“I want to get better at poker, but I suck at math.”
Chances are you’ve said this if you’re a novice poker player. It stopped me from approaching poker strategy for years.
Poker’s supposed mental math requirement is intimidating. But the reality is quite different—you can easily lift yourself out of the novice poker bracket with a few simple strategies and basic mental math tricks.
The first step is to stop losing money.
You won’t become a pro with these strategies, and that’s okay. Don’t worry about winning big money yet. Don’t run before you can walk.
If you’re familiar with the rules of Texas Hold ‘Em but are generally losing money over the long term in your games, employ the strategies below to start playing profitable poker.
You should be folding over three-fourths of your hole cards.
Seriously. This is worth stating again. If you’re dealt a hand you aren’t confident enough to raise with pre-flop, don’t bother flat-calling the big blind (also called “limping”).
Try this simple exercise when you’re dealt your hole cards. Ask yourself: am I willing to bet (or call a bet) of 3x the big blind with these cards?
If your answer is yes, then bet. Start extracting value with your good cards. And if your answer is no, then fold. Don’t bleed out blinds.
This exercise keeps you honest.
Limping in and praying for the flop to save your mediocre hand is not a winning poker strategy.
This goes counter to the “see as many flops as you can” strategy that most novice and mediocre “experienced” poker players live by. They’ll tell you that the more flops you see, the more opportunities you have to make a hand.
Theirs is a losing strategy.
Most of your garbage and marginal hands pre-flop won’t improve drastically on the flop. By limping in, you’re merely donating money to the pot, which will then be won by an opponent playing a stronger hand.
Novice players let their imaginations get ahead of them with their hole cards. Any pair of hole cards can turn into a hand, right? Even 83o (8 3 offsuit) could become a full house if the flop brings an 883. (They believe this especially strongly because remember that one time they flopped a full house? If they hadn’t played those shitty hole cards, it wouldn’t have happened!)
But the flop will almost never bring an 883 saving grace. And when you don’t flop a monster, your garbage hand has no equity. You’ll lose to virtually every hand.
Another risk: when you limp in pre-flop you’re risking getting attached to a mediocre hand.
Say you have a Q♥︎5♣ pre-flop. You limp in. The flop brings 4♦︎5♦︎6♥︎.
A bunch of marginal hands are now ahead of you. Any 23, 37, and 78 that were able to limp in are now sitting on a straight. Any 3x, 7x, and 8x hands are drawing to a straight. There’s a flush draw. The top pair 6s has you beat. And any pocket pairs 6s and up have you beat.
You’re stuck praying for a queen or a five. They have a combined ~10% chance of occurring. Even if you get a queen or five, there are too many other strong hands on the board.
Betting preflop solves this problem in two ways.
Evaluate your hole cards on four properties:
If your hole cards fulfill 2 or more of these categories, raise. If not, fold.
This is classified as tight-aggressive play. Sometimes it’s called ABC poker. Whatever you call it, it’s the first step towards playing poker profitably.
It’s not how pros play and that’s okay. After you’re breaking even, you can consider playing a looser range of hands. Remember to walk before you can run.
An example: KQs (suited) is definitely worth playing. It has:
On the other hand, J6o (offsuit) is not worth playing:
Poker is a gambling game. Betting is how you can exercise some control by forcing your opponents to decide which hands are worth playing and giving you additional information to guide your gameplay.
Let’s say you woke up to a strong hand. Get ready to start betting.
Never let your opponents see the next card for free. Whether it’s pre-flop or post-flop, bet. Grow the pot—your future earnings.
Bet and put your opponent in the tough spot of having to decide whether their hand is worth it. If they call, then you grow the pot and thus your winnings. Bet the maximum amount you think they’ll call.
If you think their hand might be better than yours, bet the minimum amount you think they’ll fold to.
Don’t slowplay hands to keep opponents in the game. Whether your opponent calls your bet or folds, you win the pot.
Betting narrows your opponents ranges and reduces the number of hands in play. Situation 1: you limp into a flop with six hands in play, there’s a greater chance that one of the hands will hit the flop. Situation 2: you bet 3bb and only two hands go into the flop. In both situations, the pot size is ~6bb; but in situation 2, you’ve edged out marginal hands that could connect to the board by chance.
Bet pre-flop and make your opponent decide whether their hand is worth the money to play. Force the ones with marginal hands to fold. Don’t give them the chance to see a cheap flop and get a lucky monster hand.
Betting also gives you information about your opponent’s hand. If your opponent calls your bet pre-flop, it doesn’t say much. But if they call your flop and turn bet as well, then you might be in for some trouble. If they come swinging with a big bet on the river, you’ll know to get out of their way.
Even if you have a strong hand, always evaluate the cards that landed on the flop. Could someone else have possibly hit a monster hand? Look out for straight draws, flush draws, and possible sets.
