Poker is a popular card game that combines elements of chance and strategy. There are various styles of Poker, all of which share an objective of presenting the least probable or highest-scoring hand. A poker hand is a configuration of five cards, either held entirely by a player or drawn partly from a number of shared, community cards. Players bet on their hands in a number of rounds as cards are drawn, employing various mathematical and intutitive strategies in an attempt to better opponents. Given the game’s many different forms and various dynamics, poker strategy becomes a complex subject. This article only attempts to introduce basic strategy concepts.
The fundamental theorem of poker
David Sklansky at the World Series of Poker Main articles: Fundamental theorem of poker and Morton’s theorem The fundamental theorem of poker, introduced by David Sklansky, states that: every time you play your hand the way you would if you could see your opponent’s cards, you gain, and every time your opponent plays their cards differently from the way they would play them if they could see your cards, you gain. This theorem is the foundation for many poker strategy topics. For example, bluffing and slow-playing (explained below) are examples of using deception to induce your opponents to play differently than they would if they could see your cards. There are some exceptions to the fundamental theorem in certain multi-way pot situations, as described in Morton’s theorem.
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Pot odds, implied odds and poker probabilities
The relationship between pot odds and odds of winning is one of the most important concepts in poker strategy. Pot odds are the ratio of the size of the pot to the size of the bet required to stay in the pot. For example, if a player must call $10 for a chance to win a $40 pot (not including their $10 call), their pot odds are 4-to-1. To have a positive expectation, a player’s odds of winning must be better than their pot odds. If the player’s odds of winning are also 4-to-1 (20% chance of winning), and if they plays the pot five times, their expected return is to break even (losing four times and winning once). Implied odds is a more complicated concept, though related to pot odds. The implied odds on a hand are based not on the money currently in the pot, but on the expected size of the pot at the end of the hand. When facing an even money situation (like described in the previous paragraph) and holding a strong drawing hand (say a four-flush) a skilled player will consider calling a bet or even opening based on their implied odds. This is particularly true in multi way pots, where it is likely that one or more opponents will call all the way to showdown.
By employing deception, a poker player hopes to induce their opponent(s) to act differently than they would if they could see their cards. Bluffing is a form of deception to induce opponents to fold superior hands. If opponents observe that a player never bluffs, they won’t call their bets unless they have very good hands. Slow playing is deceptive play in poker that is roughly the opposite of bluffing: betting weakly with a strong holding rather than betting strongly with a weak one. If opponents observe that a player never slow plays, they can pounce at any sign of weakness.
Position refers to the order in which players are seated around the table and the strategic consequences of this. Generally, players in earlier position (who have to act first) need stronger hands to bet or raise than players in later position. For example, if there are five opponents yet to act behind a player, there is a greater chance one of the opponents will have a better hand than if there were only one opponent yet to act. Being in late position is an advantage because a player gets to see how their opponents in earlier position act (which provides the player more information about their hands than they have about his). Position is one of the most vital elements to understand in order to be a long-term winning player. As a player’s position improves, so too does the range of cards with which they can profitably enter a hand. Conversely this commonly held knowledge can be used to an intelligent poker player’s advantage. If playing against observant opponents in tournament style play (when the amount of chips one has is finite, which is to say there are no ‘rebuys’) then a raise with any two cards can ‘steal the blinds,’ if executed against passive players at the right time.
Reasons to raise
Unlike calling, raising has an extra way to win: opponents may fold. An opening bet may be considered a raise from a strategy perspective. David Sklansky gives seven reasons for raising, summarized below. To get more money in the pot when a player has the best hand: If a player has the best hand, raising for value enables them to win a bigger pot. To drive out opponents when a player has the best hand: If a player has a made hand, raising may protect their hand by driving out opponents with drawing hands who may otherwise improve to a better hand. To bluff or semi-bluff: If a player raises with an inferior or drawing hand, the player may induce a better hand to fold. In the case of semi-bluff, if the player is called, they still has a chance to improve to a better hand (and also win a larger pot). To get a free card: If a player raises with a drawing hand, their opponent may check to them on the next betting round, giving them a chance to get a free card to improve their hand. To gain information: If a player raises with an uncertain hand, they gains information about the strength of their opponent’s hand if they are called. Players may use an opening bet on a later betting round (probe or continuation bets) to gain information by being called or raised (or may win the pot immediately). To drive out worse hands when a player’s own hand may be second best: Sometimes, if a player raises with the second best hand with cards to come, raising to drive out opponents with worse hands (but who might improve) may increase the expected value of their hand by giving them a higher probability of winning in the event their hand improves. To drive out better hands when a drawing hand bets: If an opponent with an apparent drawing hand bets before a player, if the player raises, opponents behind them who may have a better hand may fold rather than call a bet and raise. This is a form of isolation play.
Reasons to call
There are several reasons for calling a bet or raise, summarized below. To limit loss in equity: Calling may be appropriate when a player has adequate pot odds to call but will lose equity on money contributed to the pot. To avoid a re-raise: Only calling (and not raising) denies the original bettor the option of re-raising. However, this is only completely safe in case the player is last to act (i.e. “closing the action”). To conceal the strength of a player’s hand: If a player has a very strong hand, they might smooth call on an early betting round to avoid giving away the strength of their hand on the hope of getting more money into the pot in later betting rounds. To manipulate pot odds: By calling (not raising), a player offers any opponents yet to act behind them more favorable pot odds to also call. For example, if a player has a very strong hand, a smooth call may encourage opponents behind them to overcall, building the pot. Particularly in limit games, building the pot in an earlier betting round may induce opponents to call future bets in later betting rounds because of the pot odds they will be receiving. To set up a bluff on a later betting round: Sometimes referred to as a long-ball bluff, calling on an earlier betting round can set up a bluff (or semi-bluff) on a later betting round. A recent online term for “long-ball bluffing” is floating.
