How to Play Texas Hold'em Poker | Poker Strategy for Beginners
If you've watched poker on TV, you've seen Texas Hold'em.
With two cards in your hand and five shared community cards on the board you need to call, fold, raise, bluff and bet your way to the winning hand while maintaining a calm exterior and strategical outlook.
When you can push all your money in at any point in any hand, you need to stay on your toes and find the best spots to get an edge on your opponents.
Some ideas and concepts are common to all or most poker variations. In this guide we will explain the basics of poker strategy and how it works in the most popular poker game today, Texas Hold'em.
Before you even to consider getting in a poker game with real money on the line you should know the basic of how the game works.
As mentioned there are lots of poker variations - like Five-Card Draw and Seven-Card Stud - but by far and away the most popular today is Texas Holdem so that's a good starting point.
Two "Hole Cards," Five Community Cards
In a game of Texas Hold'em you typically have 2-10 players around the table. One player is designated as the dealer (for a home game) or a full-time dealer is used at a casino or poker room.
Each player is dealt two cards face down only they can see and use. These are called the "hole" cards.
Two forced bets are put in play to initiate the action. One is called the "small blind" and the other the "big blind." A common example live is $1/$2 or $2/$4 but online can be as little as 1c/2c.
These two bets, made by the players to the immediate left of the dealer, are put in the pot to start every hand. The positions then rotate one spot each subsequent hand until all players have been in the blinds. This is called an 'orbit.'
Once those two bets are in and each player has his or her hole cards, the first round of betting begins. Betting actions stars with the player to the immediate left of the big blind. It then proceeds clockwise around the table until the big blind.
All players can either fold, call the amount of the big blind or raise an amount equal to or over 2x the big blind. So a minimum bet is $4. In No-Limit Holdem a player can go all in at any time.
Each player in turn can call the raise until all players who wish to continue in the hand have put in the same amount of money.
To the Flop, Turn and River
After the first betting round is completed a flop is dealt - meaning three community cards in the middle of the table all players can use to make up their eventual 5-player poker hand.
In Texas Holdem players can use both, one of none of their hole cards to make up their final hand.
Once the flop is dealt another betting round is initiated starting with the first player still in the hand to the left of the dealer. Again each player can fold, call or raise (then re-raise).
Once all players have had a chance to act, if there are any players left in the hand one more card is placed in the middle, called the turn. Another betting round continues. After action is closed, a river card is dealt to put five community cards in total on the board.
The final betting round continues with any players left. Once the money has been matched (all in stacks don't have to be equal - each player can play what is in front of them), players turn over their cards for the showdown.
The player with the best five-card poker hand using any combination of the hole cards and community cards wins the pot.
Pre-Flop Play Basics: Hand Strength
The first thing you need to know to be a competent pre-flop player is the relative hand strengths. Poker authors such as David Sklansky and others have identified what are called "premium" hands, that is, the very best two card hands you can be dealt.
Sklansky refers to the top hands as Type I hands, the next best hands as Type II and so on down the line.
The very best two card hand you can be dealt is AA. Getting dealt AA by no means guarantees you will win the hand, but it does assure you have the best hand going into the flop.
Other premium hands include KK, QQ and AK. Not quite as good but still strong hands include AQ and JJ, and beyond that, any two cards that both fall between T and A have value, as do middle to high pairs such as 99 and TT.
Other pairs and cards that are closely connected such as 89 and 9T also have some value, but should not be overvalued and can be routinely folded to a raise or even folded to the blind if out of position. Suited cards are nice to have, but players tend to overvalue these as well.
The only suited cards you should really consider playing either contain an ace or have some other high card or connecting card value.
Pre-Flop Play Basics: Position
Position is the key in Texas Hold'em poker. The later you act the more information you have, since more players will be acting before you have to make any kind of decision.
When in an early position, you should endeavor to play only the very best premium hands most of the time. As you move later on down the line in position, you can loosen up your starting hand requirements, since the added information can make up for the fact that opponents may be starting with stronger hands.
Pre-Flop Play Basics: Other Considerations
You need to vary your play to some extent or you will become too predictable. It's okay to raise from an early position occasionally with sub-par hands, especially if you get the opportunity to show it down. This will get you action later when you have something really strong. In addition, some experienced players like to get creative with hands like 86 suited or T7.
