Corey Haines
September 5, 2021

How To Play Poker (And Beat Your Friends)

I believe everyone should learn how to play poker. It’s a unique game that involves luck, skill, and psychology. Unlike other card games, poker isn’t just about the cards. It’s also about the actions you take to fold, check, bet, call, or raise (skill) as well as the actions of your opponents (psychology).

Simon Sinek talks about “finite games” vs “infinite games” both literally and figuratively. In finite games, the goal is to end the game by winning. But in infinite games, the goal is keep playing. One of the reasons poker is such a unique game is because it’s an infinite game. There is no end (unless you’re playing a tournament or all your friends lose… in which case they can always buy in for more). But broadly speaking — the goal is to just keep playing more poker.

Poker gets a bad rap since it’s lumped in with every other casino game and gambling scheme like Black Jack, roulette, and slot machines. But contrary to what most people believe, there’s more skill and psychology involved than there is luck. In fact, there’s more luck involved in popular games like Uno or Rummy than there is in Poker.

I’d argue that there isn’t actually all that much gambling involved in poker. In most gambling schemes, you play against the “house,” and you have no control over the outcome. Poker is the exact opposite. You compete against other players and have a large amount of control over the outcome. Talk about some "friendly competition."

You can determine how much luck is involved by measuring how often you can repeatedly “beat the odds.” The fact that there are consistently winning poker players should tell you that it’s not all luck, otherwise, they might be really good one year and really bad the next, and fluctuate wildly.

Why am I talking up poker? Because there are a lot of valuable lessons to be learned that can help you in other areas in life. Poker reflects life in general — it’s just a series of decisions based on incomplete information. As Annie Duke would say, you have to “think in bets.”

Ultimately, poker is a game of decision-making. Decisions in poker mostly involve probabilistic thinking — how likely something is to occur and tailoring your actions based on that information.

But poker is also a game of storytelling. Every action you take, whether it’s a fold, call, check, or raise — even the way you go about those actions — communicates something to your opponents. Since you can’t see your opponents’ hands, you’re working with incomplete information. Yet, you have to make decisions despite the incomplete information, so you’re constantly piecing together bits of information that your opponents are giving you. Does your opponent have a strong hand? The best hand? A worse hand? And conversely, you’re trying to give away bits of information for your opponents to build a story about you. Sometimes you’re trying to show strength and sometimes you’re trying to show weakness — all to your benefit.

There are quite literally hundreds of books written about poker so I won’t attempt to regurgitate or summarize everything in them. Instead, I’ll give you the bare essentials colored by my experience and opinions about the game. I also don’t want to be too prescriptive because to account for every situation you’ll encounter would require an immensely long book. Even if you reviewed every possible scenario, the most correct action will still depend on your opponents.

All you can do is arm yourself with basic knowledge, brush up on the lingo and statistics, adopt some best practices, and then you pick up the rest through practice.

Game mechanics

“All strategy is determined by the rules of the game.”

Rules are constraints, and constraints breed creativity. Creativity in the context of games like poker equals strategy. The secrets to how to win at the game are actually hidden in the rules for how to play it.

Let’s go over the basic mechanics of Texas Hold 'Em Poker (the most common form of the game), which will shed light on strategies later on.

  • Uses a standard 52-card deck, usually without the joker or any sort of wildcard.
  • Hands consist of five cards — two cards are dealt to each player and the other three are combined from up to five “community cards” visible and playable by everyone.
  • There are four rounds of betting: before the flop (the first three community cards), after the flop, after the turn (the fourth community card), and after the river (the fifth and final community card).
  • Each player takes a turn in the seat of the dealer and action starts to the left of the dealer and continues clockwise.
  • In turn, players can fold (exit the round), check (no bet), bet (put money into the pot), call (match another player's bet), or raise (bet a larger amount than a previous player's bet).
  • Usually, the first two seats to the left of the dealer have to make "blind bets" (hence their names "small blind" and "big blind") before the starting hands are dealt. More on this later.
  • A player wins the pot (the total amount of money bet in the round) when all other players fold or when they have the best remaining hand.

Hand ranks

Hand ranks are determined by two factors:

  1. Individual card rank
  2. The odds of making a hand

The higher the card rank and lower the odds of making a certain hand, the higher rank of that hand.

