All the information you need to play better poker, can be found on the internet. However, there is an awful lot of information out there that can also be unhelpful. Understand the difference between macro and micro, and where poker edges really come from.
- If you want to play better poker in 2023 you have an abundance of content that purports to teach poker strategy. Some are free, some are paid. Unfortunately, despite the good intentions of the authors the advice given is often incorrect or useless to your progression. At best, a waste of time. But, at worst you will pick up bad habits.
- Instead, understand the difference between:
- the macro way of looking at the whole game from above (which is the strategic view), and
- the micro way of look at specific spots (which is the tactical view).
- We show you practical ways you can actually play better poker.
Macro vs Micro
To understand the main reasons for this you have to understand the difference between 2 ways of thinking. There’s the macro way of looking at the whole game from above (which is the strategic view). Then there’s the micro way of looking at specific spots (which is the tactical view).
The biggest problem with a lot of advice on how to play better poker is that it is purely tactical in nature. In itself there is nothing wrong in that if the author explains what assumptions they were making, and how the advice would differ if certain factors were different. This is particularly a problem with live poker hands, where a player asks for advice on a particular hand, but does not frame their question in the most useful way.
For example they may ask: In a live $2/$5 fullring game a tight player opened in middle position to $20. I called on the button with AsKh. We both started the hand with $1000. Then follows a description of the postflop action, and the hero wants to know if he played the hand right.
Already, there is a problem – a tight player could mean so many things. Often the person providing the answer to the question makes assumptions (without specifying what that is), and this may be different to what the hero understood by ‘tight.’ Then, all advice after this is exploitative tactical advise based on these assumptions.
Even if the questioner asks the question by describing their opponent as a TAG or LAG this isn’t much better. Beginner players in particular mislabel players by comparing them to other players they play with, they may think of someone as LAG who is actually a TAG, based on the fact most of the other players are limping/calling a lot, and this player seems to do a fair amount of raising. But, he is only raising the amount a TAG would). TAG/LAG by themselves are also not that useful.
It would be better if the person asking the question was specific about everything. Then the person providing the advice should list his assumptions, any math they use, what the unexploitable strategy would be, and how he is choosing to deviate. That way it is quicker to check his advice for problems.
What you should do
- We recommend you think about the whole game from above in a strategic way.
- Then, think of specific tactics relevant to the games you play in.
- Learn the principles of unexploitable play.
- Then, think how you can punish opponents who are making mistakes you can exploit.
- At the same time being wary of how you are deviating from unexploitable play to exploit others’ mistakes. This is so that you can watch out to see if you are being exploited yourself, so you can re-exploit.
What are poker edges?
Poker edges are anything a player does well, than their opponents do less well, that give them an advantage. The bigger the advantage, the bigger the edge. Identifying and working on your poker edges is vital if you want to play better poker and maximise your winnings. In order to be a profitable player, you need more than just an edge on your opponents. However, without an edge you cannot possibly be a profitable player in the long run.
Many players struggle to correctly identify where their edge comes from. This will make it impossible to work on improving their edge. Many players think certain thinks are edges when they are not. Or, claim their edge is something than in fact only gives them a small advantage that may not be sustainable in their games (and will certainly not if they move up levels).
What is edge?
Let’s look at the concept of edge, using another game familiar to most.
In roulette (American version) the casino has a minimum 5.26% edge if you decide to bet on a particular number, red or black, or odd or even. Infact almost any American roulette bet gives the casino a 5.26% edge.
- Let’s say a player decided to bet on a specific number on the roulette wheel, e.g number 26.
- If the player wins the casino pays out 35-1.
- If there were 36 numbers on the wheel this would be a fair wager. In the long run neither the casino or the player would have an edge. There are 18 red numbers and 18 black numbers, however there is also an 0 and 00 on the wheel.
- The casino is getting it’s edge by only paying out 35-1, when the true odds are 37-1.
- If you decided to bet on red/black or odd/even, the casino would pay out 1-1. This would be fair if there were exactly the same number of red and black numbers or odd or even numbers, and nowhere else for the ball to land. However with the green 0 and 00, you can see where the casino’s edge comes from.
