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Today’s the day for my brand new book The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players. The early reviews are coming in, and I’m very happy that people are enjoying the book.
If you’ve read some of my other books, this book is different. It’s by far my most practical book to date, and it walks you step-by-step through all the skills you need to play professional-level no-limit hold ’em. Read more about it here.
My newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players, is now available in paperback and e-book formats. I have a sneak preview of a couple chapters from the book to give you some flavor for what’s within.
When I was a kid, my dad watched a lot of golf. Every Thursday through Sunday, our television was tuned to that week’s PGA tournament. This was before the Internet, and we had only one TV, so many days I was a captive audience.
Through those thousands of hours of watching televised golf, I heard hundreds of players interviewed before tense Sunday matchups and after crushing losses. For the most part the words washed over me. If you’ve heard one cliché-filled athlete interview, you’ve heard almost all of them.
But one day, in one of these interviews, I heard something that stuck with me. I couldn’t tell you who said it, but the idea was powerful. You don’t play against the other players, the golfer said. You play against the course.
When you enter a golf tournament against a hundred other players, you can think about it one of two ways. You can think about it as “you against the field.” To win, you have to beat every one of your opponents. You’ve got to beat the one who drives a million miles, and you’ve got to beat the one who never misses a putt. You’ve got to beat the one who can get out of every jam, and you’ve got to beat the one who thrives under pressure no matter how intense.
That’s one way to think about it. The other way is to ignore all that. Those other players don’t matter. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. It’s not your concern. In some sense, a golf tournament involves only two players—you and the course. The course sets the rules. It creates the challenges. It puts up the obstacles. Your job is to analyze the problem, formulate a strategy, then execute.
That’s it. If you pick the right strategy, and your execution is crisp, the winning takes care of itself. The other players will beat themselves one way or the other. If you conquer the contours of the course, then you can ignore all the competition and claim your victory.
It’s a powerful idea. It separates the things you can’t control—the other players—from the things you can—your own strategy and execution. It’s also an idea that perhaps applies even better to poker.
In poker, it’s easy to get distracted by all the other players. This guy called twice and spiked a gutshot straight against you. That guy won’t stop calling every time you play a pot. The woman across the table made the nuts against you three times in a row.
It’s all noise. Ignore it. A hold ’em game is not you against nine opponents. It’s you against the course. Master the course, and you’ll see results.
If you don’t ignore it, you risk getting caught in a dangerous trap—trying to change your opponents. If someone keeps calling and drawing out on you, then the natural response is to try to get that guy to stop calling so much. Maybe you bet bigger. You figure that if you use a big enough gun, you’ll be able to blast the guy out of your pots.
This approach, however, is exactly the wrong one. The more you simply react to what your opponents are doing—and especially the more you try to change the way they play—the more you ensure that you’ll never win at this game.
Just play the course. In poker, the course isn’t your opponents, but it is created by your opponents. Your opponents, by the strategies they use to play the game, decide where the sand traps and water hazards go. They also decide where you’ll find the fairways and greens. The more flawed your opponents’ strategies, the wider the fairways, and the bigger and more forgiving the greens.
Your first job is to survey the course. Every time you sit down to play, you examine the action to determine where the hazards lie and where the plum landings spots are. Next, you devise a strategy to hit the good spots as often as possible. Finally, you execute.
If you do that consistently—survey, strategize, execute—your opponents won’t be able to keep up with you.
This is my ninth poker book. When I tell my non-poker-playing friends that I’ve written nine poker books, they ask, “Is there really that much to say about poker?”
The short answer is yes. No-limit hold ’em is a game with a depth and subtlety that equals chess. People have been playing chess for hundreds of years. They’ve written thousands of books on the game, and still haven’t mastered it. In contrast, while no-limit hold ’em has been around since early in the last century, its popularity exploded more recently, beginning with the 2003 World Series of Poker. Only since then has the poker community devoted significant resources to teasing out the game’s finer strategic points.
I co-wrote my first book about poker strategy in 2004. The collective strategic knowledge about hold ’em has been in a constant state of flux since then. With each new book I’ve written, I’ve learned more about the game.
This book is the product of how I’ve learned to teach poker for the past ten years. I won’t waste your time telling you that a flush beats a straight. I also won’t rehash basic strategy points you can find in a hundred different places. That’s what Google is for.
Instead, I’ve focused on presenting only high-value concepts. If I’ve done it right, this book will give you a series of “aha” moments, one after the other. These concepts are the most important, practical, and instantly applicable ideas that win money in real no-limit hold ’em games.
The book is broken down into a series of skills. Read the first skill, practice it, master it, and move onto the next. Once you have mastered the first three skills, you can expect to have sustained success in the lowest-level games offered in public card rooms.
After you get through the next four skills, you should have what it takes to win at the next level. And finally, if you master all the skills presented here, you should be able to play a professional-level game at some of the higher stakes.
Hold ’em isn’t a simple game. You shouldn’t expect success to come quickly and easily. But this complexity is precisely what makes it worth playing. If it’s not easy for you, rest assured it’s not easy for your opponents either. Most people who play the game regularly in public card rooms are, quite frankly, terrible players who make mistakes on nearly every hand. (They will also be happy to volunteer “advice” about how you should play more like them. Ignore them. Always, always ignore them!)
On top of this, the game’s short-term luck factor serves to obscure relative skill levels among players. If you play ten games of chess against someone who is much better than you, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose nine or all ten of those games. After an experience like that, no one could believe they were in fact the better player.
Yet, in poker, the better player won’t beat the worse player every time—not even close. The noise of hand-to-hand results often hides the edge the better player enjoys. Throw in a little old-fashioned self-delusion, and many people play for years and years thinking they are among the best players in the room, while actually being among the worst.