Playing unusual hands is usually more effective in no-limit games, when flopping a well-disguised monster hand can result in winning an opponent's entire stack. In a fixed-limit game, where the size of the pot is limited by the fixed betting, playing such hands tends to be less profitable.
Even in no-limit games, these unusual hands should be played with care and skill, as they can end up costing more than they make if played unwisely.
What Are Good Reasons To Bet in Texas Hold'em Poker?
Correct poker strategy means not betting haphazardly. Your bet should always have a function. Possible reasons for betting include:
- You think you have the best hand, and want to get more money in a pot you plan to win.
- You think you have the best hand now, but that other hands may improve to beat you, and you wish to either encourage them to fold or make them pay for the privilege of drawing out on you.
- You have a weak hand and wish to represent a strong hand so that opponents with better hands will fold and concede the pot to you (The Bluff).
- You are drawing to the best hand and wish to convince opponents you already have a strong hand so they will concede the pot to you or build a bigger pot that will allow you to get paid off if you do make your hand (The Semi-Bluff)
- You wish to see the next card cheaply and by betting a small amount, hope to discourage opponents from raising a large amount (Blocking/Defensive Bet)
- You are drawing in position and bet on a cheaper street in the hopes of inducing a check and a free card from an opponent who acts before you on a later street
What are Not Good Reasons to Bet in Texas Hold'em Poker?
It's your turn: You shouldn't necessarily bet just because no one has bet yet, unless you really believe everyone is weak and your bet will cause everyone to fold. Also, if you are planning to play the hand and no one has come in before you, it is often a good idea to raise rather than just flat call ("limping"), as this will tend to give you control of the hand.
Someone else has bet: Sometimes aggressive players do bet if they are weak, and there are times when a player is getting out of line and should be challenged. However, a player who has bet out a few times in a row may be getting a string of legitimate hands, and you shouldn't raise them on principle unless you have fairly good reason to believe they are bluffing.
It's the only way to win: Sometimes you may decide to bluff on the river if you've been drawing at a hand and missed since you cannot possibly win a showdown. However, if you do this routinely, opponents will catch on and it will cost you. If you're planning a river bluff, you should set it up by showing down some good hands and bluffing on a board where it may not be so obvious that you missed.
The Continuation Bet Explained
The continuation bet is one of the easiest new concepts to learn in Texas Hold'em.
It's exactly as it sounds. You're continuing your pre-flop betting. For example you're playing from the button position with A-10 suited and two players ahead of you limp into the pot.
You raise and they both call. The flop falls 5s-3c-Jh and they check to you.
While you only have ace-high, your opponents probably did not hit that flop. A bet in this spot will likely take down the pot. This bet is known as a continuation bet. You're continuing your pre-flop action on the flop.
Employing the Continuation Bet
The continuation bet used to be considered an intermediate level move among poker players but with the modern evolution of the game it's now considered a standard move by all levels of poker players.
When you raise pre-flop, you are putting your opponents on notice. When you continuation bet on the flop this continues your story that you have a hand worth betting.
Solid players should continuation bet a high percentage of the time on the flop. As a general rule, if you can raise with a hand pre-flop you should be wiling to continuation bet with it.
In addition, a continuation bet can help you decipher the strength of your opponent's hand. If they called your pre-flop raise and then also call a continuation bet, odds are they have a reason to do so and this can help you put them on a hand.
In our prior example, if your opponent called your continuation bet they may have a jack in their hand or perhaps they had a small pair and flopped set. Most often a continuation bet will result in you taking down the pot on the flop.
Adding the Continuation Bet to Your Game
The continuation bet is an excellent weapon to use in most low-stakes poker games. In many of these games your opponents aren't going to battle with you past the flop unless they have some type of a hand.
The secret of the continuation bet is that it takes advantage of a player's fear of being behind in the hand. When you bet out on the flop after raising pre-flop, you're signalling that they better have a hand in order to continue.
In most cases, players will find it easier to fold and move on to the next hand than risk their chips against a potential made hand. When you fail to continuation bet, you're practically giving your opponents free money.
You're allowing them to see additional streets for free and giving them a chance to catch up.
