When you first sit down at a poker table, do you have a strategy for winning? Most New players will answer, “Play good cards strongly,” and figure that’s enough to get the job done.
After all, isn’t that what every entry-level poker book teaches? Sure, but that’s like saying if you want to get somewhere quickly you should drive fast. You need to be able to do a lot of things well before you can start driving fast. Poker operates the same way.
Let’s take one small aspect of the game, the first 30 hands, and look at ways to improve your performance.
For purposes of this article, we will imagine that you are playing low stakes fixed-limit Texas Hold’em online (rather than at a casino). At the end, we’ll discuss how other circumstances might change the advice. You’ve just taken your seat and bought some chips.
I take a quick look at the stacks of the other players and make sure that I buy in for an amount that is slightly less than the highest stack at the table because I want plenty of ammunition, but don’t necessarily want to draw attention to myself.
You’ll be asked to post a blind; my advice is to wait for the big blind to come around to you rather than getting involved immediately unless you are able to enter the table in time to post from the position next to the dealer button: the cutoff seat.
At this point, you are either watching the game or having your first hand dealt to you.
For the first three orbits (30 hands at a 10-seat table), I am on a reconnaissance mission. My best chance of having a winning session is to learn as much as I can about my opponents right away. So I pay attention to everything that goes on and don’t waste a second worrying about my cards.
I am quite satisfied to fold away every single hand and pay the 4.5 big blinds that it will cost. Of course, if I catch a hand I’m going to play it, but this article isn’t about how to play your hand, it’s about those first three orbits and what you can do to make money, regardless of your cards.
First, identify your most dangerous foes and carefully watch how they play. Without any other evidence, assume that the players with the biggest stacks are the most dangerous. Now watch every hand paying close attention to who likes to bet, who likes to call, and what kinds of cards players hold at showdown.
Make notes or draw a diagram, but don’t miss anything. Players who are too aggressive or who are unwilling to fold a losing hand will reveal themselves quickly. Identify the table bully if there is one. He’s probably one of those big stacks. Find the players who are splashing around in every pot but seem to fold late or get beat at the showdown a lot. And look for those players who almost never play unless they have a strong hand.
Use the first 3 orbits to learn what kinds of cards everybody likes to play. Some will play every ace that they’re dealt; some will play any 2 suited cards; some will play any pair from any position. Sooner or later, you’ll be in a pot against them, so it’s to your advantage to know what they like to gamble with. Finally, learn who has no idea how important position is. At the end, you’ll know who is a threat to your stack, and who will end up contributing to it.
Between all the watching, note taking, and analysis I’m asking you to perform, it will seem that there is too much going on to keep organized. There are 9 players to watch!
But there is a way to manage all of this and it revolves around learning about the most important players first. Here are some general tips.
The most important players at your table are the 2 directly to your left.
They will always have position on you, so it’s very important to know how they play. Your worst nightmare is to have a tight aggressive player to your left and a loose aggressive table bully to his left. If that’s what you see after 30 hands, do yourself a favor and find a new table, at least until you thoroughly understand how to play against them. Even then, why put yourself through it? The next most important players are the 2 to your right.
You’ll have position on them, so understand how to take advantage of it. If they are loose and play mediocre cards, get in there and mix it up with them when you have a hand that figures to compare well.
Be aware that others around the table will be thinking the same thing, so unless you want everybody in there playing with you you’ll need to get used to raising in order to limit your opposition. Raise NOW! While it’s still cheap.
Don’t wait until after everybody has either missed the flop or made a hand that can beat you. You shouldn’t mind if the loose players come along, because you are playing hands that can compete, right? You’ll also have to learn how to play when a tight competent player re-raises you, but my thoughts on that would require another article.
For now, if there is someone else in the hand with you who plays strong cards, there is no shame in check/folding if the flop doesn’t help you. Why build a big pot when you’re out of position against someone whose play you respect?
After you’re comfortable that you know your 4 closest neighbors pretty well, you can start concentrating on the players across the table from you. Do the best you can; you’ve already done the most important work. By the way, and this is important, most of your opponents are too lazy to have matched your efforts.
Here are a couple of things you can ignore. Skip trying to assign importance to how fast someone clicks the raise button or how slowly they choose to call or check. They are probably fighting with their spouse, racing back from the bathroom, or watching TV.
Some players concoct elaborate schemes to confuse or intimidate you in that manner. I love those people because sooner or later you’ll decipher it and win their money. Ignore anything anybody says in the chat window unless you can tell that someone is suffering a nervous breakdown. Once one player loses it, the rest of the table seems to go nuts as well, and you can definitely use it to your advantage.
What if your chosen game is No-Limit Hold’em? What in this article changes? The answer: very little. If you are a beginning player, you should write the following phrase on a post-it note and stick it to your monitor: Position is everything.
It’s even more important in NL to be aware of your position. The closer an opponent is seated to you, the more interaction you have with them. They are your most important adversaries.
Even if you understand the differences in hand values (between limit and NL games), playing out of position against opponents that you don’t know very well will leave you broke.
What if you are playing in a live game? You’ll have more to watch. There is plenty of material out there to help you with physical tells. Read or watch some of it. They all say the same thing: people act strong when they are weak and vice versa.
So, after 3 orbits you’ve folded almost every hand, and are either a few bets down or breaking even. Fine, that’s exactly where you want to be. You’re ready to start the session. You have a jump on reading your opponents, your bankroll is intact, and you have a tight image at the table. You have leveled the field, identified your targets as well as your adversaries, and have kept from digging yourself into a hole. You’re armed and ready to win. Stay patient and good luck.