This book’s main goal is to cut through all that noise. I want you to understand clearly what it means to be good at poker. I want you to focus on the stuff that’s truly important. And I want you to tune out everything else.
I want you to expect a challenge. As I said above, poker excellence doesn’t come easily. As I’m sure you already know, it will take consistent hard work on your end. But I also want to help you succeed. And I want you to understand that your poker goals are attainable if you study the right concepts and put forth enough effort.
This may be a new idea for you to consider. But I encourage you to see poker as an exercise in self-improvement. Every day that you read, every day that you study, and every day that you play, you get a little better than you were the day before. This is how you should measure success—not by money won or lost, but by whether you continue to improve day after day.
Don’t worry about your opponents. They’ll win and they’ll lose. Along the way, they’ll naturally have a lot of things to say about the game, very little of it valid. What happens with, and to, your opponents is both irrelevant and beyond your control.
In the end, it’s just you and the course. Learn to read the course. Learn to beat the course. And every day strive to score better that day than you did the last. Do that, and the winning will take care of itself.
Static Versus Dynamic Boards
In no-limit hold ’em there are 22,100 possible flops. Each of these flops creates a unique ordering of hand values for the cards held by each player at the table, and a unique distribution of hand equities. If you had a central processing unit implanted in your brain, you could study each of these 22,100 flops independently to understand perfectly how each affects hand ranking and equity distribution.
If you’re not yet enhanced with unfathomable computing power, twenty-two thousand unique outcomes is just way too much information to calculate and retain. It makes sense, therefore, to put different flop types into groups, where a given group of flops tends to behave in a certain way.
The most important grouping is the distinction between static and dynamic flops. A static flop is one like K♠7♦3♥—where the hand values (particularly hands near the top of the pile like 7-7, K-7, A-K, and K-Q) are relatively unlikely to change on the turn or river. If you’re ahead on the flop, you’ll probably still be ahead on the river. In this example, either you hold a king or you don’t. There’s no flush draw available. And the only straight draw is a gutshot between the 7 and the 3. Only one overcard (an ace) can come on a subsequent street to beat you if you hold the king.
A dynamic flop is one like 9♣7♠4♣—where hand values (again, particularly the ones at the top of the heap like 4-4, J-J, A-9, and T-9) are likely to change significantly on the turn and river. Several factors can make a flop dynamic. But the most important one is a “low highest” card—meaning, where the highest card on the flop is a relatively low card. When the highest card on the flop is a 9 or lower, as in this case, your flop is dynamic, since it’s likely one, or possibly two, overcards will come by the river. These overcards can completely upset the ordering of hands.
Flush and straight draws can also make a flop dynamic. But players tend to overestimate the importance of draws, compared to simply the rank of the highest card on the flop. As you know, a pair of jacks beats a pair of nines just as surely as a flush. But it’s a lot easier to make a pair of jacks, so the reordering of hands is more drastic when an overcard hits the board than a flush card.
Here’s the math behind a jack hitting versus a flush completing. Say the flop comes 9♣7♠4♣. There are 55 total possible flush-draw hands, and if I started counting them all for this flop—A♣K♣, A♣Q♣, A♣J♣, A♣T♣, A♣8♣, etc.—and I counted every possible combination, I’d get 55 hands.
In hold ’em, this is always the number of possible flush-draw hands when two of any suit hit the flop. 55.
There are a total of 180 possible hands that have a jack in them (excluding J-J). That’s more than three times as many flush-drawing hands.
So, say I hold A-9 on this 9♣7♠4♣ flop. More hands leapfrog me in the rankings if a jack hits than if a club hits. When a club hits, only 45 hands improve to beat A-9 (plus a few stray two pair hands). It’s 45 hands, not 55, because the appearance of a third club eliminates the possibility of hands using that card. That is, if the turn is the 2♣, no one can hold A♣2♣.
But when a jack hits the board, any two cards that include a jack improve to beat A-9. That’s 135 possible combinations—far more than the 45 possible flushes. Of course, sometimes the flop action will eliminate many of the hands with a jack and another random card. But sometimes the flop action won’t eliminate many hands—if it goes check-check, for instance. Or if someone makes a C-bet, he could be betting any two cards.
In any event, an overcard hitting the turn will usually overturn the ordering of hands as much if not more than a flush card.
There’s more to say on this topic. For now, keep in mind that static flops are ones where hand rankings—yours and your opponents’—are unlikely to change much on the turn and river. Dynamic flops are ones where hand rankings are likely to change significantly on the turn and river.
Static flops—K-7-3, K-Q-4, A-9-5, Q-J-2, K-6-6—will typically feature one or two high cards. These flops become semi-static when there’s also a flush draw present. And when the flop also contains a straight draw, or is all one suit—flops like A♣Q♠9♣ or K♦7♦6♦—then they’ve slid toward a gray area between static and dynamic. Even on flops such as these, there’s a good chance the player who flops top pair will continue to hold the best hand by the river. But clearly, added straight and flush possibilities muddy the situation.
On the other end, a rainbow 8-4-2 flop is dynamic, even without flush draws. It’s just too likely an overcard will hit on either the turn or river. When you add a flush draw, it gets even more dynamic. If you straighten the cards like 8-7-5, it also gets more dynamic.
Remember that with static flops, there are large equity differences between the various hand levels. If you flop a set on a static board, you’re nearly a lock against anyone else. If you flop two pair including top pair, you’re a big favorite over any one-pair hand. If you flop top pair with a good kicker, you’re a big favorite over someone with a lesser kicker, and you’re a pretty big favorite over middle or bottom pair.
