Texas holdem poker is still one of the hottest games in the casino. The combination of skill, luck, and speed combine to make it one of the most exciting and attractive poker games being played these days.
If you’re a beginner, though, how can you improve your game quickly?
One way is to pay attention to the following do’s and don’ts. I’ve been playing Texas holdem for over a decade, and while I’m not a world-class player, I’m definitely above average.
As luck would have it, at most casinos, being better than average is all it takes to become a winner at Texas holdem.
Here are 10 tips to get you started on the right track.
1- DO Pay Attention to Your Position
The biggest mistake I’ve always made in Texas holdem is not understanding and acting based on the importance of position.
It’s when you act during a hand. If you’re one of the first players to act, you’re in “early” position. If you’re one of the last players to act, you’re in “late” position.
If you’re in early position, you’re at a disadvantage, because you have no clues about what the other players are holding.
If you’re in late position, you have an advantage, because you’ve seen what many or most of the other players have done so far in the hand.
You have a pair of 9s. That’s not a terrible hand, but it’s far from a premium starting hand. You’re the first person to act, so you raise the blind.
You then face a re-raise, a 2nd re-raise, and a 3rd re-raise before it comes back to you.
With that many raisers acting behind you, there’s not really much else you can do in this situation but fold.
If you’d had that same hand in late position, you could have saved yourself some money by not getting involved in the pot at all.
So the rule of thumb is to play tighter from earlier position and looser from late position.
Tight means you have strong requirements for which hands you’re willing to play. Loose means you’re willing to play a wider variety of hands.
Position matters throughout the game, too, not just before the flop.
Think of the strength of your hand in the context of your position, and you’ll instantly be better than half the other players at most tables.
2- DON’T Play Too Many Hands Preflop
One of the biggest mistakes beginner Texas holdem players make is playing too many hands preflop. The 2nd biggest mistake is that they stay in action with those hands longer than they should.
The best advice I ever got about playing Texas holdem was to make my cards earn their right to play. In other words, if the cards weren’t good enough, my job was to get out of the hand.
In other words, you need starting hand requirements. If your starting hand requirements are effective enough, you’ll be a break-even player, even if your post-flop play is a bit weaker than your preflop game.
The most important decision you’ll make in any Texas holdem hand is whether to play the hand at all. Most of the time—probably 80% of the time—you should be folding your hand preflop.
On top of that, when the flop comes, you have the 2nd biggest decision in the hand—whether to continue. The rule of thumb here is easy, too—if the flop improves your hand, you should continue. If the flop looks like it would be a good fit for one of your opponents, you’re probably better off folding.
When you’re evaluating starting hands, you should think about whether or not the cards are paired, connected, or suited. You should also consider how high the cards rank.
A pair of aces is the best possible starting hand, because the cards are paired and they’re the highest ranked cards in the deck.
A pair of 2s, on the other hand, isn’t the worst possible starting hand, but if you don’t hit another 2 on the flop, you’ll almost certainly need to fold the hand. A lot of times, with such a low ranking pair, you won’t even see a flop with that hand.
3- DO Bet and Raise a Lot
The last tip was about how tight you play. The suggestion was to fold a lot of hands. If you do this, you’ll usually be playing in hands where you’re ahead of your opponents—you’ll have better cards. It will be like starting a race with a head start.
What do you do, though, when you decide to play those hands? Should you just call your opponents’ bets to see how the rest of the hand develops? Should you check to see if someone behind you is going to bet?
When you play a hand, play it strong—bet and raise with it. If a hand isn’t good enough to re-raise with, it’s not good enough for just a call, either.
Betting and raising puts more money in the pot, but it also increases your probability of winning the pot when all your opponents fold. This is called putting pressure on your opponents.
If all you do is check and call, you haven’t given your opponents an opportunity to make a mistake. They just get to tag along and play the hand for free.
Don’t let your opponents play for free.
Make them decide whether their hands are good enough to play.
Then hope they’re going to make the wrong decision.