The gap concept states that a player needs a better hand to play against someone who has already opened (or raised) the betting than they would need to open himself. The gap concept reflects that players prefer to avoid confrontations with another player who has already indicated strength, and that calling only has one way to win (by having the best hand), whereas opening may also win immediately if your opponent(s) fold.
Related to the gap effect, the sandwich effect states that a player needs a stronger hand to stay in a pot when there are opponents yet to act behind him. Because the player doesn’t know how many opponents will be involved in the pot or whether they will have to call a re-raise, they don’t know what their effective pot odds actually are. Therefore, a stronger hand is desired as compensation for this uncertainty.
Loose players play relatively more hands and tend to continue with weaker hands; hence they don’t often fold. Tight players play relatively fewer hands and tend not to continue with weaker hands; hence they often fold. The following concepts are applicable in loose games (and their inverse in tight games): Bluffs and semi-bluffs are less effective because loose opponents are less likely to fold. Requirements for continuing with made hands may be lower because loose players may also be playing lower value hands. Drawing to incomplete hands, like flushes, tends to be more valuable as draws will often get favorable pot odds and a stronger hand (rather than merely one pair) is often required to win in multi-way pots. Aggressive/passive play Aggressive play refers to betting and raising. Passive play refers to checking and calling. Unless passive play is being used deceptively as mentioned above, aggressive play is generally considered stronger than passive play because of the bluff value of bets and raises and because it offers more opportunities for your opponents to make mistakes.
Hand reading and tells
Hand reading is the process of making educated guesses about the possible cards an opponent may hold based on the sequence of actions in the pot. The term ‘hand reading’ is actually a misnomer due to the fact that a professional poker player does not attempt to put a player on an exact hand. Rather they attempt to narrow the possibilities down to a range of hands which makes sense based on the past actions of their opponent. A tell is a detectable change in an opponent’s behavior or demeanor that gives clues about their hand. Educated guesses about an opponent’s cards can help a player avoid mistakes in their own play, induce mistakes by their opponent(s), or influence the player to take actions that they would normally not take under the circumstances. For example, a tell might suggest an opponent has missed a draw, so a player seeing it may decide a bluff would be more effective than usual.
Table image and opponent profiling
By observing the tendencies and patterns of one’s opponents, one can make more educated guesses about others’ potential holdings. For example, if a player has been playing extremely tightly (playing very few hands), then when he/she finally enters a pot, one may surmise that he/she has stronger than average cards. One’s table image is the perception by one’s opponents of one’s own pattern of play. A player can leverage their table image by playing out of character and thereby inducing his/her opponents to misjudge his/her hand and make a mistake.
A player’s equity in a pot is their expected share of the pot, expressed either as a percentage (probability of winning) or expected value (amount of pot * probability of winning). Negative equity, or loss in equity, occurs when contributing to a pot with a probability of winning less than 1 / (number of opponents matching the contribution).
Alice contributes $12 to a pot and is matched by two other opponents. Alice’s $12 contribution “bought” the chance to win $36. If Alice’s probability of winning is 50%, her equity in the $36 pot is $18 (a gain in equity because her $12 is now “worth” $18). If her probability of winning is only 10%, Alice loses equity because her $12 is now only “worth” $3.60 (amount of pot * probability of winning). If there is already money in the pot, the pot odds associated with a particular play may indicate a positive expected value even though it may have negative equity. Texas hold ’em example Alice holds J♦8♠. Bob holds K♥7♠. After the flop, the board is 5♥6♥7♦. If both hands are played to a showdown, Alice has a 45% chance to win, Bob has a 53% chance to win and there is a 2% chance to split the pot. The pot currently has $51. Alice goes all-in for $45 reasoning Bob has to call to stay in game. Alice’s implied pot odds for the all-in bet are 32%. Bob’s simple pot odds for the call are also 32%. Since both have a probability of winning greater than 32%, both plays (the raise and the call) have a positive expectation. However, since Bob has more equity in the pot than Alice (53% vs. 45%), Alice would have been better off playing the pot as cheaply as possible. When Alice went all-in, she gave up the difference in equity on the money she contributed to the pot.
When playing short-handed (at a table with fewer players than normal), players must loosen up their play (play more hands) for several reasons: There is less likelihood of another player having a strong hand because there are fewer players. Each player’s share of the forced bets increases because there are fewer players contributing to the forced bets, thus waiting for premium hands becomes more expensive. This type of situation comes up most often in tournament style play. In a cash game, the adjustments are very similar, but not quite as drastic as the table can ask for what is known as a ‘rake break.’ A rake break occurs when the floor-man, who represents the casino, agrees to take a smaller portion than usual for the hand. For example a random casino might normally receive 10% of the pot up to 5 dollars for a ‘rake.’ In this case the table would only owe 10% up to 3 dollars until there are a sufficient number of players again. In online poker rake breaks are determined automatically.
The blinds and antes and limit structure of the game have a significant influence on poker strategy. For example, it is easier to manipulate pot odds in no limit and pot limit games than in limit games. In tournaments, as the size of the forced bets relative to the chip stacks grows, pressure is placed on players to play pots to avoid being anted/blinded away.
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