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Deal Me In!

Common sense and wisdom to help jumpstart your poker game

By Kevin Blackwood

Twenty years ago, people would have thought you were crazy if you told them poker would someday be televised on ESPN and NBC. Yet that day has long since arrived, and poker has fast become an American institution—if not quite apple pie and baseball, than certainly donuts and bowling.

One reason for the widespread appeal of poker is its unusual level playing field. In most sports, we have no chance of ever competing against the pros. None of us can expect to beat Tiger Woods in the Masters or dunk over Shaq in the NBA finals.

But poker affords unique opportunities for its fans. Here you can take on your heroes and perhaps even crush them at their own game. It is indeed the most democratic of sporting contests, since anyone can emerge from obscurity, play in poker’s World Series and walk away a champion.

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Avoiding poker’s curve balls

Perhaps you’ve been thinking about finally jumping on the poker bandwagon. If so, this article was written with you in mind. However, there are no magic secrets that will instantly transform you from the fish at the table into the shark. Poker is a game that typically requires a great deal of experience before you can become a winning player. But there are some suggestions to help you avoid the most common mistakes, and better prepare you to step into the batter’s box against a poker pro.

Common varieties of poker

One blunder that novices make is playing a game they don’t fully understand. Back in the 1800s, draw or stud were essentially the only games dealt at poker tables. Now there are over one hundred different versions of poker, each with their own distinctive set of rules. While stud is still offered at many clubs, the most popular games today are some recent innovations, such as Omaha and Texas Hold ‘em.

Most rules for the different varieties of poker are easy to understand, but if you are unsure about the specifics of any particular game, I suggest you first read a book or learn the rules online. A number of useful websites offer helpful tools for beginners, such as a poker glossary with an explanation of common terms like blinds and antes. A lot of potential embarrassment (and money) can be saved if you take the time to learn how to play before you dig into your wallet and blindly ante.

When you first start out, it’s wisest to stick with just one game. Since Texas Hold ‘em is currently the best known form of poker (primarily because of TV), I will use that game for all the examples in this article.

Playing too passively

A common ingredient found in most top pros is aggression. Good players constantly put pressure on their opponents, forcing them to make tough decisions, rather than vice versa.

However, this style of play goes against the grain for most new players since there is a natural tendency, particularly in tournaments, to want to survive by staying conservative. The logic of that strategy is understandable, because nobody likes to go home early. But checking and calling is a weak, passive way to play poker. In many cases, if you can’t raise, you should fold your hand, rather than call.

Being married to a hand

There are few better feelings at the tables than looking at your pocket cards and seeing two aces. You have the very best hand in poker. There is no way you can lose, right? Wrong!

Having a monster starting hand, (like aces, kings, or queens), is great, but a scary flop can quickly turn even those powerhouses into losers. Unfortunately, many players can’t seem to get away from aces or kings, even when the cards on the board and your opponent’s betting should tell you that you’re beat. So while you want to be aggressive and play your premium hands strongly (at least pre-flop), just make sure you’re willing to throw them away when needed after the flop.

Playing too many hands

This is certainly the biggest problem novices encounter at the poker table. Having watched too much TV, they think any two cards can win. While that is theoretically true for any given hand, in the long run you are better off sticking to a small range of starting hands.

Hitting a long shot inside straight on the river and raking in a big pot is exhilarating, but constantly trying to get lucky is suicidal. Smart players decide in advance what range of hands they are willing to go to war with and wisely throw away the weaker holdings that could easily get them in trouble.

Unlimited options

Another choice facing you in poker is whether to play limit or no-limit. The format used in most tournaments is no-limit, which allows players to push any or all of their chips into the pot at any time. However, no-limit poker creates far more opportunities for rookies to make major mistakes and bust out early. So I suggest you begin with limit games where the temptation to go all-in is removed.

In limit games, the amount players are allowed to bet on each round is always fixed. For example, if a casino offered a $2 to $4 limit Texas Hold ‘em game, bets and raises are restricted to increments of $2 for pre-flop and post-flop action, and then increased to $4 for the turn and the river.

Protecting your bankroll

Managing your money is the biggest difficulty facing gamblers when they step inside the doors of a casino, so it’s important that you always stay within your financial comfort zone. If you are playing for higher stakes than you can afford, it could affect your play, possibly even putting you on tilt if you hit a losing streak. A smart strategy for any casino game is to always determine in advance how much money you are willing to risk and then tenaciously stick to that number.