The next time you watch a cash game or a non-edited poker tournament, watch and see how many pots are taken down with continuation bets. It will quickly become evident that adding a continuation bet to your arsenal is a vital tool to winning more pots.
Pick Your Starting Hands Wisely
The first tip to all new poker players is don't play too many hands. In poker parlance, that's called "playing tight."
You should realize that most of the time one of the other players at the table likely has a better starting hand than yours. Sure, your hand may improve on the flop. But most of the time if you start out with a bad hand you won't have the best hand after the flop.
So: you've decided to play only decent starting hands. But which are they?
Well, in Texas Hold'em, good starting hands are basically either two high cards or a pair. Hands like AK and AQ are strong, as are all pairs from AA to 99.
Smaller pairs and two not-so-high cards are more difficult. With AJ, AT, KQ you may be strong, but if your opponent holds a hand like AK or AQ you may be in big trouble if you hit the flop.
Pairs from 88 and down are playable but the flop will often contain one or more higher cards (overcards). Then, if an opponent appears strong on the flop, you're probably beaten.
The lower your pair the more likely there will be overcards on the flop. For example, to play 22 after the flop a third 2 on the board is almost a must.
Consider Your Position at the Table
In Texas Hold'em the order in which players act is the same throughout a hand. This makes the concept of position important. That is, where you sit in the betting order.
Late position means that you sit on the button or close to its right. If you sit in this position you will act late in every betting round.
It's a great advantage to act late since all opponents must show their intentions before it's your turn to act. When you sit in early position, you don't know what to expect from the players behind you and have no indications about the strength of their hands.
Consequently you can play more hands from late position than from early position. Hands like AJ or 44, for example, are much easier to play from late position.
If the flop isn't good for you and someone in front of you makes a big bet, it's pretty easy to lay them down. If no one bets, your hand may very well be good and you can go ahead and play it with confidence.
Basically you should try and bet a little more often when you have position on your opponents.
Don’t Get Too Attached to Good Cards
Remember how we said you should mostly play good cards when you're starting out?
That’s true, but another one of the most common mistakes beginners make is simply getting too attached to a good hand.
That pair of jacks isn’t quite as good when there are straight and flush possibilities and overcards on the board. Be smart about things.
If you have pocket kings or queens and an ace hits on the flop, you should be cautious. It doesn’t mean you have to fold but you don’t have to go all-in either.
You know those people who say pocket aces aren’t very good and they always lose big pots with them? Those are the people that get too attached to good cards.
When You Play, Assert Yourself
One of the costliest mistakes in poker is betting too little. When you choose to put money into a pot, you need to make it uncomfortable for anyone who wants to take it away from you.
Betting one big blind on every street is never going to chase anyone from a hand. But betting strongly has several advantages.
Firstly, you prevent opponents from seeing the next card for free and improving their hands. You cannot prevent players from seeing another card, but you should make them pay for it.
Secondly, every time you bet there's a chance your opponents will fold. Getting your opponent to fold is kinda like free money because you don’t even need the best hand.
Your chances of winning the pot increase with fewer players in the hand. If everyone folds, you win the pot without even showing the cards.
Understanding Poker Odds
Knowing some basic poker odds will give you an immediate edge against a majority of your opponents - at least at low to medium levels. It will also add to your general understanding of the game.
To calculate the odds you need to know your current number of outs, that is, how many cards out of those left in the deck that will improve your hand. If you hold a nut flush draw with four cards to a flush on the flop in Texas Holdem, for instance, there are nine cards of the same suit left in the deck (as far as you know) that gives you the winning hand.
There are 52 cards in the deck, and you have seen five of them; out of the remaining 47, 9 cards are outs and 38 are non-outs. 38/9 = 4,22, which is your current odds against making a flush on the turn.
For obvious reasons you probably don't want to count your outs and calculate the odds while playing, which makes it more practical to memorize the odds of the most common draws.
