Every poker player wants one thing; to become a winning player! However, poker is a very complex game, and learning it may seem intimidating at first.
In poker, numerous factors affect every choice you make. It is virtually impossible to conceive an algorithmic strategy, a set of instructions on what to do at any given situation. Even if poker is intrinsically very complicated, comprehending how some of the fundamental factors affect your decision making can guide you to produce correct choices. Your position, your opponent’s playing style, your image at the table, the number of players in the pot, board texture, relative stack sizes, and of course, your hand, are the most significant elements to consider in any situation.
So, what does making correct choices mean?
Davis Sklansky, a renowned poker theorist, answered this question with the fundamental theorem of poker: “Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.”
Sklansky’s theorem is a formal way of stating that if all cards were apparent, so with complete information, players would know how to bet. As the opponents’ cards are face-down, players don’t know what the optimal betting is. When someone deviates from the optimal way of playing, he loses some of his equity!
If players could see their opponent’s cards, determining the correct actions would be somehow trivial. By using simple math, they could find out which action maximizes their equity. For example, if you were facing an all-in bet with a draw and knew your opponent’s cards, you could calculate the probabilities of hitting one of your outs. Then, taking into account the amount you risk and your potential reward, you would calculate the expected value of calling to see if it is positive. Alternatively, you could use pot odds to reach the same conclusion.
The fundamental theorem of poker points out that there is a theoretical optimal betting strategy. However, poker is a game of incomplete information. Under the scope of the uncertainty about what opponents hold, things become much more complicated. The best track is not to guess what opponents have, which is unrealistic, but to consider the set of all possible hands that they may have. This means analyzing all available information that you possess, like your opponent’s actions, position, and playing style. Then, you must treat these bits of information as parts of the scenario that unfolds and estimate the set of possible hands that fit into the story.
So, you must consider hand ranges and not specific hands. Then you have to conceive an optimal strategy against these ranges, one that maximizes your expected return. Once again, this is not a trivial task, as you must take into account various factors, like your opponents’ playing style, board texture, and even consider what your opponent thinks you have!
The good news is that you do not have to consider every detail and make elaborated calculations to reach perfect decisions. All you have to do is make better decisions than your opponents, and you will be a winning player!
Additional aspects to consider
As we saw, putting opponents on hand ranges is an essential skill. However, there are additional aspects to consider to become a winning player.
As you get to make your first, and perhaps most important decision, based on your hole cards, the first thing is to adopt a winning preflop strategy! Being selective with your starting hands gives you a significant edge over your opponents. Different types of starting hands have different characteristics, and you must understand their quality to be able to play them optimally in different situations. For example, suited connectors can have good implied odds as they can make a straight or flushes and play better in multiway pots. High cards can often make top pair, strong kicker type of hands, so they perform well against fewer opponents.
Another essential aspect that will put you on the right track is to adopt a profitable playing style! Playing tight-aggressive poker is undoubtedly the easiest and quickest way to become a winning player. It implies playing fewer, better hands, but playing them aggressively, so betting and raising more than checking and calling. Aggression is quintessential in poker, as it makes fold equity working on your side! Furthermore, adopting a tight-aggressive style will help you to avoid some challenging situations and will turn the pressure on your opponents, pushing them to make mistakes.
The deception principle
You must keep in mind that if your betting pattern is fixed, even if it is optimal, you risk becoming predictable. If you act the same way every time you are in a similar situation, observant opponents will decipher your betting patterns and exploit the information that your bets betray. So, your betting must be balanced to keep your opponents guessing. This way, they will be more prone to call your value bets, fold to your bluffs, and in general, make mistakes!
For example, if you limp with speculative, drawing hands before the flop, then, to balance your play, you also have to limp occasionally with premium hands! Otherwise, your opponents will read into what your limping suggests and raise you out of the pot.
Understanding betting strategy is also crucial. Bets can serve different purposes, from bluffing or semi-bluffing, to trying to extract a maximum amount of money. When you comprehend the intention of your bets, you will be able to figure out when to bet and how to size up your bets accordingly. Fundamentally, a successful bet must be able to achieve one of the following. Force a better hand to fold, a weeker hand to call, or deny proper pot odds from a drawing hand to outdraw you. Bets can also achieve some secondary objectives, like gaining information, taking control of the hand, controlling the size of the pot, and creating a profitable table image!
Some final points
To become a winning player, adopting a tight-aggressive playing style is crucial. Also, it is imperative to switch the way you try to deal with incomplete information by using hand ranges. Being able to estimate an opponent’s range of hands is, therefore, an essential skill to develop. Then you have to devise an optimal strategy against their range. To do so, you must know what additional factors come into play and comprehend how they affect your strategy. These include position, board texture, the number of remaining players, any previous action, and opponents’ playing style. Own these factors and take them into account in adopting a winning preflop and post-flop strategy. Then evaluate your hand, how strong or vulnerable it is, to play the flop accordingly. One thing is certain, studying the essential factors that affect your decision making and practicing what you learn at the tables will drastically improve your game!
Be sure to leave any thoughts, comments or questions you may have about this topic!