The best way to start building a solid poker strategy is by learning basic poker fundamentals. The basic fundamentals are built around core concepts that contribute to winning money at the game. Similarly to any other game or sport, mastering the fundamentals will build “muscle memory” and make learning more advanced concepts much easier.
The first step is to gain a sound theoretical understanding of what drives profit in poker. This is because without knowing where the money comes from, it’s virtually impossible to gain the necessary perspective that allows for optimized learning. That is where the fundamentals come into play which will be the focus of the rest of this guide.
What You Will Learn
Once you understand the basic rules of Texas Hold’em gameplay, which we discussed in the first installment of this beginner’s guide, it’s time to dive into actually building a profitable strategy to employ at the tables.
Invariably, any successful long-term poker strategy contains several ubiquitous elements. Attempting to play poker without at least a rudimentary grasp of these components will impair your progress. Some elements may be somewhat difficult to understand at first or even appear unpleasant to master.
I tell you this in the spirit of full disclosure, not to dishearten or demoralize you. On the contrary, I want you to know that having a full theoretical understanding of poker should empower you. Few will take the time to master all of the concepts necessary to achieve the object of the game, which gives anyone that takes the time to do so an edge over their opponents.
Here is what this article will cover:
- The Object of the Game
- Expected Value
- Pot Odds
- The Fundamentals of Poker
- Where the Money Comes From
The Object of the Game
Being proficient at poker is much more than just learning about when to bet, raise, or call. In fact, those are just the tools we use to carry out the tactics of gameplay. Before you can know how to successfully employ those tactics, you must first have a game plan, or strategy, that gives you the best chance of performing actions that achieve your ultimate goal: to win money.
All actions should be made with winning in mind. If an action does not win money, you consider another action. If there is no profitable action, you simply fold. How do we know if an action is profitable? By analyzing the expected value.
Expected value, or EV, refers to the net won or lost on average for each and every poker decision you make. The individual result of one poker hand is not important. All that matters is whether a specific decision will show a profit or loss were the situation to be played out over an infinite number of occasions. If a particular decision or action shows a net long-term gain, it is profitable (+EV). If the action shows a deficit, it is -EV or a “leak.” As you might have guessed, a leak is any action that loses over the long term.
It’s All About the Long Haul
What I am talking about here is a focus on the long term. Instead of worrying about whether a particular decision will or will not win or lose the current hand, your focus should be on choosing actions that lead to the best long-term monetary outcome. That’s how professional poker players think, and you should as well.
Sometimes there is more than one profitable outcome. Often, there is no profitable action or the situation is so unclear that it’s virtually impossible to know whether the play will be profitable or not. In the case of the latter, it’s typically best to check and/or fold and move on to a more clear spot. As you gain experience, unclear spots will become fewer and farther between.
How To Break Down Profit or Loss
In poker, there are two ways of profiting. Either you win at showdown by making the best hand, or you win when everyone folds to your bet or raise. Respectively, these are called Showdown (SD) earnings and non-showdown earnings. The sum or difference between these two types of income, minus the rake, determines whether a particular hand or action is +EV or not.
Choosing The Right Action
While the concept of EV might seem overwhelming to some of you, it’s actually not as difficult to put into practice as you might think. This is because you only have to make one decision at a time, and there are typically only two to three options for you to make. And, just like on a multiple choice test, sometimes one or two of the choices are obviously really good or glaringly inferior.
Example #1 – Choose the Most +EV Option
Let’s say someone has open-raised before the flop, we hold KK, and action is on us. In that case, we have three options.
We know that pocket Kings is the second-best hand in poker, so we can immediately eliminate folding as an option. While folding does not lose anything, it certainly makes us less money over the long term than the other two options will. That makes it -EV. Therefore, we have to choose between calling or 3-betting. It’s our job to weigh the various factors in play at that moment and pick the one that appears to be most +EV.
With experience, 90% or better of all of your decisions will become this cut and dried.
Mastering Expected Value
The sum total of all decisions made over time determines how much is won. Our goal should be to eliminate as many losing situations as possible and increase the number of winning ones. In other words, part of mastering expected value is to create profitable situations for ourselves. If we learn a bit about pot odds and adhere to a few fundamentals, it becomes a lot easier than you might think.
When deciding between one or more options, it is often necessary to understand how pot odds work. Pot odds are the ratio of the current pot size compared to the cost of making a call.
How do I Figure Out Pot Odds?
To compare your pot odds with the equity, it’s easiest to express pot odds as a percentage. To do this, you divide the bet size of the pot after your call. For example, let’s say our opponent bets $5 into a $10 pot. That makes the potential pot size $20 (the pot + his bet + your call) and the amount you have to call $5. Therefore $5÷$20= 25%.