4-DON’T Bluff Much, if At All
One mistake a lot of beginners to Texas holdem make is bluffing a lot. If you’re playing in a low stakes Texas holdem game—and if you’re a beginner, those are the only games you should be playing in—you won’t find a lot of opponents who are willing to fold in the face of bets and raises.
In other words, bluffing only works when your opponents are capable of bluffing.
The other mistake related to bluffing is when you face multiple opponents. If you want to succeed at bluffing, you should only be facing 1 or 2 opponents. The probability that 3 or more opponents will all fold in the face of your bluff is always far smaller than it would be if you only needed to scare off 1 or 2 opponents.
Also, when more players are in the pot, the probability that one of them has really good cards improves dramatically. The good cards have to be out there somewhere, right?
A better move for beginners is called the semi-bluff, and it’s amazingly effective when compared with a naked bluff.
A semi-bluff is a bet and/or raise with a hand that’s probably NOT the best hand at the table, but also has a good probability of improving.
If you have 4 cards to a flush, you’re probably dominated.
But if you bet and raise with it, you might win the pot without going to a showdown.
If you do get called, you still have a reasonably good chance of hitting a hand that will defeat your opponent.
5- DO Read a Book Now and Then
I’m always amazed at the number of players at a Texas holdem table who’ve made no effort to read any of the great literature written about the game. Sure, there’s no substitute for experience, but why wouldn’t you want to take a shortcut to poker expertise?
Think of reading a poker book as getting the opportunity to look into the head of a smarter, more experienced player.
Not all poker books are excellent, but I’ve learned something from most of them. The best poker books seem to be the ones published by Two Plus Two, although I’ve read some great poker strategy books from other publishers, too.
I’m a big believer in active reading, too. This means you’re actually participating in the reading process in a way more involved than just letting your eyes run across the words on the page. You’re taking notes, underlining stuff, or highlighting stuff.
If you read an especially interesting example, it might be worth it to take out a deck of cards and look at the example hands in front of you with real cards. This can solidify your learning in ways you can’t imagine.
Read at least one good book about the kind of Texas holdem poker you want to play. If you’re a complete beginner, you should start with David Sklansky’s excellent introduction to the game, Texas Holdem Poker
It won’t take you long to become advanced enough that you need to move on to a more advanced book, though.
6- DON’T Spend More Time Studying than Playing
Don’t go too far down the rabbit hole, though. It’s possible to spend more time studying than playing, and that’s just a terrible idea. Reading books and watching instructional videos should never replace actual experience at the table.
If I were going to teach my daughter poker, I’d start by giving her one book to read, but once she’d read it, I’d want to start playing some hands with her with fake chips to teach her how the game actually works. Without that actual experience, she wouldn’t understand what she’d read, anyway.
Everything you read should inform your play at the table. Without actual experience at the table, all the reading in the world is useless.
If you’re a complete beginner, take advantage of the large number of websites where you can now play poker online for free with other players. You’ll find that the game-play varies because there’s no money on the line. Everyone plays different when they’re playing with real money—even if they’re only playing for pennies and/or nickels.
The biggest benefit to using these free games to learn is that you can figure out the order in which everything happens at the table without having to risk any actual money while you’re doing so.
I have a friend who has 2 WSOP bracelets, and last time we talked, he also played free poker online as a hobby. He was enjoying building a huge stack of chips, even though those chips have no real monetary value. To him, they just confirm the role that skill plays in the game.
7- DO Play within Your Bankroll
That friend also used to tell me that if I was a losing player, I needed an infinite bankroll to avoid going broke. That always made me chuckle, but it’s an important point:
If you’re a losing player, you’ll eventually go broke no matter how big your bankroll is.
But if you’re a winning player, you could still go broke. Imagine if you sit down at a $25/$50 table, but all you have is the minimum buy-in of $5000.
You could easily go on a big losing streak and run through that $5000 in no time—especially if you’re playing no limit, which, at those stakes, is probably what you’ll be playing.
At a limit holdem game, you should have a bankroll of 300 big bets. For example, if you want to play $4/$8 and have a minimal probability of going broke before your long-term advantage sets in, you should have a bankroll of at least $2400.
At a no limit holdem game, you should have a bankroll of at least 10 or 20 times the buy-in.
