Poker is a popular card game that combines elements of chance and strategy. There
are various styles of Poker, all of which share an objective of presenting the least
probable or highest-scoring hand. A poker hand is a configuration of five cards,
either held entirely by a player or drawn partly from a number of shared, community
cards. Players bet on their hands in a number of rounds as cards are drawn, employing
various mathematical and intuitive strategies in an attempt to better opponents.
Given the game's many different forms and various dynamics, poker strategy becomes
a complex subject. This article only attempts to introduce basic strategy concepts.
The basic poker theorem, states that: every time you play your hand the way you would
if you could see your opponent's cards, you gain, and every time your opponent plays
their cards differently from the way they would play them if they could see your
cards, you gain. This theorem is the foundation for many poker strategy topics. For
example, bluffing and slow-playing (explained below) are examples of using deception
to induce your opponents to play differently than they would if they could see your
cards. There are some exceptions to the fundamental theorem in certain multi-way
POT ODDS AND IMPLIED ODDS
The relationship between pot odds and odds of winning is one of the most important
concepts in poker strategy. Pot odds are the ratio of the size of the pot to the
size of the bet required to stay in the pot. For example, if a player must call $10
for a chance to win a $40 pot (not including their $10 call), their pot odds are
4-to-1. To have a positive expectation a player's odds of winning must be better
than their pot odds. If the player's odds of winning are also 4-to-1 (20% chance
of winning), and if they play the pot five times, their expected return is to break
even (losing four times and winning once).
Implied odds is a more complicated concept, though related to pot odds. The implied
odds on a hand are based not on the money currently in the pot, but on the expected
size of the pot at the end of the hand. When facing an even money situation (like
described in the previous paragraph) and holding a strong drawing hand (say a four-flush)
a skilled player will consider calling a bet or even opening based on their implied
odds. This is particularly true in multi-way pots, where it is likely that one or
more opponents will call all the way to showdown.
Position refers to the order in which players are seated around the table and the
strategic consequences of this. Generally, players in earlier position (who have
to act first) need stronger hands to bet or raise than players in later position.
For example, if there are five opponents yet to act behind a player, there is a greater
chance one of the opponents will have a better hand than if there were only one opponent
yet to act. Being in late position is an advantage because a player gets to see how
their opponents in earlier position act (which provides the player more information
about their hands than they have about his). Position is one of the most vital elements
to understand in order to be a long-term winning player. As a player's position improves,
so too does the range of cards with which they can profitably enter a hand. Conversely
this commonly held knowledge can be used to an intelligent poker player's advantage.
If playing against observant opponents in tournament style play (when the amount
of chips one has is finite, which is to say there are no 'rebuys') then a raise with
any two cards can 'steal the blinds,' if executed against passive players at the
To get more money in the pot when a player has the best hand: If a player has the
best hand, raising for value enables them to win a bigger pot.
To drive out opponents when a player has the best hand: If a player has a made
hand, raising may protect their hand by driving out opponents with drawing hands
who may otherwise improve to a better hand.
To bluff or semi-bluff: If a player raises with an inferior or drawing hand, the
player may induce a better hand to fold. In the case of semi-bluff if the player
is called, they still have a chance to improve to a better hand (and also win a larger
To get a free card: If a player raises with a drawing hand, their opponent may
check to them on the next betting round, giving them a chance to get a free card
to improve their hand.
To gain information: If a player raises with an uncertain hand, they gain information
about the strength of their opponent's hand if they are called. Players may use an
opening bet on a later betting round (probe or continuation bets) to gain information
by being called or raised (or may win the pot immediately).
To drive out worse hands when a player's own hand may be second best: Sometimes,
if a player raises with the second best hand with cards to come, raising to drive
out opponents with worse hands (but who might improve) may increase the expected
value of their hand by giving them a higher probability of winning in the event their
To drive out better hands when a drawing hand bets: If an opponent with an apparent
drawing hand bets before a player, if the player raises, opponents behind them who
may have a better hand may fold rather than call a bet and raise. This is a form
There are several reasons for calling a bet or raise, summarized below.
To see more cards: With a drawing hand, a player may be receiving the correct pot
odds with the call to see more cards.
To limit loss in equity: Calling may be appropriate when a player has adequate
pot odds to call but will lose equity on money contributed to the pot.
To avoid a re-raise: Only calling (and not raising) denies the original bettor
the option of re-raising. However, this is only completely safe in case the player
is last to act.
To conceal the strength of a player's hand: If a player has a very strong hand,
they might smooth call on an early betting round to avoid giving away the strength
of their hand on the hope of getting more money into the pot in later betting rounds.
To manipulate pot odds: By calling (not raising), a player offers any opponents
yet to act behind them more favourable pot odds to also call. For example, if a player
has a very strong hand, a smooth call may encourage opponents behind them to overcall,
building the pot. Particularly in limit games, building the pot in an earlier betting
round may induce opponents to call future bets in later betting rounds because of
the pot odds they will be receiving.
To set up a bluff on a later betting round: Sometimes referred to as a long-ball
bluff, calling on an earlier betting round can set up a bluff (or semi-bluff) on
a later betting round. A recent online term for "long-ball bluffing" is floating.
