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Texas Holdem Poker


by: Lou Krieger

The first article in this series discussed the need for a solid foundation as an underpinning for winning poker and also discussed why starting standards are critical to ensuring successful play. Deciding which starting hands to play in poker is like any other form of investment decision you’re confronted with on a daily basis in real life. Whether it’s buying a pair of shoes or investing in mutual funds, you can make the decision on whim and whimsy or you can look for opportunities that provide the best return for your investment.

Face it; you go through life looking for the best bang for the buck in almost everything you do. Poker is no different. There are hands where the return on your investment is positive, and others that will cost you money in the long run. In the heat of battle you don’t have the time to assess every hand as though you’re seeing it for the first time and deciding whether to play. You should have made these decisions long before you hit the table. That’s why standards are critical. If you incorporate solid starting standards into your game you are light years ahead of any opponent who has not done this — never mind how long he’s been playing or how much experience he may have in other phases of the game.

Real life is no different. When you walked into the bank to get a car loan, the loan officer examined your income and debts and determined whether you would be able to make those monthly payments. He didn’t make this decision in a vacuum, either. He had standards: a ratio of income to monthly expenditures. That ratio, along with your credit history and job stability gave him the parameters to decide whether you were a worthwhile risk. What if you can’t qualify? There are always other lenders out there, in the event bank won’t say yes to your request. They have lower standards, but they charge more.

Here in Southern California were owning a car is almost mandatory, there was a dealer whose late-night TV ads used to say: “You don’t need a job. You don’t need any credit. We’ll finance you as long as your intentions are good!” Needless to say, anyone who bought a car there had access to credit — albeit at terms a loanshark would envy. It’s just another case of the risk balancing the reward. It’s everywhere. You can’t escape standards in life, or in poker.

Another real benefit that accrues from developing starting standards for poker hands is that these very standards provide a basis for deviation, but only under the right circumstances and conditions. Those conditions and circumstances are impossible to recognize — and therefore capitalize on — unless you’ve developed standards and incorporated them so completely into your game that they are second nature to you. Only when that’s been accomplished can you hope to find those very few exceptions that allow you to profitably deviate from them. What does that mean in real terms? It’s simple. There are times when you can play hold’em cards like a suited K-2 or 8-7 in middle position, and there are times in seven-card stud when you can raise on third street with a queen showing — even though there’s an ace that acts after you. Knowing when, of course, is part of the art of poker, and it requires knowledge of the game’s texture, the playing style of your opponents, your table image at that moment, and the cards you’re holding, as well as those that may have been exposed. There’s no cookbook to guide you through these close-call situations. Sound judgment comes with experience and poker know-how, and the ability to make the right choices in these situations is what separates the great players from the good ones.

Selection and Aggression
Winning poker requires selectivity and aggression. Any top player will tell you this, and every good poker book emphasizes this concept. If you have any doubts, consider the need to be selective. If you don’t think selectivity is important, try picturing someone who plays and calls every hand down to the bitter end unless he sees that he is beaten on board. That player would win a lot of pots. In fact, as poker’s “Mad Genius,” Mike Caro is so fond of pointing out in his poker seminars, “He would win every pot that it’s possible to win.” And Caro’s right. That player would never be driven off the winning hand by bets and raises, nor would he ever be bluffed out of a pot. His opponents would soon discover that it never pays to bluff him, and will stop bluffing altogether. Of course, every time they had the smallest edge, they’d bet into him, knowing that he would call with the worst of it. These value bets would soon relieve our hero of his bankroll. If you doubt me, just play every hand and see how long your money lasts.

If selectivity is clearly correct, what about aggression? Consider the passive player. He seldom best unless he has an unbeatable hand — and you don’t hold the mortal nuts all that often. More often than not you’ll find yourself in pots where you believe, but aren’t absolutely certain, that you have the best hand. Even when you are 100 percent certain that yours is the best hand at the moment, you might recognize it as one that can be beaten. This occurs more often than you might realize. Suppose you have Jd-Tc on the turn, and the board shows 9h-8h-7c-Qd. While you have the best hand on the turn, you could lose if a heart falls on the river and completes a flush for one of your opponents. If you have opponents who keep checking and calling, one of them might well be on a heart draw. The worst thing you can usually do is give your opponent a chance to draw out at no cost, by letting him have a free card. After all, with a free card there is no risk, only the potential for a large reward if a miracle card falls giving him the best hand.

Here’s an example. Suppose you’re playing hold’em. You hold Ah-Kd and for the sake of this scenario we’ll imagine you knew with absolute certainty that your opponent held Ac-Th. At the turn, the board was Ad-Jh-Kh-8s. Your opponent is drawing at four cards that can beat you. If a queen comes on the river he will make a straight and beat your two pair. If you give him a free card he risks nothing, yet will win whenever one of those four queens falls on the river. With 44 unknown cards in the deck your opponent is bucking better than 10-to-1 odds. He is a real longshot. But if you don’t make him pay for the chance to draw out on you he stands to lose nothing and gain all.

Now imagine you’re playing that same hand, but this time the game is no limit poker. You bet $2,500 into a $500 pot. With the odds against your opponent greater than 10-to-1 it certainly doesn’t pay for him to risk $2,500 to win $3,000. It only pays for your opponent to chase that elusive queen if the pot offers a payout in excess of those 10-to-1 odds against hitting his hand. In fact, one of the key strategic principles of no limit play is using the size of your bet to manipulate the odds the pot offers your opponent. In this example, by making a big enough bet, you can effectively prevent your opponent from contesting the pot.

But in a limit game all you can do is bet — or try for a checkraise — in order to manipulate the odds your opponent will have to overcome in order to beat you. Since giving a free card is a terrible play, and manipulating the pot odds so that it clearly doesn’t pay for your opponent to try to draw out on you is a good play, being as aggressive as you can with the best hand in a limit game is the proper play most of the time.

In Part 3 of this four-part series we’ll talk about patience and learn why it is still a virtue — at least where poker is concerned. You’ll also learn why position, in poker, equates to power.

Solid Poker Foundations by Lou Krieger

Learn how to ensure your poker foundations are solid!

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4


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