No system to reverse the edge
If you place these particular bets, there is nothing you can do to reduce the casino’s edge on those bets. In any give casino game, there may be other bets with less of an edge. This is provided the wheel is fair, and the casino has taken steps to stop players using equipment to track where the ball will land. These edges are inbuilt via the rules of the game, and the fixed odds you are getting. No system can reverse the edge into the player’s favour, or reduce the edge of the casino. Licensed casinos in the many jurisdictions cannot increase their edge on these bets either. The rules of the game and the odds it must pay on these bets, are fixed by gaming law.
What are your poker edges?
Before reading any further please take a couple of minutes, and write down what you think are your poker edges.
Some players when asked what their edge is say:
- I only/mainly play in position
Things like this are not edges, as everyone gets the same opportunities to do these things, and they are easy to do. Sure, playing more in position than out is likely to form part of a good strategy. However, most players do this (so it cannot give you an edge over them).
- I wait for better cards
Everyone gets the same number of ‘better cards.’ Everyone plays their ‘better’ cards, so again this is not an edge. Infact, by only playing what you think are the ‘better’ cards you are likely giving your opponents an edge. As it is easy to play you, and you are not maximising your EV across all the cards you are dealt.
Small unsustainable poker edges
Imagine a player who said their edge was:
I only put in big money with preflop premium hands or when I make a big hand postflop with drawing hands, and opponents almost always pay off big with second best hands. I always fold when opponents try and play big pots, and I don’t have a big hand.
In a small stakes game this could give you a edge. However, your edge from doing this is small and may be unsustainable at your current stakes (and almost certainly will be if you move up). This is not a proper poker strategy.
You say, your opponents almost always pay you off. Whilst it is true at smaller stakes some opponents may pay you off when they shouldn’t, often this actually happens when big hands clash. You are almost certainly just getting lucky in that every time you have had a big hand. Your opponents happened to have a hand they couldn’t get away from (in small stakes games big pots are usually created when big hands clash).
If you insist even though you are playing a value heavy style (doing little to no bluffing) and only putting big money in when you know you have the best hand, and your opponents still keep paying you off even without a great hand themselves, you should be able to make even more profits by playing a wider range correctly. You don’t get dealt that many premiums preflop, and it is hard to make hands. You would do a lot better trying to play a wider range and maximising the EV of that range (which would consist of value hands and bluffs).
Big sustainable poker edges
We think a big sustainable edge should consists of having the right knowledge AND applying it correctly.
- Acquiring the relevant knowledge
- I continually work on studying poker strategy, such that in any spot I have a good idea of what the minimally exploitative (i.e. balanced, or GTO) play would look like.
- I also work on what changes to this are profitable, knowing the tenancies and frequencies of the player pool in the games I play.
- I also work on any further deviations to this for the common opponent profiles I will likely be up against in hands.
- Applying the knowledge efficiently in-game
- In game, I use mental energy and time wisely. In any spot, I am immediately able to understand what are the most relevant things to think about that will give the maximum benefits in the time that I have to make the decision.
- I continually work on the mental game, such that I do not believe I am giving up much due to tilt.
Whilst everyone has the same opportunities to build up poker edges like this, it takes a lot of work to this which many players are not prepared to do. The more time you put in working efficiently, the more your edge is likely to be.
The amount of your poker profits will depend on what edge you have versus your opponents, the stakes (blinds and stack depth in cash games, buy-ins in tournaments) you are playing for, and the volume you put in. You also have to take account of the expenses of playing. For example, rake and any other expenses (such as the expenses of travelling to a live tournament).
Juggling to produce greater poker profits
If you are looking to try and make the most money in real terms for poker, you have to understand how these factors interact. The idea is to find the right balance between the factors involved, which will be a juggling act and one that needs constant thought.
- Finding a higher stakes game, where your edge is lower, is a no-brainer if you will be making more profits in real terms. Many players remain at lower stakes than they should be playing for too long.
- Having a massive edge, will not make you much profits, if you aren’t putting in the volume. So, putting in loads of time studying in an effort to become the perfect player, thus leaving little time play, isn’t going to make you profits.