Here is a good tip I got from Annie Duke: When she first started playing poker, she quit if she ever lost more than thirty top bets in a game. This kept her from steaming and playing poorly during bad sessions and helped keep her bankroll intact.

Mixing it up

Another common error is to become too predictable. If you always limp with aces, but raise with small pairs, your sharp opponents will read you like a cheap paperback. The best players are multi-dimensional. They can quickly shift gears and throw in strategic bluffs and unexpected check-raises.

Mixing up your game is particularly important if you frequently play against the same opponents. If that is the case, make sure you are not tipping the strength of your hands with tells or falling into predictable habits.

The power of position

One thing that new players have trouble understanding is how critical position is in poker. The type of hands you should be playing under-the-gun (first to act) is dramatically different than what you will play on the button (last to act).

Top pros use their positional advantage like a hammer over weaker opponents. A good example is online poker phenom Annette Obrestad, who last fall became the youngest person ever to win a World Series of Poker bracelet. Just before she took home the $2 million for first place in that event, she won a 180 player tournament online while only looking at her cards once the entire tournament, emphasizing the importance of positional play.

The mental game

That amazing story about Annette Obrestad emphasizes a critical aspect of poker—it is much more than just a game of higher math. Ultimately, winning depends on how well you play your opponents and not just on how well you play your cards.

Don’t get me wrong. Understanding the math and science of poker is mandatory for success. But some players never move beyond that and develop tunnel vision. They see only their own cards and fail to consider their opponents’ hands or what your opponent thinks you have.

This is where the art of bluffing and taking away pots with absolutely nothing comes into play. Unfortunately, it is difficult to advance to that level of expertise, and many new players bluff at the wrong times or for the wrong reasons. The best time is generally when a scary board might cause your opponent to fold a hand much better than yours.

Getting started

Now that we’ve covered the common mistakes to avoid, where should you go to start your poker career? There are three main options: The local casino, a home game, or playing online.

A poker room inside a casino has a lot of advantages. Games are easy to join and a professional dealer keeps everything moving along at a brisk pace. However, it’s easy to commit several etiquette errors in the formal setting of a casino the first time you play.

A better choice when starting out might be rounding up some buddies to play poker in the comfort of your living room. One benefit of home games (besides the free chips and salsa) is that your odds are better since there is no rake (the rake is the commission, or percentage of each pot, that the house takes for dealing the game).

If you have no friends (or at least any with money), you can play Internet poker on your computer where games are available 24/7. And since the table limits start out very low online, you can save a lot of money while you are learning the game.

One downside of Internet poker is that it strips the game of its social aspect, but playing online offers many advantages to offset that loss. Convenience is probably the biggest factor, especially if you live far away from any casinos. However, one caveat is that legal issues currently cloud Internet poker. Technically, most home games violate local laws, but online the issues surrounding poker have become even murkier and you should always find out what the current restrictions are in your area before anteing up.

Playing to win

One reason that poker is now considered a sporting event is the proliferation of televised tournaments. In the past, most poker was played at what are called cash games, where players come and go, buying chips with their own money. If anyone taps out in a cash game and loses all his chips, he has the option of reaching into his wallet to buy more chips or of leaving the table (which frees up the seat for a new player).

Tournaments operate differently as players buy-in (usually just once) at the start of the event. The entry fee is a fixed amount, ranging from a few dollars up to thousands of dollars. Then all players are given an equal amount of starting chips. Once a player loses all of their chips (unless it is a re-buy tournament) they are knocked out of the tournament. This produces a freeze-out format that generates more excitement than regular cash games.

To win any money in a tournament, you typically have to finish in the top 10%. For example, if 100 players are entered, the pay structure might award money only to the 10 players who survived until the final table. Everyone else would lose their entry fee, whether they finished in 99th place or 11th place.

Records

One great aspect of tournaments is that you never can lose more than your original buy-in. This creates a natural stop-loss and keeps overly emotional players from burning through their bankroll on a bad day.

But regardless of whether you play cash games or tournament poker, you should always keep records of your play. If you don’t have a log of your wins and losses at the tables, it’s difficult to see if you are progressing towards the top of the food chain or are simply fish food for the poker sharks.

Common sense and wisdom to help jumpstart your poker game.

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