Winning Strategies for Online Poker Players: Texas Hold ‘Em
Texas Hold, or more commonly “Hold ‘em” is currently the most popular poker game played in casinos, card rooms and online across North America and Europe. At its most basic level, hold ‘em is a high card game where each player is dealt two cards known as “hole cards.” Five community cards are then dealt face up on the board in three stages, the “Flop” the “Turn” and the “River.” All players in the game use these cards along with their two hole cards to make the best possible five-card poker hand.
There are three common variations of Texas Hold ‘em played online and each is distinguished according to wagering structure. They are:
• Limit Texas Hold ‘em: Betting limits are restricted to predetermined values in each game and on each round of betting.
• Pot Limit Texas Hold ‘em: A player may bet the value of the pot.
• No Limit Texas Hold ‘em: A player may wager their entire bankroll/chip stack at any time.
Note that while each of these variations is played according to the same basic rules of hold ‘em, optimal strategy does change.
The Basic Rules of Hold ‘em
In hold ‘em, as many as ten players may be seated at the table at any one time, with a minimum of two being required to start the game. On the table is a “dealer button”, a small disc that represents the position of the theoretical dealer for each hand. As each hand is completed, the button is moved in a clockwise rotation from player to player.
Prior to the start of the game the two players to the left of the button place forced wagers, called the blinds, to start the pot. The player immediately to the left of the dealer button posts the “small blind” a bet typically equal to half of the value of the table’s lower stake limit. The player to the left of the small blind posts the “big blind” wager which is equal to the full value of the table’s lower stake. All blinds in hold ‘em are live bets and the players who posted them will have the same options of checking, calling, raising, or folding as every other player at the table.
After the blinds have been placed, each player is dealt two cards (face down) followed by the first round of betting, which begins with the player immediately to the left of the current “big blind.” The flow of the game continues clockwise with each player giving the option to call, raise or fold. The minimum bet at this stage is set at the lower limit of the stakes structure. For example, at a table where the stakes are structured as $2/$4, the value of each bet is a minimum of $2. Once the first round of betting is over the first three community cards (the “Flop”) are dealt. These community cards are usable by players participating in the hand.
Following the Flop, the first active player seated to the left of the button is the first to act and he may check (refrain from betting) bet or fold. The flow of the game continues clockwise around the table with each player checking, calling raising or folding. Note that players may only check if no bet has yet been made in the round. Once a player has bet, subsequent players may only call, raise or fold. As in round 1, the value of wagers begins at the lower limit of the stake structure. After all players have acted, a fourth community card, the “Turn” is dealt.
The third betting round again begins with the player to the left of the button. Minimum bets are now set to the upper limit of the table structure ($4 in our $2/$4 scenario). Players may bet, check, call, raise, or fold, with all options (except folding) dependent on the action take by the previous player. Once betting has finished the fifth and final card, the “River” is dealt.
Betting in the fourth—and final—round again begins with the player seated to the left of the button. As in round three, bets and raises are based on the upper limit of the table’s blind structure. Once all bets have been made, players still participating in the hand expose their hole cards and the best hand wins the pot.
Although Texas Hold ‘em is a very easy game to learn, don’t let such a simple looking game fool you—it’s one of the most challenging—and difficult—poker variants to master. Let’s take a look at the basic starting hands you’ll need play to start down the road to success.
Texas Hold ‘em: Starting Hands
Now that you know the basics of how the game is played, the next step is to review which starting hands have any value. Note that while the following represent the range of hands that may be played, in some cases these are dependent on factors such as player skill, game format (limit, pot limit, no limit), style, position, and the type of the opponents (tight, loose, etc.).
Every player has his or her preferred strategy. Some are conservative, playing only the best hands and rarely every bluffing. Others prefer a more aggressive stance, vigorously playing a much wider selection of hands.