Pot Odds of Common Bet Sizings
- Full Pot Bet = 2:1 or 33%
- 3/4 Pot Bet = 2.3:1 or 30%
- 1/2 Pot Bet = 3:1 or 25%
- 1/3 Pot Bet = 4:1 or 20%
How do I use Pot Odds?
Pot odds come into play when it is likely that you do not have the winning hand now but there is a chance that your hand can improve to the best hand on a future street. This chance is typically expressed as a percentage and is determined by the number of “outs” that you have.
What Are Outs?
An out is referred to as the cards in the deck that could potentially come and improve a poker hand in some way. Outs are typically associated with “drawing hands,” but can also apply to “made hands” as well.
Made Hands Versus Draws
A made hand simply means a holding that has a strong potential of being best on the current street. One pair, two-pair, three-of-a-kind, and anything better can be categorized as a made hand.
A draw is a hand that is currently not “made” but has the potential to become made on a future street. While this term could be applied broadly, I mean any hand could become a pair on a future street. When someone is talking about a draw, they are usually referring to un-made hands that have numerous outs. When an out comes for a particular holding, the result is always in either a made hand or a stronger made hand.
Most commonly, when people think of a draw, they envision one that can become a really strong hand, like a flush or a straight. You will hear people refer to “flush draws” or “straight draws” which are exactly what they sound like. If you hold two spades, for example, and the flop contains two spades as well, then you only need one more spade to make a flush. Therefore, you have a flush draw. A straight draw is when your hand currently makes four cards to a straight.
Determining Number of Outs
Any future cards that can improve a draw are known as outs. When involved in a hand, you should instantly be able to recognize how many likely outs you have based on your draw. Here are 5 commonly held hands on the flop and the number of outs of each one.
- 2 outs: Under Pair (Drawing to a set)
In the example, the only two outs left in the deck are the other two fours.
- 4 outs: Gutshot Straight Draw
In order to make a straight in the example, a King would have to come.
- 6 outs: Over Cards
In this example, top-pair can be made if either a Queen or a King comes on the turn or river.
- 8 outs: Open-Ended Straight Draw
An example of a 4-card straight. In order to complete the 5-card straight, a Six or a Jack would have to come.
- 9 outs: Two Card Flush Draw
Flush draws are very easy to recognize. In this example, any spade on the turn or river will make a flush.
I recommend that you memorize these five common draws as they will allow you to navigate the vast majority of drawing situations you will face. They will help you determine your equity so that you can make correct “pot odds” decisions.
What is Equity?
In poker, equity refers to the percentage of a pot that is “owned” by the players involved in a hand on a specific street. Expressed another way, it is how likely a player is to win by the river if he or she were all-in right now. For the purposes of determining EV, equity only really matters pre-flop, on the flop, and on the turn. Once you are on the river and no further cards are to come, equities are established. In other words, you either have the winning hand and 100% equity, or the losing hand and 0% equity.
How is Equity Used?
Equity is a tool that is used to determine the course of many of our poker decisions. By relying on math and knowing our approximate equity at any given time, we can make better-informed actions. By converting our chance to win into a ratio or percentage, we can determine the viability of both calling and raising in specific situations.
How do I Determine Equity?
Equity is a mathematical problem. Once you determine your potential outs, you can do the math based on the number of cards in the deck. Here are the chances of improving based on the number of outs and current post-flop street.
Now, don’t worry. You don’t have to be a math person to figure out your approximate equity. You just need to use the same “trick” that I have used for years.
The Rule of 4 & 2
Determining your approximate equity is simple really. All you need to do is multiply your number of outs by 4 on the flop and 2 on the turn.
For example, let’s say you have a gutshot straight draw on the flop which gives you 4 outs. 4 times 4 equals 16, so you can expect to hit your gutshot 16% of the time by the river. 4 times 2 is 8, so you can expect to hit your gutshot 8% of the time by the turn. The actual numbers are 16.5% and 8.7%, but the results are close enough to make intelligent decisions.
Using Pot Odds and Equity to Determine the Expected Value
When holding a drawing hand and facing a bet, pot odds can be used to determine the expected value of making a call. You do this by comparing your pot odds with your current equity. If your equity is higher than the pot odds (percentage chance of improving), then you can profitably make the call.
Let’s say you flop a flush draw with 9 potential outs and face a bet of $8 into a pot of $12. Our pot odds are $8/$28= 29%. Based on the rule of 4 & 2 you have approximately an 18% chance of making your flush by the turn. Since 18% is not higher than the pot odds of 29%, we cannot profitably call the bet based on the “direct odds.” Even so, sometimes we can still make a call in this or similar situations if our opponent might invest more money in the pot on the occasions we make our hand. This is known as “implied odds.”