You shouldn’t fold simply because better hands exist. Better hands will always exist. Use information from your opponents such as their bet sizes and body language to determine your strategy. And use common sense. At this decision point, are you beating 80% of the possible hands on the board? Or are you losing to 80% of them?
Later in this post we’ll discuss some basic math that can help you out in such gray areas.
Let’s say you’re dealt Q♠ T♠ and you bet 2-3x the big blind pre-flop. Everyone folds except for one Villain. The flop is 8♣ T♣ 7♣. Villain bets 3x the pot.
Fold. Get out of there. You had a good hand pre-flop, but not anymore.
Your opponent’s outs (the cards that give them the winning hand) vastly outnumber yours.
You, on the other hand, have a pair of Ts, and no good draws. Your best possible hands are a straight or trips.
Fold this hand without hesitation.
Your opponent could be bluffing. (In fact, a board like this is exactly the kind of board your opponent is likely to bluff with). Further, your opponent’s bet is suspiciously big and it’s tempting to make a “hero call” on his bluff.
It’s not worth the cost of finding out. Don’t pay them off.
As you advance, you can use body language tells, bet sizing, and other information about your opponent to possibly make this call (or re-raise). But until you’re breaking even, focus on folding.
There are two positions on the table you want to be aware of: your absolute position and relative position.
Your absolute position is your order in betting.
The person who bets last is considered “in position”. This is also called being “on the button”.
This person has an informational advantage over everyone at the table. They see everyone’s bets and body language before their turn and can leverage that to determine their optimal play.
Your relative position is your position relative to the most aggressive player at the table.
This is often more important than your absolute position. If you bet before the most aggressive player, you risk being re-raised, potentially significantly, until folding is your only option.
Your relative position improves if you’re betting after the most aggressive player. Even if you aren’t on the button, betting after the most aggressive player puts you in a safer position.
The term “out of position” is generally used to describe being in a poor table position, such as betting early or betting before the most aggressive player. Your position affects how you play at every decision point.
While out of position:
If you’re in an early betting position and have a monster hand that you’re sure is the best at the table, it’s safe to check one of the earlier streets instead of betting. (A street is after a new card is revealed. The three streets are flop, turn, and river.) Check through an early street to see if your opponents will bet with lesser hands and hang themselves. It’s a win–win:
There is a time and place for bluffing, and it has a place in profitable poker strategy. As you advance your poker game, you’ll learn to identify these situations. But until you’re breaking even in your poker play, resist the urge to cold bluff. It’s an easy way to lose a lot of money.
There are two types of bluffs: cold bluffs and semi-bluffs. A cold bluff is when you bet with a hand that simply can not become the winning hand, no matter what cards come on the turn or river. A semi-bluff is when you have decent odds of drawing out to the winning hand.
Semi-bluffing is a healthy part of your game. If you’re drawing out to a strong hand or have multiple draws, you should be betting for value.
Cold bluffs should be avoided like the plague. Save that money for value betting strong hole cards.
Corollary: if your opponent’s behavior indicates a bluff, resist the urge to “hero call” their bet when you don’t have a strong hand. (To hero call is to call a bet with intention to expose a bluff). Your opponent might be bluffing. They may also be sitting on a monster hand and trying to appear as though they’re bluffing in order to induce a hero call. It doesn’t matter; if your hand is not a strong hand, just fold.
Don’t let ego get in the way of your winnings. This isn’t TV poker. Let your opponent take the pot. Don’t pay them off. Don’t lose money unnecessarily.
It’s worth repeating here that poker is a gambling game. And while poker strategy can help you exercise greater control over your game, but there will always be short term variance in outcomes.
This means that even with optimal gameplay, you can find yourself short-stacked, running low on chips relative to other players.
Short-stack strategy is straightforward, but far from simple. Your goal is to identify hands to shove all-in, either to induce a fold or to double-up.
It’s important to recognize early-on that you’re short-stacked. A stack of around 20bb is generally when you should start playing a short-stack strategy.
If you let your stack get too short , you can no longer shove all-in in order to induce a fold. If “shoving” means pushing 5bb into a 20bb pot, that won’t scare anyone.
Let’s say you find yourself short-stacked. Start by calculating how many more hole cards you can see, assuming you’ll fold each one. This is done by dividing your stack by the big blind + little blind and multiplying the result by the number of players around the board.
If your stack is $21 in a $1-2 game with 6 players, then you have:
= 21 / (1 + 2) * 6
= 21 / 3 * 6
= 7 * 6
42 hole cards left to see, assuming you fold every hand you’re dealt.
Why does this matter? This is how much life you have left at the table. Within the next 42 hands, you need to find a hand you’re willing to shove your stack with.
There are two types of hands you can shove with.