As you move down from the best to the worst hand, the equity differences between each set of hands is large.
On dynamic flops, equities tend to run closer together. For instance, take a dynamic flop like 8♣7♠5♣. And consider three hands playing this flop—A♣Q♣, J♠J♣, and 8♦6♦. Each of these hands comes from very different hand tiers. But all three of them have equity against one another. There’s no clear ordering of best to worst, and it would be difficult to convince the player holding any of these three hands they’re so far behind they might as well give up.
The strategic implications of static versus dynamic boards are many. But for now I’ll drill down on one last idea. On static boards, if you bet, you’re presenting a clear threat. “Whatever hand you have,” your bet says, “I have a better one. And against a better hand you have little chance to win.”
On dynamic boards, however, a bet doesn’t carry the same threat. At best, a bet says, “I have a hand that has a good chance to win,” to which an opponent easily could say, “So do I.” And there’s a call.
So what does any of this have to do with Skill #4, barreling?
In general, on a static board, you need fewer barrels to “get the job done” than on a dynamic board. Seen the other way, if your bluffs haven’t worked after betting the flop and turn on a static board, there’s a good chance you should give up. But if your bluff bets haven’t worked on a dynamic board, you may still want to give a river bluff a shot. It’s likely your opponents are still drawing and by the river, have missed everything. That, or they’ll worry that your river bet means you outdrew them.
Consider these examples:
In both cases, it’s a 2-5 game with $1,000 stacks. Two players limp. You make it $25 to go on the button and the limpers call. There’s $82 in the pot.
First, the flop comes K♦Q♠3♥. Your opponents check, and you bet $60. The first limper folds, and the second limper calls.
The turn is the 6♥. Your opponent checks, and you bet $160. He calls.
The river is the 6♦. Your opponent checks.
In a typical 2-5 game, you should probably give up if you’re bluffing. (Notice that I never told you what hand you held. For the purposes of this example, it’s not important.)
Why should you give up? On a K♦Q♠3♥ flop, when your opponent calls your $60, he could have a king or a queen or a straight draw—hands like A-T and J-T. He could have even better hands like two pair, or a set. And it’s possible (with some player types) that he’s got a hand weaker than a queen.
But it’s unlikely he called with too many weaker hands than a queen. It would not be normal for most players to call this flop with a hand like 9-8, or 6-4, or even 2-2. Therefore, the fact that he called has meaning. And since you’d expect your opponent to have folded a good portion of weak hands or hands that totally missed, the fact that he didn’t fold makes his average remaining hand considerably stronger.
In this example, the turn brings a brick. He checks again. You bet again—a largish bet for a typical 2-5 game. Your bet says something clear on this static board. “Ok, I know you flopped some kind of hand, but I really think I have you beat.”
When your opponent calls, in effect he’s saying, “I’m not sure about that.”
On a static board like K-Q-3-6, both the bettor and the caller are clearly saying they have made hands, and each person feels there’s a good chance their hand is best.
On the river, the board is now K-Q-3-6-6. The confidence in each player doesn’t change much. The caller still feels his hand is best. If you bluff, it’s a pure power play. A river bet says, “Ha! I’ve got a monster, and I’ve got you on the hook for the full ride.” For the bluff to succeed, your opponent must understand this implied dialogue (not a good assumption about many low-stakes players), and your opponent must also believe you. He must also have the discipline to lay down a hand you know he likes.
In general, this is a losing bluff strategy. You don’t barrel to muscle people off hands you know they like. The goal of barreling is to catch your opponent with too many bad hands, and watch them fold to get rid of them. In this hand, on your K-Q-3-6-6 board, the flop barrel accomplishes this (because many hands look pretty weak on a K-Q-3 flop). The turn barrel also does this by getting an opponent to relinquish all his marginal hands after he called a flop, hands like A-T and Q-9. By the time the turn is bet and called, the caller will have a small remaining set of fairly strong hands. Barreling time, for this pot at least, is over.
Consider a different board. It’s the same 2-5 game with $1,000 stacks and the same pre-flop action (two limp-callers).
This time, however, the flop comes 9♣7♠4♣. Your opponents check, you bet $60, the first limper folds, and the second limper calls.
The turn is the 5♦. Your opponent checks, you bet $160, and he calls.
The river is the K♦. Your opponent checks again on this 9♣7♠4♣5♦K♦ board
You might consider firing a final barrel of perhaps $300 into the $522 pot. Why is this situation different?
Because this board is dynamic. Your opponent could have been calling with a variety of different hand types. He could hold a one-pair hand like A-9 or T-T. He could hold a flush draw like A♣J♣. He could hold a pair, plus a straight draw, such as 7-6 or 6-5.
The implied dialog on this board is very different from the one on the static board above. When you bet the turn, you’re not representing any particular sort of hand. But because you raised pre-flop, many players will tend to give you credit for a hand like A-A or Q-Q.
More importantly (remember, barreling is mostly about what your opponents might hold), your opponent could hold anything from a pair to a flush draw to a straight draw, to a combination of two or three of those things. A player might call the turn on a board like 9♣7♠4♣5♦ for lots of reasons. And by no means do all of them imply the player feels they have a strong hand worth showing down.
The river card—the K♦—is likely a bad card for the caller almost no matter what hand he holds. If he has a flush draw, he missed. Likewise, all the straight draws missed. Even if he held a hand like T-T, he now has to worry you had something like A-K and have outdrawn him.
The bottom line? Because the flop started out dynamic, your opponent will likely have found more hands to call with on the flop and turn. But by the river, a significant percentage of these hands will have bricked out. Your opponent can still have plenty of weak hands he’ll consider folding out.
Get The Course right now.
