Poker strategies come in various shapes. Indeed, some are poker tournament strategies while others have more to do with betting patterns on each street.
Poker is not set in stone, it is a living game that requires players to switch their favorite winning strategy during a game to stay afloat. There is no silver bullet or magic formula. Wondering how to win at poker means being on the path to understand the maths, psychology, and bet types that make up a solid base for your gameplay.
Each poker variant and game type requires you to adapt your playing style, too. Self-awareness is key to know what level of aggressivity you can bear. What types of losses can trigger you or not.
In this article, we first cover heuristics in poker with a little bit of mathematics. Then, we move on to the different types of bets poker players use, as well as their playing styles. And finally, we end with the psychology of a champion.
Mathematics of Poker
The essential poker maths revolve around the concepts of outs, pot odds, and expected value. A lot of these mathematics applied to poker can be learned by heart. However, you still to understand the math behind poker to be able to make the right decisions at each bet.
For those who aren't brilliant mathematicians, check out our free online Texas Hold'em odds calculator. Just pick the cards and see each hand's chances of winning and tying.
In poker, an out is a card that would complete your current hand. After the flop, you must start counting your outs and should do this automatically for every street. Knowing your outs allows you to calculate your odds of hitting your best hand, which can help you weigh whether a bet is justified or not.
Do not count outs twice. It is very easy to quickly count outs twice when, for example, you are hoping to catch a straight and flush draw.
Poker players often refer to their hands with the number of outs they had. For example, you can hear an opponent say "ouch, I had a two-outer on this one".
A deck of cards contains 52 cards (4 suits, 13 ranks). The board would show 3 cards after the flop, or 4 after the turn. Add your 2 hole cards. This sums up to roughly 47 or 48 unknown cards left.
The outs' odd percent formula would be:
Odds % = (number of outs / number of unseen cards) * 100 Odds % = (4 outs / 47 cards left in the deck) * 100 Odds % = 8.5%
If you are very bad at maths, you can quickly count the outs and double them. Basically, your outs are over roughly 50 cards, so doubling it would bring it to 100, i.e. a percentage.
Calculating Poker hand odds is math-heavy but a simpler method you can use is called The Rule of Four and Two. With this method, simply multiply your number of outs:
- by 4 when both the turn and river will be dealt, or
- by 2 when one card remains to be dealt.
Another option is to memorize or save the below chart showing the odds based on the number of outs for:
- the turn
- the river
- the turn and the river (e.g. if you call an all-in bet at the flop and both cards have to be drawn)
|Flop to Turn||Turn to River||Turn & River|
In poker, pot odds represent the ratio between the money currently in play in this pot and the money you are required to pay to stay in this pot. Poker pot odds are an easy way to see how much you must bet, and how much you could win.
- the pot is $20
- one player has bet $10
- you need to bet $10 to potentially win $40
- the pot odds are 40:10, simplified to 4:1
Pot odds, in and of themselves, are not extremely useful. However, when used in conjunction with your hand's odds and outs, you have a way to see whether the reward (pot odds) is worth the risk (hand odds).
The rule of thumb that is fundamental in a basic poker strategy is that:
- you should fold if the pot odds are lower than the chances of winning, and
- you should bet or raise if the pot odds are lower than the chances of winning.
Let's see with a couple of simplified examples.
|Situation||Number of Outs||Hand's Odds||Pot Odds||Action|
|Gutshot straight draw||4||11:1||6:1||fold|
|Three of a kind draw||2||22:5||2:1||fold|
Another mathematical Texas Holdem strategy based on probabilities and expected value is by using implied odds. Whilst pot odds use known numbers based on what we can observe, implied odds base the above calculations on what the pot would be if you hit an out and move further in this round (for example, until showdown).
Expected Value (EV)
In poker, the expected value of a pot represents the average return on each dollar invested in said pot. It is either positive, negative, or neutral. Professional poker players will play EV+ pots and fold on EV- pots.
The mathematical formula to calculate the expected value of a play is:
EV = (%W * $W) - (%L * $L)
- %W = represents how often we will win a given hand
- $W = how much much we will win when we do
- %L = represents how often we will lose a given hand
- $L = how much much we will lose when we do
Assimilating the notion of expected value in poker allows you to understand that even if you lost a specific hand that has odds in your favor, you would be positively rewarded over time.
If this seems very confusing, check out this video explainer.
