Putting Poker Theory Into Practice | Laying the Foundation for Exploitative Play

In part 3 of the tutorial, we discussed the advanced strategy fundamentals of Texas Hold’em. Now it’s time to convert poker theory and fundamentals into practice and start building an actual gameplan for how you will play at the poker tables. The best place to start is by building a core strategy that you can rely on as a starting point before factoring the table dynamic into your decisions.

As we have discussed, poker is a people game and adjusting to what other players are doing is the key to maximizing profit. Through experience, you will find that you are forming similar plans over and over again for common situations. In fact, you will eventually have a fully-stocked mental inventory of precise lines that you will use against specific opponent types or particular table dynamics. Even so, we must have a baseline from which to adjust. This is where having a fundamentally sound vacuum strategy comes in.

What You Will Learn

This part of the guide is all about developing a core game that is both strategically and tactically sound. Keep in mind that in order to progress as a player you must continually work on optimizing your game which includes more than just gameplay. You must also work on the mental side of poker and actively develop a systematic plan for studying and improving as a player. To that end, we will cover:

Why Develop a Core Strategy?

I cannot overstate the importance of having a core “vacuum” strategy memorized. It simplifies the decision-making process and allows you to focus your attention on the important aspects of what drives profit in poker. These include:

  • Table selection
  • Taking notes on opponents
  • Adjusting to other players

Your goal should be to have a “standard” line of play for every possible situation you might face at the table. Before the flop, you should have positionally specific ranges for open raising, 3-betting, 4-betting, calling, and limping. After the flop, you should have a vacuum c-betting, check-raising, donk-betting, floating range, etc. Indeed, 100% of the time that action is on you, you should instantly know exactly what your vacuum play is.

How Do I Choose Vacuum Ranges & Lines?

A vacuum strategy should be tailored to the typical nature of the games that you play in. This will vary from poker room to poker room. What I mean is that if you play on a site that is typically composed of strong regulars, your standard strategy might be very different than if you play on a more recreational-oriented site that typically has two to three fish on your average table. One size definitely does not fit all, so you will have to evaluate the play at your home site before forming a general strategy. Even so, I will go through the theoretical basic principles of both pre-flop and post-flop and point you in the right direction on building your core strategy.

The Fundamentals Shall Guide Us

The fundamentals apply to every practical decision point that we face in a hand from pre-flop through to the last river decision. Therefore, every bet, check, call, or raise should be made within the parameters of that theory. In other words, our entire game should be built upon what we know drives profit in poker.

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Building a Pre-Flop Vacuum Strategy

Building a pre-flop vacuum strategy is fairly straightforward since there are only ever four potential situations that you will face before the flop when it’s your turn to act.

  1. The pot is unopened.
  2. The pot is unopened with one or more limpers.
  3. The pot has been raised.
  4. The pot has been re-raised.

Pretty simple stuff. You only need to learn how to play four different pre-flop situations. Let’s cover each situation in turn and discuss how we can use fundamental theory to create a winning strategy.

Unopened Pots

When everyone before us folds and it’s our turn to act, we have three possible choices. We can either just call the big blind (limp), open raise, or fold. Since we know that one of the core fundamentals is to play with initiative, except in very specific cases, we can rule out limping as an option. Therefore, almost always we want to be either raising or folding.

Choosing an opening range

The main point of a pre-flop opening range is to set up a profitable post-flop scenario. Since we know that playing in position as often as possible is key to post-flop success, we want to build our strategy around that fundamental. Therefore, as we get closer to the button, we want to include more hands in our opening range. Theoretically, our first position opening range should be our tightest range and our button range should be our loosest.

A screenshot showing a 6-max table with the opening ranges color coded to show opening range frequency. The darker the color, the more hands that should be opening from that position.

Heatmap showing theoretical opening range frequencies.