Here are the hand ranks, from best to worst.

Straight Flush – This is the highest possible hand. A straight flush consists of five cards of the same suit in sequence, such as 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 of hearts. The highest-ranking straight flush is the A, K, Q, J, and 10 of one suit, also called a royal flush or a royal straight flush. In order to make a straight flush, at least three of the community cards have to be of the same suit.

Four of a Kind – This is the next highest hand, and it ranks just below a straight flush. An example is four aces or four 3s. It does not matter what the fifth, unmatched card is. In order to make four of a kind, the board has to pair.

Full House – This hand is made up of three cards of one rank and two cards of another rank, such as three 8s and two 4s, or three aces and two 6s. Again, in order to make a full house, the board has to pair.

Flush – Five cards, all of the same suit, but not all in sequence, is a flush. An example is Q, 10, 7, 6, and 2 of clubs. In order to make a flush, you need at least three community cards to be of the same suit (assuming both your starting hand cards are of the same suit as the three on the board). If you only need one more suited card to make a flush after the flop, you have a 35% chance of making a flush by the river.

Straight – Five cards in sequence, but not all of the same suit, is a straight. An example is 9♥, 8♣, 7♠, 6♦, 5♥. In order to make a straight, three of the community cards have to be within two ranks of each other.

Three of a Kind – This combination contains three cards of the same rank, and the other two cards each of a different rank, such as three jacks, a seven, and a four. In order to make three of a kind, you need a pocket pair or you need the board to pair with one of your cards. When you have three of a kind, your odds of making a full house by the river are 33%.

Two Pairs – This hand contains a pair of one rank and another pair of a different rank, plus any fifth card of a different rank, such as Q, Q, 7, 7, 4. When you have two pair, the chances of making a full house by the river are 17%.

One Pair – This frequent combination contains just one pair with the other three cards being of different rank. An example is 10, 10, K, 4, 3. This is the most common showdown hand because even if you don't start with a pocket pair, there's a ~33% chance of making a pair on the flop.

High Card – This very common hand contains "nothing." None of the five cards pair up, nor are all five cards of the same suit or consecutive in rank. When more than one player has no pair, the hands are rated by the highest card each hand contains, so that an ace-high hand beats a king-high hand, and so on. A high card showdown is usually the result of a paired board (there's a pair in the community cards) or a missed flush or straight draw (at one point, the community cards represented a chance of making a flush or straight).

Now, you may have heard the saying "You don't play the hand, you play your opponent." I think there's good intention behind it, but honestly, it's bullsh*t. If you take it too literally, it can lead to justifying some reckless decisions. Of course, you should be studying your opponents to get a feel for their habits and the way they play hands. There's always some playstyle tailoring depending on who you're playing against. But at the end of the day, the best hand wins. The best strategy is to play both the hand and the opponent.

Starting hands

You may have also heard that you should be folding around 80% of the starting hands you’re dealt. Of the 20% or so starting hands that you actually do play, not even half of those should make it to showdown (the end of a round when there's no more action and the remaining players show their hands). You’ll likely fold 90%+ of all hands you receive. Why is this? You want to give yourself the best odds of winning, and to do that, you need to play only a select few combinations of starting hands. So naturally, you’ll be folding most of the starting hands you’re given unless they match the criteria that you’re looking for.

A key component to every winning strategy is simply to play less hands. This should give you some peace of mind in that you just need to wait for a “lucky” starting hand and thus give yourself more favorable odds against opponents. Playing 50%+ of the hands is a great way to bleed yourself out or make yourself vulnerable to be exploited by big bets from stronger hands.

There are 169 different possible starting hands you can be dealt (ignoring specific suit combinations). There are 13 card ranks and you receive two cards for a starting hand. 13 times 13 equals 169 different rank combinations.

Out of all these possible starting hands, there are only five that are considered "premium."