These are just rough guidelines, but the bottom line is simple:
You need a bigger bankroll than you probably think if you want to avoid going broke.
Even then, there’s no guarantee.
8- DON’T Feel Like You Have to Get Fancy
When you’re a beginner at Texas holdem, the best thing you can do is play straightforward poker. This means that if you have a good hand, you bet and raise with it. If you have a mediocre or bad hand, you should fold with it.
Poker’s a simple game that way.
At the lower limits, you don’t need a lot of fancy play to win. In fact, trying to get fancy doesn’t work, because most of your opponents aren’t interested in or sophisticated enough for you to need to make fancy plays.
I see a lot of players trying fancy bluffs and check-raises because they’ve spent a lot of time watching poker on television. They’re just being silly.
My favorite, though, is when a low stakes player sits there trying to stare me down to get information about my hand. 90% of the time, that player isn’t sophisticated enough for those tells to make any kind of difference at all.
You’ll sometimes see this style of poker called “ABC poker,” and that expression is usually used derisively. That’s because at higher stakes games, your opponents will be too skilled for this approach to work. They’ll just fold every time you bet or raise, or they’ll raise you out of every pot where you demonstrate your weakness.
In other words, at the higher limit tables, playing ABC poker is like playing with your cards exposed.
At the lower limit tables, though, most of your opponents aren’t good enough for that to even matter.
9- DO Start with Limit Holdem before Trying No Limit Holdem
I have a friend, Pete, who had never played limit holdem before going to the casino with me. He’d only every played no limit holdem. I was surprised, too, because he’s not such a great player.
Here’s the problem with no limit holdem, especially if you’re a beginner:
You can lose a huge amount of money in one fell swoop playing no limit holdem.
At any time, you might have to risk your entire stack on a hand.
This makes a big difference in terms of strategy. It also means that your mistakes can cost you far more than they would at a limit table.
When you’re just getting started in Texas holdem, you’re still getting the hang of basics like starting hand selection, selective aggression, and position.
With limit holdem, calculating the pot odds and the outs is much simpler than it is when you’re playing no limit holdem. You might face an opponent who’s willing to go all-in with next to nothing just to steal small pots repeatedly.
That’s harder to find and easier to defeat when playing limit holdem.
When you feel like you’re beating the limit games on a consistent basis, it’s okay to move up to no limit.
But at least consider a pot limit or spread limit game as a mid-way point before moving on to a full no limit holdem game. I just hate to see people lose massive amounts of money on a single hand the way they often do in no limit Texas holdem.
10- DON’T Limit Yourself to Just One Poker Game
It’s tempting to play Texas holdem to the exclusion of all other poker games.
That’s not the only reason you should diversify your poker skills, though.
Learning to play other poker games well develops other skill-sets that will improve your overall poker chops. For example, playing stud poker will improve your ability to pay attention and remember what’s going on at the table. Omaha will improve your ability to think about outs and odds.
Finally, if you never play anything but Texas holdem, you’ll be at a definite loss in most home poker games. And you might get bored and spend time away from the poker tables.
Life’s short. You should spend as much time at the poker table as possible.
This means avoiding boredom and getting the most out of your poker experiences as possible.
If you’re going to play Texas holdem, you should commit to getting good at it. This is true of any kind of endeavor, poker included. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
Luckily, Texas holdem poker, especially for beginners, isn’t that hard. You need to understand position. You also need to know how to play a tight-aggressive style of poker—you don’t play a lot of hands, but when you do decide to play a hand, you’ll play it strongly.
Most Texas holdem beginners make a lot of the same mistakes. Having too small a bankroll is a common problem. Even if you’re the best player at the table, you can easily go broke if you don’t have enough money to withstand the vagaries of luck and standard deviation.
Texas holdem is a game of chance, after all.
But my biggest piece of advice for the beginning Texas holdem player is to just play straightforward poker. Bet and raise when you have good cards, and check or fold when you have bad cards. If the cards dealt on the later rounds don’t improve your hand, don’t throw more money into the pot.
Texas holdem poker, at least at the beginning levels, really is just this straightforward and simple.