From the diagram, you will notice that UTG will open the fewest hands and our frequencies will increase as we move around the table. You may be wondering why the Small Blind opens the widest range on the table since that position will never be in position after the flop. The reason is that there are two factors working in our favor that actually, as an exception, trump positional considerations. First, we are guaranteed to be heads up and don’t have to worry about the weaker hands in our range being atrophied by multiple 3-betting ranges. Secondly, initiative and pressure theoretically set up an inherently profitable c-betting scenario against most opponents.

Typical Vacuum Opening Ranges

The typical frequencies that you will encounter for each position are as follows in a 6-max game:

  • UTG: 12%-15%
  • HJ: 14%-18%
  • CO: 25%-30%
  • BTN: 35%-50%
  • SB: 30%-90%
    I recommend using Pokerstove or a similar equity calculator to see what these ranges might look like. The exact ranges you choose can vary based on your personal poker strengths and your typical opposition.

Limped Pots

When action is on you and there are one or more limpers, other than folding, you have two options: you can either raise or “isolate” the limper(s) or you can limp yourself. While limping does become slightly more attractive with additional dead money already in the pot, your first option should always be to raise. This is because you can usually play a pot in position against a potentially weak player (bad players limp often) while seizing the initiative at the same time. Only consider limping after eliminating raising as a +EV option.

Today, isolating limpers is a well-known tactic that the vast majority of competent players actively integrate into their strategy. Even if called, the isolator will often benefit from the post-flop mistakes of his opponent. Specifically, players who limp are often trying to see a cheap flop to try to make a hand. Therefore, they will usually play fit or fold on the flop, thus setting up a profitable c-bet scenario. I will not go any further into specifics as game-flow will determine both your range and your raise sizing. I just want you to be aware that isolating is a great tool for exploiting weaker opponents.

What Hands Do I Limp?

If, after weighing all factors, you determine that isolating is not a +EV option, only then should you consider limping. However, be careful not to limp hands that are easily dominated or cannot easily make the nuts. For example, limping J3s to try and flop a flush draw is a really bad idea since other players will often limp suited high card hands like Axs, Kx, etc. There’s nothing worse than losing a huge pot flush over flush. Hands that you should be looking to limp are pairs 22-99, suited connectors like T9s, and suited Ax hands. Just be careful not to get married to mediocre hands! Remember, you are limping to flop a monster hand or draw, not a weak top pair. Since so many other players will typically be involved in a multi-way limped pot, you need a much stronger hand to commit.

Raised Pots

When there has a been a raise before it is your turn, you have the option of either re-raising (3-betting) or flat calling. As with any other decision we make, we can let the fundamentals dictate how we make our choices.

First off, if we have a top tier hand we almost always want to 3-bet it in order to build a pot against an inferior range. Therefore, we should set aside the best hands as always being a vacuum 3-bet. These hands include AK and QQ+ since they are typically able to continue against a 4-bet.

It’s the mid-strength hands that most people become confused on whether to 3-bet or call. But, if we look at the fundamentals, we can make intelligent decisions on how to build positional ranges. Most importantly, our actions are dictated by our post-flop position.

Deciding Between Flatting or 3-Betting

When making any decision, you should always ask yourself what your situation will be on the flop. You generally want to have at least one of the fundamentals working in your favor going into the flop. By that logic, it immediately becomes clear that we should avoid flat-calling out of position without a clear path to profit. Therefore, out of position, we should be more inclined to either 3-bet or fold.

In fact, until you gain significant experience and become reasonably good at hand reading (putting people on ranges), I recommend that you avoid flat-calling almost entirely. The only exception would be for times that you are are in an overwhelmingly favorable pot odds situation. Remember, if you are not getting 3 to 1 immediate odds and hold a reasonably good speculative hand that can make the nuts, you should almost always be folding

Re-Raised Pots

Until you gain enough experience to recognize when someone is 3-betting wide, for now when there has been a raise and a re-raise before action gets to you, your default play should always be to stick to only playing the top of your range. Here’s a hint, sometimes you will need to fold even AK or QQ, especially if the open-raiser was in early position.

