Poker is cool. It’s like playing snap, except that you can win money. And now that there’s online poker, you don’t even have to put your trousers on when you play.
Did you know there are people who play poker for a living? It’s totally a thing. The best players take home tens of millions of dollars every year.They can do that because poker isn’t a game of chance – it’s a game of odds.
If you play the odds intelligently and consistently, you can win at poker over and over. And over.
If you’ve never played poker at all the game is easy to pick up. Try a few free sites or mobile apps to learn the basics. Once you have the rules down, these eight tips will transform you from a poker rookie to a pro by the time you’ve finished reading.
Don’t play drunk
The Hollywood image of poker is of hard drinking men in back rooms chomping cigars and sipping bourbon. Truth is, alcohol impairs your judgement – in a specific way – that makes it a no-no for poker. It decreases your inhibitions so you’re more likely to take a chance. To win at poker, you need to be in control of all your decisions.
What if you’re at the table and everyone else is having a beer or three? It depends on the environment and seriousness of the game, but you can make it seem like you’re enjoying something stronger by asking for a glass of soda water in a whisky tumbler, with ice and lemon.
Don’t play angry
For the same reason as you shouldn’t play drunk (or impaired by any other substance for that matter), you shouldn’t play angry, upset or generally in a crappy mood.
Playing when you feel emotional is almost as dangerous as playing drunk. It’s so well known in poker circles that there’s a phrase for it – going “on tilt”.
The expression comes from another Vegas casino game; pinball. If you rock the pinball table or physically lift it, trying to guide the ball, the machine detects it and displays the “TILT” sign. The table shuts down and you’ve lost.
The bottom line? If you’ve just got back from a rubbish day at work, if chavs have keyed your car or your dog’s peed in your slippers – don’t play poker.
Poker dudes talk about “tight” players and “loose” players. These types are the tortoise and the hare of the poker world.
Tight players only bet when they have a good starting hand. They only stay in when the flop (the cards on the table) consolidates or improves their hand. They only take it to the river (that’s the last card of the five dealt on the table) when their hand is a potential winner.
As a tight player, you will fold your hand much, much more than you will play – because you (will usually) only play when the odds are significantly in your favour. Slow and steady wins the race.
Know the best starting hands
When playing classic Texas Hold ‘Em style poker, tight players know whether to play or fold before the flop even appears. The chart below – from Wikipedia – shows the best starting hands depending on your position around the table (how far you are from the starting point).
The strongest starting hands are pairs of picture cards, with a pair of aces the strongest of all. Next are combinations of picture cards, with cards of the same suit ranked more highly (as they increase the odds of a Royal Flush or Straight Flush).
The very tightest players will only play starting hands with a rank of 1, 2 or 3 – and the tightest players of all will discard any combo below a picture card with a ten…
Fast and loose loses
Even poker’s beginniest beginners know that to win at poker you sometimes have to bluff. And if you didn’t know that, bluffing is pretending that you have a better hand. We don’t mean leaning back in your chair, stroking your belly and announcing “Ooh wee! I got me some goooood cards!” either. Bluffing is more subtle than that.
Quietly sticking to your guns when you’re not 100% sure of your hand is a core strategy of poker – but it’s not one that you should call on too often. In rookie games you’ll often come across that “bluffing guy” – somone who plays lousy hands aggressively and manages to win big early, before sauntering away from the table.
It’s more common in online poker than real world poker – but it still happens. It can make it look like fast and loose is the way to play, but when those guys lose they lose big and they lose often. All it takes is one good hand to bring them down.
Look for patterns
In poker movies (check out Rounders, House of Games or Casino Royale) the big loser is usually betrayed by a “tell”. This is some non-verbal giveaway that lets Matt Damon or Daniel Craig or that bloke who voiced Fat Tony in the Simpsons know that his opponent is bluffing.
If only real life were that simple. People may have “tells” but they’re usually far too subtle to spot. You can begin to predict behaviour over time when you play the long, tight game though. Quietly compartmentalise your opponents into categories as you observe their play. Make mental notes of who plays tightly, who’s loose and look out for habitual bluffers. Look for when people fold too. It’s amazing how many players will try to play every hand until the fourth or fifth card emerges, regardless of what they’re holding.
It’s easy to miss the less flashy players; those who seem to be winning small or not at all, but they could be your trickiest opponents. Use your accumulated knowledge to adapt your play when you’re faced with that opponent in the end game.
Your opponents will be keeping an eye on you too, so it’s OK to strategically mix things up a bit when the stakes are low and try to take a less than stellar starting hand to the end of the round.
It’s best to try tactics like this early on in a game, when you’ve still got plenty in your pot and when you’re in a late position on the table. It works best with a borderline hand, like a pair of eights or a picture with a lower, suited card.
If most of your comrades hold or fold, try a cheeky raise to see where it goes. Remember the aim is to either win or lose small so that you get to show your cards. The idea is to lull your opponents into believing you’re more loose than you actually are.
Roll with the punches
You’ll lose some hands, so it’s important to maintain your cool. The most common reason rookies (and some pros) lose is because they go “on tilt” after a couple of bad hands. Anyone can get a bad card on the river or discover they were playing against a superior hand all along.
In other words, you can be as tight as a gnat’s chuff and still lose a hand. Don’t let this rock you. Imagine the other guy sitting at home in his bedsit, crying into his Tesco Macaroni and Cheese for one – and just move on.