When you first start playing poker as a beginner, the prospect of learning poker strategy can be quite daunting. There's so much information out there it can be hard to know where to start.
This article will give you the tips and tricks you need to hold your own at the table.
Poker For First Time Players: Guide & Rules
Poker hands are made up of the best possible 5 card combination available to you using your hole cards and any community cards. The ranking of poker hands in descending order of strength is:
- Royal Flush - The cards ace through ten all of the same suit. E.g.
- Straight Flush - Any five-card straight where the cards are all the same suit. E.g.
- Four of a kind - Four cards of the same rank such as four aces. E.g.
- Full House - Three cards of the same rank along with two different cards of the same rank. E.g. .
- Flush - Five cards of any rank that are the same suit. E.g.
- Straight - Five cards in numerical order of any suit. E.g.
- Three of a kind - Three cards of the same rank. E.g.
- Two Pair - Two sets of two cards of the same rank. E.g.
- One Pair - Two cards of the same rank. E.g.
- High Card - Five unpaired cards. E.g.
The betting actions a player can take will differ slightly depending on the game type but we'll focus on the flop games as they're the most popular. Before the flop in these games a player can:
- Fold - The player surrenders their cards and is out of the hand.
- Raise - They can increase the size of the bet but it has to be at least 2x the size of the big blind.
- Limp - This can only be done if there hasn't been a raise and is calling for the price of the big blind.
- Call - A call is matching the raise of another player.
- Check - This can only be done by the player in the big blind if there hasn't been a raise. By checking the player declines to increase the size of the bet and the flop is dealt.
Postflop the players have similar actions:
- Check - The player declines to bet and the action moves on to the next player. If the player is last to act, the next card is dealt.
- Bet - The player puts an amount of money into the pot that is at least the size of one big blind.
- Call - The player matches the amount of another player's bet.
- Raise - The player increases the size of another player's bet by at least 2x.
- Fold - The player surrenders their cards and is out of the hand.
Forced Bets and Positions
In order to get the action going, poker games will have forced bets. These bets are put in before players are given their cards and give everyone some money to fight for. The most common forced bets you'll see are the blinds.
There are commonly two blinds in poker, the small and big blind, with the small blind being half the size of the big blind. The small blind is put in by the player to the left of the button and the big blind is put in by the player to the left of the small blind.
In tournaments and some higher-stakes cash games, there are also antes. Antes are a small portion of a big blind (usually around 1/8 of a big blind) put in by all the players before the start of the hand. This is also done to create action as when there are antes, there's a lot more money in the middle to be won.
Poker Betting Rounds or Streets
The number of betting rounds, also called streets, will vary depending on the poker variant you're playing. The most popular games (Hold'em, Omaha, 6+) all follow the same structure of one preflop and three postflop betting rounds.
These games have one round of preflop betting, where the players are making their decisions based on the cards they were dealt at the start of the hand. Once the preflop round of betting has been completed the three community cards, also known as the flop, are dealt.
After the flop, there is another round of betting, after which the turn is dealt. There is a round of betting on the turn, after which the river is dealt. Finally, there is another round of betting on the river, after which the players show their cards, and the best five-card hand wins.
Common Poker Variants
The most common poker variant you'll see by a long way is No-Limit Texas Hold'em. In this game, you're dealt two cards and there is also a flop turn and river. As the name suggests, there is no limit to the amount you can bet - meaning you can go all-in at any time.
Another popular variant you'll see is Pot-Limit Omaha. Omaha plays very similarly to Hold'em except you are dealt four cards at the start instead of two, and at showdown, you must use two cards from your hand and three from the board. Unlike No-Limit Hold'em, there is a maximum amount you can bet in Pot Limit Omaha - the size of the pot - which does change the strategy of the game.
General Poker Strategy for Beginners
If you're just learning to play for the first time or picking up the game after a long break, these are some tips you should follow when at the tables:
Play a Tight Preflop Range
For those who aren't in the know, a 'range' is a collection of hands that you would play the same way.
For example, if you think a player will only raise AA, KK, QQ, JJ, and AK preflop, then when you see them raise you know that it's going to be one of those hands.
However, you don't know which of those hands they have so you make your decision based on the entire range of hands they can have.