However, if you are in the blinds and an aggressive opponent 3-bets (resteals) against a player who steals wide, then this is a great opportunity to sometimes 4-bet a bit light. As a rule of thumb, if I hold a hand that I would resteal with myself, then it is almost always a good hand to 4-bet light. In fact, you can often widen a bit further due to the extra “dead money.”

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Building a Post-Flop Vacuum Strategy

Even after years and years of an incremental increase in general poker knowledge, the vast majority of players still have no clue what to do when the flop comes down. Much of the improvement in the player pool has been in the pre-flop game. Anyone can download a pre-flop hand chart and open a “reasonable,” if typically too tight, range from various positions. Even the least skilled regulars now understand pot odds and have a fundamental grasp of the 3-bet and 4-bet game.

But there are four streets in poker: pre-flop, flop, turn, and river. And even many self-proclaimed poker pros seem content with only understanding 25% of poker. For some reason, post-flop play still remains a mystery, and there are very few players with the patience and will to spend the time necessary to build a strong game after the flop.

Sure most regulars understand about c-betting and keeping the lead. A few even grasp the concept of how ranges connect with certain boards. But, as a whole, your average poker player is still mostly lost after the flop.

The Key to Mastering Post-Flop

So, why is the learning curve so high for post-flop? I believe the answer lies in the way players have learned how to play pre-flop. Most have learned pre-flop strategy separately and completely exclusive from post-flop considerations.

But this way of approaching the game is inherently flawed. Pre-flop and post-flop play are inextricably linked. All actions before the flop should be based on post-flop implications. Ultimately, it all comes down to hand planning. And sound hand planning is what separates the big winners from your average struggling reg.

Plan Your Hands

Once you learn to form a plan for a hand and set yourself up for every contingency possible, post-flop suddenly becomes a natural continuation of things. When viewed from a holistic perspective, any post-flop play you make will not be a mystery anymore, but rather simply an answer to a question that you asked yourself before ever committing any chips to the pot.

In order to get to the point where you can view a hand comprehensively, you just need to learn a few basic fundamentals and the tactics to execute that strategy. Once you understand basic hand ranges, the relative value of your hand, commitment, and board textures, it all comes down to planning your hand and choosing lines that maximize your expected value.

Developing a Process

First off, as we have established, post-flop is a continuation of pre-flop play. In other words, your pre-flop goal should be to set up profitable post-flop scenarios. Therefore, you should almost never be faced with a so-called difficult spot after the flop. Once you have the fundamental principles of post-flop play within your grasp, if you find yourself lost or confused too often, it’s probably because you are playing pre-flop incorrectly.

The implication of this is that you are almost never in a complete vacuum after the flop. Even if you made a vacuum play pre-flop, you should be following a systematic process have some plan on how to proceed post-flop before the cards are even dealt. However, you will still sometimes be completely readless and need a repertoire of standard lines to use as a continuation of your vacuum pre-flop plans. Sorry if this is a bit confusing. My entire point here is to let you know that pre-flop and post-flop are inexorably linked.

Developing Vacuum Post-Flop Lines

After the flop, there are three possible scenarios you might face:

  1. Have Initiative
  2. Don’t Have Initiative
  3. Limped Pot

I find that the best way to build out standard lines is to compartmentalize each situation and build out common plans based around initiative and position. We do this by categorizing our decisions based on hand strength tiers, which you learned about in part 3 of the guide. As a reminder, here is how the tiers operate:

  • Tier 1 This is the post-flop “nut” range. Hands that you never fold and would like to get all-in with. Hand types in this range are two-pair using both cards, three of a kind, flushes, straights, full houses, and better.
  • Tier 2 This is your strong non-nut range. It includes top-pair hands with a decent kicker and big draws.
  • Tier 3 Showdown value hands. This includes any hand that has a chance of beating an opponent’s air or bluffing range but is seldom good against a value range.
  • Tier 4 Air. Hands that have little or no showdown value and little chance of improving by the river.

Playing With Initiative

If you are following my recommendations then you will almost always be playing with the initiative. Your most common post-flop scenario should be after you have raised, been called, and now have a continuation betting decision.

