Texas holdem is the Cadillac of poker games today, and if you’re playing poker seriously, you need to know how to play.
In this post, I offer explanations of 7 crucial Texas holdem concepts that will take your game to the next level.
I know the headline promises that these will make you a winner, but keep in mind that in the short run, poker is a game of chance.
No one can guarantee that you’ll be a winner.
But you can increase your odds of being a winner by mastering these concepts:
1- Spotting Tells and Using Them to Inform Your Play
If you pay attention to your opponents’ body language, you can find clues as to what cards they’re holding.
These physical clues are called “tells.”
Many poker players exhibit some of the same physical actions repeatedly. If you can identify these tells, you can save and/or win more money over time against these opponents.
Entire books have been written about poker tells. A couple of good ones include:
- Caro’s Book of Poker Tells by Mike Caro
- Phil Hellmuth Presents Read ‘Em and Reap: A Career FBI Agent’s Guide to Decoding Poker Tells by Joe Navarro and Phil Hellmuth
One easy tell to spot is someone who often folds when it’s not his turn. Not everyone is as obvious about it, but if you pay attention, you can tell which players aren’t planning to play this hand. When they do this out of turn, you gain information.
Why is this important?
Because it effectively changes your position, which is one of the most critical aspects of your poker strategy.
The opposite of this is the opponent who makes it clear he’s going to play his hand. He often does this by placing chips or some other marker on his cards before it’s his turn to act. This, again, gives you more information. This often means the player has a strong hand.
Another common tell is shaky hands.
You might think this is characteristic of a player with a weak hand who’s bluffing or scared.
But, usually, it’s just the opposite.
Also, keep an eye out for “performers.”
Anyone who’s trying to act like they have a strong hand probably has a weak hand, and vice versa.
Most poker players are lousy actors, anyway.
2- Bluffing and Semi-Bluffing
I have a buddy – he’s a lousy poker player – who insists that bluffing is a “critical” part of the game.
Speaking from experience, I’ve won a lot more money in the games where I didn’t bluff.
To be fair, though, I generally play in low stakes, fishy games. In bigger games with more experienced players, the occasional bluff IS essential.
Here are a couple of tips about bluffing and semi-bluffing:
You should never bluff against more than 2 players. It’s easier to get a single player or 2 players to fold than it is to get a whole table full of players to fold.
Look at it from a probability perspective. If a bluff is profitable when it succeeds 25% of the time, how likely does a fold need to be to make it worthwhile?
If you have one opponent with a 25% probability of folding, it’s a profitable move.
If you have 2 opponents, each of whom has a 50% probability of folding, bluffing is still a profitable move.
But even if all 3 players have a 60% probability of folding, getting all 3 of them to fold is still too unlikely to make this a profitable play.
60% X 60% X 60% = 21.6%
Semi-bluffing, on the other hand, is often the more profitable play.
When you semi-bluff, you have a hand which is almost certainly behind but has a chance of catching up.
You win if the other players fold, but you also win when you draw out on them.
Here’s an example:
You have 4 cards to a flush on the flop in Texas holdem.
You have a 33% probability of making your flush.
If you’re heads-up against one player, and you think he has a 20% probability of folding in the face of your aggression, you win money 53% of the time in this situation.
That’s a semi-bluff.
3- Avoiding Tilt
Tilt is probably your biggest, baddest opponent at the poker table, and it’s when you (or any player) has some bad luck at the table and starts making bad decisions on subsequent hands.
If you can avoid going on tilt, you’ll increase your winnings dramatically – especially if you’re playing against an opponent who does fall prey to it.
There are different types of tilt.
Some players go on tilt after a single bad beat.
Other players go on tilt after multiple bad beats in a row.
Every player has a different trigger, and you should learn where your trigger lies so you can work toward avoiding it.
This is where self-awareness and humility becomes important.
I’ve heard it said that David Sklansky never tilts.
That might be so, but he might not have ever played with a player as obnoxious as I am, either.
At any rate, learn how likely you are to tilt and start working on avoiding that tendency.
When you find other players on tilt, sit back and wait until you get cards, then call them down and enjoy your winnings.
Mindfulness sounds like some New Age nonsense you might learn from a yoga teacher or a meditation guru.
But really, it just means paying attention, which is a skill you must learn if you want to take your poker game to the next level.
