No matter whether you play Texas Hold’em, Pot Limit Omaha, or any variant of poker, there is only one object of the game. Even so, if you watched your average amateur player play poker, you would have a difficult time figuring that out. Because, even today, most people have no clue what their ultimate goal should be at the table. As a result, a multitude of bankrolls is shrinking as we speak.
The object of the game of poker is to win money. More specifically, the object is to execute the most profitable actions (bet, raise, or fold), based on the information at hand, with the goal of maximizing the long-term expectation of each of those actions.
The Ultimate Goal in Poker
As with anything, the devil is in the details. Before we go into the specifics of what type of play leads to winning at poker, let’s discuss why we play the game in the first place. If your goal in poker is anything other than winning the most money possible over your lifetime, then you can stop reading now, and get back to booking that vacation at Donkeyland. Unfortunately, nothing in this article will be of use to anyone only interested in fun.
Don’t get me wrong, poker can be a lot of fun when you play to win, I just want to be sure that you understand that solely playing for fun often leads us to decisions that contradict the most profitable course of action. Let’s say you are playing in a casino and decide not to bet your strong hand on the river, since you like an opponent or feel bad for them, for whatever reason. Sure, you may become more popular with the guys and gals at the table, but your wallet is going to get pretty pissed off. And trust me, when you hit a big downswing, you will wish you hadn’t soft played all those times you were “running good”.
Another thing I want to make sure you understand is that playing to win does not mean you are playing to win every single hand. Thinking that way will turn you into a maniac and have exactly the opposite result that you are seeking to obtain. By play to win, I just mean that you are trying to maximize how much you win when you do when in a specific situation, and minimizing how much you lose when you do not win. The sum of all of our wins and losses in any particular situation is known as our expected value or EV.
Expected Value Makes It “Easy”
Okay, I may have overstated that title a bit; let me clarify. When I say that EV makes poker easy, I am not talking about the actual poker strategy or actions themselves. What I mean is that if you get to the point where you are considering each action you make based on the merits of whether or not it is the most profitable decision possible, playing to win becomes simple. That doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to win, but this type of careful EV consideration will generally lead people on a mission to seek improvement. Case in point; if you are reading this article, you are almost certainly one of those people.
It’s all a matter of mindset. Every action you take in poker must be seen from the perspective of one long lifetime session. Particular situations, the way hands play out, the decisions you face, all tend to repeat over your career. And while it is actually rare to face exactly the same situation twice since there are so many hand combinations, other players involved, and different board runouts, etc., you will still find yourself in relatively the same spot over and over again.
The way we can use this knowledge to our advantage is by building standard hand ranges and lines of play, based on common scenarios that we face. Once we have these guidelines in place, we can then dedicate all of our brain power to our opponents and current situation by making minor adjustments to these standard or vacuum plays that we have cataloged for ourselves. This is called adjusting to the table dynamic.
A Situation-Based People Game
A table dynamic is all of the factors, both past, and present, that make whatever situation you are in unique. This includes the cards you have, your position, the other players, and your recent and past history with those players. By recent history, I mean what are the hands that have played out over the current session and how are other players going to react to that information and how do they think you are going to react to that situation. Sounds complicated, right? Fortunately, you can learn this stuff incrementally and add onto it with experience. The first step on this journey is to learn the basics.
How Poker Is a Sport
All sports have an accepted and well-documented set of fundamentals that teachers impart upon students in order to maximize their chances of succeeding. I have often used golf as an example, but all sports, or any worthwhile endeavor for that matter, has a core set of guidelines regarding the methodology of correctly executing the activity. In golf, basketball, football, baseball, or any sport for that matter, there is a fundamental stance and grip associated with holding the ball. And while variations do exist, they are generally always referred to as “unorthodox” when they violate fundamental principles.
Poker also has fundamentals. We are not talking about how to hold the cards or slide our chips forward, in poker, it’s all about maximizing our chances to slide chips into our bankroll more often than our opponents.
The 3 Core Poker Fundamentals
I have talked about the core fundamentals of poker for years and used them in my own play to maintain a pretty decent win-rate. In fact, when I am “running bad,” just like players of other sports, I always fall back on the fundamentals. Here are the 3 most important fundamentals of poker
Being in position means to act last during the post-flop portion of a hand. When following this fundamental, you play in such a way that increases the likelihood of being in position while avoiding actions that land you in out of position no man’s land. The main examples are to raise more hands in late position and calling fewer hands in late position than our opponents do. If you do nothing else but this and all else is equal, you will win more money than your opponents. That’s how powerful position is.
