There is more to winning at poker than just trying to find the best strategy. While learning a solid, fundamental strategy is important, it is not necessarily going to make you an expert player.

In the beginning, we all start out as donkeys and fish and, as we learn, eventually evolve into stronger players. In this article, I am not going to focus too much on a specific strategy, as optimal tactics and strategies vary from table to table and dynamic to dynamic.

My goal, instead, is to change your entire perspective on what poker is really all about and help mold your thought processes into that of a winning player.

If you learn to think the correct way and truly understand the underlying cause and effect of what drives poker profit, specific poker strategy will not only come more naturally to you but developing a plan for every hand you play will become infinitely easier.

So, if you are tired of getting lost during a poker hand, wondering what went wrong, and how you are either losing money or not winning as much as you think you should, then read on, and let’s dig into how to convert theory into actual winning poker strategy.

To consistently win at poker over the long term, there are three key concepts that you must master. You must understand:

  1. Where the money comes from
  2. That poker is a people game
  3. That your tilt must be conquered

You can study strategy until you are blue in the face, but if you fail to understand and master any of these 3 concepts, your potential will be severely limited.

Concept #1: Where The Money Comes From In Poker

This is the most important concept and something very few poker players will ever really grasp. Indeed, the concept is an enigma for the vast majority of players.

After all the hands are played, and all is said and done, once the long-term is reached.. how the heck does anyone show a profit? Well, truth is, very few actually do. Due to rake and a number of other factors, very few people actually win money at poker over a significant sample size of hands. Estimates range from as low as 3%, but in reality, the number is likely in the 8% to 10% range. So yes, at least 90% of people who ever play poker for real money, will be losers.

Even so, you don’t have to become a statistic. I didn’t supply you with this information to discourage you, quite the contrary. In fact, there are things you can learn that most people are not talking about that will give you an edge over everyone who refuses to acknowledge or learn the information. That is what this article is all about. By the end of reading this, I want you to be crystal clear on how professional poker players make money over the long term.

Monster Hands Do Not Make You Money

First of all, let me get something out of the way. You do not profit in poker from making big hands and then getting paid off. Everyone, including unskilled players, win money in these spots. I am not saying that maximizing your profit when you make a big hand is not important. It is. We need to maximize profit is all areas of our game. What I am saying is that winning money and making money are two different things. Just because you got AA all-in preflop versus KK in a specific hand does not mean you won anything.

A graphic showing that Player A does not make any money if Player B makes the same amount of money. They cancel each other out.

Player A nor Player B makes anything if they both make $1000 the same way

In fact, since everyone would gladly get KK all-in pre-flop, you actually made $0. Every player will pick up the same amount of AA, KK, QQ, hit the same number of sets or two pairs.. these hands are easy to play. In fact, it’s really hard to misplay these hands. Therefore, there is very little room for actual profit when you have a strong hand. Put another way, if every player plays exactly 1 million hands in their career and makes $500 with their big pairs, and $500 with their flopped nut hands, then nobody makes anything since, in order to make $500, each person has to take $500 from the player pool. Take a look at the graphic below.

Just to be clear on this point, since there seems to be a lot of confusion out there as to what I mean by this. Imagine that there are only two hands you can pick up in poker, either AA or KK. And, you play heads-up versus someone for an infinite number of hands. Each of you will pick up AA half the time and KK the other half.

Now, assuming you each play those hands exactly the same, where exactly can someone make a profit? By some extreme amount of luck, one of you might win a bit more over a lifetime.. but it would be negligible. What really matters is EV, or theoretical, dollars. And the sum of that would be exactly $0 profit for both you and your opponent.

Reciprocality Governs Profit

Don’t fall victim to something almost all people are guilty of; putting way too much emphasis on big hands. If most players get their pair all in vs. over cards and their hand holds up, they pat themselves on the back because they just won a big pot and think they made money. I have news for them; they didn’t.

When viewed from a long-term perspective, they made $0. You simply do not make money by getting all in pre-flop with QQ vs. AK, or some other variant of this situation. The spot will theoretically occur with the same frequency for everyone, yielding a net sum profit of $0 over the long term. Everyone negates everyone else’s profit in these spots! In other words, if everyone plays exactly the same and picks up the same exact hands and faces the exact same situations, no one but the house wins.

Since this point is so important, I am going to beat a dead donkey here for a minute. It is key that you make sure you understand this concept before proceeding. To that end, I am putting in a link to an article by Tommy Angelo, who defined this concept, called reciprocality. Read it, absorb it, understand it, before proceeding.

Now that you understand reciprocality, let’s continue.