The gap concept states that a player needs a better hand to play against someone
who has already opened (or raised) the betting than they would need to open himself
The gap concept reflects that players prefer to avoid confrontations with another
player who has already indicated strength, and that calling only has one way to win
(by having the best hand), whereas opening may also win immediately if your opponent(s)
Related to the gap effect, the sandwich effect states that a player needs a stronger
hand to stay in a pot when there are opponents yet to act behind him. Because the
player doesn't know how many opponents will be involved in the pot or whether they
will have to call a re-raise, they don't know what their effective pot odds actually
are. Therefore, a stronger hand is desired as compensation for this uncertainty.
LOOSE AND TIGHT PLAY
Loose players play relatively more hands and tend to continue with weaker hands;
hence they don't often fold. Tight players play relatively fewer hands and tend not
to continue with weaker hands; hence they often fold. The following concepts are
applicable in loose games (and their inverse in tight games):
Bluffs and semi-bluffs are less effective because loose opponents are less likely
Requirements for continuing with made hands may be lower because loose players
may also be playing lower value hands.
Drawing to incomplete hands, like flushes, tends to be more valuable as draws will
often get favourable pot odds and a stronger hand (rather than merely one pair) is
often required to win in multi-way pots.
Aggressive play refers to betting and raising. Passive play refers to checking and
calling. Unless passive play is being used deceptively as mentioned above, aggressive
play is generally considered stronger than passive play because of the bluff value
of bets and raises and because it offers more opportunities for your opponents to
HAND READING AND TELLS
Hand reading is the process of making educated guesses about the possible cards an
opponent may hold based on the sequence of actions in the pot. The term 'hand reading'
is actually a misnomer due to the fact that a professional poker player does not
attempt to put a player on an exact hand. Rather they attempt to narrow the possibilities
down to a range of hands which makes sense based on the past actions of their opponent.
A tell is a detectable change in an opponent's behaviour or demeanour that gives
clues about their hand. Educated guesses about an opponent's cards can help a player
avoid mistakes in their own play, induce mistakes by their opponent(s), or influence
the player to take actions that they would normally not take under the circumstances.
For example, a tell might suggest an opponent has missed a draw, so a player seeing
it may decide a bluff would be more effective than usual.
By observing the tendencies and patterns of one's opponents, one can make more educated
guesses about others' potential holdings. For example, if a player has been playing
extremely tightly (playing very few hands), then when he/she finally enters a pot,
one may surmise that he/she has stronger than average cards. One's table image is
the perception by one's opponents of one's own pattern of play. A player can leverage
their table image by playing out of character and thereby inducing his/her opponents
to misjudge his/her hand and make a mistake.
A player's equity in a pot is their expected share of the pot, expressed either as
a percentage (probability of winning) or expected value (amount of pot * probability
of winning). Negative equity, or loss in equity, occurs when contributing to a pot
with a probability of winning less than 1 / (number of opponents matching the contribution).
Alice contributes $12 to a pot and is matched by two other opponents. Alice's $12
contribution "bought" the chance to win $36. If Alice's probability of winning is
50%, her equity in the $36 pot is $18 (a gain in equity because her $12 is now "worth"
$18). If her probability of winning is only 10%, Alice loses equity because her $12
is now only "worth" $3.60 (amount of pot * probability of winning).
If there is already money in the pot, the pot odds associated with a particular
play may indicate a positive expected value even though it may have negative equity.
Texas hold 'em example
Alice holds J♦8♠. Bob holds K♥7♠. After the flop, the board is 5♥6♥7♦. If both hands
are played to a showdown, Alice has a 45% chance to win, Bob has a 53% chance to
win and there is a 2% chance to split the pot. The pot currently has $51. Alice goes
all-in for $45 reasoning Bob has to call to stay in game. Alice's implied pot odds
for the all-in bet are 32%. Bob's simple pot odds for the call are also 32%. Since
both have a probability of winning greater than 32%, both plays (the raise and the
call) have a positive expectation. However, since Bob has more equity in the pot
than Alice (53% vs. 45%), Alice would have been better off playing the pot as cheaply
as possible. When Alice went all-in, she gave up the difference in equity on the
money she contributed to the pot.
When playing short-handed (at a table with fewer players than normal), players must
loosen up their play (play more hands) for several reasons:
There is less likelihood of another player having a strong hand because there are
Each player's share of the forced bets increases because there are fewer players
contributing to the forced bets, thus waiting for premium hands becomes more expensive.
This type of situation comes up most often in tournament style play. In a cash game,
the adjustments are very similar, but not quite as drastic as the table can ask for
what is known as a 'rake break.' A rake break occurs when the floor-man, who represents
the casino, agrees to take a smaller portion than usual for the hand. For example
a random casino might normally receive 10% of the pot up to 5 dollars for a 'rake.'
In this case the table would only owe 10% up to 3 dollars until there are a sufficient
number of players again. In online poker rake breaks are determined automatically.
The blinds and antes and limit structure of the game have a significant influence
on poker strategy. For example, it is easier to manipulate pot odds in no-limit and
pot-limit games than in limit games. In tournaments, as the size of the forced bets
relative to the chip stacks grows, pressure is placed on players to play pots to
avoid being anted/blinded away.