My upcoming book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy for Smart Players, is a practical guide to winning in live no-limit cash games. It starts with what you need to stop losing at $1-$2, and it adds on skills until you get to what you need to beat $5-$10.
I’m giving you a taste for my recipe to conquer everyday cash games. Last articles I covered the skills to beat $1-$2 and also $2-$5 games. In this article (published originally in Card Player vol. 28 no. 4) I’ll talk about the extra tricks you’ll need once you move up to $5-$10.
Skill #8. Exploiting Aggression
Skill #2 was a simple commandment. Don’t pay people off. If they bet big on the turn or river, they won’t be bluffing often enough to justify a call. So fold. Fold and don’t think twice.
That skill is very useful in $1-$2 and $2-$5 games. It can be useful in $5-$10 games as well—against opponents who play like the ones you’ll find at $1-$2 and $2-$5. But once you venture into $5-$10 games, you’ll find that you’re up against many players who are more than willing to bluff big. This requires you to abandon (temporarily) Skill #2 and develop this skill instead.
There’s usually a big flaw in the aggression many players use at $5-$10. Since they play too many hands preflop, they end up with lots of bad hands after the flop. But they don’t want to just fold these hands, nor do they want to call down hopelessly with them. So they turn them into bluffs. The problem is that all bluffs need to be supported by an appropriate number of good hands.
In other words, if you want to bluff when the flush card comes, then you’d better be a threat to have the flush as well. If you want to bluff when the board pairs, then you’d better also be able to have trips or a full house.
The flaw is, in many cases, players at $5-$10 try to bluff in situations where they do not have enough good hands to back them up. Or even when they do have some good hands to back up their bluffs, they try to bluff with so many bad hands that the bluffs flood out the value hands.
Either way, you can exploit this aggression by anticipating it and then by calling. It’s a tricky skill, however, because you need to understand clearly which good hands are likely and which ones are unlikely. You also need to be able to guess which bad hands will be present, and how often the player might try to bluff with them. When the bluffs crowd out the good hands, you call. When it’s the other way around, you fold. To thrive at $5-$10, you will need to learn to tell the difference.
Skill #9. Playing Deep
Typically, $1-$2 and $2-$5 games come with capped buy-ins that limit losses. Even when the buy-ins aren’t capped—or the cap is high—many players come to these games and buy in short. These are games that everyday folks play, and they want to gamble in the three figures, not the four or five figures.
At $5-$10, that dynamic begins to shift. Games at this level often have a high buy-in cap or no cap at all. These games begin to attract recreational players with big bankrolls and even bigger egos. They also attract pros who think nothing of covering a table with $20,000 or more. The game plays deep.
Now you don’t have to play deep to play at this level. You can buy in for $600 at a $5-$10 game and play it that way. There’s no shame in it at all.
But if you want to become one of the pro-level players who buys in to cover the table, you will have to learn to play deep.
Mathematically, there’s nothing fundamental that changes when you play deep. Since bet sizes tend to increase exponentially in no-limit, even buy-ins that are very large compared to the blinds open up only another one or two possible rounds of betting or raising.
I’ve found that there is one key adjustment when you’re playing deep.
You have to learn the psychology of it. Some players are far too eager to play for stacks when you’re very deep. Other players are too fearful to play for stacks when you’re very deep. Players who play for stacks at roughly the correct rate are rare.
The deeper you are playing, the more significant the errors people make on the final bet become relative to the preflop action. In other words, if you have $5,000 stacks, it’s far more important to catch someone making an error in how they play the final $3,000 than it is to catch them making an error on the first $100. This is true even though players have the chance to make preflop errors much more frequently than errors for stacks.
So the trick to playing with deep stacks is often to determine first whether your opponent is liable to get stacks in too easily or to be too fearful to play for stacks. Once you’ve determined that, you want to bloat pots preflop more than you might in a shorter stacked game. You don’t want to go wild with this, but in general, you should:
- Be more willing to 3-bet preflop than you might in a shorter stacked game.
- Be much more willing to call a 3-bet preflop than you might in a shorter stacked game, particularly if you are in position.
- Be more willing to 4-bet preflop than you might in a shorter stacked game.
This preflop play seeds the pot and prepares you to take advantage of the predictable errors your opponents make.
Skill #10. Taking On The Pros
Once you hit $5-$10, you will be playing with professional players. These pros have, to some extent or another, acquired all the skills in this book. The only true, long-term way to beat them is to master these skills better than they have.
But on the way to that goal, you can take shortcuts here and there. A big way is to use reverse tells. I don’t mean that you should wiggle your ear when you’re strong when you usually wiggle it when you’re weak.
Instead, I mean that you can mimic the weak plays that other players make, but have a surprise in store. For instance, you may notice that recreational players like to bet out in a certain spot to see where they are at. You can mimic that play, but do it with either strong hands or hands you are willing to make a big bluff with.
Or you can check value hands on the river that you’d normally bet, because it’s easier to get the pro players to bluff or to bet weaker hands than to get them to call with a worse hand.
Once you have acquired and mastered all these skills, you should be able to hold your own in virtually any live no-limit hold’em game anywhere on the planet.
Pre-order The Course today and receive a discounted coaching package.
My upcoming book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy for Smart Players, is a practical guide to winning in live no-limit cash games. It starts with what you need to stop losing at $1-$2, and it adds on skills until you get to what you need to beat $5-$10.
I’m giving you a taste for my recipe to conquer everyday cash games. Last article I covered the basic skills needed to beat a $1-$2 game. In this article (which appeared originally in Card Player vol. 28 no. 3), I’ll talk about the extra tricks you’ll need once you move up to $2-$5.