Bet Types in Poker
In poker, bet types are the different ways a player can use his chips to place a bet with a clear ulterior motive. The most common fundamental poker bet types include:
- Value bets - try to entice as many players to bet as much as possible in order to secure the largest pot for a round you believe you will easily win
- Over bets - make an oversized bet to push your opponent(s) into making gross negligence in their next move (e.g. an all-in bet)
- Slow plays - get players to gradually commit to the pot in order to downplay the very strong hand you have
- Continuation bets - bet just enough to maintain the perception that you set preflop by raising or betting a lot
- Probe bets - placing a bet to counter an opponent's continuation bet in order to gauge their hand a little better
Whilst these are the main weapons in a player's arsenal, there are many more betting strategies in poker. For instance, re-raising a player who just raised you (i.e., called a 3-bet) is a huge statement to use with a pinch of salt. Pot bets are also a way of going with the flow in a crowded table whilst cutting some active players loose.
Professional poker players don't favor either of these bet types. Instead, they use each type when the time is right. Yet, it takes a lot of practice to automatically pick the right type of bet in the right situation.
Playing Styles in Poker
Poker playing styles are generally agreed-on classifications of how a poker player behaves with respect to their hands and their betting patterns. Some personalities work better with specific poker playing styles. Additionally, most poker players switch their gameplay over the time of a tournament or even a cash game to avoid being easily read.
By starting hands, we mean how conservative a player is or is not. Some players will only play pocket pairs or high figures and fold preflop with any other hand. Some looser poker player will play with weak hands to try and bluff, or catch something under the radar once the flop is drawn.
By betting patterns, we mean the betting action a player provides after the flop. More specifically, how a player's bets and raises stack up against calls. Checks are ignored. The formula goes as:
(number of bets + number of raises) / number of calls
Therefore, if a player bets and raises double the time as they call, they are being aggressive. If the player tends to bet/raise half as much as they simply call, they are a passive player.
|Style & Hand|
|Manic||plays, bets, |
|Loose Aggressive||plays, bets,|
|Tight Aggressive||plays, bets,|
|Loose Passive||plays, bets||plays, bets||plays, bets||fold||fold|
|Tight Passive||plays, bets||plays, bets||folds||folds||folds|
|Nit||plays, bets||plays, bets||folds||folds||folds|
Playing styles are assigned by means of hand range reading. This is the art of guessing what a player might have by assigning putting them on a logical range of hands.
Hyper Aggressive (Maniac)
A hyper-aggressive poker player gets involved in most pots preflop. They are easily recognizable once you sit at a table for a few rounds. Maniac poker players generally fold whenever a conservative player shows strength, but not always.
In poker, hyper-aggressive players are not a big worry as they usually get burnt quickly. However, because they enter many games with unfathomable starting hands (including the likes of), they may catch a good flop and it would be hard to read for the other players.
Typical starting hands:, , and they would happily re-raise you with these, too.
Playing against a maniac? Stay calm if they win against you with a very silly starting hand. If you are inexperienced, avoid facing them one on one and prefer pots with more players involved.
Loose Aggressive (LAG)
A loose-aggressive poker player raises a lot and rarely calls. Their betting pattern might come as a surprise. While being a LAG is a high-risk poker strategy, it also makes it very difficult to be read. However, in order to save their bankroll, a LAG must know when to fold even if they somehow got themselves pot-committed.
Unlike maniac players, loose-aggressive poker players tend to impose respect and they are taken seriously. People may think they bluff a lot but a true LAG knows its limits. Only seasoned poker players should follow a loose-aggressive betting strategy on a consistent basis. It takes a mature mind to handle such a lethal weapon.
Typical starting hands:, ,
Playing against a LAG? Don't assume they are always bluffing. Many all-in actions happen when a conservative poker player assumes a LAG is bluffing so they put them to the test. This is a good strategy against a maniac, not so much against a LAG as they may have the right cards to freeze you out.
Tight Aggressive (TAG)
A tight-aggressive poker player plays aggressively after the flop but conservatively before the flop. They are very selective with their starting hands, but once they are game, they will show strength. Most experienced online tournament players will adopt this poker betting strategy. It is relatively safe and intuitive, especially when multi-tabling online.
A disadvantage of being a tight-aggressive player is that this strategy becomes obvious after a few showdowns. Opponents become naturally wary of tight players around the table, so you might scare bets away when you need them the most.
Typical starting hands:, ,
Playing against a TAG? Because they play so few hands, they are easy to steal blinds from. If you raise them, and they re-raise you, only engage further in this battle if you have a top tier hand. Otherwise, you will carry on simply because you are pot-committed and a TAG will eat your chips away.