As boring as it may seem, tight is right when it comes to poker, particularly if you're a beginner. Though it's tempting to play a lot of hands and be involved in the action, you'll end up losing your money fast unless you get extremely lucky. You should stick to strong preflop hands like pocket pairs, suited connectors, two broadway hands, and strong Ax hands. Playing a small percentage of hands can get you far.
Do Not Be Afraid to Bluff
Most beginners tend to be afraid to bluff so explain why it is an important part of poker.
Some beginner players, and even some experienced players, avoid bluffing at all costs. They don't like the idea of betting with nothing, knowing that if their opponent calls they instantly lose the money they worked so hard for. Whilst this is understandable, it's going to cost you money in the long run.
Bluffing is a key part of poker as your opponents would have no incentive to ever call you if you didn't bluff. That means that if your opponents start to realize you never bluff, you won't get any action with your strong hands either.
Even though it can be scary, you should never be afraid to bluff.
Count Your Outs
When chasing a draw or trying to improve your hand, it's important to know how many cards in the deck improve your hand. Here are some common draws and how many cards will improve your hand:
- Flush Draw - 9 cards
- Open-Ended Straight Draw - 8 cards
- Gutshot Straight Draw - 4 cards
- One Pair > Two Pair+ - 5 cards
- Two Pair > Full House - 4 cards
Once you know how many cards will improve your hand, you can calculate how often it will happen using the 2/4 rule. The 2/4 rule is a shortcut to calculate the % of the time your hand will improve by the river based on the number of outs you have. If there is one street remaining, you multiply the number of outs you have by 2, and if two streets are remaining you multiply the number of outs you have by 4.
For example, if you have a flush draw on the turn you have 9 outs with 1 street remaining. Therefore you do 9 x 2 which equals 18 - meaning you will make your flush on the river around 18% of the time.
Do Not Chase Draws at Incorrect Prices
Whenever your opponent makes a bet or a raise, you are being laid a price to win the pot. For example, if your opponent bets $100 into a $200 pot, you need to call $100 to win a total of $300. These are called pot odds and in this example, means that you only need to win 25% of the time to break even on a call.
It's important that when you're drawing, you do so when you're getting the right price - otherwise, you're making a -EV play. If we use our 2/4 method we've just learned, we can see that if we were facing this $100 bet with a flush draw we wouldn't be getting the right price as we need to win 25% of the time to breakeven but will only make our flush 18% of the time.
Learning the mathematics of poker is a key part of becoming a winning player.
Take Advantage of Your Poker Positions
Position is extremely important in poker. Poker is a game of incomplete information so any information you can get on your opponent is valuable. By being in position, we get to see what our opponent does before we make our decision, which is hugely beneficial.
A lot of good players say the cards don't matter when you're playing in position and to an extent, that's true. Just by being able to act after our opponent, we can alter our game plan to best suit what we want our opponent to do. There are many hands that you can profitably play in position but would be unprofitable if played out of position. This is why we play the most hands from the BTN as we're guaranteed to be in position.
Bet Your Strong Hands
There is a trend amongst beginner players where they'll do anything to try and 'trick' their opponent; including slowplaying their strongest hands. They think that by just calling with their AA preflop or not raising a hand like a straight on the turn, they'll somehow end up winning a monster pot by the river as their opponent's "won't put them on it".
Once in a while this may happen, but it's far more profitable in the long run to bet your strong hands. Why is it more profitable? Because if you want to win big pots you have to build big pots, and this is done by value betting and raising when you have a strong hand. Your opponents may fold sometimes but if they do fold they didn't have a strong hand and likely wouldn't have put in much money anyway.
In Texas Hold'em poker, pot sizes grow exponentially and can be 4, 5, or even 6x bigger by the river if you bet aggressively instead of playing passively.
Observe Your Opponents Play
It's far too easy to get caught up in your own little world when you start playing, only worrying about your hand and what your decisions are. In doing so, you're missing out on a wealth of information sitting across the table from you.
Watching how your opponent plays, looking for patterns in the way they bet certain hands or play certain ranges will give you a great insight into the way they think and can help you adjust your game against them later.
Not only can you gather information on their strategy by watching them, but you can also pick up physical tells which can help you in the tough decisions later on.