One is a marginal hand. When you shove with a marginal hand, you want to induce a fold from your opponents. Use this strategy when you sense weakness at the table. Leverage your table position when shoving to induce folds. If you’re in-position, your opponents are betting small, seem uninterested in the hand, and the board texture doesn’t spell trouble, then shove to induce folds.
Second are strong hands. You want your opponents to call when you shove with your strong hands. Shove when you feel they have a hand they’re willing to take to showdown. These are your best opportunities to double-up.
You can’t wait for the nuts when you’re short-stacked. You need to do your best to pick situations where you probably have the best hand and then commit.
These bets won’t always work. A Villain will call your bet when you wanted to induce a fold. Another Villain will fold a small bet you want them to bite.
But it doesn’t have to work every time. They just need to work often enough so you’re ahead in the long run.
You’ll often find yourself in a wishy-washy position where it’s not clear whether you should fold or call a bet. This could be because your opponents bet isn’t big enough to instant- fold. It could also be a situation where you have multiple draws and two cards left to see.
These are situations where some simple math can save the day.
First, you want to calculate your outs. Outs are the cards you’re waiting on to improve your hand into the winning hand.
Say you’re on a flush draw. You have two diamonds in hand and two on the board. There are nine diamonds left that can complete your draw. You have nine outs.
Or you’re on a flush and straight draw. You have 8♦9♦ in hand. The board is 6♦7♠K♦. Not only do you have 9 diamonds as outs, you also have four Ts and four 5s that complete your straight. Remember to discount the 5♦ and T♦. This gives you 9+3+3 = 15 outs.
After calculating your outs, use…
The rule of 2 and 4 is some back-of-the-napkin math that allows you to calculate the chances of your hand becoming the winning hand. It’s calculated by multiplying your outs by either 2 or 4.
When you’re on the flop and betting for the turn, multiply your outs by 2. When you’re on the turn betting to see the river, multiply your outs by 2.
The only case where you multiply your outs by 4 is on the flop when there are no future rounds of betting, meaning you get to see both the turn and the river by calling this bet. (No future rounds of betting occurs when all players (or all players except one) are all-in.)
Say you’re on the flop with 15 outs against one Villain. Villain shoves all-in. What are the chances you’ll make your winning hand? In this case, since there are no future rounds of betting, multiply your outs by 4. 15*4 = 60% chance you make your hand.
If Villain weren’t all-in, then you’re only guaranteed to see the turn. Multiply your outs by 2. 15*2 = 30% chance you make your hand.
Once you’ve counted your outs and used the rule of 2 and 4 to calculate your chance of making your hand, you want to compare it to your pot odds.
Pot odds are the relationship between the money you are contributing by calling a bet and the pot size you win (if you call and win).
There are multiple ways to calculate pot odds, but I find using percentages to be the most straightforward.
Again, the math is simple. Divide your bet by the pot + opponents bet + your bet. This gives you the percentage of the final pot you are contributing.
Say the pot is $50. You’re up against one Villain, who bets $10. If you call, you are contributing $10. If you call and win, you win $50 + $10 + $10 = $70. So your pot odds are 1:6, or 1/7 or ~14%.
Compare the chances of your winning the pot (outs * 2 or 4) to your pot odds. If your chances of winning the bet are higher, then call. If lower, then fold. If they’re about even, go with your gut.
Let’s use the examples above to demonstrate.
You’re drawing to a flush with two diamonds in hand and two on the board. There are nine diamonds left that can complete your draw, meaning you have nine outs.
Your opponent bets $10 into a $50 pot. Everyone folds to you. Since your opponent is not all-in and calling does not take you all-in either, you multiply your outs by 2. You have a 18% chance of making your hand.
Your pot odds are $10 / $70, or 14%. This is an easy call.
What if the betting went differently? Say your opponent bet $30 into a $50 pot. Without calculating your chance of winning and pot odds, this is a difficult situation. But with simple math, you know your pot odds are $30/$130, or 23%, which exceeds your 18% of chance of making your hand. Fold.
There will be cases where the odds are close—18% pot odds versus 20% chance of winning. Or vice versa. This is where your other skills—not discussed at length in this post—come into play. Consider your opponents’ betting behavior, body language, and interest in their cards, and make a decision based on whether you think you’re ahead or behind. Poker is a gambling game—not all of your decisions will be straightforward.
TV poker teaches us bad habits: bluffing, making hero calls, and playing marginal hands.
Excitement means the next card can make or break you. What you want from your poker strategy is less excitement.
The first step to playing profitable poker is to stop losing money. The second is to identify easy situations to make money.
You won’t go pro with these strategies, and that’s okay. Walk before you can run. By knowing the value of your cards, leveraging your table position, betting for value, and using simple math to get yourself out of tough situations, you’re on your way to playing profitable poker.