Knowing the basics of poker is paramount

Recently, I wrote a column that explained that while you cannot control luck, you can influence it to favor you.

I recognize that playing poker is a matter of probability — chance in a mathematical sense. The probability of winning will increase when you start with a strong hand vs. a weaker one. Playing Texas hold’em, if your hole cards are A-K against an opponent with 3-2, you are about a 75 percent favorite to beat him out.

And, in a nutshell, that is the secret to winning rather than losing at the poker table. The idea is to not lose. That’s why weak starting hands should be a no-no.

There are always exceptions to any rule. If you are in the Big Blind and there are no raises, you can have a free card to see the flop. You never know what the flop will bring. I once started with 2-3 offsuit, and the flop came down 2-2-3, giving me a full-house.

Wow! I slow-played it and took a good-sized pot. But that was a rare exception. Don’t count on it.

Poker has its own unique language

By using the laws of probability, smart players influence luck in their favor. Thus, they generate their own good luck. They have the necessary skills, often acquired over many years of playing their favorite variety of poker. Which means their chance of winning is greater than that of each opponent. It won’t happen every time, but in the long run their success is virtually guaranteed.

We are talking about winning enough chips to go home with more money than you had when you arrived at the casino. That requires you win enough to overcome the cost-to-play — your share of the rake, the drop for the Bad-Beat Jackpot, and tips to the dealer.

That adds up to about $150 for a seven-hour poker session — more in short-handed games. Quite significant. All the more reason to acquire and apply all the poker skills available — and there are quite a number to avoid losing.

Let’s go through a review of the key poker skills. Of course, starting hand selection is the most obvious. You cannot be a winner if you frequently invest your chips in weak starting hands. Yet, I see players showing down weak starters so often. Perhaps they are so anxious to play that they decide to gamble away their chips. Or perhaps they are not appropriately skilled.

One skill that most players fail to recognize is table and seat selection. After arriving at the casino, you are assigned to a table with a vacant seat. If the game is very tight, you cannot win enough to overcome the cost-to-play.

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If the game is very loose and aggressive, it becomes too costly an investment to risk your chips to see the flop. Ask the floorman for a table change. If there is a very aggressive player (a “maniac”) seated to your left, grab the first opportunity to change your seat when one becomes available to the maniac’s left. Then, you can fold your borderline hand if he raises — and avoid losing any more chips.

After deciding to stay to see the flop, the next key skill is mucking your hand if the flop does not improve your hand — unless you get a free card to see the turn. The chips you save — don’t lose — are significant.

From my standpoint, bluffing and semi-bluffing also are key skills crucial to winning. If you never bluff, you are destined to be a loser. I have won some big pots that way.

Essential to that skill is knowing when the situation is right to go for a bluff. Never try to bluff out a “calling-station.” Using deception to build the pot when you catch a monster is another essential skill. Examples: check-raising, slow-playing, baiting, and stealing the pot.

I would be remiss not to point out the skills involved in reading your opponents, and the ability to use the pot odds versus your card odds so as to avoid a Negative Expectation. These skills are designed to help you avoid losing — and, thereby, go home a winner.

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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