Poker profits equation
The following summarises, where poker profits come from:
【Edge ✖ Stakes ✖ Volume】➖ Expenses
Your poker profits will increase:
- The more you know compared to your opponents that is relevant to the game you are playing (relevant knowledge gap), AND
- The better you are at actually implementing that knowledge in game (ability to implement knowledge)
Only relevant knowledge is important. If you have spent thousands of hours analysing deep cash game situations, but are playing in a shallow stacked tournament with fast blind rises, that knowledge isn’t going to give you an edge in this particular tournament.
Your ability to implement your knowledge, depends on how much you tilt (tilt is any deviation from rational decision making). Plus, your ability to quickly figure out exactly which parts of your knowledge tree are most relevant to the hand in question.
- If you were playing $1/$2 and were winning 10bb/hour on average, you are winning $20/hr. However, if you moved up to $2/5, and were winning 10bb/hour on average, you are winning $50/hr. Of course, moving up in stakes normally reduces your edge (as you will be playing with better players). However, lets say you were only able to win 7bb/hour on average, you are still winning $35/hour at this new level. Let’s now imagine, you moved up to $10/$20. Even if your edge was tiny, and you were only able to win 4bb/hour, this would be $80/hour. Would you rather be making 10bb/hour at $1/2 or 4bb/hour at $10/$20?
- The stack depths of your opponents is also important. If you have an edge over your opponents at all stack depths, but are only able to play them in shallow stacked games, you will make less than in deep stacked games. Less skilled opponents tend to make bigger mistakes in deeper stacked situations, than shallow stacked situations. Also, rake is usually capped. So, if you play bigger pots you should find yourself paying less rake (as a percentage of the pot).
- The actual stakes and depths you play, will depend your ability to gain an initial bankroll (e.g. non-poker income or savings, backing agreement) and grow this.
- For live players volume can only be increased by putting in more hours, as you cannot multitable.
- For online players volume can be increased in two ways – multitabling, and putting in more hours.
- Usually multitabling, and putting in more hours will reduce your overall edge. But, this is not a problem if you are making more profits overall.
Your profits are clearly going to be reduced by the expenses of playing poker. However, it absolutely fine to endure higher expenses, if your overall profits will be higher. For example paying more rake in a soft live cash game, than less rake online.
- Rake. One of the biggest expenses, is the rake you pay to the cardroom. Live rake can make the certain games unprofitable at the absolute smallest stakes, whilst at higher stakes the rake structure doesn’t impact your profits much. Higher stakes games may even have a time charge (instead of pots being raked), which doesn’t linearly go up as much as the stakes. It is not the cardrooms’ fault that rake makes the smallest games unprofitable. The expenses of providing the game (dealers, floor staff, security, electricity, rent, maintenance) don’t change much whether you are playing the absolute biggest stakes or the absolute smallest stakes. The same is true of live tournaments. The smallest live tournaments can be really unprofitable (on average) due to the rake. Online games (cash games, and tournaments) usually have less rake than live games, but your edge is likely to be less too, so it’s a balancing act.
- Don’t ignore other expenses. For example, if you play live tournaments, and have to travel to get to them your travel expenses (e.g. air fare, petrol), accommodation expenses, and food expenses, will reduce the net amount of your winnings. If you are able to play online tournaments, you won’t have these expenses (but your edge may be lower).
How to actually play better poker
When you play poker, you are playing directly against other players. In the long run, unlike games such as bingo studied players implementing the best strategies are more likely to get a bigger slice of profits. The unstudied players may even be leaving with a loss in the long run.
The fact that you are reading our poker strategy content suggests that you are interested in improving your game. However, just reading our content (or anyone else’s content) or watching videos or listening to podcasts etc. is going to do little to help you play better poker player. Reading, watching, or listening are not by themselves effective learning techniques – you are attempting to absorb someone else’s information passively. Unfortunately, you are not a sponge – you cannot possibly remember all the information you were given. Even if you did manage to find ways to remember the information, that’s a start, but it is still nowhere near enough. You have to understand how to actually utilise that information in practice.