Skill #4. Barreling
There are a number of definitions of barreling, but here’s a simple one. Barreling is betting because your opponent (or opponents) checked.
Frequently, barreling is a type of bluff bet. You’re making the bet because you expect your opponents to have too weak a set of hands to put up a winning fight.
Barreling is a cornerstone skill to move beyond the most basic no-limit strategy. It’s a play designed to thwart two of the most common ways players try to get away with poor play.
Almost all live no-limit players play too many hands preflop. These extra hands are bad hands. (If they weren’t bad, then these hands wouldn’t be “too many”.) After the flop, players have to figure out a way to get rid of or hide these extra bad hands.
At $2-$5, you will see people most commonly try one of two methods to deal with the bad hands. Most commonly, they will fold them. Also popular, many players will call with them.
Nearly all players mix these strategies to some extent. A player may fold most of the time, but call sometimes. Another player may call most of the time, but fold sometimes. Also, a player may tend to call on the flop and turn, but tend to fold on the river.
As a winning no-limit player, your job is to catch your opponents trying to hide their bad hands. For both folding and calling, the way to catch an opponent in the act is to bet.
If they’re folders, then it’s obvious why betting works. It gets them to fold. They put the money in preflop or on the flop and then they fold it away.
If they’re callers, then it’s perhaps counterintuitive why betting is important. While it’s true that you don’t want to bluff a calling station, you still need to barrel at calling stations. The only thing that changes between folders and callers is which hands you choose to barrel. Against folders, you tend to want to barrel all your junk, but you might check back your hands with a little value like bottom or middle pair.
Against callers, it’s the opposite. You might check back your total junk, but you want to barrel all your marginal pair hands. A hand like a pair of eights that might have very little value against a folder can have quite a bit of value against a caller—since if they want to call with their bad hands, they will necessarily be calling with unpaired hands.
You check? I bet. It’s a basic $2-$5 skill.
Skill #5. Evaluating Board Texture
Board texture is poorly understood among most live players. I look at it like this. Preflop, every pot starts out identical. The same hands have value and the same hands don’t have value.
The flop changes the rules of this game. It reorders the hand rankings. It alters the distance in value between hands. The turn does the same. As does the river.
What doesn’t change, however, is the math of the game. A $50 bet into a $100 pot always offers 3-to-1 odds to the caller, no matter what’s on board.
What makes this game tricky is to square the things that don’t change—preflop hand values and pot and bet sizes—with the things that do change—postflop hand rankings and equities.
Most $2-$5 players do a terrible job of this. When a board comes 8-4-2 rainbow, certain types of hands have value, and the equities work a certain way. When the board comes Q-T-T with a two suit, hand values change, and the equities work differently. Each type of board texture resets the strategic rules, and most $2-$5 players can’t keep up.
This misevaluation leads typical $2-$5 players to fold too much on certain board textures and to call too much on others. It leads them to stop betting too quickly with some relatively strong hands while they bet far too recklessly with other hands that actually aren’t so strong.
If you learn the basics of how board textures work and you practice looking at how hand ranges behave on certain types of flops, turns, and rivers, you will be able to identify and punish the errors your opponents make.
Skill #6. Making Live Reads
Live reads are the general term for all the bits of information available in a live cash game. Of these, I consider bet sizing tells to be the most important. One of the great things about no-limit is that players get to choose their own bet sizes. Hidden within these bet sizes, for most live no-limit players, is information about how players feel about their hands.
A player who wants you to fold might shade a bet a few chips bigger. A player who is worried about getting raised might shade a bet a few chips smaller. A player who is looking for information might bet even smaller.
At the $2-$5 level, players frequently try to control the action by making bets that are intentionally small. They figure that if they bet small first, you won’t be able to bet big instead. All this bet sizing information can give you clear direction for how to exploit a situation.
Physical tells are useful sometimes. Also, there are subtle “vibes” that contain information. These vibes actually appear all over the place when you play live. Players give off weak vibes frequently, for example. I believe these vibes are actually physical tells that brains process and interpret unconsciously—as opposed to the conscious observation and translation associated with traditional physical tells that you might find explained in a book.
You can learn some rules of thumb for live reads, but ultimately you will learn how these work with experience and intentional observation.
Skill #7. Emotional Numbing
The amounts of money that change hands at $2-$5 are significant for most people. To play successfully at this level, you must learn to numb yourself to the emotional ups and downs. Bankroll management plays a role. So does self-talk and self-coaching. Hand analysis away from the table is also important. The ultimate goal is to build up tolerance to losing—both for magnitude of losses and for prolonged bad runs. I don’t have all the answers, but in the book I have a few tips that have worked to help me make sharp plays and keep me in action.
This article appeared originally in Card Player vol. 28 no. 2. It outlines the first main part (Part II) of my new book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy for Smart Players.
The framework of the book is very straightforward. I believe that nearly any smart person can learn to win at live no-limit hold’em games. Furthermore, I believe that you can break down what’s needed to beat the games into a series of increasingly complex skills.
First you learn the most fundamental skill. Once you have it mastered, you move onto the next skill, which builds upon the first. And so on. After you learn a few skills, you can beat the softest games in the room—the $1-$2 (or equivalent) games.
To move up, you need to acquire some more difficult skills. But still, the path to improvement is fairly linear. Master the previous skill, then acquire the next one. One skill on top of the other.
This straightforward model for learning poker breaks down if your goal is to attack the toughest games in the world. High-level poker is complex, counterintuitive, and non-linear.
But the poker played in live cardrooms around the world for everyday stakes is not so difficult.
I will give you a taste of what’s in the book. I will list out the skills needed to beat each level and give you a brief summary of each. This article starts from the beginning and takes you through what’s needed to beat $1-$2.