Implied odds can be defined as the amount of money you stand to win on later streets, should you call a bet or raise and then make a strong hand. There is no way to know exactly what your implied odds are in any given situation, but you can learn to recognize common scenarios where calling is profitable.
Specific hand types that tend to have strong implied odds are small pairs, suited connectors, and non-suited connectors. These holdings can make well-disguised straights, two-pair, and three of a kind hands. Suited connectors have the added benefit of potentially flopping powerful “combo draws.” A combo draw most commonly refers to having both straight and flush draws.
After the flop, hands that have high implied odds tend to be disguised straight draws like gutshots, or a turned/rivered two-pair. Before considering making an implied odds call you need to be fairly certain that your opponent is strong enough to put more money in the pot after you make your hand and that you don’t have “reverse implied odds” issues.
Understanding Reverse Implied Odds
Reverse implied odds refers to situations where you call a bet and make your hand, but are still second best. This concept affects each implied odds decision you will make and is the most important factor when deciding to continue without initiative. As a rule, you will want to avoid these situations like the plague. You will rarely have the necessary implied odds to call in most situations. So, if reverse implied odds is a concern, then you almost never want to commit more chips to the pot with a speculative hand.
Before the flop, reverse implied odds situations arise by making calls with hands that can make strong hands which are not the nuts. A good example is suited hands that do not include an Ace. Since many players like to limp suited Ax hands, you will find that your frequency of losing flush over flush will be increased when you consistently call with two cards just because they are suited.
The Fundamentals of Poker
While math is an important part of poker, you don’t have to be a numbers genius to excel at the game. With experience, all of the math-based decisions you will make will become second-nature and are not something to rack your brain on too much while learning. In fact, the vast majority of our decisions are not math-based at all.
Much more important to winning at poker is an adherence to the fundamentals along with the ability to adjust your play based on what your opponents are doing. While learning to adjust to other players has a fairly steep learning curve, mastering the fundamentals are actually quite easy. Without a doubt, a complete novice can instantly get rid of a large number of leaks just by implementing them.
What Are Fundamentals?
It is my firm belief that learning poker should be accomplished similarly to any other game or sport. The first step toward mastery is always in learning the basic fundamentals. A fundamental is a tried and true or proven element of the game that, when followed correctly, increases a person’s chance of success.
In poker, there are strategic elements that, when adhered to, inherently lend themselves to profitable play. In fact, the fundamentals of poker act as a recipe for winning at the game. Indeed, all strong poker players build their entire poker games around these core elements. Therefore, if you ever find yourself struggling, you can always fall back on the fundamentals to get yourself back on track.
In poker there are three core fundamentals:
Position by far is the most important fundamental element of a winning poker strategy. Since poker is a game of information, whoever maintains an informational advantage, has an inherent edge. This is where position comes in.
To play in position means to act last after the flop. If you act last, you get to see what everyone else does before it’s your turn. This extra bit of information is very powerful and cannot be overstated.
The dynamic between the in-position player versus the out-of-position player is a hugely relevant factor in every single poker hand that is played. Position governs just about everything you do at the table. In fact, it is the determining factor as to how profitable a poker starting hand is!
The next important fundamental has to do with driving the action in poker. Having initiative means that you were the last aggressor on the prior street. For example, if you open-raised pre-flop and were called, you have initiative. Post-flop, the only way you can obtain control of the pot is to raise someone’s bet or have them relinquish initiative to you by checking.
In general, it is always more profitable to be the one controlling a poker hand. The reason is that you are the one making a bet and can win the pot without having to see a showdown. Therefore, you should always actively seek out initiative going into post-flop. In other words, try to be the pre-flop aggressor and avoid calling, unless you have a very specific reason.
The most common scenario where you will see initiative play out is when a player open raises, is called, and then has the option to “continuation bet” (c-bet). C-betting means to follow through on the flop with a bet after being the last pre-flop aggressor. Oftentimes a pot can be won uncontested even without making this hand. This makes c-betting a powerful tool in a player’s arsenal. The only way to use this tool is by having initiative.
Aggressive actions almost always tend to be more profitable than passive ones. Not only does it force your opponents to constantly react to you, but it also adds hidden profit to your game that a lot of players overlook. What I am talking about here, is fold equity.
What is Fold Equity?
When you apply pressure to an opponent through a bet or raise, there are three possible outcomes: he can either call, he can raise you, or he can fold. This fact has far-reaching implications for your long-term poker profit. When an opponent folds to your bet, you win the pot immediately without having to go to showdown. It doesn’t matter if your hand is strong or weak, you still win the pot.
