Poker is like most other human endeavors. Mastering the game involves mastering the fundamentals. The fancy stuff is cool, but it doesn’t lead to becoming an expert.
You have to learn the fundamental aspects of the game before getting fancy. This post lists and explains four of the most fundamental concepts in poker that you should know before starting to play.
1 – Tilt
If you used to play real, mechanical pinball machines, you’re probably familiar with the concept of tilting a pinball machine. It just meant that you jostled the machine too much.
In the game of poker, a player tilts when he gets too emotional or frustrated by the outcomes of various hands. If he starts making bad decisions based on these emotions, he’s “on tilt.”
Poker players on tilt usually loosen up and start playing more aggressively. They get into hands with cards that aren’t as good as they should be. Then, they bet and raise too much with those hands.
You can’t win consistently if you play on tilt on a regular basis yourself, though. A lot of the time, poker players go on tilt when they’re victims of variance. I cover that concept in the next section.
The best ways to avoid tilt include taking a long-term approach to the game, playing with a sufficient bankroll, and making sure that your normal human needs are met.
In other words, don’t play poker when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. (That’s an acronym known as HALT in recovery circles.) If you do, you’re liable to go on tilt and donk off all your chips.
2 – Variance
One of the aspects of poker that differentiate it from other games of skill is that it contains an element of chance. This randomness means that even when you make all the mathematically correct decisions, you’ll sometimes lose.
And sometimes, you’ll lose multiple times in a row. Of course, this can be disappointing whenever you gamble with real money, but that’s what gambling is.
Now, probabilities are best understood as long-term phenomena. When you see a hand on TV that’s supposed to win 66% of the time, it’s easy to convert that into two out of three times.
But if you see that same hand played out in real life three times in a row, it might easily lose all three times. This is an example of how anything can happen in the short term. It’s an example of variance.
Without variance, you wouldn’t be able to win against weaker players at poker, because they’d refuse to play. After all, who’s going to play a game where they lose almost all the time because their opponent is so much better at the game?
This is also why chess isn’t a big gambling game. Put two chess players into a game together, and the better player will usually win.
But take two poker players and have them play heads up for an hour or two, and the worse player might easily win more money by just getting lucky.
Skillful players are able to take a long-term perspective and embrace this short-term volatility and variances, because in the long run, it will keep the bad players in the game. Without a supply of bad players, good players can’t profit.
Variance can just be defined as the difference between the expected results and the actual results. The expected results are a product of the math, and they’re theoretically predicted based on the makeup of the deck.
The actual results can turn out to be anything, although they’re more likely to resemble the probabilities than not.
When you hear poker players say they’re “running bad,” you’re probably looking at an example of a player who’s the victim of variance in poker. You’ll often see this phenomenon called a “downswing.”
3 – Bankroll Management
I mentioned earlier, in the section on avoiding tilt, that one way to avoid tilt is to be sure you’re sufficiently bankrolled. This means you’re practicing appropriate bankroll management skills.
The first step in managing your bankroll appropriately is to make sure you’re playing with money you can afford to lose.
I was playing in a neighborhood poker game with a young man named Shawn recently. Shawn is about 5’4”, has a long beard, and has a twinkle in his eye. He reminds me of a leprechaun, in fact.
But he had no twinkle in his eyes at the poker table last Saturday night. He was sweating the outcome of every hand in which he was involved. I learned later that he was trying to win enough money that night to pay his rent.
I’d submit this as an example of poor bankroll management.
This is a function of variance, too.
You need to have enough money in your poker bankroll that you can afford a downswing (or losing streak) without going broke or having to quit playing.
If you’re playing no limit holdem at a table with $1/$2 blinds and a $100 buy-in, but you only have $100, you’re playing with an insufficient bankroll.
Even if you get pocket aces and go all-in, you still have a reasonably high probability of losing all you money. Even if you win with the best starting hand in the game 80% of the time, you’ll get knocked out of the game 20% of the time and have to start building a new bankroll before you can play again.
A better approach is to make sure you never play in a game where the buy-in represents more than 5% or 10% of your total bankroll.
If you want to play in the $100 no limit game, you should have $1000 to $2000 in your total bankroll. That way, if you face some bad luck, you can buy back in and start over again.
4 – Position
Position refers to when you act compared to your opponents. If you act before most of your opponents, you’re in “early position.” If you act after most of your opponents, you’re in “late position.” If you have about as many players acting before you as you do after you, you’re in middle position.
The later your position is, the more information you have about your opponents and how good they think their hands are. This enables you to make better decisions.
For this reason, most beginner poker strategy texts advise playing tightly from early position and loosening up from later position.
A low-ranked hand of suited connectors isn’t playable if you’re the first person to act, because if there’s a raise and re-raise from the players who act after you, you’ll have no choice but to fold, losing your original bet.
But if you’re in late position and four or five players have limped in before you, it’s worth calling and seeing the flop for three reasons:
- There’s a lot of money in the pot, so you’ll get paid off on the rare occasions you hit the flop hard.
- No one before you has raised, so you can get into the pot cheap.
- You can fold on the flop if it doesn’t fit your hand, and you’re not going to lose a lot of money by doing so.
Most players ignore or don’t pay enough attention to their position when they’re playing. I have a friend who also writes about poker, and he says that position is the most overlooked aspect of poker strategy. I suspect he’s right.
These are not the only four fundamental concepts of poker you need to worry about. Pot odds, outs, and aggression are also important concepts to understand. Tight play, reading opponents, and bluffing matter, too.
But these four concepts are as fundamental to the game as any others, and they’re a good starting point for the average player.
Once you’ve mastered these four fundamentals, you can feel free to move on to other basics.