Key skills, strategies to take to the poker table

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Like everyone else who plays poker, your ultimate goal is to go home a winner. 

Win more and bigger pots. Lose fewer hands containing as few chips as possible. Toward that end, there are various strategies and tactics you might use. The more skilled you are, the more likely you will accomplish that goal.

Let’s start by discussing the key skills and then the key strategies and tactics you should employ, and finally, how each situation can make a big difference.  

The key skills: Playing Texas hold’em, skills include starting hand selection; knowing when it’s best to muck your cards, especially preflop – thus limiting your investment in hands likely to lose. Avoiding chasing with only a few outs, knowing when it is wise to value bet or to raise the pot, gaining position and using it to your advantage.

Knowing when and how best to be deceptive – i.e., bluffing, slow-playing, trapping your opponents, using reverse tells, and check-raising effectively to build your pots.

Other key skills include using poker math to estimate the pot odds vs. the card odds to ensure a positive expectancy, reading the “enemy” and observing their tells – e.g., look at the players to your left before acting to see how many chips each is picking up before making his bet. 

Finally, knowing when it is best to change your seat at the table, take a long break, or move to another table.

Strategies and tactics: A strategy is a general plan to reach an important goal. Tactics are the specific steps you will take along the way to help you achieve that goal. 

For example, starting with a made hand – pocket Aces, Kings, or Queens – it makes good sense to raise to thin the field so your big pocket pair does not become an underdog (most likely to lose) if four or more opponents stay to see the flop. So, raising preflop is your first tactical decision. 

Suppose you get lucky and catch a set of Aces on the flop. Now your strategy is to build the size of the pot you expect to win. So you change your tactics: (1) slow-play on the flop to keep opponents in the pot to see the turn; and then (2) check-raise on the turn after a loose-aggressive player to your left bets out. 

All well and good, but let’s look at a different situation: You are dealt K-Q of clubs – a premium drawing hand. With such a strong starting hand, unhesitatingly, you limp from your middle position and then call a raised bet preflop, hoping that the flop will improve your hand to warrant further investment. 

The flop is Ace of clubs-10 of hearts-9 of hearts. You now hold an inside draw to the Ace-high straight, and three to the nut (clubs) flush. Your inclination is to stay to see the turn. But an early-position LAG opens the betting on the flop, and is raised by a tight player in the under-the-gun position just to your right – and might be further raised to a 3-bet. So, you decide to muck your hand.

Lo and behold, the dealer lays down the Jack of hearts on the turn. Quickly glancing at the board, had you stayed in the pot, you would have made the Ace-high straight! 

“Oh no,” you mutter to yourself. “Why didn’t I stay to see the turn?” 

But, as it turned out, the LAG held 7-8 hearts, and caught a straight flush on the turn: 7-8-9-10-J of hearts. Flushes, especially straight flushes, always beat straights, even an Ace-high straight. Had you stayed to see the turn, that hand would have cost you dearly. 

Sometimes you are so much better off to miss out. Just thank the Poker gods for your wise decision to fold before the turn.

Second-best is the worst hand you can catch – bound to be very costly. Fortunately, you used your skills to muck your hand on the turn. Good decision! This is a case where you were lucky to miss.

 

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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