Why Fold Equity Matters
Let’s take an example and say you have a particular hand on a flop and make a bet. Sometimes your opponent will have a hand he can call with. Sometimes he will have a hand he can raise with. Other times, he will have a hand that he will fold and you win the pot uncontested. Now think about this situation, or a similar one, occurring thousands of times over your poker career. Bear with me here, as I explain the significance of this.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that, on average, you win $10 by the river when called, lose $10 by the river when raised, and win $2 when he folds to the bet on the flop. What is your average profit in this spot if your opponent calls, raises, or folds with an equal frequency? Positive $2! Basically, what this means is that the reason you profit when you bet in this situation is that your opponent sometimes folds.
Therefore, fold equity is the extra amount of equity that you gain when you factor in how likely it is that your opponent will fold. In fact, you will find that many situations are unprofitable if your opponent doesn’t fold often enough to overcome the times that they call or raise. The key is becoming adept at when you have a lot of fold equity and when you don’t. Even so, don’t worry about that right now. For now, you just need to understand what fold equity is and how it will add to the overall long-term profitability of hands that you play aggressively. The main point here is that if you never bet or raised, you would miss out on these non-showdown earnings.
Using Fundamentals to Your Advantage
Playing in position gives an informational advantage while playing with initiative and pressure gives an overall profit advantage via fold equity. Overall, if we build a poker game around the fundamentals and our opponents do not, we enjoy an insurmountable advantage against them. Before we move on, I want to give you three takeaways regarding the fundamentals of poker:
- Since we know initiative and pressure is important, we should avoid calling without a clear path to profit in doing so.
- Due to fold equity, we should always favor betting or raising, before considering other options.
- Since we know acting last is advantageous, our pre-flop starting hands we choose to play should mostly be determined by position.
Where the Money Comes From
Just knowing whether a play is +EV or not is just the beginning. Frustratingly for some folks, this information will not necessarily lead to winning money in poker. Bear with me here as this is both somewhat difficult to grasp and equally challenging to explain in an understandable way. Even so, it is paramount that you understand where the money comes from, or how profit is made, in poker.
Of all the concepts that you must master to win at poker, there is one overriding thing that you must comprehend before you can fully maximize your potential as a player. In fact, everything you do at the tables is a reflection of this one core idea. After all is said and done and the long term is reached, how are the winners distinguished from the losers?
The answer might seem obvious. I mean the winners obviously win because they play better than the losers. But what is at the heart of playing better? I mean how do we define what playing better means in a holistic sense? That answer is called “reciprocality.”
What is Reciprocality?
First coined by Tommy Angelo, reciprocality basically says that, over the long term, when you handle a specific situation the same as your opponent, no money changes hands. When you handle a situation differently, one player profits to the detriment of the other. For example, if you and your opponent both play pocket Aces the same exact way and both end up with an average profit of $10 every time you each play it, then you both break even against each other and no one has an edge. Apply that same concept to every action, on every hand, over every street, against the entire player pool for your entire poker career and you can see how money changes hands.
Basically, what this means is the small things often count more than the big, exciting hands or actions. I mean, think about it. Everyone makes a lot of profit when they hold monster hands like AA or KK before the flop, or when they flop a flush or better after the flop. Indeed, it’s really hard to play hands poorly, so the lifetime profit for these often dramatic and thrilling hands is through the roof. However, since everyone is making a ton of profit in these spots, there isn’t much room for actually making a long-term “reciprocal” profit against the player pool.
But what about those insignificant “boring” actions that not many people are paying attention to, how much do they matter?
Using Reciprocality In Practice
The way we use the concept of reciprocality lies in the knowledge that every single aspect of your poker game matters when you view how profit works in a long-term sense. Trivial actions that many players neglect could actually be a gold mine of profit if you figure out how to play it better than everyone else. Even so, while constant improvement is important in how much money we make at the game, it’s not the most critical takeaway from understanding reciprocality.
Much more importantly, what reciprocality tells us is that not only do we have to scrutinize every aspect of the way we play poker, we also have to realize that it’s the quality of our opponents’ actions that really drives how much money we make. In other words, to maximize our profit, we need to play against opponents who are fundamentally inferior. Ultimately, it’s not necessarily how good we play that determines how much money we make. What really matters, is how much worse our opposition was during our poker career.
You may be wondering why I included such an advanced concept in a beginner’s guide. First off, this information is vital if you ever want to become the best player you can possibly be. And while it is a bit complicated to initially learn, once you grasp how reciprocality works, the beauty lies in its far-reaching simplicity. Secondly, this knowledge will make the learning curve of the rest of your poker journey so much easier. I only wish I had been told this back when I was a beginner!
Now that you have a basic understanding of the object of poker, it’s time to start working toward using the basics to start building a workable strategy. In the next section, I will teach you how fundamentals drive strategy and tactics. You will also learn about maximizing EV, thinking in ranges, and more. However, before you move on, make sure that you understand every concept laid out in parts one and two. If there is anything that you are unclear on, it might make the next concepts much more difficult to grasp.