How to Win at Poker – Learn How to Play Like a Poker Pro

Everyone wants to know how to win at poker and, in many ways, it’s an easy question to answer. As long as you win more pots than you lose, you’ll make a profit. Of course, that’s easier said than done. People aren’t going to let you take the pot each time you bet. Therefore, you need a strategy.

You need to understand the principles that underpin poker and, in turn, how you can use them to your advantage. That’s the purpose of this guide. We’re going to show you how to think like a poker pro. This means we’re not just going to give you a bunch of poker tips and hope you understand them.

We’re going to give you a framework with which to develop your own poker strategies. We could tell you that bluffing tight players is a bad idea but, without knowing the reason why, you won’t be able to apply this poker tip at the table. Why? Because poker is a situational game, and every situation is different. You might make a half-pot bet for value in one situation and as a bluff in another.

This ability to adapt and play the situation, rather than blindly following a poker cheat sheet, is the key to winning. So, if you’re ready to start thinking more like a pro, here’s how to win at poker…

poker face
Source: Pixabay

How to Win at Poker: From Beginner to Advanced Thinking

What is poker strategy? It’s the skill of winning pots. Taking down hands and raking in pots can be done in a number of ways, so our definition of poker strategy is a bit too simplistic.

What we can do, however, is go beyond our basic definition and learn the three stages of strategic thinking. Specifically, we’re going to explain how beginner, intermediate, and advanced poker players think about hands.

It’s better to look at the general thought processes players go through rather than outline specific poker strategies because there are too many tactics to list. For example, there are aggressive strategies, such as squeeze plays and four-bet river bluffs. Conversely, there are subtle moves, such as half-pot river bets.

We can’t discuss them all, which is why it’s better to talk about poker strategy from a theoretical perspective. Then, what you can do is apply this theory to the situations you find yourself in at the table, and make the best move possible.

Now that’s clear, here’s how to go from basic poker strategy to advanced thinking.

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Beginner Poker Strategy

Beginners typically think about one thing: their cards. That’s not a bad thing. Understanding the value of your cards is important, and you can read our poker cheat sheet guide for more information on how to make hands and the rankings.

The point we’re making here, though, is that poker players often start out by learning the hand rankings and which cards are best to play hands with. That’s basic poker strategy.

Based on this concept, you can live by the motto: if a hand isn’t strong enough to raise with, it’s not good enough to play. What we’re actually saying is that you should focus on playing the strongest starting hands.

So, if you believe a hand is good enough to raise with and someone bets before you, it might be worth calling. If, however, you wouldn’t have raised with that hand, it’s probably not a good idea to call with it. Even though you’re basing your decisions entirely on the cards you hold, this is a good starting point for learning how to win at poker.

Intermediate Poker Strategy

Intermediate poker strategy involves thinking about your cards and what your opponent might have. Once you’ve determined what hands an opponent might have, you can make moves based on the assumed value of your hand.

For example, let’s say you’re playing Texas Hold’em and have K-Q. That’s a fairly strong starting hand in Hold’em and one you’d play in a lot of situations. However, based on the pre-flop betting, you believe your opponent has A-K. If your assessment is correct, folding K-Q in this spot is the optimal move.

This simple example shows the difference between only thinking about your cards and thinking about your cards in relation to what someone else might have. Of course, you can never know exactly what an opponent has because their cards are hidden, that’s why you need to assign them a selection of possible hands – aka a range.

A lot of poker players make the mistake of trying to put opponents on a single hand. This is almost impossible, which is why you assign someone a range of hands. Then, as the hand develops, you can slowly reduce the range of options.

EXAMPLE

Let’s say you put someone on a range that consists of A-A, K-K, Q-Q, A-K, and A-Q in Hold’em. The flop comes out 4, 7, 10 and your opponent keeps betting. At this point you can start to remove A-K and A-Q from their range because those hands didn’t connect with the flop. The player could be bluffing, but we’ll assume they’re not for this example. So, what you can do at this point is reduce your opponent’s range to A-A, K-K, or Q-Q and play accordingly.