A few common drawing hands:
|Outs||Example Hand||Drawing to||Flop - Turn Odds||Flop - River Odds|
|2||Pocket pair||Three-of-a-kind||22,5:1 (4%)||10,9:1 (8%)|
|4||Inside straight draw||Straight||10,8:1 (9%)||5,1:1 (16%)|
|6||Two over-cards||Pair||6, 8:1 (13%)||3, 1:1 (24%)|
|8||Open-ended straight draw||Straight||4, 9:1 (17%)||2, 2:1 (31%)|
|9||Flush draw (4 to a flush)||Flush||4, 2:1 (19%)||1, 9:1 (35%)|
|14||Pair + flush draw||Two pair, trips, flush||2, 4:1 (30%)||1:1 (51%)|
|21||Two over-cards, open-ended straight flush draw||Pair, straight, flush, straight flush||1, 2:1 (45%)||0, 4:1 (70%)|
To make proper use of poker odds you need to apply the pot odds before deciding whether a certain action is worthwhile. The pot odds are essentially the ratio between the current size of the pot and the size of the bet or call, i.e., if the pot contains $20 and your opponent bets $10, the pot odds for a call are 1:3, ($20 + $10) / $10 = 3.
Depending on the betting structure, you have - to a certain extent - the opportunity to manipulate the pot odds to your own advantage. If you have a made hand in no-limit holdem, for instance, you may want to make a bet that is large enough not to give your opponent proper odds for a possible drawing hand. And if you're on a draw yourself, you will correspondingly need the right price to call.
Example: If you hold 8-9 and the flop shows A-6-7, your odds of catching a straight on the turn are about 4,9:1, so if you plan to call a bet on the flop (without considering implied odds) the call should preferably be no more than a fifth of the total pot. This is why limit games are more suitable for draws than no-limit games, but in view of possible implied odds, draws may be profitable even in a no-limit or pot-limit game.
With additional betting rounds to come, you also have to factor in the implied odds. If you think your opponent has a strong made hand and will call a large bet or raise on a later round, your effective odds will be better than the odds at present. In other words: you might want to make a call without the proper pot odds just because your opponent is preparing to pay you off on later streets.
Cash Games vs. Tournaments
A successful cash-game specialist will probably be a winner in tournaments as well, but is not likely to achieve a win rate comparable to an experienced tournament player.
The tight-aggressive playing style that is widely recommended in poker books and articles is generally a winning style in cash games, but playing too tight could be a mistake in tournaments - depending on the current stage.
In the early stages of a tournament you are usually better off not taking any chances and sticking to the best starting hands unless the circumstances are special, like in a re-buy or winner-take-all tournament.
The goal of a poker tournament is to survive until the very end, a fact that is often overlooked by many players. Building a big stack is important, but while the blinds are still small you will risk a lot to win a little.
Assuming the game is no-limit holdem, you always risk your entire stack any time you decide to play a hand. Combined with the fact that the blinds are too small to be worth stealing, it's better to play only the best starting hands in the early stages of the tournament.
As the blinds increase the situation changes, however and if your stack is still small you may need to loosen up your play considerably in order to survive.
Cash Game and Tournament Variation
Sit-and-go tournaments have much less variations than cash games or large multi-table tournaments, which mean you'll win less or lose less in an average session.
You never risk more than your buy-in in a tournament, but on the other hand the winnings are never substantial in single-table sit-and-go's either. Variation in cash games depends a lot on your playing style; loose and aggressive players will experience much larger bankroll fluctuations than their tight counterparts.
The least forgiving game in terms of variation is probably large multi-table tournaments. These usually just pay the top-10 percent of the starting field, and just barely reaching the money doesn't usually pay much.
Multi-table tournament specialists will have to make the occasional big win to be able to finance their play, but when they do win big - the profit can be massive.
Online vs. Live
Tournaments are very easy for new players to understand because there is a very clear winner and loser(s) while it’s tougher to score cash games.
Therefore there are going to be plenty of people who learn to play poker by playing live tournaments but haven’t actually dipped their feet in online tournaments.
Fortunately, online tournaments are potentially even easier to play than live tournaments and they’re actually a great way to learn tournament poker in general.
One of the toughest parts of playing big, multi-table tournaments can be the very slow pace. Generally, "tight is right" in the early stages of a freeze-out so you don’t really have a lot to do until you get a premium hand.
Online tournaments are superior in that respect because you can actually buy in to and play 2-16 tournaments at the same time (we’d stick to two or three if you’re just starting out).
When you have multiple tournaments going at the same time you’ll actually have something to do as you’re likely to hit big hands on at least one of your tables.