  1. AA
  2. KK
  3. QQ
  4. AK of the same suite (“suited”)
  5. JJ

If you want to extend this to the top 15, you can also include, ranked from best to worst:

  1. AA
  2. KK
  3. QQ
  4. AK (suited)
  5. JJ
  6. 1010
  7. AQ (suited)
  8. AJ (suited)
  9. AK (offsuit)
  10. KQ (suited)
  11. A10 (suited)
  12. KJ (suited)
  13. AQ (offsuit)
  14. 99
  15. JQ (suited)

Why is this? You can probably make some basic inferences just based on the card ranks themselves, but let’s talk about how starting hands map to specific hands.

Pocket Pairs — The chances of being dealt a pocket pair is 6% or once every 17 hands. Broadway (jacks and higher) pairs like AA, KK, QQ, and JJ are premium because you're guaranteed at least one high pair. Even 1010 down to 22 have value because not only are they already a one pair hand, they can also be upgraded to three of a kind, a full house, or even four of a kind with the community cards. Pocket pairs can also still make straights and flushes if there are four sequential community cards that connect with one of the cards in your pair or four community cards of the same suit as one of the cards in your pair.

Broadway + card within four ranks — If your starting hand is within four ranks of each other (e.g. an ace and a card 10 or higher, a king and a card 9 or higher, a queen and a card 8 or higher) then you have a better chance of making a straight since you have two cards that can both connect in a 5-card sequence rather than just one. Having two broadway cards also gives you two chances to make a high pair and a chance to make a high two pair hand. At the very least, if you haven't made a hand and you also don't think your opponent has made a hand, you want to be holding as high a rank card as possible, ideally an ace. But let's say that your opponent also has an ace, then you also want your secondary card to be as high a rank as possible since the winner will come down to who has a higher "kicker." For these reasons, AK is the best high card hand you can hold. Hopefully, you won't find yourself in many showdowns that come down to a high card or kicker, but if you do, you'll want to give yourself the best chance of winning.

Suited Connectors — These are cards within one rank of each other and of the same suit, like 7♣️6♣️ or 4♦️5♦️. Like any hand, there's always a chance of making a pair or even two pair on the flop, but suited connectors also have a higher chance of making a straight or flush (or straight flush!) since they're suited and close in rank. Suited connectors have some promise pre-flop, but if nothing shows up post-flop, they quickly lose their showdown value.

Broadway + card outside of four ranks — This is where things start to get dicey. Sure, you could play a hand like J5o (e.g. J♣️5♦️), but you're vulnerable to better pairs and two pairs, and the chances of making a straight, flush, or full house are extremely low. Aces can also be played low so an ace and a 2, 3, 4, or 5 also have a higher chance for a straight.

Everything else — The leftovers are generally regarded as "unplayable" because the odds of winning with them are so low. 72o is known as the worst starting hand possible because it's the lowest unconnected and unsuited combination. If you're playing these starting hands, you might as well light money on fire for a hobby (it's a much more efficient way of getting rid of cash). Even if you were to play a hand like 7♠️2♦️ and the flop, turn, and river came out 9♠️7♣️2♥️J♣️Q♣️, you'd still be in deep trouble even though you flopped two pair. KT and T8 make a straight. Any hand containing two clubs make a flush. You could even be beat by a higher two pair hand like 97, J9, Q9, or QJ. There are simply too many ways to lose with an "unplayable hand," hence the reason they're largely regarded as unplayable, even if you manage to make a decent hand two pair.

Range

Deciding which starting hands you should or shouldn't play is called your "range."

Your range should expand or contract based on three additional factors:

  1. Position
  2. Bet sizes
  3. Number of players calling

Position

Your position is when you act in the round. Action starts to the left of the button, which technically takes the position of the dealer. If you're in the small blind position, you're first to act, except your action is already determined for you pre-flop with a bet half the size of the ante (the minimum bet size). In order to play, you have to also call the final bet size pre-flop. The big blind also has an automatic bet the full size of the ante. The big blind is actually the last to act since they take on the most risk pre-flop and can check, call, or even raise pre-flop. Depending on how many players are at the table, action continues through the early positions, middle positions, and late positions. Post-flop, the button is always last to act.

So what does position have to do with your starting hand range and strategy? The earlier your position, the more risk you take on. Early positions like the SB and BB always risk money, but all early positions are immediately at a disadvantage because they're working with less information than everyone else. Their actions say a lot about what kind of hand they're holding. Acting first is always a disadvantage because players after you have more options — they can fold, call, or raise you. Conversely, the later your position, the more information you can gather before you have to act and therefore the less risk you have to take.