Skill #1. Play A Simple And Effective Preflop Strategy.
Without a doubt, most players’ problems begin preflop. Your typical live no-limit hold’em player plays way, way too many hands. If you play too many hands, by definition all the extra hands are bad hands. Playing too many hands creates an instant problem—how do you get rid of all the bad hands you are stuck with after the flop?
There are three ways to deal with bad hands after the flop. You can fold them. You can call down with them. Or you can try to bluff with them.
None of these three ways actually gets rid of the problem. They just try to hide the problem. If you choose to fold them, for example, then you can hope that your opponent doesn’t bet very often. If you call down with them, then, again, you can hope that your opponent doesn’t bet too much. If you try to bluff with them, then you can hope that your opponent doesn’t notice and keeps folding. (Perhaps he’s chosen to fold all his bad hands.)
The first step to winning at $1-$2 is avoiding this problem in the first place. You use a tight preflop strategy focused on playing mostly pocket pairs, suited big card hands, and suited connectors. You avoid ragged suited hands and most offsuit hands.
Furthermore, you raise frequently preflop. I recommend never limping from any position outside the blinds. I recommend this not because limping is always wrong, but because limping is usually wrong—or at least raising is usually better. I’d much rather most players miss the occasional spot to limp than fall into bad, self-destructive preflop habits.
I also recommend reraising a lot preflop. When I play no-limit, I am usually the tightest player at the table. I also am usually the player who 3-bets most frequently. This reraising strategy begins the process of punishing your opponents for playing too many hands.
Finally, I recommend learning a strategy and, for the most part, sticking to it. I used to advocate playing a fluid preflop strategy that depends on game conditions. “It always depends,” is something you’ve no doubt read a thousand times.
I don’t recommend that philosophy anymore—at least not for preflop play. Again, it’s not because it’s wrong to adjust your preflop strategy. Instead, I believe that you don’t gain as much by changing things up preflop as some people seem to think. And the pitfalls to playing an ever-changing preflop strategy are myriad.
The bottom line is that if you are at the stage where you are learning to beat $1-$2 (or learning to beat $2-$5 or $5-$10 as well), I believe you are best served by mastering a tight, static, effective preflop strategy.
Skill #2. Don’t Pay People Off
This skill is powerful. It’s based on a strategic idea that applies nearly universally in small, soft no-limit hold’em games. When people make big bets and raises on the turn and river, they aren’t bluffing.
It’s not that they never bluff. But there is a theoretical percentage of the time that players should be bluffing if they want to play well. In nearly all cases, small stakes players will fall short of this theoretical percentage with their bluffing when the big bets come out. They bluff—but they don’t bluff often enough to make you want to call.
Therefore, if someone makes a big bet or raise, you should assume they have the hand they are representing. This usually means you should fold.
If you should fold, you should fold. Every time.
That’s the hard part. It’s easy to talk yourself into calling. Maybe you feel like you’re being bullied, so you decide you’re going to take a stand. (At $1-$2, it’s more likely you’re just running bad than that your opponent is intentionally manipulating you.)
Maybe you flopped a big hand and you just can’t accept that you were outdrawn.
Maybe it’s not clear what your opponent is representing, and you are confused or curious.
I don’t care. Fold. After adopting a solid preflop strategy, learning to fold in these situations is the most critical skill to beating $1-$2 games.
Skill #3. Assess The Value Of Your Hand
Everyone can figure out if they’ve flopped top pair or not. It’s a little trickier to figure out what your top pair is worth. This answer depends on kicker strength, board texture, number of opponents, and opponent tendencies.
A very common mistake many $1-$2 players make is that they allow themselves to be guided by a fear of being drawn out on. As soon as they flop top pair, they are thinking of ways to push people out of the pot so their top pair will hold up.
This is exactly the wrong approach. If a pot ends before showdown, it’s irrelevant that you held top pair. You might as well have held two blank cards. The only way it matters that you flopped top pair is if you can get the hand to showdown so that you can show off your pretty cards.
Your goal when you flop top pair or any other value hand, therefore, is to figure out how you can get the hand to showdown while charging your opponents the maximum value of your hand.
This skill isn’t as simple as the first two. It can be a little tricky to evaluate the value of your good hands. Furthermore, this value fluctuates depending on the turn and river cards. But master this skill and you will have everything you need to beat $1-$2.
My new book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players, is available now.
The Course focuses on the most important concepts that determine who wins and moves up and who doesn’t. And it ignores the distractions. It doesn’t waste your time and attention with ideas that don’t apply to the games you play.
Unlike many other books—including some of my own—this book is ruthlessly practical. The ideas in The Course transfer directly from the page to the felt. The book starts out by showing you where and how money is available to win. Everything after teaches you how to go get it. Skill by skill, you will learn to win more money and win it faster.
Here is the Table of Contents for the book. You can click on the links in the ToC to learn more about each part.
- Part I: The 30,000 Foot View
- The Many Forms Of No-Limit Hold ‘Em
- Where Does The Money Come From?
- Part II: Beating Live 1-2 Games
- Skill #1. Play A Simple And Effective Pre-Flop Strategy
- Skill #2. Don’t Pay People Off
- Skill #3. Assess Your Hand Value
- 1-2 Hand Quizzes
- Part III: Beating Live 2-5 Games
- Skill #4. Barreling
- Skill #5. Evaluating Board Texture
- Skill #6. Making Live Reads
- Skill #7. Emotional Numbing
- 2-5 Hand Quizzes
- Part IV: Beating Live 5-10 Games
- Skill #8. Exploiting Aggression
- Skill #9. Playing Deep
- Skill #10. Taking On The Pros
- 5-10 Hand Quizzes
- The Next Step
Get The Course now.