6 essentials to become a better poker player
ONE: learn how to do all the math you need
There is no way you can play better poker without doing any math. However, if math is not your thing don’t fret. The good news all the math you need to get by, is really not that difficult.
Maths you will have to learn, include how to calculate your:
- pot odds – ratio of the current pot size, compared to the cost of a possible call
- equity – how often your hand/range will win the pot at the river (if you don’t fold)
- expected value – the amount we expect to win, on average, for a given line
- SPR – the effective stack size, divided by the current pot size.
- fold equity – useful if you are planning a semi-bluff
- Minimum Defense Frequency – the % of time a given player must not fold in response to an aggressive action from their opponent, to prevent their opponent from doing so with any two cards.
- How to use combinatorics (inc. the effect of blockers) & probability
- ICM – (for tournament players only) ICM assigns a $ (or £, €, etc.) value to the current chips stacks.
Where possible, we will show you mental shortcuts you can use to do the calculations needed in a matter of seconds.
TWO: learn which hands to play or fold preflop
During a poker game, the decision you make every single hand, is whether to fold or play the hand dealt to you. Live poker players receive around 25-35 hands/hour. Online poker players receive 60 hands/hour – and online that’s for each table they are playing.
If you start off by getting your preflop hand selection wrong, you are setting yourself up for a fall postflop. It will be difficult to recover. Of course, you can also punish your unstudied opponents who are choosing the preflop strategy incorrectly.
If playing live low stakes cash poker (where many of the players are exploitable, and preflop effective stack sizes vary a lot), we do not recommend you memorise starting hands starts. Instead learn what makes a good preflop hand selection strategy, so you can dynamically adjust at the table. If you are playing online cash games (except microstakes) where the players are less exploitable and preflop effective stacks are usually either 100bb or the minimum, there is a case for memorising charts – especially if you plan on multitabling.
THREE: learn how to deduce your opponents’ ranges
what to observe
Think of yourself as a master detective. There is a lot you can deduce about your the cards your opponent(s) are holding, even though you can’t see them. You can do this by observing your opponents’:
how to put your opponent on a range
Whilst it is usually impossible to place your opponent on a specific hand due to incomplete information, you should always be able to place your opponents on a range of possible hands. The more accurate your range predictions, the better your strategy has the potential to be.
Whilst your opponent can hide the exact hand he is playing, it is really difficult for your opponent to hide the range of hands they are playing, as poker is essentially a game of frequencies.
- Your opponents cannot escape frequencies in the long run. If they are playing hardly any hands you might be able to be certain they are starting the hand with premiums like AA,AK etc. If they are playing almost every hand, you can be surmise they must be playing a lot of weak starting hands.
- Then given the hand range they are choosing to play, based on all the other factors relevant in the hand, they will need to raise/bet/call/fold a certain % of time based on the board texture. If they are choosing these frequencies badly, you can take advantage of their bad strategy.
too many hands
Infact, one of the primary ways you will be making profits at low stakes live poker, is your weaker opponents choosing to play too many hands preflop, and then having to proceed with these extra hands in a way you can take advantage of. For example, they might be reluctant to fold postflop. They start off with too many hands, and continue with too many hands), or they might fold easily every time they don’t connect.
work through hands away from table
If you are playing live we suggest you make detailed notes on all the key hands. If playing online use the hand histories provided by your online poker room (in conjunction with other software). Work away from the table, to see if the conclusions you came to in game were infact justified. You should use tools such as an equity calculator, or a solver to help you.
FOUR: learn to come up with a complete strategy
One of the common mistakes a beginner poker player makes is they concentrate too much on tactics. They want to know if the way the played their actual cards in one particular hand was good. Instead, our main aim is to teach you how to come up with a proper poker strategy. This will help you become a winning poker player in multiple environments. Tactics are a micro way of looking at the game, whereas strategy is the macro way. A proper poker strategy will allow you how to play your range, versus your opponents range, in a way that will maximise your EV.
GTO, exploitative, or hybrid?
Decide whether to use a GTO strategy, an exploitative strategy, or a hybrid in your game as a default. Only then decide whether to do something different for any given hand.