Watch-Out for Changing Board Textures
The turn and the river card can have a huge impact on the strength of your hand. If a straight and flush come in on the river, suddenly your pair of aces may not look so strong. Conversely, if all draws miss then you may want to consider calling your opponent in case they're bluffing with a missed draw.
It's important when you're a beginning player to really look at each turn and river card and see if it makes any hands from the flop. Most players can see when a flush draw comes in as it's the third card of the same suit. However, straight draws are a lot easier to miss and can end up burning you if you don't notice them.
Beginner Poker Strategies to Avoid
Now that we've looked at what we should do at the tables, here's what to avoid:
Going All-In on Medium-Range Hands
Knowing which hands are worth going all-in with will come with experience but as a general rule, you only want to go all-in with your strongest hands. Preflop, this means that you should only be going all-in with hands like JJ/QQ/KK/AA/AK.
Postflop you'll want to avoid going broke with weak top pair hands as you'll often be facing a better hand. Instead, look for hands such as two pair or better or even a strong top pair/overpair. These situations will depend a lot on the board texture and hands like two pair aren't as strong if there's four to a flush and four to a straight on board.
Getting Married to a Hand
When a beginner player picks up a strong preflop hand such as QQ or KK, they find it nearly impossible to fold postflop - no matter what the board is. The reason behind this is that they already think they've won the hand once they've seen their preflop hand and will take it to showdown regardless of what happens postflop.
Instead, you should be very aware of when a board texture is good for your opponent's range and when it's bad for your hand. If you holdand the board is - your hand probably isn't going to be best anymore and you should save your money by folding.
You should be even more cautious in multiway pots as there are two ranges you need to be concerned about.
Playing a Loose Game
Beginners aren't skilled enough to navigate post-flop with a loose range - will end up bleeding money chasing big hands so tight is right.
Whilst playing a lot of hands preflop can be a fun thing to do, it won't be fun for your bankroll at the end of the night. When you're a beginner player you don't have the experience or skill to be able to profitably navigate postflop with a wide range and will end up losing money chasing big hands with weak holdings.
Instead, stick to tight preflop ranges that give you the best chance possible of winning the pot when you enter.
Always Bluffing When You Miss
When you always bluff you're going to be bluffing way more often than you're value betting so an observant opponent can exploit by always calling.
There is a temptation to bluff every time you don't make a hand in poker as you have no other way of winning the pot. The problem with that is if you always bluff when you miss, you're going to end up bluffing way too often.
If the number of bluffs far outweigh the number of value hands you can have, your opponents can always call you down and expect to win the majority of the time. Sometimes in poker, you just have to accept that you're going to lose the hand.
Never Bluffing When You Miss
On the other hand, you don't want to make the mistake of never bluffing when you don't make a hand in poker. If you never bluff, your opponents have no incentive to ever call you unless they have a strong hand themselves.
This means that not only do you miss out on opportunities to win the pot by bluffing, but you also won't get as much value from your strong hands as your opponents will know to fold whenever you bet.
Profitable Poker Tips for Beginners
So far we've covered in-game strategies, but here are some things you can do in preparation for your games that can help you be more profitable:
Have a Dedicated Poker Bankroll
Having a dedicated amount of money with which to play poker will help you keep better track of your wins and losses. If the money you use for poker is also being used for living costs then it can be easy to round up your winnings or round down your losses for a session.
When playing poker it's important to be honest with yourself about how you're doing in the games you play. This is because if you don't recognize how good/bad you are you won't know whether you need to increase your study time or maybe even move up in stakes. Keeping track of how well you're doing in your sessions is easier with a poker HUD.
Avoid Drinking and Playing
Poker is a game that requires your full thought and attention. It's a deeply analytical game and if you want to play well, you need to be in full control of your mental faculties. If you drink before or during your game, you won't be performing at your peak and potentially changing yourself from a winning player to a losing player.
You should arrive at a poker game well-rested, completely sober, and ready to play.
Do Not Play When Upset or Angry
When playing poker, you need to be able to objectively analyze how your opponent plays and what decisions you should take to make the most money. However, humans find this tough at the best of times, and if you're particularly emotional when you decide to play you're going to find this almost impossible.
Remember, you don't always have to play, and sometimes taking a break for a couple of days to get yourself in the right headspace is going to be much better than forcing yourself to play whilst in a heightened emotional state. Walk away from the poker table the minute you feel you are "on tilt", mostly to avoid donk betting.
