You know it, I know it, and the American people know it: One way to win at gambling that almost anyone can pull off is to get good enough at poker that you have a positive ROI (return on investment).
But if you’re new to poker, how do you get from point A to point B? You already know that you need to have a certain amount of skill to pull this off.
This post answers the question of how to get that skill and how you can get better at poker to start earning money more consistently.
1. Read a Book About the Basics on How to Play Poker
Before you can proceed to the strategy stuff, you need to learn the basics of how to play poker. The best way to do that is to read one of the many good books on getting started at poker. Poker for Dummies by Lou Krieger is as good a place to start as any.
You could also find tutorials on websites like ours that cover the basics. You probably know better than I which method of reading and studying works better for you. If you’re younger, reading how to play poker on the internet might be more comfortable. Older guys like me often prefer reading books on playing poker.
2. Start Playing for Play Money on the Internet
The next step in learning how to be good enough at poker to profit is to start playing in some of the free-to-play games on the internet. Every legitimate poker cardroom online that I know of offers games for play money. They’re the equivalent of points or bragging rights. They have no monetary value.
You don’t have to make a deposit or anything to get this play money. These sites usually award you with a specific number of chips to start with. They all have various methodologies for reloading your play money accounts.
You won’t get much experience that translates to what you should do strategy-wise at real money poker tables. Because there’s nothing of real value at stake at a play money table, strategies change, sometimes dramatically.
Here’s an example: You have a reasonably good but not great hand that you want to bet and raise with. You figure that between your odds of drawing to a better hand and the odds that your opponent will fold, it’s the right play.
But in a play money game, where the chips don’t have any value, you’re more likely to get called than you would if real money were on the line.
The goal for participating in the play money games is to learn how the action and order of betting works. Mistakes you make with the basics of the game can cost you big money in actual play. So, you should become familiar enough with the fundamentals that they’re no longer a problem.
3. Read a Good Book About Poker Strategy
While it’s true that specific poker games have specific strategies, some strategy applies to all kinds of poker games. That’s why I suggest you start with David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker. He uses specific examples from multiple poker variations to illustrate general strategic principles that apply to all poker games.
The most important thing Sklansky shares in The Theory of Poker is his Fundamental Theorem of Poker. He states it more eloquently than I do, but here’s what it means in a nutshell:
You need to read more than The Theory of Poker, though. I also suggest reading a good book on playing Texas holdem, since that’s the game most people play these days. Small Stakes Holdem: Winning Big with Expert Play by Ed Miller is as good a source for this as any I can think of.
4. Start With Tight Aggressive Play
Playing style has a lot to do with how well you perform at the table. Most experts agree that a tight aggressive approach is correct, especially if you’re just starting out.
You can categorize poker players along two different scales. The first has to do with how passive or aggressive that player is. This is a player’s aggression level.
A player who checks and calls a lot is considered passive. He lets the other players lead the action. A player who bets and raises a lot is considered aggressive. He’s always leading the action.
Aggressive players tend to make more money at the poker table. They’re getting more money into the pot when they have the best of it. They’re also forcing the other players at the table to make hard decisions (and potentially make mistakes).
Poker players can also be categorized by how selective they are about which hands they’re willing to play. Players who play a lot of hands are called loose, while players who only play a limited selection of hands are called tight players.
Your goal is to be tight aggressive, except in a few specific scenarios. But that’s not all.
5. Pay Attention to the Other Players and Categorize Them
Knowing what you do about the categories of poker players, you should also put your opponents into categories based on their behavior at the table. Knowing how they play will affect your decisions later in the game.
Four Types of Poker Players
You’re going to run into four broad categories of players:
- Tight aggressive players only play good cards, or they fold. When they do get cards, they bet and raise with those cards. They’re not that hard to play against, though. You can either fold, or you can re-raise them. Since they’re tight, they’ll often fold at some point if the hand doesn’t go exactly the way they were hoping.
- Tight passive players are also called “rocks.” They won’t play many hands, and when they do, they’ll just check and call. The trick with these players is to bet and raise into them when you have strong cards. Force them to make hard decisions. The way most hands develop, scare cards come up during every round. Unless the rock has an amazing hand, you can get them to fold.
- Loose aggressive players can be the most fun opponents at the table, but they can also be a nightmare. You’ll be tempted to loosen up your calling range as they run over the players at the table. In my experience, though, you should tighten up and let them get themselves into trouble. Don’t get frustrated when they draw out on you or put a bad beat on you. That just means you got your money into the pot when you had the best of it.
- Loose passive players are the most profitable players at your table. They play a lot of hands, but they’re never aggressive with them. As long as you’re playing strong hands, they’ll call you often when they have the worst of it. You’ll make a lot of money with a loose passive player at the table. So, be nice to such players so they don’t leave the table. Win their money, but make sure they’re having fun while you’re doing it.
Bonus Tip: Bluffing Is Overrated
A lot of poker beginners think that bluffing is what the game is all about. And yes, bluffing has a role to play in poker. But you need to realize that bluffing only works when you have an opponent who can and will fold sometimes. If you’re playing with someone who’s never going to fold, you can’t bluff successfully.
Most beginners bluff too often. You need to bluff often enough that it’s hard to put you on a hand, but not so often that you’ll lose money.
If you take my advice earlier in this post and read The Theory of Poker, you’ll learn about a move called a “semi-bluff.” This is when you bet or raise with a hand that probably isn’t the best hand at the table but has a reasonably good chance of improving before the showdown.
For example, you might have an open-ended straight draw—four cards to a straight where a card on either end of that straight will fill your straight. This gives you eight “outs.”
Your opponent might have a big pair. He will win more often than not. But if you bet and raise with your straight draw, you have two opportunities to win. He might fold because he thinks you have three of a kind. Or you might hit your straight, which will happen almost a third of the time if you’re on the flop in Texas holdem and have two cards to go.
After all, it doesn’t hit them in the pocketbook. The same holds true for freerolls.
Finally, keep in mind that it’s hard to bluff several players at once. With three or more players against you, someone’s bound to have a hand they really like and are willing to fight you for the pot. For this reason, you should limit your bluffing to when you’re in the pot with just one or two other players.
Getting good enough at poker to profit consistently means getting yourself into the top 5% or 10% of players. This might sound impossible to the average beginner, but it’s not as hard as you think. Most people can make a dramatic improvement to their game by doing nothing more than starting to keep records of their results.
It’s worth doing, though, because poker is a great hobby and a good way to win money.
Why do anything if you’re not going to be good at it?