My new book is almost here. In fact, you can already pre-order it. It’s a practical and effective, step-by-step guide to winning consistently at no-limit hold ’em. It teaches the game as a series of skills. The first skill is the most important, but also the most fundamental. Each subsequent skill builds upon the last. Master the first few skills, and you can win at the 1-2 or 1-3 level. Master the next few, and you can win at 2-5. And master the final skills, and you can hang at 5-10 among the best players at your local card room.
Learn more about The Course and stay tuned for the Table of Contents and excerpts from the book.
This is the final article in my three-part series about the mistakes that live no-limit players make. This article covers the mistakes that $5-$10 players make. As with the other articles, I’m talking about how $5-$10 games play in Las Vegas. They may play differently where you live. But don’t take my stakes levels literally—the stages in no-limit player development are more universal, and you should be able to find players in your pool who fit the mold.
Even the weaker $5-$10 players tend to have some sophistication about them. Most commonly, $5-$10 regulars possess fairly decent hand-reading abilities, and many of the errors that separate the weaker players from the stronger ones in the pool depend on hand range construction. The weaker players tend to play a looser, more haphazard preflop game, which taints their play through the end of hands.
Players often try to make up the difference by forcing bluffs in inappropriate places. An example of this represents my first mistake.
Imbalanced Ranges On Certain Board Textures
One of the hallmark errors of $5-$10 players is that they build pots with unbalanced hand ranges on some board textures. I played two hands recently at the level that illustrate this error.
A loose, weak-for-the-level player limped in, and I made it $40 with 8h6h on the button. The big blind called, and the limper called.
The flop came . Everyone checked to me, and I bet $70 into the $125 pot. The blind folded, and the limper check-raised to $210. We were about $3,000 behind.
I have middle pair, a backdoor flush draw, and a blocker to the ten-to-six straight. More than that, there are relatively few hands that my opponent should want to check-raise on a board like this one. He could have a set or T-6, but my six blocks some of those hands. He’s unlikely to hold an overpair since he limp-called preflop.
He could have check-raised A-T, but in my experience he likely wouldn’t have check-raised weaker tens.
This is a situation where loose $5-$10 players like to make plays. I thought he could have any gutshot draw or also a number of overcards hands. Because there are so few good value hands on this board, I thought he was a fairly big favorite to be bluffing. My hand is the sort I’m happy to defend.
The turn was the . He bet $330. I called again. It’s a good card for me, and he bet well less than the pot size.
The river was the . He checked, and I checked. He showed 8-7 offsuit for a flopped gutshot, and my hand was good.
It’s not flat-out wrong to bluff boards like these. But because value hands are scarce, you must be measured also with your bluffs. I made an assumption that this player would bluff too many combinations on a board like this one. This time, at least, I turned out to be correct.
In this second hand, I’m the one who got caught with the imbalanced range.
I open-raised to $30 and got called in middle position and on the button. The button was likely my strongest opponent in the game. The big blind also called. He played more like a $1-$2 player than a level-appropriate one. There’s $125 in the pot, and we’re all at least $2,000 deep.
The flop came . The big blind bet out for $80. I made it $210, and the next player folded. The strong player on the button called. The original bettor folded.
I was in trouble. I had raised the big blind’s donk bet, since I felt it was very unlikely he was betting a hand that could handle any pressure. I would have raised a wide range of hands (here I raised two weak overcards with a backdoor flush draw), and I had very few legitimate value hands in my range. I likely would have just called with most overpairs or T-9 or 9-8 suited or 9-9. I would have raised 4-4 and A-9 suited, but that represents just five hand combinations.
So, realistically, I have a lot of bluffs and very few actual value hands. With a strong player on the button and lots of money behind, I’m toast. When the turn bricked, I checked and folded to $200 (a good bet size on his part that reflects his understanding of the situation).
I’m not sure what his range to call my flop raise was, but it could have been quite wide. There’s nothing I can do about it when he calls, and I get caught with such a poorly constructed range.
Value Betting Too Thinly
The pros that play $5-$10 are of varying quality. Many are just good enough to beat the weak players at the level. A few are much better than that.
One of the common plays that the weaker pros make is they value bet the river too optimistically. Standard no-limit hold’em advice is to value bet thinly to maximize your profit. If someone checks to you on the river, try to squeeze that value out of the weakest hand that you can.
When I play these pros, however, I find that they consistently value bet hands against me that are unprofitable. Sure, sometimes I’ll bluff-catch them with something weak, and they’ll win. But I have too many better hands in my check-calling range, such that they would have been better off just seeing a showdown.
For instance, I open-raised for $30 from two off the button. A pro called me on the button.
The flop came . I checked and called a $50 bet. There’s $175 in the pot, and we’re about $1,500 behind.
The turn was the . I checked, and he checked.
The river was the . I checked, and he bet $90. I called. He showed K-J offsuit, and I won.
After this action, I have an ace an awful lot. Ace-high overcards are smack in my flop checking and calling range. I can also have hands like A-4, A-5, and even A-9 suited.
Furthermore, what other hands do I play this way that possibly merit a river call? I likely bet the flop with most overpairs. I might play a hand like this way, but I’m not a lock to call the river, whereas I’m certainly calling with an ace.
I can even potentially have K-Q.
There’s no way my opponent wins with his hand more than half the time that I call. He should have just checked for a showdown.
When in doubt, I like to check-call the river against $5-$10 pros. They tend to bet the river too frequently—both as a bluff and for thin value. I find these players often make more errors when you show weakness than when you bet into them.
