Since the poker boom of the mid-2000s, no-limit Texas hold’em has been the gateway for most people into the world of poker.
It makes sense. Much of the popularity of the game comes from the use of hole-card cameras on TV broadcasts of no-limit Texas hold’em tournaments.
As if that wasn’t enough, most of those tournaments mix pros and amateurs, and the latter win pots quite frequently. This doesn’t change the fact that, if you’re serious about being at least decent at poker, you must learn the fundamentals of the game.
And, the way I see it, there are two games in US poker gambling that will help you to do that a lot easier than others.
The Fundamentals of Poker
If you’re reading this post, I suppose you already know about the ranking of hands and the actions you can perform at any given time. If you don’t, you’ll find many resources out there that explain these things to you.
The fundamentals I’m talking about here are the things you have to learn if you want to have a shot at winning at any variant of poker. Just like any soccer player must learn how to control a ball, how to pass it, and so on, any poker player should know certain things.
Let’s discuss position, for example. This is one of the most important things in Texas hold’em, but it doesn’t play that big of a role in Razz or Seven-Card Stud.
So, what does play a big role in any kind of poker game, whatever its specific rules may be? It all comes down to two things—mathematics and psychology.
The Mathematics of Poker Games
You don’t have to become a human calculator like Phil Gordon. (The guy can tell you the odds of any given hand in hold’em as soon as the flop is turned over.) But you do have to know a few things.
First, you need to have an idea of how the cards you’ve been dealt compare to what other players may have. This is before you even decide if you’ll put (more) chips into the pot. And it’ll lead you to become savvy about one of the most important fundamentals of the game, hand selection.
It’s a common beginner’s mistake to overvalue the odds of suited cards hitting a flush, for example. Or ignoring the importance of the kicker in determining the winner of a given hand. By the way, if words such as “kicker” are alien to you, make an effort to familiarize yourself with the poker jargon as well.
To avoid those kinds of mistakes, have some fun tweaking with the odds calculators you can find online. From there, it’s essential to know about your odds on later rounds of betting the game you happen to be playing.
You don’t need to complicate things much, really. In fact, many good players find it enough to use simple problem-solving, and they do fine with that. After all, they learned to understand the value of that old adage, which says that poker is a game of people more than a game of cards.
The Psychology of Poker
That’s where the psychology of the game becomes more evident, particularly after you spend hours playing against the same people.
It’s not enough to learn how to detect your own and your opponents’ emotions. You also need to know how to use that knowledge to your advantage.
This may sound like a lot, and it is. That’s why psychologist Daniel Goleman talks about five different competences of emotional intelligence:
- Social skills
As you can see, the math may get you to a certain point, particularly against weaker players. But it’s not of much use against those who have been on the felt long enough.
The main difference between these two groups is that weaker players are less perceptive of the nuances of the game. Those players, known as fish, are too self-centered to be empathetic.
When you’re up against a good opponent, though, things are different. So much so that the math goes out the window, and it becomes a matter of game theory on a much higher level.
Bankroll Management in Poker
Bankroll management is not something you’ll always see among the list of fundamentals of poker. But make no mistake, this is a crucial aspect of the game.
This becomes more evident if you’re a regular cash game player. But no tournament player has the right to ignore this mix of mathematics and psychology.
So, to begin with, what is your bankroll? In simple terms, that’s the money you have put aside exclusively to play poker.
You can see different views on the internet of how to calculate the size of your bankroll. Because of this, I won’t get into these details here. Especially because, as I said before, there’s also a psychological side to it.
If the thought of losing all your buy-in makes you uncomfortable, that’s a sign that such a game is too big for you.
It matters little that you think you have an edge against all the other players on that table. You won’t have the confidence to explore that edge if you’re worried about the money you may lose. And the more you play, the more you learn that confidence is everything in poker.
My Two Poker Games of Choice
Okay, we’ve covered a lot of ground already.
If you’re still with me, this is what you’ve come here for, your two picks if you want to get better at the fundamentals of poker.
It wasn’t that long ago that Five-Card Draw was the first variant of poker most people would start with. There are some good reasons for that.
For a start, you only have two betting rounds. The first is after you receive your five cards face down; the other comes after you have the option of “drawing” a certain number of cards.
Having only two betting rounds is a great way for you to get used to less complex math. It also allows you to see more hands without having to commit too many chips. This is a great learning experience in itself. After a while, you’ll learn the value of not relying on the showdown in the first place.
I know I said it before, but I’ll say it again—poker is a game of people.
Maybe that’s why it’s lost so much of its popularity in recent years. Online poker, for all its benefits, still doesn’t let you see other people’s body language, tone of voice, etc.
Although, to be fair, you can observe a few things playing through real money online casinos too, such as how long a person takes to act on different circumstances.
Once you get used to those aspects of Five-Card Draw, you’ll be better prepared for my second pick.
Crandell Addington, one of the founders of the World Series of Poker, once said that,
“Limit poker is a science, but no-limit is an art.”
I don’t know in which context he said that, but it’s a good metaphor. Any type of limit game favors a more analytical approach. It’s here that the benefits of understanding hand selection and your odds of improving your hand are clearer.
And you can also see the effect of each of your decisions—fold, call, check, bet or raise—in a more gradual way. Then, it’s easier to dissect your play.
Apart from that science, let’s also take a moment to consider the art of Limit hold’em, starting with the psychology of bankroll management.
When you play a limit game, you lose everything at once if you’ve already lost a considerable amount of chips before. This is valuable knowledge. Not only because it enables you to learn the cost of your mistakes, but it also prevents you from losing everything because of a single bad decision.
For this reason alone, limit games are a great way for you to learn the value of self-discipline. But there’s so much more to it than that.
Imagine that you have a good hand in no-limit Texas hold’em. You can place a large bet early on to scare players who might want to join the party with marginal hands.
That’s how you become a good post-flop player. Or do you think it’s merely a coincidence that Daniel Negreanu, one of the best readers of hands, is a fan of Limit hold’em?
If none of this was enough to convince you of the importance of the fundamentals, let me end by sharing a quote from NBA legend Kobe Bryant.
Once, performance coach Alan Stein, Jr. had the privilege of watching Kobe training. Stein’s initial excitement gradually faded, as he watched Kobe spending a long time practicing basic drills.
Not too long after the workout was over, he asked Kobe the reason for practicing such basic moves. The response he got was legendary: “Why do you think I’m the best player in the world? Because I never ever get bored with the basics.”