A good rule of thumb is to contract your starting hand range in earlier positions and expand your starting hand range in later positions.

Bet sizes

Your pre-flop bet sizes as well as the bet sizes you may have to call should have a big effect on your starting range. Hypothetically, if you wanted to go all-in with a starting hand, which starting hand would you want to have? I hope you answered AA. So if you bet 3x the ante pre-flop, what are you telling opponents about your hand? You're signaling that it's pretty strong. Conversely, if an opponent bets 3x the ante pre-flop, what kinds of hands would you want to call with? Probably only premium hands if you're going to risk that much before even seeing a flop. There's always a "price" in poker, something we'll explore later. The smaller the ante or the bet, the wider range you can play. The larger the ante or bet, the smaller range you can play.

Number of calling players

Let me throw another hypothetical scenario at you. Let's say you're holding a good hand like JJ in the button and the UTG player bets 3x the ante. You're probably feeling pretty good; nothing to be too scared about yet... maybe they're trying to steal the pot with a so-so hand. But then three more players call before the action turns to you. Now there are four players who've all made a significant bet. If they're all calling, you could be up against AA, KK, AK, QQ, AJ — all of which pose considerable threats against your hand.

Unless you have "the nuts" (the best hand possible with the community cards), a good rule of thumb is that more players equal more risk. Pair that with larger bets and you have to tread carefully. More players can build a pot to a much bigger win, but it also means there are more outstanding hands that can beat you.

This is a useful chart to illustrate a standard opening range.

Combine opening hand ranges depending on position, bet sizes, and the number of calling players and that determines your play style. Playstyles usually fall into four buckets:

  • Tight-conservative — Selective opening hand ranges usually in mid to late positions and with small to medium bet sizes.
  • Tight-aggressive — Selective opening hand ranges usually in mid to late positions and with medium to large bet sizes.
  • Loose-conservative — Wide opening hand ranges in early to late positions and with small to medium bet sizes.
  • Loose-aggressive — Wide opening hand ranges in early to late positions and with medium to large bet sizes.

It's generally accepted that tight-aggressive is the best overall strategy as long as you don't become too predictable. You can get away with playing loose-conservative if you can bluff a little more consistently or are playing with very tight players.

Competition

Now, there’s an important nuance: You have to match the complexity of the strategy with the complexity of your opponents.

If you listen to some of the greats like Phil Ivy or Phil Hellmuth, their tips probably won’t be useful to you. In fact, they might even backfire and be counter-productive. This is because pros are usually giving advice about playing against other pros. Playing against other pros requires assumptions about the strategies and conventions of those pros, and if those assumptions don’t hold true when playing against novices or amateurs, the pro strategies might not be so promising anymore. More on this later.

Here’s a quick summary of poker strategy based on different levels of players:

  • Novice: you play your hand
  • Amateur: you play your opponents hand
  • Pro: you play your opponents range

As the level of skill and experience goes up, players have to get more creative (strategic) to win the game.

The level of skill a player has is also a good indicator of their motivations. This is important for understanding your opponents and being able to leverage what you know about them to your advantage.

Novice players are usually playing with friends and are generally motivated by bragging rights as well as a negative motivation of not being embarrassed. Novices generally don’t respond well to aggression, are over-suspicious of bluffs, will play with a pretty wide range, and bet either too small or too large. Most novices will just be trying not to lose which makes them vulnerable to any aggression and will bleed out over time. However, if a generally tight novice starts showing a lot of aggression out of nowhere, you know they probably have a premium hand. And if a novice is very loose, it could either be great or horrible for you since their actions might not add up and they can catch a lucky break once and while.

Amateurs play with friends, in casinos, and even in tournaments. Amateurs either have an ambition to go pro or to play regularly as a hobby, with the added benefit of playing profitably. This is usually where you find the loosest players because they’re there to blow money, they’re under the influence, or they’re just kinda crazy. It’s imperative to play pretty tight or else get exploited.