Everyone has their own poker tips when it comes to assigning someone a range, but the main variables you can use are:

  • Betting patterns within the hand
  • Stack size
  • Previous action in the hand
  • Betting tendencies during the game as a whole
  • A player’s image, ie are they aggressive or passive?
  • Notable hands, eg bluffs or strong hands at showdown
  • Context, ie is it a cash game or tournament?

All of these variables can be used to put someone on a range of potential hands. Once you’ve assigned someone a range, be prepared to adjust it based on new information. Do this enough and you’ll soon be making better decisions.

Advanced Poker Strategy

Everyone who wants to know how to win at poker often turns to pros for guidance. Poker tips from pros are great, but they’re not always suitable for novices. Why? Because pros think about hands on multiple levels.

In fact, they get to a point where their hand is almost irrelevant because they’re playing the situation. This is advanced poker strategy.

Before we get further into advanced tactics, let’s recap the hierarchy of thinking:

  1. Beginner – You look at your own hand.
  2. Intermediate – You look at your own hand and play it based on what you think an opponent has.
  3. Advanced – You think about your hand, what your opponent has, and what hands you think your opponent puts you on.

Poker tips from pros are based on the “I know that they know that I know…” premise. Let’s explain this with a situation you might face in Hold’em:

  • You’re playing a cash game on PokerStars and there are five other people at the table.
  • You’re on the button and a player raises from first position.
  • Everyone folds and you look down at A-10.
  • Based on previous action, you know the raiser is a tight player and wouldn’t raise from first position without a hand such as A-A, K-K, QQ, J-J, A-K, or A-Q (suited).
  • A-10 would normally be a fold in this situation because it doesn’t play well against your opponent’s range. However, you’ve also been playing loose so you decide to call.
  • Everyone else folds and the flop comes: 4, 8, 6.
  • Your opponent bets, and you decide to raise.
  • Your opponent thinks for a bit then folds. It later transpired they had K-K.

The thinking here is that you know your opponent is tight and they know you know this. Your opponent also knows you’re a loose player, so 4, 8, 6 is a flop that could hit your range. When you raise, your opponent assumes you must have something stronger than K-K (ie 5-7 for a straight).

Why? Because they have a tight image and they know everyone will put them on a strong starting hand. Subsequently, they also know that a raise from you is a sign of confidence that you can beat their strong hand.

As an advanced player, you know your opponent will think this way, so you use that knowledge against them to make a bluff. Basically, you’re playing the player and what they’re thinking rather than your own cards.

This might be a lot to take in, but it’s how advanced players think. You too can get to this level if you start with the basic poker strategy. From there, start thinking like an intermediate then, once you’ve got experience in a ton of different situations, you can advance your game.

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Betting Concepts: More Tips for Playing Poker Online

Next in our list of tips for poker players looking to progress through the ranks is betting. You should now know how to think about hands and, moreover, the levels of thinking that take place at the table. Betting is how you turn those thoughts into action.

Before we explain how to bet and the various concepts you need to understand, we need to differentiate between variants.

poker chips
Source: Pixabay

Poker can be played using one of three betting structures: limit, pot limit, and no limit. We’re going to discuss betting from the perspective of pot limit and no limit games because limit variants restrict the amount you can bet/raise. That doesn’t mean the concepts we’re going to explain will be irrelevant. It’s more that they have a greater significance in pot limit and no limit games.

How to Bet in Poker

You have four options in poker:

  1. Call – You’re calling the latest bet (this could be the value of the antes or a bet/raise).
  2. Check – You can pass the action on for free if there’s been no betting action before you after the first round of betting.
  3. Bet – You make the first bet into the pot (this bet needs to be more than the ante).
  4. Raise – You raise a previous bet, eg someone bets $10 and you raise to $30.

You won’t always have the option to make certain moves. For example, if there’s been a bet before it’s your turn to act, you can’t check.

So, you need to know the moves you’re allowed to make and how you’re going to make them. Because we’re focusing on betting and raising, here’s a quick overview of the factors that determine how much you bet:

Your bet size should be based on:

  • The size of the antes/blinds.
  • The number of chips in the pot.
  • The number of chips in your stack.
  • The number of chips in your opponent’s stack.
  • The value of your hand.

All of these factors are wrapped up in one overarching question: why? Why are you betting or raising?