Continuation Betting

When you have the initiative and follow through on the flop, it is known as a continuation bet (c-bet). If your bet can get called by worse hands it is known as a “value bet.” If your hand is not likely to get called by worse hands and relies on fold equity to show a profit, it is known as a “bluff.”

Until you gain experience, as a rule, I recommend that you should bet all of your tier 1, 2, and 3 hands out of position. Basically, bet all of your made hands, draws, and showdown value hands. In position, I suggest that you bet your tier 1 and 2 hands while checking back your tier 3 showdown value hands. There is nothing wrong with just giving up with complete “air” (tier 4) hands until you learn how to hand read.

Using a straightforward, yet aggressive, betting strategy will allow you to gain experience seeing how other players react with a variety of different holdings. Seeing what other players show up with at showdown will give you “muscle memory” for future betting decisions.

Bet Sizing

As a beginning to intermediate player, I recommend that you bet half pot no matter how strong or weak your hand is. This way you don’t have to worry about any stronger players getting any bet size tells to use against you. It also simplifies things for you in the early stages of your development.

In case you are unsure what I mean by half pot, basically, you just bet exactly 50% of whatever is in the current pot. If there is $2 in the pot, you bet $1.

Playing Without Initiative

If we follow the fundamentals of poker, entering a hand without initiative should be a fairly rare occurrence. Even so, sometimes it is +EV to either flat call or limp due to pot odds or an overwhelming range advantage that makes the situation profitable. Just keep in mind, that many of our decisions that involve not having the initiative have more to do with a specific read and are not built into our vacuum strategy. In fact, you could never employ the call button before the flop and still be a profitable player (not including times you have a strong hand and call a shove).

Calling Bets

As a rule, you should only be calling in specific situations for specific reasons. Even so, under certain circumstances, direct or implied odds are too great to ignore, and it is profitable to call a bet to try to improve your hand. Let what you have learned in part two guide your decisions.

Playing Limped Pots

So you limped in because you felt you had the necessary direct and implied odds. But instead of flopping a nut hand, you end up with a Tier 2 or 3 holding. This is a situation in which to exercise extreme caution. Your range of hands for committing on the flop here needs to be especially narrow.

Do not be seduced into thinking you need to commit with 98o on a 955 board or A8 on an Axx board. There is one cardinal rule that you must ingrain in your thought process before heading off to play. In limped pots, you need a much stronger post-flop hand in order to stack off, since there is a lot wider range of hands in play.

For example, take the 955 board. In a raised pot, you would not expect there to be that many hands connecting with it as a lot of players would not be calling with a lot of 5x hands. However, in a limped pot they could easily have hands as weak as 52, A5, and a whole slew of other complete trash that were cheaply trying to see a flop.

The moral of this story here is to never go broke in a limped pot without the nuts or near nuts. Even strong flopped draws are not that great since you probably have minimal fold equity with which to shove over a raise. Therefore, you should almost exclusively commit with strong made hands in limped pots.

Being in Position Versus Being out of Position

Being in or out of position has huge implications for how we form our lines. In fact, when deciding on a course of action you must further know how to play each hand tier based on position. Indeed, the way value is maximized or the optimal way to bluff is largely governed by our position.

Therefore, I recommend building separate vacuum lines of play based on being in or out of position. For example, your standard tier 2 play in position might be to bet when checked to and call when bet into. Out of position, you may figure out that going for a check-raise is the better play rather than just leading out and betting.

Post-Flop Summary

Don’t worry about getting too specific when deciding on your vacuum post-flop lines. I recommend getting things very general and following the “bet when checked to” mantra, for the most part. It’s almost always better to err on the side of aggression. If you ever have a choice between calling or raising and both appear profitable, tend to go with the more aggressive option.

Remember that optimal post-flop play is mostly exploitative. In other words, the actions you choose should be tailored to maximizing against a particular opponent. For now, don’t worry about it and instead just stick to trying to play aggressively in position. Avoid using the call button without a very good reason, and you will be well on your way to becoming a strong poker player.