Many players pay no attention at all to the game they’re involved in unless they’re competing for the pot. In other words, if they fold (or are planning to fold), they tune out and stop paying attention. A lot o times, they’re listening to music on their earbuds or watching television. Some are just making idle chit chat.
But you should follow what’s happening in every hand closely. To keep yourself involved, think about what hole cards your opponents might have and see how close you were to getting it right if there’s a showdown.
If winning at Texas holdem required nothing more than the patience to wait for premium hands, anyone could become a pro.
The truth is that there’s a lot more to playing real money Texas holdem, and mindfulness is one example.
You can improve your ability to be mindful by spending less time on social media and other technology apps that systematically destroy your attention span. Spend some time meditating and get some alone time. Go for a walk now and then.
Most importantly, though, think about what’s going on in every poker hand at the table, regardless of whether you’re involved in the pot or not.
5- Organize Your Opponents into Categories
When you pay attention to your opponents’ playing tendencies, you can make better decisions. The easiest way to categorize opponents into categories is to look at 2 tendencies:
Aggression is just an opponent’s tendency to bet and raise. Players who bet and raise often, as opposed to just checking or calling, are aggressive.
Selectivity is just an opponent’s tendency to participate in a hand. Players who fold a lot are tight, while players who get involved in a lot of hands are loose.
When you combine these 2 tendencies, you wind up with a grid of 4 types of players:
- Aggressive and tight
- Aggressive and loose
- Passive and tight
- Passive and loose
An aggressive, tight player is one you need to fear, although if they’re tight enough, they’re easily thwarted. These kinds of players wait until they get good cards and then bet them aggressively. A lot of times, though, they’ll fold in the face of retaliatory aggression.
In other words, with many tight aggressive opponents, the only thing you need to do to beat them is to reraise them.
Aggressive and loose players play in a lot of hands and play them aggressively. By betting and raising a lot, they put pressure on their opponents to fold. If they have a lot of weak opponents, they can win enough small pots when their opponents fold that they can afford to play speculative hands as a freeroll of sorts with the winnings they got from everyone folding.
One way to defeat aggressive, loose players is to tighten up even further and play aggressively when you finally do get a good hand. Don’t be afraid to put all your chips in before the flop with such a player, especially when you have a big pocket pair like aces, kings, or queens.
Passive and tight players are a drag. They don’t play many pots, and when they do, they don’t give a lot of action. These players are called rocks. They’re not much of a threat, but it’s hard to make big profits from them. They just fold a lot.
Passive and loose players are the kinds of players you should prefer to play with. They play a lot of hands, and when they do, they tend to check and call a lot rather than bet and raise a lot. The best way to defeat such opponents is to wait until you have good cards and bet aggressively with those cards.
6- Game Selection Is Important
Choosing the right game affects your profits or potential profits dramatically. For example, if you’re at a table full of aggressive, tight players, you should probably find another table. My rule of thumb is to play for a little while and classify my opponents. If I’m at a full table, I leave if I identify 3 of my opponents (or more) as tight aggressive. If I’m at a short-handed table, I’ll leave if one or 2 of my opponents are tight aggressive.
When you can, find games where most of the players are loose and passive. This increases the range of hands you can play profitable, which means you’ll win more big pots. These are the most profitable Texas holdem games you can find. If you can share this kind of table with just one or 2 other expert players, you can make a lot of money.
7- Bankroll Requirements
Your bankroll is a good indication of which limits you should be playing for. Generally, it’s better to stick with tables where you can buy in for less than 5% of your bankroll. If it costs more than that to buy in, you’re probably in over your head.
There are 2 reasons for this:
The first is that you’re more likely to go broke at a table where you don’t have a big enough bankroll.
The 2nd is that if you don’t have a big enough bankroll, it’s probably because you haven’t learned how to beat the lower stakes games.
Generally, the players improve as the stakes go up – although you’ll find fish at all betting limits.
Some players have even stricter bankroll requirements than I mentioned above.
For example, if you’re specializing in large tournaments, you’ll have more variance, so you should have an even bigger bankroll compared to the buy-ins.
Texas holdem is probably the most fun you can have gambling.
It’s also an opportunity to make big profits.
But before you can profit, you need to understand some of the basic concepts of the game.
The 7 concepts I suggest you master first include:
- Game selection
- Bankroll management
Other poker writers might have a different set of priorities, but those are mine.