Pros play for a living and for fame. Every single decision is a math calculus of risk vs reward and what can help them long-term. Pros are also playing “4D Chess” in that they’re trying to anticipate your every next thought and action. Pros will play extremely tight… until they don’t and decide to make a huge bluff. Because they know all the rules and strategies, they’ll impersonate exactly what they want you to believe, so you can almost assume the opposite of what they’re portraying… or can you? Pros live and die by ranges, so bet sizing becomes a huge focus of strategy.

There's the old adage that if you get on base three out of every 10 times in baseball, you're a hall of famer. Well, poker is even more extreme. Remember the advice earlier about folding 80% of starting hands and only making to showdown with 10% or less of your hands? Do the math — that gives you a poker batting average of about .100. So when you do win a hand, you need to make sure that you win as much money as possible.

Poker requires maximizing wins and minimizing losses. As long as your winnings offset your losses, you're profitable.

If you lose nine hands at an average of $10 per hand, but you win one hand worth $200, you’re up $110. But if you lose 5 hands at an average of $20 per hand and win 5 hands at an average of $10 per hand, you’re down $50.

Action

Knowing when to check, bet, call, or fold is both an art and a science.

The science is being disciplined to stick to best practices and make the best decision given the likelihood your hand is best. The art is know when to break those rules and adjust your play style on the fly.

Let’s assume that talking about folding strategy is post-flop. At the risk of oversimplifying, folds should be made when there’s a bet in front of you where the risk outweighs the reward. At a minimum, you can check to possibly see a free turn or river card. Even if you’re 99% sure that you’re beat, you can check to stay in the round a bit longer and keep your opponents on their toes. Don't fold until you're forced to.

Bet sizes are usually based on either the previous bet or the pot.

Bet sizes based on the previous bet usually occur pre-flop, but occasionally later with raises, and follow patterns of:

  • 3x previous bet
  • 4x previous bet
  • 5x previous bet
  • All in

Bet sizes based on the pot usually occur post-flop and follow patterns of:

  • 1/4 pot
  • 1/3 pot
  • 1/2 pot
  • 3/4 pot
  • 1x pot
  • 2x pot

Each size communicates something about your hand and what you think about your opponents’ hands. Bet sizes can have dual meanings. Small bets can either mean a lack of confidence in your hand or it can look like you’re trying to entice a call from an opponent. Large bets can either mean a lot of confidence or it can look fishy like you want your opponents to fold. Because bets are usually based on the size of the pot post-flop, bets will naturally get larger and larger as the round progresses and the pot gets larger.

There are three major betting strategies you’ll use the most:

  • 3-betting pre-flop
  • Continuation betting
  • Check/raising

If you’re dealt a premium hand, you almost always want to make a large bet pre-flop to force weaker hands to fold, isolate other strong hands, and “load the pot” so that you maximize winnings at showdown.

If you make a bet of any size pre-flop, not betting post-flop opens you up to another aggressor to steal the pot with a large bet that puts you in a difficult position. Continuation bets are as much defense as they are offense, especially if you have multiple players in the pot. Remember, the more community cards there are, the more chances your opponents have to improve their hand. Especially for hands like straight and flush draws, they’ll want to see a turn or river as cheaply as possible, and you want to deny them of that. Continuation bets are most often 1/4 - 1x pot, with 1/3 and 1/2 pot bets being a relatively safe option in most cases. As you play against more advanced opponents, it becomes important to keep your bet sizes consistent across various situations so as not to accidentally communicate something about your hand that you didn’t intend.

If you’re on a straight or flush draw, you think your opponent may have you beat but you have a chance to improve, or the pot is already fairly large and heads up (you vs one other player), sometimes you want to check the turn. If your opponent checks back, that may signal that they’re not as strong as you thought. If your opponent bets, you have the option to fold, call, or even raise. A small bet by your opponent after you check can open an opportunity for you to make a large raise so your opponent folds or calls to build the pot for a larger win at showdown (assuming you’re confident you’re the favorite to win). Raises are an extremely aggressive action and can scare off opponents who might feel like you’re setting a trap.