What do you want to achieve by putting a certain number of chips into the pot?

This is where betting concepts come into play. There’s always a risk vs reward calculation in poker.

You need to know why you’re betting and, in turn, how likely you are to achieve that goal vs the risk of failing. If the chances of success and subsequent reward outweigh the risk, you should make the bet. Building on the idea of risk vs reward, here are the two main reasons for betting. In other words, these are your “whys” for betting and raising:

1. How to Win at Poker: Value Betting

A value bet is designed to extract the maximum number of chips from your opponent/s when you have the best hand. Naturally, you can’t know for sure that you’ve got the best hand but, in these spots, you’re extremely confident you have the best hand.

Whenever you feel you’ve got the best hand, you don’t want people to fold. You want to keep opponents active in the hand as long as possible so you can, hopefully, get more money in the pot. The more money that’s in the pot, the more you’ll win when you have the best hand at a showdown.

There are no hard and fast rules to value betting in poker. The optimal amount will depend on the game you’re playing, the opponent/s, the money in the pot, and the perceived strength of your opponent’s hand.

pokerstars hold'em

For example, let’s say you’re playing against a tight player and there’s $50 in the pot. You believe your hand is strong enough to win a showdown, so you bet $25. You bet 50% of the pot because you know your opponent is tight and, therefore, doesn’t like to call big bets unless they’ve got the nuts (the best hand possible). Based on this read, you think $25 is optimal.

Let’s take the same situation but swap the tight player for someone who likes to call with a lot of hands. This time you bet $50 because, based on your read, the opponent is more willing to call with weak hands. You can afford to be more aggressive in this spot.

Both examples are value bets even though the amounts are different because, as is always the case in poker, the situation dictates what you do.

2. How to Win at Poker: Bluffing

Ask anyone how to win at poker and they’ll probably say that bluffing is hugely important. That’s true to some extent but, in reality, bluffing is a lot less prevalent than people think. That doesn’t mean you can’t bluff or shouldn’t bluff; it simply means that most novices make the mistake of doing it too much.

The ideal conditions for bluffing are:

  • Your opponent appears to have a weak hand.
  • Your opponent has shown a tendency to fold in the past.
  • Your opponent is scared of calling bets because they don’t want to lose chips.
  • You have the image of someone who only bets with strong hands.

Having one or more of those conditions in place means you can consider bluffing. How much should you bet when it comes to bluffing in poker? Like value betting, the answer is that it depends. It depends on the situation, the player, your hand, an opponent’s hand, and the money at stake.

Essentially, you can use the same thought process for bluffing as you would value betting. However, the biggest thing you need to think about is the risk a bet poses.

This takes us back to the risk vs reward aspect of betting. You need to bet an amount that your opponent can’t afford to call, ie the reward doesn’t justify the risk. Get this right and you’ve got the perfect bluff.

5 Quick Poker Tips

That’s almost it for this guide on how to win at poker. We’ve taught you the basics of poker, how to think like a pro, and the nuances of betting.

Before you put these skills into practice at our top rated online poker sites, we’ve encapsulated all of these lessons into five quick poker tips:

  1. Make sure you know the value of your cards and how likely they are to make a strong poker hand.
  2. Think about situations in a variety of ways, including what cards your opponent might have, their tendencies, and how they perceive you as a player.
  3. Don’t bluff too much.
  4. Always have a reason for making a check, bet, call, or raise. Never make a move without a purpose, eg if you raise, are you doing it for value or as a bluff?
  5. Play within your limits. Bankroll management is one of the most important poker skills you can master. This means only playing in games you can afford. Tied in with this concept is only playing games with players at the same skill level or below. Just because you’re a novice who can afford to enter a $10,000 tournament, it doesn’t mean you should because it’s going to be filled with pros who will probably be better than you.

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Daniel Smyth
Casino and Poker Expert

Daniel comes to Techopedia.com with a wealth of experience in the gambling sector. Over the last 15+ years, he’s written content for WPT Magazine, CardsChat, and Gambling.com. Daniel has also worked directly with many of the industry’s leading operators, including PokerStars, Betway, and Yggdrasil. If it’s about gambling, Daniel has covered it.