I promised this blog would have plenty of strategy discussion, because ultimately, we all want to get better at the game. Since this is my first strategy post, I might as well “tell you what I’m going to tell you,” as the presentation experts teach. That is, give you a sense of how I view good poker strategy, and the base principles from which all of my subsequent advice derives.
It all boils down to two key principles: folding and position.
Folding in the first place
To understand the importance of folding, we must go back to one of the key (and most glorious) features of poker: decisions. If you play craps or roulette, your decisions don’t matter much. If you bet red or black, odd or even, or individual numbers at the roulette table, you still give up the same edge to the house. Poker is completely different. You get to look at your cards before you decide whether, and how much to bet. So you decide if your cards justify playing (or continuing in) a hand.
Many poker players don’t fully understand this. In fact, you’ll see some poker veterans sincerely tell newbies, “It all comes down to the flop. You need to see the flop to know if your cards are any good.” Most poker players have some selection criteria about which hands to play. But the vast majority aren’t sufficiently selective about the hands with which they continue. They are playing what I call “flop lotto” – just play a bunch of hands hoping their cards will align with the flop. Certainly we’ve all seen pretty much every two-card combination smash the flop, so why shouldn’t my ten-four suited smash the flop this time?
Here’s the problem with that approach: none of us “smashes flops” any better than the rest of us. I mean, if you do smash flops more effectively than others, then there’s probably a place to take that trait and make a billion dollars. Please write and tell me what it’s like.
Assuming you’re not that person, playing flop lotto will lead to you having results identical to everybody else (you all lose the rake). But this is where folding can allow you to win long-term. If you fold more than the other people do – if you play a stronger starting range than everybody else – then you will, in fact, smash more flops than your opponents (ace-king suited smashes more flops than ten-four-suited). And you will not have wasted the extra chips calling bets with hands that you just hope will align with the flop.
Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be more specific about preflop hand selection. In the meantime, consider this exercise for yourself: Figure out what percentage of hands you play preflop (your “VPIP”, which stands for “Voluntarily Put [Money] In Pot”). Now reduce that by 10%. Just snip off the worst 10% of the hands you were playing. See if your results don’t improve – I’m pretty sure they will. Stick around for more discussion and detail later.
Folding your ego
Many of us have a problem folding because, well, it’s surrendering. You are conceding the pot to your opponent. Either she has a better hand, or she has successfully persuaded you she has a better hand. Neither of these options is very comforting.
Furthermore, you don’t usually get to find out if you made a good fold. That’s not fair! You’re making a disciplined fold here – you should be rewarded for it by having your good decision confirmed. Nope – the reward for your disciplined fold is getting to keep the chips in your stack, not hers.
Finally, folding is not as much fun. At least, many people feel that way. They say, “I want to play. ” Well, according to the rules of the game, folding is one of the legal actions when you’re facing a bet or raise. So you really are playing poker. But I get that a lot of people enjoy the game more when their chips are in the pot, and they have cards in front of them. So folding feels like the “less fun” route.
I’ll have more to say about this in the future, but for now, let’s just agree that if you can get your ego out of your betting and folding decisions, your results will probably improve.
If there’s anything in poker that’s as important as folding, it’s position. In short, how near you are to the button. As much as many of us are guilty of playing too many starting hands, we as a poker community are even less sensitive to our position when playing. That is, if jack-ten-suited is a good hand, it’s a good hand whether it’s under the gun (first to the left of the blinds) or in the cutoff (one position to the right of the button).
The sooner you learn the importance of position, and the more value you give it, the more chips you’ll earn. Professional players might have a VPIP as low as 15-20% in the earliest positions after the blinds, and then have VPIPs of 40-50% on the button.
Being “in-position” (last to act) makes it easier to play hands because your opponent (or opponents) must act before you do on each street of betting. Being “out-of-position” forces you to act before you know what your opponent will do. Consider a situation where you have a strong hand and want a lot of chips to go into the pot. If you are in-position (“IP”) and your opponent checks, then you can bet. If she bets, you can raise. In short, you can maximize the number of chips that go into the pot. Conversely, suppose you are out of position (“OP”) with the same strong hand. If you bet, then your opponent may call or fold. You might like to check-raise, but you risk your opponent checking behind you and no chips going into the pot.
This is just one of dozens of scenarios that show the strength of being in-position. In fact, it can be theoretically proven that the IP player expects to make more money than the OP player.
This is the part of the blog post that the presentation experts call, “Telling them what you told them.” Throughout this blog, we’ll cover a lot of strategic and tactical topics. But as we do, I repeatedly touch on, and presume these two aspects of good poker:
- We must be selective about the hands we play initially. If we play too many hands preflop, there is no effective way to undo that error later in the hand, and our chip stack will suffer.
- We must be positionally aware. We need to be playing the great majority of our hands in-position, and folding many more hands when out of position.
Thank you for reading.
Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.