Play with Stakes You are Comfortable With
When gambling, you should only gamble with money you can afford to lose.
Gambling with money needed for rent or groceries is a dangerous situation and should be avoided at all costs.
The portion of your bankroll you should risk at one time depends greatly on whether you're playing cash games or tournaments. Even if you have a lot of disposable income, some people aren't comfortable gambling for large amounts of money - and that's ok.
If you're playing in a poker game where the amount of money sitting in front of you is going to have a huge impact on your life, you should walk away. When the money means a lot to you, you'll find it a lot harder to make profitable decisions if it risks losing.
Do you think it would be easier to bluff all-in with 1% of your bankroll or 25% of your bankroll? Exactly.
Take Advantage of Promotions
The online poker scene is a very competitive market, with a lot of sites competing to have you play there. To entice players onto their sites, online poker rooms offer promotions and welcome bonuses that can reward you for playing or depositing on their site. These can be profitable to take advantage of if you haven't signed up for a site.
The most common ones you'll see are matched deposits where the poker site will match the amount of money you deposit onto the site (usually with a limit of around $500). This money is unlocked a little at a time by playing raked cash games/tournaments on the site.
Beginner Strategy: FAQ
We've collected and answered the most common questions beginner players have about poker:
What are the poker ranges that beginners should play preflop?
Beginner players should play a tight preflop range, mostly consisting of pocket pairs, suited connectors, broadway cards, suited Ax, and strong offsuit Ax hands. Your range should get wider as you approach the button where you can start to include some weaker hands because of your position.
When do players pay antes?
Players have to pay antes after a few early rounds of tournament poker or in later stages of sit-and-gos. Some cash games have antes but these are very rare and often found in the higher stakes games.
Why are poker positions important?
Position is important in poker because it gives you extra information on your opponent's hand. When you're in position you get to see the action your opponent takes before you make your decision which can help you decide the best action to take with your hand.
What are poker outs and how can they help you make a decision when facing a bet?
Poker outs are the number of cards left in the deck that could improve your hand to a higher hand ranking. These can help you make a decision when facing a bet as you can calculate the % of the time you'll improve your hand using the 2/4 rule and see if it's profitable to call based on the price you're being laid.
What is a poker gutshot draw?
A gutshot draw in poker is a straight draw that requires one card in the middle of a sequence to complete it. For example, if you have 8c7d in your hand and there's a 5h4sKd flop, then you would improve to a straight with a 6. This is different from an open-ended draw where you have four cards in sequence and two cards from either end can improve your hand to a straight.
Can playing a tight game help beginners win more hands?
Playing a tighter preflop game can help beginners win a higher percentage of hands than they would with a loose range. Whilst you may win a higher number of hands overall with a loose strategy, you'll end up winning a lower percentage of hands play and will lose money because of it.
How can I get an online poker site reload bonus?
You can find reload bonuses for poker sites by checking promotional material sent to you, searching for the poker site online, or if you speak with customer services they may give you a reload bonus.
When should I bluff in poker?
You should bluff in poker when your hand isn't likely to win at showdown and negatively impacts the value range of your opponent. For example, if you have no made hand on a three-spade board, it's better to bluff with a spade in your hand as you limit the number of flushes your opponent can have.
Should I trap with my strong hands in poker?
Trapping with your strong hands should rarely be done in poker. It's often much more profitable to play them aggressively both preflop and on the flop. By playing your strong hands aggressively you get more money into the pot than you would by trapping.
Do you need to bluff in poker?
Bluffing is a key part of poker, not only because it gives you a way to win the pot without having the best hand, but it also gives your opponents a reason to call you when you have a good hand. If you never bluff, your opponent would know that you have a good hand when you bet and would always fold unless they also had a good hand.
Why do poker games have blinds?
Poker games have blinds to force the action at the tables. Blinds and antes force you to play hands, as you'll end up "blinding out" if you try and wait for aces. The more money that is put in the middle before cards are dealt, the more likely players will try and raise to win it.
Poker is an incredibly fun game for players of all strength levels - but every game is more fun when you're winning! If you're just starting out, follow these poker beginner tips and strategies to improve your chances at the table.