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Developing Your Mental Game

Many otherwise successful poker players get derailed by not actively working on the mental side of poker. Typically, the culprit is some form of “tilt. Allowing a past hand, whether positive or negative, to affect future hands is the definition of tilt. And yes, you can be on positive tilt from the energy received from a positive result. Anything that makes you play less than optimal is tilt.

Unfortunately, all players deal with some form of tilt at some point in their poker career. Typically, the underlying culprit is falling victim to being results oriented, which means letting a specific poker hand or session positively or negatively affect your emotions. The problem is that these feelings are natural.

After all, we are extremely results-oriented creatures. We are mostly taught from birth that positive and skillful endeavors should directly lead to immediate positive results. If a skilled carpenter with years of experience takes a day and builds a table, assuming he has all of the necessary tools and materials, the result will be a nice sturdy product nearly 100% of the time. However, in poker, you can play hand after hand “perfectly” and still lose over the short term. This is almost always what leads to sub-optimal play.

Overcoming Tilt

The ultimate solution to dealing with so-called “bad beats” is to develop a sort of indifference about the entire endeavor. In all facets of your poker game, you must have a Zen-like ability to distance yourself from the dollar amounts on the table, while at the same time focusing on the action and making laser-like deductions based on the information at hand.

You should always be asking yourself long-term questions during hands. He has this a lot, he has this sometimes, he does this sometimes with this… etc. You should base decisions on the opponent’s entire range, not just the top, bottom, or middle of it. And, when planning a hand, you do not think in terms of the results of this particular hand right now, but rather the net profitability of the situation every time it arises over the course of a career. In other words, is the average profit per hand played this way plus or negative?

Every decision has either a “+” or a “-” to it and that is called EV or expected value. The key is to try and make only +EV plays and then forget about the actual result “this time.” Just move on to another decision and rest easy knowing that you are racking up long term “EV dollars.”

Bankroll Management

Any decision at the poker table should be made without the worry of going bust. If you are properly bankrolled for any game, you can comfortably make any +EV decision without giving the dollar amount a second thought. If the dollar amounts of the game you are playing make you nervous, you are playing outside of your bankroll and need to move down. As a rule of thumb, you should generally have at least 20 buy-ins for the stake you are playing.

Note that I said, “at least.” Your actual requirements should be based on your situation. If you are building a bankroll from scratch, then having a 20 buy-in requirement is fine, since you are actively trying to grow a bankroll and can move back down with ease. However, if you are playing a particular stake long-term as your bread and butter or as a source of income, then you will generally want a much deeper bankroll. In this case, having 50 buy-ins should be a bare minimum. I actually recommend that you have at least 100 buy-ins for cash games and 200 buy-ins for tournaments.

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Studying and Improving Your Play

Poker is unique to all other games and sports in one simple way. Almost everyone thinks the way that they play is the best way possible and that anything anyone else does that does not fit into their idea of the correct strategy is considered bad play. In fact, it is the character flaw of having a giant ego exhibited by the majority of players that makes the game of poker so profitable. Because the worst player in the world can win a hand against the best player in the world at any given moment, it allows anyone to feel like they can play with anyone. The potential for short-term success by a bad player is your best ally in poker!

The ironic thing is that the people who realize how complex the game is and also realize that they “suck” are the ones who work hard to improve and thus become the top players. In order to be successful in poker, or any other endeavor for that matter, you must be introspective with regard to your play. You need to be one of those players who becomes a student of the game in order to have much success in today’s poker landscape.

Progress or Perish

It is easy to become complacent and “satisfied” with your current hourly rate so that you spend enough time grinding that your study of the game suffers and as a result there is either a decline in your game or you get left behind by your more studious counterparts. You need to make a conscious effort to split your time between grinding, working on your game, and taking shots at higher levels.

