of winning.
Loose players, on the other hand, play lots of hands. She has lower starting hand requirements and lower standards for staying in the hand as it goes along.
Tight players tend to win at poker more often than loose players.
But it’s more complicated than that.
You should also think about how aggressive or passive players are.
Aggressive player raise and bet a lot. Passive players check and call a lot.
Aggressive players are more likely to win at poker.
If you rank players according to both at the same time, you come up with 4 potential player types:
- Loose aggressive – They play lots of hands, and they bet and raise with them. This can be a winning style of play. Loose aggressive players are often called maniacs.
- Loose passive – They play lots of hands, but they usually limp in and call bets with them. This is the least profitable style of poker. Players who play this way are called calling stations.
- Tight passive – They don’t play a lot of hands, but when they do, they play scared. They check or call. These players are called rocks. They don’t win a lot of money, but they don’t usually win much money, either.
- Tight aggressive – This is the most likely way to win at poker. Tight players don’t play many hands. But when they do, they put pressure on their opponents. They bet and raise, and their hands often hold up.
If you want to win at poker more often, start playing fewer hands. When you do play them, bet and raise with them.
Take this attitude to the table with you:
If a hand isn’t good enough to bet or raise with, it isn’t good enough to play at all. Fold it.
There’s an old saying:
“He’s a jack of all trades, master of none.”
That’s a mis-quote, though. The original expression is:
“He’s a jack of all trades, master of ONE.”
That’s how you want to approach poker. Start by mastering a single variation. If you live in the United States, you should probably master Texas holdem.
You’ll just find more action at the Texas holdem tables than anywhere else.
On the other hand, if you play in Europe, mastering Omaha is a valid choice, too. Plenty of people love Omaha poker there.
That being said, plenty of people make plenty of money specializing in Omaha right here in the United States. Take Steve Badger, for example. (I’ll resist the urge to make a joke by adding “please” to the end of that sentence. Apologies to Henny Youngman.)
You should be able to play any poker game you’re presented with. You might find a juicy game of stud somewhere.
But you should focus on mastering one kind of poker first. That’s your go-to game.
If you’re not sure which game you’re going to like, try some of the free online poker sites to get a feel for the different variations.
Winning poker players specialize in a handful of games.
6- Find good games.
If you really want to win at poker, you want to find good games. I define a good poker game as one where I’m the best player at the table. I also prefer to play at tables where the other players are passive and loose.
Think about poker this way:
You’re at a poker table with 8 other players. If you all are exactly the same, skill-wise, you’ll all break even in the long run.
But if the house takes a percentage of each pot, everyone will all go broke at the same rate.
If you’re the best player at the table, you still need to be good enough to win at a rate that will compensate for the rake. (The rake is the percentage of the pot that the house takes.)
It’s not enough to be the best player at the table. You have to be far and away better than average to make money at poker.
Luckily, that isn’t hard to do. I played in a limit holdem game at the Winstar in Oklahoma not long ago. I counted how often one of my opponents put money in the pot pre-flop. He has putting money into the pot on 80% of the flops.
That’s the kind of opponent you want to face.
With any luck, you’ll have 2 or 3 guys like that at the table. If they’re willing to play anything, you can beat them just by having standards.
But that doesn’t mean this is the only kind of player or table you can beat. If you have a table full of rocks, you can win by being the most aggressive player at the table.
It’s a cliche, but it’s true:
If you can’t spot the fish at the table, it’s probably you.
Don’t be the fish.
7- Track your results.
The best boss I ever had explained to me that performance measured is performance improved. That was the best management advice I ever got.
It’s profoundly simple, too.
How do you measure your performance at poker?
By keeping records and tracking your results.
If you play mostly online poker, you can do this using a variety of software applications. If you play mostly live poker, keeping records is as simple as using a spiral notebook.
One of the best players I ever played with kept his records this way.
You should track which games you play, where, and for how long. The most important information is how much money you won or lost at the table.
Eventually you’ll have enough data recorded to inform your decisions about which games and limits you should play.
Maybe you win an average of $12/hour playing $3/$6 limit holdem, but you only average $6 in winnings per hour at the no limit tables.
You’ll also play better when you hold yourself accountable.
I think these 7 ways to win at poker really will work for anyone, no matter their skill level.
I’d love to hear your opinion, too. Please leave a comment and let me know what I left off the list.