Also, if you bust out of one tournament it’s not a big deal because you can just focus on the other events you have going.
Sit & Go's have become so popular that they are likely the most popular form of poker online. And even live casinos have started to run Sit and Go's.
Whether you play poker live or online, you'll want to have grounding in the basic ideas behind solid Sit & Go strategy.
Sit & Go Structure
Your basic Sit & Go is a single-table affair where you compete against either six or nine opponents and the prize pool is usually distributed to the top three players.
Typically the split is 50 percent to the winner, 30 percent to second place and 20 percent to third. The starting chip stack will depend on the buy-in and the online poker site you're playing at.
Most sites lean towards bigger starting chip stacks due to player demand. You will probably start with anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 in chips with starting blinds anywhere from 5/10 to 25/50. Blinds traditionally go up every 15 minutes in a Sit & Go but there are all kinds of variations these days and faster, turbo versions are more and more common.
Early Round Sit & Go Strategy
The proper strategy for the early stages of a Sit & Go are to play extremely tight. Usually you’re starting with 30+ big blinds, which means there’s simply no reason to risk all your chips on a marginal hand.
Instead you’re going to want to concentrate on playing premium cards and playing in position.
If you really have the itch to play a hand you should concentrate on playing cheap pots with small pocket pairs in hopes of flopping a set. Or look for a hand that can crack a premium hand like pocket kings or aces.
In all honestly you can really just chill most of the time and let the first few players knock each other out. There’s no reason to pass up big hands but there’s no reason to play a ton of hands either.
Let other players make the big mistakes early on. This is a good time to sit back and try to get a read on some of the other players at the table.
Around this point of the Sit & Go you want to be loosening your range slightly. You’re not going to be shoving 9-7 or anything but you want to play a few more hands and play aggressively when you have position.
It’s about this point that the rest of the players are starting to define themselves and you can start to pressure the players you believe are weaker.
If you’ve developed some good reads you can also start targeting the loose/aggressive/conservative players.
You can start stealing the blinds from the ultra conservative players and defending your blinds against the aggressive players.
Late Round Sit & Go Strategy
At this point it’s time to assess your situation (hopefully you’ve been doing that all along right?) and that includes taking a look at the various chip stacks, the blinds and the prizes.
If you’re a big stack you can put a lot of pressure on short-stack opponents. Of course if you’re the short-stack you can fight back by employing a shove/fold strategy, which forces the big stacks to decide whether they want to risk significant chips.
You really want to make the money, of course, and that will likely keep you from making really poor all-ins if you’re one off the money or something.
Conversely, that’s what everybody is going to be thinking and you can steal quite a few pots just by pressuring your opponents around this stage of the tournament.
Always keep a close eye on the blinds. Sometimes you can increase your stack by a considerable amount just by stealing the blinds and antes if your opponents aren’t paying attention.
Also beware of blinding out. If you’re going to be forced all-in by the time the big blind gets to you, you should absolutely shove the minute you get a decent hand.
Remember that the fewer players there are, the worse hands you should be playing. That culminates with the eventual heads-up match where you should be raising marginal hands.
It’s very common the more aggressive player will win the heads-up.
Go For the Win
One final strategy tip for Sit & Go’s is that you should pretty much always be playing for the win. One Sit & Go victory is generally worth more than a couple third-place finishes.
That means it might be worth it to make some risky plays on the bubble if you can build a big enough stack to guarantee victory heads-up.
3 Tips for Playing Top Pair in Texas Hold'em
Knowing how to play top pair in No-Limit Texas Hold'em is a critical skill for beginner poker players to master.
While a hand like top pair is not as strong as a straight or flush, it will still win you a lot of pots - if you play it right.
By knowing how to play top pair optimally you will be able to get the most value for the hand and increase your profits.
1. Value Betting Top Pair on the River
Value betting (making a bet when you're fairly certain you have the best hand) with top pair on the river is one of the most important aspects of playing top pair.
When you think that your opponent will call a bet with a worse hand on the river, you should bet for value.
You should make the bet as big as possible in order to maximize your winnings but small enough that it doesn't scare the other player into folding.
If you're unsure of how much to bet, a good rule of thumb to follow when value betting is to bet around 50% of the pot size on the river.