Fundamentally, calling is acceptable when you’re getting favorable odds to stay in the pot compared to the odds of you having the winning hand. This where a lot of poker jargon like “pot odds,” “equity,” and “expected value” are derived from. Many pros follow a “Game Theory Optimal” strategy that essentially breaks down every decision to a math equation, but my opinion is that it’s better in theory than in practice (especially for novices and amateurs). The problem with only calling when it’s mathematically correct is that it can be used against you. Pros will often bet an amount a player shouldn’t call, which strongholds them into making a bad call or folding, both of which are bad outcomes. So my view is to use these kinds of measurements as thinking tools rather than rules. Pot odds is the amount you need to call compared to what’s already in the pot. For example, calling a $50 bet into a $200 pot gives you 25% pot odds, also expressed as 4:1. Equity is the probability your hand is best at showdown. So in theory, if your equity is greater than the pot odds, it’s a “profitable” decision as long as you stay consistent. This is where things get tricky because if you’re going to play by that calculus, you have to really stick to it. Your opponent’s bet size can be a better indicator for how strong of a hand you need in order to call. The fact is that you’re going to lose hands at showdown, it’s just a matter of how much and how often. It’s easy to call when you have the nuts and an aggressive player is doing the work for you to bet and build up the pot for an easy win. When you flop the nuts and you check/call or call opponents’ bets, it’s called “slow-playing.”

Going “all in” is a scary thought but is actually fairly common and strategically the right move to make in many situations. Going all in is usually the right move to make when you have a short stack and can force opponents to fold or risk allowing you to double your stack if you win. On the flip side, you can put someone all in when they’ve already committed a considerable amount of their stack and you’re confident you have them beat. The other scenario is when a couple raises have been exchanged and you have a premium hand like AA or KK where you’re statistically the favorite to win.

Bluffs happen far less often than you’d think. From the way poker is portrayed on TV or what you hear from friends, it might sound like bluffing should be a major part of your play strategy. But bluffing should be used sparingly, and very strategically. The smaller the pot, the less risk there is involved with bluffing, but that’s not an excuse to try to win every small pot. Bluffing on big pots will make or break you.

A successful bluff is all about your storytelling ability through the way you play the hand. If your actions don’t line up with the hand you’re trying to represent, you’re gonna have a bad time. Good bluffs rarely start out as bluffs. They start out as medium pairs or straight or flush draws, and then evolve to semi-bluffs when your hand could improve but it’s unlikely, and then turn into full-blown bluffs when you know your hand is beat but you can represent a hand your opponent will think clearly has them beat.

The most difficult part about bluffing is that everyone else must fold. In order for opponents to fold, they need to be pretty sure they’re beat. If you can put your opponent on a high pair or two pair, you need to be able to represent three of a kind, a straight, or a flush. Timing is probably the most important factor. If you’re going to represent three of a kind, do it when the board pairs. Or if you want to represent a straight or flush, do it when a third or fourth essential community card shows up. It’s also much easier to bluff “in position“ when you’re the last to act.

Don't show your opponents your cards at any point. You don’t want to give your opponents any information you don’t need to. And by never revealing your holdings when you don’t have to, you’ll add more mystery to your game and make it harder for opponents to put you on a hand.

Tells

There are conscious and subconscious tells. Anything conscious is usually the opposite of what they’re trying to convey. It’s often called “Hollywooding” because players will often act worried if they want to get called or act over confident if they want you to fold.

The most telling action is actually how long they take to make an action. A quick action usually indicates a really bad hand or really good hand. An immediate check is usually weak. An immediate call or bet is usually strong. But what about if they take a long time? If they stall and contemplate for a long time and ultimately make a big call, bet, or raise, they’re signaling that they have some strength because they’re likely deciding if you have them beat and which action will make them the most money if they have you beat. If a player takes a long time and checks or calls a small bet, they’re signaling weakness because they’re deciding if they should fold or not.

Of course, advanced players who know all this may do the exact opposite of what they “should” be doing in order to deceive opponents. These are just generalities.

TL;DR

  • Study the hands so you understand how community cards combine with your starting hand as well as what your opponents’ potential starting hands
  • Decide opening hands you’ll play in different positions
  • Try to play in late positions more often than early positions
  • Play tight-aggressive so you have the best odds of making a good hand that you can continue to bet with
  • Don’t rely too heavily on bluffs or tells
  • Maximizes winning hands and minimize losing hands

Additional resources

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