Loose Passive (Calling Station)
A loose-passive poker player plays many hands just to see the flop. Because they enter with weak hands, even when they hit a pair or two, any figure on the board will scare a calling station from betting big.
A loose-passive betting strategy is the most common basic poker strategy for beginners. Oftentimes, their chips diminish linearly over time. They generally follow a slow but sure death because, after a few wasted efforts, they run low on chips and will then go all-in at any decent hand, and lose against a tight-aggressive player.
Typical starting hands:, ,
Playing against a calling station? Avoid bluffing with average hands because, as their name states, they will call your bluff. Instead, re-raise them preflop to assess how weak or strong their hand might be.
Tight Passive (Rock)
A tight-passive poker player plays very few hands and rarely raises. This strategy, just like the maniac at the other end of the spectrum, is too obvious and readable. Their stack will last for a while since they mostly lose chips with blinds.
By being so conservative and obvious, a "rock" cannot maximize their profits. At any sign of action from them, opponents will immediately fold. So while a tight-passive poker betting strategy is low risk, it is also low-reward.
Typical starting hands:, ,
Playing against a rock? An easy steal is to take the blinds with a strong re-raise (and be very careful if they actually call it). Observe their betting attitude after the flop and steal the pot with a pot-sized bet if they are cruising along.
Hyper Tight (Nit)
A hyper-tight poker player, or nit, plays only the very best hands and even then, they are terrified to raise or show strength. They are too afraid of losing, it is paralyzing them.
Some players are not cut for poker and they usually fall in that trap of becoming "nit poker players". They enter so few pots that they barely have any fun playing the game. Opponents spot hyper-tight players within minutes and they're eliminated sometime later when there is a clash of good hands.
Playing against a nit? Don't bother fighting them if they have a good hand. Let another player take all the risk to eliminate them. However, if you have an average starting hand, just call to see the flop as they most likely won't raise your call.
Psychology of Poker
Understanding the mathematics of poker, along with the subtleties of complex poker betting patterns, is needed but not quite enough. A winning poker strategy must embed some psychology and mental conditioning within itself. Self-control, composure, a healthy lifestyle, body language, cold reading, all are required skills to gamble successfully around a poker table.
Preparation & Conditioning
Professional poker players follow strict guidelines for their lifestyle as well as their mental conditioning. A player's lifestyle heavily influences sleep patterns, attention, focus, and readiness for upcoming poker playing sessions and tournaments. Mental conditioning is mostly practiced under real conditions, generally during low-stake poker games.
Following a good diet, working out, sleeping well, all work together to have you at peak form when sat at your poker table, in both virtual and real poker rooms. Drinking too much might not ruin your next game in ways you think it would. But too much drinking might reduce your attention, or might make you act out of the ordinary. It may influence one decision that will change the course of your evening.
One of the key psychological weapons in a poker player's arsenal is patience. If you naturally follow a tighter poker betting strategy (e.g. tight-aggressive, tight-passive) you will inevitably have long periods of time during which you will have no action. And as much as we see gambling as a science, we all want to have fun and play. Patience is a mental muscle you absolutely need to strengthen if you want to have a successful winning poker strategy over the years.
A famous saying in Poker goes as "you should play the players, not the cards". That's because, arguably, Poker is a game of information more than luck. Whether you play online or in a casino's poker room, your opponents will leak some hints about their "normal" behavior. Some players are chatty, others quiet. Some players always bet rather quickly, others always take 15 seconds sharp. Take mental notes of these baseline behaviors from your opponents.
Then, once you notice a subtle change from these behaviors you know and expect from them, you can start deducing what hand they have. You may want to go to a (low-cost) showdown to ensure whether your guess was correct, or not.
From now on, you will know that when they change their baseline behavior (i.e. a tell), their hand is a weak one or strong one, and adapt your betting strategy accordingly. Physical tells - including online betting speed - can betray you, too, so learn how to be natural and unreadable.
Being a poker player, emotions should ideally be out of all equations whether you win or lose. Indeed, you should remain pragmatic and confident in the moves you made, and the decisions you took.
Bad beats will happen. You will exit a tournament by losing against awhile holding . Stay calm and emotionless. Go back home and log your results and what led you to make the decision you made. If you agree with everything you have done, move on. If you spot a weakness or two (e.g. you were impatient, you lost chips and needed to recoup) then ensure you won't repeat that same mistake again.
To conclude, we hope you enjoyed these poker strategy tips. It is quite a lengthy article that covers a lot of grounds. Essentially, the message for you to take home is to put poker math first, emotions last, and a lot of practice with different bet types and playing styles in between. That is the path to a winning poker strategy!