Playing Well Doesn’t Necessarily Guarantee Winning

The overriding concept here is that you do not need to play particularly well to win, you just need your opponents to play worse than you do. At the end of the day, where you really make money is by having your opponents play any of the multitudes of decisions less well than you do. In other words, all you have to do to be a good player is play poker with bad players, and the money will come, even if you are just a mediocre player yourself when it comes to technical skill. The problem is, as games get tougher and tougher, finding these super soft games is becoming increasingly difficult.

It’s true that, in the not too distant past, a professional player could simply play a very tight range of hands and wait for the bad players to basically hand their money over either bit-by-bit or in large chunks. Making little mistakes here and there and having a general lack of post-flop skill didn’t really matter. As long as you followed the adage “tight is right,” you were good to go and pretty much guaranteed to succeed. Furthermore, since a lot of players were making money doing this, there was no negative reinforcement to provide the necessary impetus for them to try and improve their games. So life was good.

Unfortunately today, even at the micros, everyone has easy access to hand charts and a plethora of information in books, on television, and online at their disposal. Anyone can learn a basic poker strategy in a few days and then beat a table of fishy players. Even at stakes as low as $10NL, maybe even lower, you will find a multitude of micro-stakes grinders out there playing decent fundamental pre-flop poker. However, “nitting it up” simply will not do if you ever have a desire to play above $25NL. In order to beat the modern game, you need to maximize profit in every situation you face.

To Excel, Redirect Your Focus

Big all-in pots, while dramatic and exciting, are only a small piece of where the money comes from in poker. The other 99% of the time we are not getting all-in. We are raising, calling, or folding in small pots that are often meaningless for the vast majority of players out there. They play for the action and excitement of big pots and simply have no clue of where their profit is coming from, or, where their losses are going to. This fact offers a great opportunity to anyone with the knowledge and will to take advantage of it.

I have said many times and been ridiculed for it as well, that cards don’t matter in poker. What I mean is that the cards you are dealt do not make a difference in your long-term win-rate, since as we know, everyone will pick up the same hands with the same frequencies over the long term. What matters is that you maximize and play each spot the best you can, no matter how unexciting it is, and not spend too much time focusing on the big pots or any number of tough spots you might encounter. In my experience, the best way to maximize is to have a routine that you follow on each and every hand you play, that takes into account all pertinent factors based on the information at hand. I wrote an article on my own personal routine for planning hands that you might be interested in checking out.

When it comes to being obsessed with interesting or “big” hands, the vast majority of players fixate on these spots. To get a taste of what I am talking about, I recommend checking out some of the poker forums out there. You will mostly see players either posting the big pot hands or hands where they faced so-called “difficult” decisions. The funny part is, most of the time, the hands they are discussing are spots where the decision is very close in EV between two separate decisions. In other words, it often doesn’t matter what they choose to do, the long-term win-rate would be virtually the same either way. Therefore, in those so-called “tough” spots, you can usually just flip a coin in making your decision rather than sitting around racking your brain about it. Furthermore, many of those difficult situations might have been caused by mistakes earlier in the hand or been a complete game flow fubar.

How Money Is Won

Ultimately, how do professional poker players make money? Where does the money come from? It comes from winning more battles, both big and small than your opponents win at the tables. Every single decision you make is a battle being fought and, if one player does it better than another, money changes hands. Over the long term, the players who maximize the best in the most overall battles will be the ones who profit. What you should strive for is to play poker by looking at expected value instead of for the thrill of making big hands. Once you can do this, you are beginning to think like a professional poker player.

Now that you know how money is made in poker, you may be wondering how to convert that theory into real money. The fastest path to profit is through sound fundamentals and strategic planning which manifests in the form of superior tactics in every single action you make. It comes from beating your opponents in ways they don’t even know exist. It is about being mindful of why you are doing what you are doing at all times. It is about winning the wars no one else is attempting to fight. But mostly, it is about mercilessly forcing your will on your opponents, while avoiding reciprocation.

This style of active, exploitative play, is most often associated with a loose-aggressive style of play that focuses on small ball poker with lots of bets and raises with very few passive plays. That leads me to our next topic because loose aggressive play involves adjusting what you are doing based on the specific table dynamic you are currently in.

A passive dog getting mounted by an aggressive dog illustrating that passive poker is losing poker

Passive Poker Is Losing Poker

Jim James

Jim James is well-known as the world’s leading expert on playing short or mid-stacked poker. He has over 15 years of experience playing poker professionally, has written extensively on the topic, and is the author of the best-selling poker strategy book Automatic Poker.

Using a no-nonsense mathematical and logical approach to beating the games, he has won 7 figures at the poker tables. His innovative simple poker charts make the game easier for everyone willing to learn. 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.