Poker: become an ‘informed’ beginner

Introductory poker texts generally aim to take you from beginner- to intermediate-level.

Instead, this post aims to spell out a few key messages that will take you from absolute beginner to informed beginner.

It is a quick way to help you appreciate what poker is really about. If you dabble with online playing it should improve your profits too.

Message 1: office politics

Poker is not really about ‘getting good cards’.

Poker is about reading and sending messages with your betting strategy.

It is a kind of argument about who has got the best hand.

It is usually not player with the best hand that wins the money, but the player that knows how to dominate the argument. That’s because a hand often gets folded to the winner before the showdown anyway.

In many senses poker is like office politics. Think about it, the team whose projects get support from upper management are often the ones whose team leader best knows how to influence people and win arguments, rather than those whose projects are technically superior!

The fact is that in a hand of poker, most times your opposition players will not have a great set of cards either. Of course, they might have a hand which is just a little bit better than yours, and your job is to learn how to guess when that is the case by carefully observing their betting patterns.

Message 2: pre- and post-flop betting

Most hold’em games run like:

  1. the person to the left of the dealer puts up the small blind (eg $5)
  2. the person to the left of the small blind puts up the big blind (eg $10)
  3. everyone is dealt 2 cards
  4. there is a round of betting (the pre-flop round)
  5. three community cards are dealt to the middle of the table (the flop)
  6. there is another round of betting (the post-flop round)
  7. a fourth community card is dealt (the turn or fourth street)
  8. there is another round of betting
  9. the final community card is dealt (the river or fifth street)
  10. there is a final round of betting which concludes with the showdown

For most levels of play the pre-flop and post-flop rounds of betting are the most juicy.

But note that the flavour of the two rounds is very different:

  • the pre-flop round communicates your view of the quality of your hand as a relatively independent entity,
  • the post-flop round makes an adjustment to that view which now incorporates the flop cards and any betting patterns you have observed in your opponents.

The later rounds of betting naturally become more complicated because they are more about a continuation of the messages that players communicated in the pre- and post-flop rounds.

Message 3: position

Being the dealer or near to the dealer’s right is a huge advantage. Bearing in mind that poker is about reading and sending messages it is obvious that because the dealer gets to see everyone’s bet before they bet themselves (except in the pre-flop round), the dealer has a lot more information available to them before they make their betting decision.

We have the phrase ‘button raise’ which means a raise by the dealer which may be more to do with position than with quality of hand (note that the dealer’s position is often marked by a button token on the table).

Message 4: how to beat beginners

Beginners will make 3 mistakes:

  1. they play lots of hands because they think winning hands is the way to win money,
  2. they get lucky every now and then and come to believe that getting lucky is the way to win money,
  3. they do not spend enough time looking at what you are doing in order to get a feel for the way you play.

The way to beat them is:

  1. Fold often, playing only those hands which are good from the start or which have a good chance of completing with the community cards (like suited connectors). Aim to get a lot of money into the pot on those occasions.
    You will win fewer hands but they will be big.
  2. Pay close attention to the community cards and be prepared to fold if you think someone may have got lucky with them.
  3. Beginners will regularly get all the way to the showdown, so you will see their hands often. This means that you will have plenty of chances to build up a mental database of how they bet when they are dealt hands, which will help you to get a feel for the sorts of hands they play and how they play them.

Click here to visit another blog post which focuses on how to beat beginners.

Message 5: aggressiveness can improve your equity

There is a poker rule of thumb which says ‘if you can bet you can raise’.

The principle is easy to understand with an example.

If you have a hand which is 50:50 to win against one player then you should always prefer to bet rather than check because the other player will be more likely to fold when faced by your aggression. Those occasions when they fold are substantially improving your expected winnings: you win for sure when they fold and you win 50% of the time when they call you.

If you checked they would likely check too and you would only ever have a 50% chance of winning – the game would be theoretically fair, and certainly not in your favour.

The game of poker can be decomposed into two inter-mingled strategies: the mathematical calculation of expected returns (the approach a poker bot would use to make its decisions), and the psychological inter-player strategy where you try to encourage bad choices in the others and try to read when they are strong or not.

It is fascinating that aggressive playing works at that human level but its results are seen in the mathematics.

Message 6: keep studying

There are two or three poker books in my recommended reading post here.


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