Having initiative means that you were the last aggressor before the flop. This allows you to pick up a lot of the dead money found in pots where no one else is interested. Everyone knows how profitable c-bet bluffing is, this is an example of using the fundamental of initiative to your advantage.
When considering an action, the aggressive route should always be explored first. Generally speaking, a +EV aggressive action will be superior to a +EV passive action. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but erring on the aggressive side is ordinarily the best policy.
It is no coincidence that all of the most successful poker players in history have employed really aggressive styles of play. When was the last time a huge calling station won a bracelet in the WSOP? Think of the best cash game players, do they just sit around playing passively? No way, they pound away relentlessly, keeping their chips in constant motion.
Fold Equity For The Win
Simplified down to basic terms, fold equity is the money that you win without showdown when you are aggressive and someone else folds. It is what allows marginal hands to become profitable, otherwise, they would not win enough at showdown to make them worthwhile to play. In fact, even though we don’t always want our opponents to fold, every single hand that we play is made more profitable due to fold equity.
The long-term profit of all 1,326 hand combinations in poker is the sum of your showdown and non-showdown earnings. If we only played passive and never raised or reraised, our earnings would only come from one source; making hands. This is why the least profitable players in the game are always the most passive.
Countering Your Opponents
Once you have the fundamentals down and understand that each and every action you take is from the standpoint of maximizing your expected value, all that is left to do is make the actual decision. So what is it that controls the exact decisions we make? It’s the table dynamic, which we have already briefly discussed.
Keep in mind that, after the fundamentals, there is no more important subject than making adjustments to the table dynamic. The subject alone could be the source of a really thick book, or multiple really thick books. Even so, I will not overload you with information here. Instead, I will give you some tips on how to counter some common opponent playing styles.
- Versus opponents that fold often
When playing against really selective opponents, the main adjustment is to ramp up the aggression. Since they are playing fit or fold poker, we will make all of our money from non-showdown earnings. The quality of your hands at showdown will need to be more stringent against these opponents.
- Versus opponents that call often
Against sticky players, sometimes called calling stations, simply using aggression is a recipe for disaster. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “never bluff a calling station;” the lack of fold equity and futility of bluffing these players is where that came from. Since you will be seeing more showdowns than usual, you typically want to tighten up your pre-flop range when it is likely you will be involved with these players. That way you have a greater likelihood of flopping a hand that connects with the board. Post-flop, you will want to expand the range of hands that you bet for value. Since they don’t like to fold, it means they will call with really marginal hands. Therefore, the value of 1 pair hands goes way up against a person who folds infrequently.
- Versus overly aggressive opponents
I know this is a really broad term, but in general, there are a couple of things we can do against over-the-top aggro players. If you think an opponent is a bit of a maniac, you once again want to tighten up pre-flop, then expand the range of hands that you want to put money into the pot with, similarly to calling stations. It’s the way the money gets into the pot that is different. This is the one time that passive play is actually superior. The goal is to let them bluff their way into oblivion while you call down with a decent piece of the board. Playing in position as often as possible versus these types of players is key. That way you have the last word and can sometimes pot control flops. Being able to reduce each hand down to a 2-street game makes playing aggro players much much easier.
- Versus really strong opponents
Occasionally, you will encounter really good opponents. Assuming he also recognizes that you are decent, the best course of action is to, for the most part, avoid each other. There are plenty of fish in the sea, no point in battling each other and taking out each other’s laundry. However, if you do get involved with a tough reg, I find it’s typically best to avoid leveling wars and just play a fairly straightforward, fundamentally sound, pot control type game.
You may be seeing a trend here. Every single adjustment that we make is done as a counter move to the players at our table. In fact, a lot of these adjustments are made before we even put a chip into the pot. If you take nothing else from this article, remember this: Unless you are on a table of complete unknowns, never ever play in a vacuum or on auto-pilot, because 99.9% of the time, there are one or more relevant pieces of information that can improve the quality of every decision we make.
Ultimately, poker is a game of information. Once we have the fundamentals and basics down, the end game becomes how well we use the readily available clues that present themselves to us during the course of play. In the end, how well we adjust compared with how poorly our opponents play and adjust, is what determines who is the best at accomplishing the object of the game: making money.
Jim James has over 15 years of experience playing professionally and is the author of the best-selling book called Automatic Poker. Using a no-nonsense mathematical and logical approach to beating the games, he has won 7 figures at the poker table. Jim is well-known as the world’s leading expert on playing short or mid-stacked poker.
Today, he helps other players demystify what it takes to win money in No-Limit Hold’em and has helped countless people become winning poker players through his Online Poker Academy.