Poker has become the most popular card game on the planet because it involves a test of pure skill – along with a requisite dose of the random element known as “luck.” At the game’s core, poker is a skill-based contest in which players attempt to outwit one another.
Poker is considered to be a “partial-information” game, because while you know your own hole cards and the community cards, you can never know what your opponent holds. This lends the game an immense amount of strategic elements, including mental mathematical calculation, people reading ability, awareness of probability, and the willingness to bluff.
During the last half-century countless books have been written on poker strategy, ranging from studies on the game’s mechanics penned by professors, to personal accounts published by professional players. Over time, the “correct” strategy for poker has continually evolved, as players introduce new plays and techniques, adapt to these introductions, and repeat the process. This means what was once the “standard” or “correct” play at the tables can now be considered outdated, while today’s basic plays will one day be relegated to the same fate.
Nonetheless, a basic strategy exists for all poker variants, one which any player who hopes to win must master. The following primer will cover the core of Texas Hold’em basic strategy, as this is by far the most popular poker game in the world today.
The first aspect of Texas Hold’em strategy to keep in mind is the hand rankings themselves. While the community cards are always in play, the game often comes down to the starting hands, or hole cards.
In total there are 169 possible starting hands, and these can be ranked down the line from strongest to weakest. In general, starting with a pair is a strong hand, as more often than not your opponent will fail to make a pair on the flop with two random cards. The best pair – and best possible starting hand – is pocket aces. This is followed by pocket kings, queens, jacks, and on though the deck.
The appeal of high pocket pairs is simple: with two aces or two kings in the hole, your opponent can flop the top pair on a queen-high board (normally a strong hand in its own right), and still be losing badly. Even better, when your opponent happens to have a lower pocket pair, they’ll usually be willing to commit chips when at a severe disadvantage.
Players like low pocket pairs because when a third card arrives on the board, giving them three of a kind, they hold an extremely strong hand that is also well-disguised.
Another strategic element to keep in mind is the power of position. In poker, position refers to your placement relative to the button. Holding the button means you get to act last, and in a partial information game, seeing your opponents act first provides a definitive advantage. The best players tend to play most of their hands “in position,” rather than “out of position.”
Finally, in order to understand Texas Hold’em strategy, you’ll need to study the odds and probabilities that form the game’s foundation. Knowing that flopping a “set” three of a kind with a pair in the hole) happens approximately one in eight times, or that you’ll have roughly a 20 percent chance to hit your flush draw on the river, is essential to playing the game correctly. Just like blackjack, you can research the basic odds and probabilities associated with Texas Hold’em, and commit them to memory is a great first step on the path to profitable play.
As the old saying states, Texas Hold’em takes a minute to learn, but a lifetime to master. If you’re serious about improving your knowledge of poker strategy, read as much of the literature as you can, study poker forums online, and practice as much as possible.