There is a reason young Internet kids dominate online play and live poker rooms. It is through thoughtful analysis of their own games as well as everyone else’s that has caused a widening gap in skill between your average recreational players and the top pros. And while you have to be careful not to fall prey to paralysis of analysis, completely disregarding the usefulness of optimizing your play via the many high tech tools available to you will quickly turn your game into a dinosaur. One must constantly evolve with the game.

There Is No Such Thing as Poker Talent

Skill comes from three aspects: knowledge, practice, and aptitude. Aptitude you can do little about and is overrated in my opinion. The key is to understand your natural strengths and weaknesses and then apply those to your poker game.

Some people are good at math and numbers, some are good at understanding people, some are good at soaking up knowledge, and some have a tireless work ethic. Everyone is good at some level in all areas of aptitude. Those who practice based on their abilities are the ones who excel.

Smart Practice

Practice is the most important component of self-improvement. I’m talking about smart practice here, not just rushing out and jumping on the tables and trying to learn that way. Before you can practice in a meaningful way, you must first gain knowledge. Only then can you apply it to your game through intelligent practice. This is how your skill is honed.

There are many ways to gain knowledge; books, the Internet, observation, your Uncle John, and trial and error. In my opinion, by far the best way to learn poker is by joining an online community. I cut my poker teeth at flopturnriver.com and then some at 2+2. This is the cutting edge.

Most poker books are either outdated or written by people who don’t really know what the heck they are talking about. They had a bit of success and now think they are authorities. Beware of these people with big egos. Also, remember to take anything you read or hear with a grain of salt. Learn to make your own deductions about any information that you gather during your study.

Poker Tools

There are two tools that I recommend every player should have at their disposal.

  1. Pokerstove
    Equity calculators are a must-have for any serious poker player. They allow you to do simple equity calculations and build ranges to be used in your play.
  2. Cardrunner’s EV
    If you are really serious about becoming the best player you can, then Cardrunner’s EV is the best place to start. It allows you to make complex pre-flop and post-flop decision trees and provides the EV of every possible choice you could make. Awesome! As a side note, I am not an affiliate of this software, so I am recommending it purely because I think it’s essential for maximizing improvement.

Focus on the Fundamentals

To use golf as an analogy, learning poker is very similar to how you should approach golf practice. Going to the golf range and beating balls for two hours will do little to improve your game if your swing is flawed. Instead, the best way to practice is to hit fewer balls but work on one fundamental at the time.

The same approach will lead to more rapid improvement in poker. I like to pick a fundamental of the day almost every time I play and work hard specifically on that one area. For example, I may feel that I am calling too often in the big blind to try to make an implied odds hand. So, for a time I will make sure that I pay better attention during my session and spend extra time reviewing any calls that I either made or considered making after the session is over.

By focusing on one thing at a time, it helps to compartmentalize the game in our heads and simplifies the learning process. Learning poker can certainly seem overwhelming if you look at it as a whole. By breaking it up into a bunch of different working parts, things suddenly do not appear as daunting.

Always keep in mind that a strong vacuum preflop and post-flop game is based on theory and fundamentals. Whenever you have doubts about a particular play, always fall back on the fundamentals and you will be okay.

Where Do I Go From Here?

Now that you have both a technical and theoretical basic understanding of poker, it’s time to get started on your poker journey (or begin anew). Depending on the game format you choose to play, your path will be different. Tournament and sit and go players will need to master ICM and understand how the prize pool and speed of the event affects the overall gameplan. Cash game players will need to perfect their vacuum strategy and master a collection of counterstrategies versus a variety of opponents.

No matter what you play, you will find the fundamentals of this guide useful as profit is still obtained the same essential way in all games. If you work hard on making every single action you make +EV, success should be inevitable for you.

My advice to any beginning or intermediate player is to first become proficient at winning in cash games. The skill it takes to succeed will make moving on to any other format a breeze. To help you in your quest, I have created a beginner cash game strategy that allows you to ease into real money poker with a simple chart-based system. I have done a lot of the initial work for you and provided solid vacuum ranges that get you off to a great start. Sign up for my spam-free newsletter and receive the information as my gift to you.

Good luck at the tables!

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