Everyone who plays small- and medium-stakes live games on a regular basis makes lots of mistakes. The nature of these errors changes as you move up the limits, but they’re always there. If you think logically and practice, practice, practice, any of these games is beatable.
[This article appeared originally in Card Player Vol. 27, No. 11.]
This is the second in my three-part series about mistakes that live no-limit players make. In this article I talk about mistakes typical of regular $2-$5 players. For the purpose of this article, I’m talking about $2-$5 as it plays in Las Vegas. It’s entirely possible that in your area, players at $2-$5 play more like the ones I discussed in the $1-$2 article—or that they play more like the ones I’ll talk about at $5-$10.
In general, regular $2-$5 players have learned a few important lessons since they’ve moved up from $1-$2. They’ve learned how to do a little hand reading. In particular, they’ve learned not to call all-in bets with weak pairs and wild hopes. They’ve learned how to pot control—they try to keep the pot small with modest-strength hands with showdown value. And they’ve learned that they can beat weaker players by pushing the betting when they hit strong hands.
Still, $2-$5 players make tons of mistakes that are easy to exploit if you know what you’re looking for.
They Wear Their Hand Strength On Their Sleeves
The hand-reading skills of $1-$2 are generally poor, such that these players often don’t know what they want from their hands. At $2-$5, players are much more aware of where they are in hands. For instance, a $2-$5 player holding A-T on an A-9-7 board will know that it’s likely that they have the best hand, but that it becomes much less likely if there’s a lot of action.
In response to this understanding, $2-$5 players will try to get their A-T to showdown with only moderate betting. To accomplish this, they will check a street or two, or they will shade their bets to the small side.
In contrast, holding 9-9 on the same board—or even A-K—these players would have a different outlook. They’d be trying to get money into the pot. After all, this is one of the things they’ve learned to do that helped them to move up. They’ve learned to consistently get value from strong hands. So they won’t check streets with these hands, and their bet sizes will shade larger.
In many cases, all you have to do is observe the flop and turn action, and you can have a very strong idea about your opponents’ attitudes toward their hands. You may not know the specific cards they hold, but you can fairly easily reverse engineer their strategy in the hand. This will often give you clear opportunities to exploit on the turn and river.
Let’s look at a few different theoretical flop and turn betting sequences and try to decode them using the logic of a $2-$5 player.
A typical $2-$5 player opens for $20 from two off the button, and you call on the button. The blinds fold. The flop comes . There’s $47 in the pot and $500 behind.
Scenario 1. The preflop raiser bets out for $65.
The bet is bigger than the pot, which indicates that the player is not concerned about keeping the pot small. But it also suggests that the player wants to protect a hand to the maximum, so the preflop raiser perceives his hand to be vulnerable. I’d expect to see a hand like A-Q or K-K after this action.
Holding two pair or a set, I’d just shove the flop, expecting to get called. With a draw—particularly a straight draw like 8-6 that is fairly hidden—I’d call the overbet planning to bluff for stacks on the turn and river if a spade hits.
I’d just fold the flop with a hand like J-J.
Let’s say you call and the turn is the . Typically on a brick like this, the preflop raiser will come out with another whopper of a bet—$150 or more. This bet would confirm my read, and I’d act accordingly. I’d never try to bluff (even with a combo draw), and I’d just shove any hand that could beat A-A.
Let’s say you call and the turn is the , putting both the flush and several straights on board. On this card, the preflop raiser will typically either check or make a small bet—perhaps another $65 or just slightly more. Either action tends to confirm my read. Against a check I’d make a small bet (perhaps $100), planning to shove most rivers. Against a small bet, I’d tend to minraise, again planning to shove most rivers.
You don’t want to commit your opponent with too large a turn bet, since it’s possible your opponent will feel compelled to call with a hand such as . I’d prefer to let the river brick, leaving my opponent with one pair, and then apply the maximum pressure.
Scenario 2. The preflop raiser bets out for $30.
This thought behind this bet is less clear. It could be a draw, a weak-pair hand like T-T or Q-T, or it could possibly be a big hand like 9-9.
Because the bet is small compared to the pot size, however, I will tend to call with most of my hands (the ones that connect with the
board—not 3-3 or ) and watch my opponent’s reaction to the turn card.
Let’s say you call and the turn is the . If the preflop raiser checks, it’s an automatic bet. On this board, if the preflop raiser held something of value, he’d almost certainly want to protect it with a bet. So against a check I’d bet the turn and likely, if called, the river.
If the preflop raiser bets big—$100 or more—he’s got a hand. Either he’s got something like a set, or possibly he has what he considers to be a very strong draw. You won’t see hands like Q-T after a betting pattern like this. I wouldn’t bluff against this bet size, since you’re likely getting called. With a legitimately strong hand like A-Q, it might be worth a call in hopes your opponent has a draw, bricks the river, and checks so you can check it down. If I called the turn with A-Q and my opponent shoved a river brick, I’d fold without much thought.
If the preflop raiser bets small, I will frequently call once more due to the good pot odds and gauge my opponent’s reaction to the river card.
Scenario 3. The preflop raiser checks the flop.
Most of the time, this will mean the raiser doesn’t have much and is concerned about the flop. I’d bet the flop small (about $30), planning to bet many turns if called. Most of the time, the raiser won’t last past the turn. On the off chance he is playing possum with a big hand, he’ll usually checkraise the turn, and at least I won’t have to worry about losing a river bluff.
While $2-$5 players have learned not to make gross errors, they don’t do enough to disguise their hands. If you observe their actions and use some logic, you can usually figure out what they’re trying to do. Then you just make sure they don’t get what they want.
[This article appeared originally in Card Player Vol. 27, No. 10.]