- If you are playing low stakes live cash game poker, you will mostly find yourself playing exploitative strategies. Nevertheless, if you want become a good poker player, we recommend you understand the principles of GTO poker. This is even if you don’t need to use it in the game you play. This way you can understand how your opponents are deviating from the GTO strategy. And, as such you can figure you the best way to punish them. You will also be aware how your exploitable strategy is differing from GTO. And, as such you can anticipate any weaknesses your opponents may choose to exploit.
- If you are playing tough higher stakes online games you will have to play GTO (which is unexploitable). That is unless you find exploitable weaknesses in your opponents strategies. In which case you will try and exploit their weaknesses, trying not to get re-exploited yourself
An understanding of tells, including when they might be reliable, and how to avoid giving away tells is important too.
FIVE: learn to master the mental game
Tilt is any deviation from the best possible strategy that you are aware of. Examples of tilt could include:
- after suffering a bad beat, doing something in a future hand that you wouldn’t have done had you been playing your A game
- not quitting the game, when tiredness is causing you to be lazy in your decision making. For example ,you are guessing when when you have the ability to calculate something more accurately
Clearly by definition, as any form of tilt is a deviation from the best possible strategy, we want to find ways to reduce it, or eliminate it altogether.
SIX: learn how to manage your bankroll correctly
You could understand poker strategy as it relates to any individual hand perfectly. However, without a bankroll management strategy you are unlikely to be a long term winning poker player. In poker, you can make correct decisions and lose (of course you can make wrong decisions and win too). Sometimes you can lose a number of times in a row (whether due to bad luck, or bad play). If this happens, you don’t want to lose all your money, if you cannot replenish it. You need to have many times the amount you are risking in one buy-in, available in your bankroll.
BONUS TIP: learn by making usable notes
Don’t write down a transcript
The first thing we recommend, when trying to learn to play better poker from any content is to make notes. However, just noting down everything you are told via an article, video, or podcast isn’t really going to do you that much good. All you have done then is effectively created a transcript of the information. Instead write done the most useful things that you didn’t already know. Or, things that you did know but have been explained to you in a better way.
Chunking by subject area
As a tip, we would recommend organising your notes via subject area. Divide into major categories, like key concepts, foundational math, overall strategy, tactical advice, mental game advice, etc. Make subcategories in each one. We would recommend purchasing a notebook, that is already divided into several tabbed or colour coded sections. Every time you read, watch, or listen to poker training material write down your notes in the appropriate section, instead of starting a new page for each new piece of training material you use. This way your notes will be more useful in helping you in your journey to play better poker.
Consider another approach
- Instead of writing down the key ideas that you are learning, write down questions instead.
- So if you have just seen a great explanation of what the difference is between ‘hot & cold’ and robust equity. Write down ‘what is the difference between ‘hot & cold’ and robust equity?’ Hopefully, you will have written down several questions.
- Several hours (or better still the following day) after reading, watching, or listening to the training material answer your questions.
- You will be surprised about how difficult it sometimes is to answer these questions. Even though you thought you understood the concepts perfectly the first time.
- You can go back through the training material, correct your answers. The questions you feel you could have done better on, can be re-answered the following day.
- The great thing about writing down key questions, is you can go back again in a week or month, to see if you still properly remember the information.
Use hand histories to practice
Just learning concepts is not enough. If you have been playing poker for a while, hopefully you have noted down many interesting hands. You will have to do this manually live, whilst online you should be able to access hand histories. Pick out some appropriate hands. Write down how you could improve what you did based on the new information you have learned. Use any appropriate software to do this.
If there are hand examples in the training material, work through them thoroughly yourself. We would recommend writing down the basics of the hand. For example cards, action etc from the material. Then, work on the hand from scratch. What assumptions (if any) were made, and do you agree with the conclusions.
Put theory into real practice
As the cliche goes, practice makes perfect. Using the information you have learned in real life, is one of the most effective learning techniques you have at your disposal to start to play better poker. Make detailed notes of your game play. You will often find you didn’t quite remember something. Or, something that seemed quite straightforward in the training material is difficult to implement. Consider why.