Poker is one of those games that is easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master.
The good news is that the basics are simple to grasp and the best learning is gained by playing and experiencing all the nuances the game throws at you.
Sitting down to your first hand of poker can be a nerve wracking experience, something which in the past has prohibited people from playing the game at all.
Who wants to walk into a casino full of strangers, all baying for blood (or at least aiming to relive you of your hard earned), and not really know what they’re doing, whose turn it is to act, what a blind and ante is, whether they’ve made any money, how to collect it and numerous other real life scenarios.
That’s why learning to play online is such a benefit – and just about any player who has claimed a big live title in the past 10 years started by playing online.
The first thing you’ll notice is the variety of games. Poker is a broad umbrella encompassing a lot of variations, but 99% of new players will have only ever seen No Limit Hold ‘Em (NLHE) before, and 100% will find it the easiest to learn.
All big championships, such as the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and European Poker Tour (EPT), plus the biggest online tournaments, are NLHE – so learning this game, whether tournament, sit n go, or cash game, is the best starting point.
In a cash game we would sit down with a certain amount of money (converted into cash chips), and if we lose it all, we can either leave or rebuy. There’s no set start or end, if enough people turn up and want to get a game going theoretically it can last forever, with players coming and going.
Most games have a minimum buy-in of 30 times the big blind, so if the game you sit at has blinds of £1 and £2, the minimum sit down will be £60. There may be a maximum too, sometimes 100 big blinds (so £200 here) and sometimes more.
This will be spelled out for you online, and if you do choose to play live, it’s an often asked question: “What’s the minimum and maximum at this table?”, so don’t be embarrassed to ask.
In a tournament you hand over the tournament buy-in and receive a certain amount of tournament chips. Once you lose them all, you’re out, and the winner is the person who accumulates everyone’s chips. The tournament prizepool is generally paid out to the top 10% in increasing increments, with first generally getting around a third of the total buy-ins. Online it is detailed in the lobby and live it will be displayed on a screen.
As well as the buy-in, there will be some ‘juice’, the amount you pay to either the online site or live casino for the pleasure of playing. It’s generally 10%, so if it’s a £100 tournament, an extra tenner on top.
Sit N Go’s
A sit n go (SNG) is basically just a tournament with limited entries, normally 10 or 6 handed. In a 10-handed SNG the top three will be paid, or two if six-handed.
For new players, sit n go’s are perfect to learn the basics. Most online sites offer play money games, but because it’s not real money, people tend not to play seriously (picture eight people moving all their chips into the middle first hand because they know they have millions of play chips left if and when they lose) so it’s worth playing for real money, even if it’s just a $1 or $2 entry. Note that online poker sites mostly deal in $ rather than £ – your money is automatically converted if you deposit in £, € or any other currency, and converted back should you win and want to withdraw.
Sit n go’s teach the basics of poker well. Ten people sat round a table, with the action being created by two blinds being forced to put in every hand, a small blind and big blind. To make it fair, those positions move one spot round the table every hand, and this is signified by the dealer button, which moves left one every hand. The two players to the button’s left must post the blinds, and dealing starts at the small blind and finishes with the button.
Once every player has two cards, the player to the big blind’s left is first to act. He can raise, call, or fold. If he raises, he must put in at least double the big blind, if he calls he just matches the big blind, and if he folds he releases his cards and puts nothing into the pot. This first to act player is known as ‘under the gun’.
The action then flows round the table with each player acting after the guy to their right has completed his action. Be careful to act in turn, acting out of turn can affect the game and you may get a penalty for doing this live. Online you can’t act out of turn, as you can’t do anything until it’s your action.
If a raise has already been put in, the next player must at least match this to call, or raise at least as much again (called a 3bet or a reraise), or fold. Any further raises after the 3bet is a 4bet, 5bet, 6bet etc.
A good standard raise is between 2x and 3x the big blind. When blinds are small in relation to the stack size, err towards the larger end, so at 25/50 (as the small blind/big blind) and everyone sat with 5000 chips, make it 150 to go. If the blinds were 100/200 with 5000 chips, 400, maybe 450, will suffice. If you’re planning on 3betting, just less than 3x the previous bet will do the job, so in the first example, a 3bet to 400 from 150 would be normal.
It’s important to not give anything away to your opponents, so make sure you stick to the same raises whatever your hand.
If you make it big with hands you don’t want any action with, but small when you get dealt pocket aces, it won’t take long for good players to be able to read you.
While pocket aces is the best starting hand possible, we could go a whole day’s play without seeing them, so we need to find a set of starting hands that we deem playable. This is our ‘range’. We also use ‘ranges’ to try and work out what different opponents have.
If someone blows the dust off their chips to put their first raise in in three hours, it’s easier to assign them a range of the very best starting hands: AA, KK, AK etc.
Players raising every hand will have a much wider range, and you’ll find it harder to put them on the right hand.