Although opposite in their nature, both methods are viable—if played correctly. A conservative player or “rock” is predominantly on the better side of the percentages when involved in a hand since they prefer to enter only when dealt a statistically winning hand, such as pocket aces (A-A) or “big slick,” A-K. Since they rarely bluff, and any sharp opponents will take note of that fact, it becomes easier to steal the pot during the times when they do. And since their table image of being a rock will often scare out many players, those that do stay in during a bluff probably have a powerful hand, making it easy for a rock to escape the hand.
Because players with a cut-throat, aggressive style play a wider range of hands you might think that they are more at risk than a conservative player, but they’re not. Because of their aggressive betting style—raising and going all-in frequently to defend their hand—they are able to easily scare off players with weak and moderately strong hands. And although most opponents are quick to recognize the aggressive style, they’re often unwilling to go up against such a player with all but the very best hands because they know that they may be raised a substantial amount—sometimes their entire stack.
For new players, those who have little or no experience in the game, can’t properly read their opponents and are unsure about which hands to play, it’s wise sticking with the best hands (according to your position) and betting them aggressively when called for. This is because generally speaking, the players holding two very good starting cards have the best chance of making the winning hand—or at least having the best draw after the flop. Once you have gotten your feet wet, start to expand your game to the following:
• Early Position: Play only very strong hands that can stand up to a raise or even multiple raises. Expect to fold the majority of hands.
• Middle Position: Play strong and moderately strong hands, especially if you stand a chance of seeing the flop cheaply. Don’t be afraid to get aggressive if your hand warrants it, since it’s to your benefit here to thin out the number of opponents seeing the flop.
• Late Position: Play a wider variety of hands (aggressively) especially if you’re only up against the blinds. Such aggression—especially if it’s pre-flop–can be very beneficial especially if you continue to be aggressive when faced with a bad flop.
As you gain experience and a better understanding of the game and your opponents, you’ll be in a better position to expand your game and decide which style suits you the best.
Tips for Online Players
Poker players often act differently online than they would if they were face-to-face with their opponents in a land-based setting. Below are some helpful tips for acting and re-acting to online opponents.
• Fast play strong hands pre-flop. In online circles, betting too quickly is often a sign of a bluff. Use it to your advantage in games like Texas Hold ‘em. By betting high pairs and other strong hands you encourage players with moderate hands to fall into your trap and increase the pot, while discouraging players with weak hands from seeing a cheap flop.
• Beware of sequential or suited flops. Many players play connectors regardless of position and pre-flop betting actions. If the flop comes 5-6-7 or some other sequence, watch out for a straight because it can easily turn your pocket aces into garbage. Similarly, be careful of flops that contain two or three suited cards as many online players will hold any two suited cards no matter the circumstances.
• Use anonymity to bluff. Since your hidden from your opponents, you’ll have an easier time bluffing, since there are no physical tells that you can give away. Work an ace after a garbage flop. Semi-bluff that open-ended straight on the board. Work the cards, your opponent’s natural fears, and your “invisibility” to its highest potential.
• Work the high end of the straight. If an unsuited 7-8-9 flops, and you’re holding the 10-J, watch for the heavy bettors who are bluffing at an inside straight draw (holding a Q-J) or are holding the ignorant straight, 6-5 and keep raising them. If they do hold the low straight, and online players love connectors, it will be very difficult for them to fold.
• Let them see you bluff. Every once in a while let your opponents catch you in a bluff. This prevents them from predicting your play and can lead to larger pots in key hands.
• Make notes about your opponents. Whether you’re involved in the hand or not, be observant about each and every action taken by your opponents. Online poker rooms usually provide a “notebook” where you can type in your observations and store them for later examination. Use it to record player actions and responses to specific situations, how often they bluff, whether their weak or tight—anything that will help you should you square off against them again.
• Consider playing as the opposite sex. In a real card room, everyone can see you. The same can’t be said for a Net poker room, and some players—both male and female—sometimes take advantage of that. For a male player, by selecting the female avatar you can occasionally take advantage of the stereotype that women are less aggressive players that are unlikely to bluff. For female players, by selection the male character they may be able to project a more forceful—and threatening—table image.