Remember, when value betting with top pair you want the other players in the hand to call. So try to bet the biggest amount you think they'll call in order to get the most profit from the hand.
2. Not All Top Pairs Are Created Equal
The second key to playing top pair is to understand the actual strength of your hand. While top pair is a very strong hand at showdown, it's still beat by many other hands.
If you're playing against a tight player and the board presents a straight or flush possibility, there is a high chance that your top pair is beat.
At the same time if you are heads up versus a loose player that likes to bluff the river frequently, then you should lean towards at least calling.
Remember, not all top pairs are created equal. Kickers get players in trouble frequently. If you're in a spot with top pair and weak kicker, then you don't want to go crazy on the river if your opponent bets into you.
3. Reading Your Opponents
Another important part of playing top pair profitably is making the correct reads on the other players at the table.
Having good, accurate reads on the other players sitting at the table will help you to identify fish from sharks and help you determine the strength of their hand.
For example, when you're playing a hand against a passive player who likes to just call bets and you have top pair on the river, you should default to making a sizeable value bet.
Against more experienced or tricky players, you may consider slowing down unless you feel you have an accurate read on the particular hand.
Making the right read also requires that you make the appropriate action. "Knowing" that you are ahead but being too timid to act on that knowledge will cost you money that you could have made.
Adversely, not folding a hand when you're beat because of your ego will drain your stack quickly.
By remembering these tips while playing top pair in Texas Hold'em you will be able to maximize your profits at the table.
By making value bets, knowing how strong your hand is relative to the board and table dynamics and having good reads on your opponent, you are sure to see your winnings with top pair increase
7 Common Mistakes Beginners Make in Texas Holdem
Here are a few common mistakes and some ways to avoid them.
1. Calling Too Often
Some players get into a habit of calling often or becoming the "table sheriff."
There are times you're going to call more often than you might normally, such as a player that bluffs too much, but you need to avoid becoming a calling station when the situation doesn't warrant it.
2. Not Bluffing Enough or Bluffing Too Much
Bluffing is a delicate art form. Bluff too little and you become predictable. Players slow down or get out of your way when you have the goods.
Bluff too much and your opponents are also going to catch on and start playing back at you. Both extremes will cost you money in the long term.
3. Bluffing Too Much Against Newbies
Players that are new to the game are often going to lean towards being calling stations. When this happens, you need to slow down your bluffing frequency.
When facing an inexperienced calling station focus on extracting maximum value when you have the goods. Save the bluffs for players that are smart enough to fold.
4. Playing Too High For Your Bankroll
Many new players tend to jump into games they really can't afford and then go broke quickly. The key to successful poker is practicing bankroll management and sticking to stakes that you can afford.
This means looking at your bankroll critically and seeing what game it fits into. You normally want a bankroll of 20 buy-ins for NL games or 300 big bets for limit games.
For example, in a $1-$2 NL game with a $100 buy-in, you want a bankroll of $2,000. Bankroll management allows you to absorb losses and keeps you in the game longer.
5. Continuing to Play After Going on Tilt
Texas Hold’em can be a stressful game and allowing your emotions to interfere with your game is going to lose you significant sums of money.
Going, and staying, on tilt is one of the worst things for your game. If you're not in the right mindset, you should not play.
There are times where the game is going to infuriate you. Take a few minutes to walk it off and calm down. If this fails to get you back into the right frame of mind, quit the game until tomorrow.
Also, watch out for playing when you are too fatigued. This will also affect your mindset. Only play when you are well rested and in a winning mindset.
6. Playing Too Much Out of Position
Position is important in Texas Hold'em. Playing in position will give you an advantage over the other opponents at the table.
You will have maximum information available and this helps you make the best decisions.
New players tend to play out of position too often and end up putting themselves at a disadvantage on later streets or they run into better late position hands.
7. Playing Too Many Hands
Playing too many hands is by far one of the most common poker mistakes made by beginner players.
We aren't saying you have to stick with the "Top 10 Poker Hands" like some old school strategist but you definitely don't need to be playing that 5-7 suited out of position.
Sticking with a game where you focus on playing position poker and playing stronger hands out of position is a solid starting strategy to ensure you don't play too many hands.