In sit n go’s, ‘tight is right’ and it’s best to sit and wait for good starting hands before putting a chip in the pot. Playing speculative holdings, small suited cards (‘suited connectors’) for example, is not worthwhile in this form of the game, as the better players will be playing tight and not going bust even if you hit your dream hand.
Remember in NLHE we need to make the best five card hand from the seven – two in your hand and five on the board (the three-card flop, turn and river), so making sure you only see flops with good starting hands – pairs and big ace highs, AK, AQ, AJ etc, plus maybe KQ, KJ – means if you do connect it’s likely you’ll have the best hand.
Smaller pairs are generally not enough on their own to win at showdown (once the river has been dealt) so they are played for the potential of flopping three of a kind, known as a set. People playing small pairs and trying to flop sets are said to be ‘set mining’ and because a flop with a small card on it can look innocuous, these can often be the hands that win big pots against big pairs.
As well as considering our starting hand, position is one of the key concepts we need to learn before deciding to enter the pot.
As mentioned, the button gets the last card pre-flop and acts after all the other players who have not been forced to put money into this pot blind. After the flop he will act last on every street (after the flop, turn and river) so is said to be ‘in position’.
Being in position is so important, but a lot of poker players fail to get the concept, even those that have played for years.
There are some hands that we’ll play whatever our position, pocket aces for example, and it’s from here that players seem to forget that position is intrinsic to how successful they are. Not every hand you’re dealt is going to be as strong as pocket aces, but it’s relevant strength versus the opponents in the hand grows with position, as well as with how many people fold before it’s your turn.
In an ideal scenario when you are on the button, the whole table folds to you. Now there are 1.5 big blinds out there, and only you, the small blind and the big blind are in the running to claim them.
A button raise will often pick up that ‘dead money’, and putting in 2 big blinds to win 1.5 big blinds can’t be a bad thing, while if one or both of the blinds call, we have the advantage of position throughout the hand.
Position (Post Flop)
In poker, we are constantly trying to piece together snippets of information to work out what everyone has and whether we can win the hand.
Post-flop action starts with the player left of the button, so with the small blind if he’s in, or the big blind if he’s not – and their options are to check or bet.
If the action is checked to you, a bet here (known as a ‘continuation bet’ or ‘c-bet’ as you’re continuing the aggression shown pre-flop) will often win the pot.
If they call (rather than check-raise) you now have more information, that they quite like their hand but don’t love it. Maybe a bet on the turn or on the river can still win this pot for you?
Of course the makeup of the flop, known as the ‘board texture’ also has an influence here. If the board comes with three straight card, like 678, or all one suit, a lot of what your opponent check-called your c-bet with (his range) will be made up of draws. Maybe he has K9, and is hoping to hit a five or a ten to complete his straight, or on the all spade flop, maybe just one big spade.
If the turn doesn’t complete the draw, another bet could well pick up the pot. Our position has helped us by finding out what our opponent wanted to do before he knows our plans.
Whatever we raised with, we might now have a decent or half decent hand ourselves now. The 678 flop might have smacked us in the face if we’d raised the button with T9 or 95, or our 74 of spades might just have flopped a flush. In these cases we’re now going to try and build a pot, confident we have the best hand.
But if we had J7 instead of the 95, and flopped middle pair, we might well have what is known as ‘showdown value’ now, and not need to bluff to win this pot, as we’ve taken over the lead. Again, responding to how our opponent acts, by being in position, is key to knowing where we are in the pot, and also to extracting value from our monsters.
There’s nothing worse than having a massive hand, checking with the intention of check-raising, and seeing our opponent check behind. If we’re last to act, no one’s checking behind us, and if our opponent led out, we can raise here if we want.
All of these little nuances of the game, timing when to bluff, when to give up, when you can steal a pot and which opponents are too stubborn to fold, will come to you in time, but as with most things in life, there’s nothing better than learning on the job, so ‘invest’ a small amount in learning the game, just like you would with any other hobby, and before long you might find yourself devouring the fish like a shark!
Those key points again:
1. Choose from tournament, sit n go’s or cash games. Sit n go’s are ideal for beginners to learn the basics. Play money games are pretty pointless as no one plays seriously, playing even a $1 or $2 SNG is a much better starting point.
2. In no limit hold ‘em, the most common poker variant by far, the best position on the table is on the button, attacking the small and big blinds and being able to act after seeing what the other players do after the flop.
3. Playing stronger starting hands gives us a better chance of making better hands from the seven cards available, five community cards and two dealt to us.
4. Players can fold, call, or raise. A raise must be at least double the big blind. Any reraise much be double the amount raised previously.
5. Keeping the same raise sizes whether you or strong or weak helps keep your hand secret from opponents.
6. The make-up of the flop – the board texture – helps us decide how to proceed in a hand and whether we can legitimately tell the story that we’ve made a good hand.
7. Experience is a great way to learn, so invest a little and get learning on the job!