7 Ways to Win at Texas Holdem Poker (Even If You’re Brand New to the Game)
Texas holdem is the most popular form of poker being played in the United States today. One of the reasons it’s so popular is that everyone knows it’s a game of skill, but the short term luck factor is so great that someone can think they’re more skillful than they really are. It’s easier than you think to get on a big Texas holdem winning streak even though you’re making mistakes repeatedly.
But what if you want to learn how to win at Texas holdem poker, not through luck, but through skill? How do you learn to make consistent good decisions so that you’re almost guaranteed a long-term profit?
Entire books have been written on the subject of Texas holdem strategy. In fact, strategies for the game vary based on the betting limits. What works in a limit game might not be effective in a no limit game. What works in ring games often doesn’t work in tournament games, either.
What I’ve tried to do with this post is offer advice and tips for winning that apply to every version of the game. This, by necessity, means that some of these tips are more general in nature than some readers would prefer.
To them, all I can suggest is that they take a look at some of the other posts about Texas holdem on the site. Many of them cover more specific elements of how to win at Texas holdem.
1 – Learn How to Be Selective Preflop
I learned how to play Texas holdem when I read a book called Poker Nation: A High-Stakes, Low-Life Adventure into the Heart of a Gambling Country by Andy Bellin. Until that point in my poker career, I’d never played anything other than 5-card draw and 7-card stud. And I had no idea at all about strategic concepts like “tight play.”
The premise behind being selective in Texas holdem is a simple one. You’re more likely to win a race where you have a head start. By folding hands that aren’t premium hands early, you avoid putting money into the pot with hands that are likely to lose. By betting and raising with premium hands, you get your money into the pot when you “have a head start.”
The first part of being selective in Texas holdem poker is looking at your starting hand requirements. The game starts when each player gets 2 cards face down—his hole cards. These 2 cards can be used in any combination with the other cards in the game—the community cards—to form a 5 card hand. If you have strong cards in the hole, you can often win based on their strength alone.
Your position also affects how strong a starting hand you need. If you’re in early position—you act before most of the other players—you need a stronger hand that you would if you’re in late position. That’s because you get to see what the other players are going to do. That extra information can make playing a wider variety of preflop hands profitable from late position.
The best kind of hand you can have preflop in Texas holdem is a big pair, like a pair of aces or a pair of kings. You can play either of those hands strong from any position. The value of pairs goes down dramatically after that, although pairs are almost always playable starting hands preflop if you can get into the pot cheap.
As the pairs go down in rank, their playability and value go down, too. For example, if you have a pair of 3s, and 3 players before you bet, raise, and re-raise, you’re probably going to need to fold that pair of 3s.
Other good starting hands are big suited connectors. AK suited is almost as strong a hand as AA or KK. AQ suited is also very playable. As the ranks go down, so do the values of the suited connectors.
And just because there might be gaps between the cards doesn’t mean they’re not suited connectors. They’re just not as strong. For example, Q9 suited is still playable in some situations even though there are 2 gaps.
If you have a strong hand preflop, you should bet and raise with it to thin the field. If you have a weaker but still playable hand preflop, you should call and encourage other players to be in the hand with you so that you get paid off when you hit your hand.
You should probably fold 80% of your preflop hands.
2 – Learn How to Be Selective on the Flop
It’s not enough to start with a head-start. You also need to maintain the lead. That’s where selectiveness on the flop comes in.
If you had a big pair like AA or KK preflop, you’re probably still in contention on the flop, although some flops can be scary. For example, if there’s a pair of queens or jacks on the flop, there’s a good chance one of your opponent has a 3 of a kind. This isn’t an automatic fold, but God gave us a gas pedal and a brakes pedal for a reason.
On the other hand, if you had a small pair preflop, like 77, you really need to hit a 7 on the flop to stay in the hand. You might get some kind of miracle flop where you’re drawing to an open-ended straight or to a flush, but even then, you’re not ahead of the other players. You just have possibilities.
I like to get away from any hand that isn’t at least top pair, top kicker—or an overpair. An overpair is when you have a pair that’s higher in ranking than any of the cards on the flop. For example, if you have a pair of queens for your hole cards, and the flop comes 579, you have an overpair.
But just having an overpair or top pair top kicker isn’t a guarantee that you’ll win. You should also look at how many of the cards on the flop are suited. You should also look at how connected the cards on the flop are.
Players luck into flushes and straights all day, but those are only possibilities on some flops, not all of them.
I’m not suggesting that you play scared. Just be aware of the texture of the flop and play accordingly.
You should probably fold on the flop 50% of the time or so. If you’re not folding often, you’re not being selective enough.
3 – You Should Bet and Raise Aggressively
Some of the best advice I ever read about Texas holdem in general is that if a hand isn’t good enough to raise with, it’s not good enough to call with. And if you have to choose between raising and calling, you should always choose to raise.
The tendency to bet and raise is your level of aggression. Until now, I’ve talked about being selective about which hands you play. That’s a measure of how tight or loose your game is.
It’s not enough to just be a tight player. That won’t win poker for you. You must also be an aggressive player.
Betting and raising benefits you in 2 ways:
- It gives you the opportunity to win a pot without having to go to a showdown.
- It puts more money in the pot for you to win when you do get to a showdown.
This doesn’t mean you should never call. If you have suited connectors or small pairs preflop, and no one else is raising, going along for the size of one bet is the right move. It gets you into a pot with a lot of other players. You usually won’t hit your hand, but on the occasions where you do hit your hand, you’ll get paid off.
Where aggression really starts to pay off is when other players starting betting and raising aggressively. Since you’re being selective with the cards you play, you should be fearless about raising and re-raising your opponents. Of course, your read on those opponents makes a difference, too.
But as a general strategy rule in Texas holdem, you should try to be the aggressor as much as possible. Bet, raise, and repeat.
4 – Learn How to Read Your Opponents
The first step in reading your opponents at the table is paying attention to their general tendencies as players. It’s generally pretty easy to get a read on your opponents’ general tendencies. All you must do is pay attention to how often they put money into the pot. You should also pay attention to how often they bet and raise as opposed to checking and calling.
I recently played in a Texas holdem game in Oklahoma where one of the players raised preflop on every single hand he got. He got lucky early on, too, and he built up an impressive stack of chips. It was easy to see that he was a loose and aggressive player.
This made it easy to play against him. All I had to do was wait until I had a solid hand. I didn’t have to worry about betting into him, either. I could just wait for him to start driving the action. And since he was raising every hand, as long as I had a starting hand that was well above average, I could be confident that I’d get the drop on him.
Unfortunately, all the other players at the table had this figure out, too. They took all his chips before I got a hand good enough to get into a pot with him.
That’s not the only player type, though. Some players are super-tight and fold in the face of almost any aggression. If you know this, you can pick up a lot of small pots just by betting into your super-tight opponent.
You’ll notice, too, that I haven’t said anything yet about “tells.” I think poker tells are useful, but they’re overrated. You’re better off learning something about pot odds and outs than you are learning to read tells. You can increase your edge by spotting tells, but you need an edge to begin with. If you’re not a solid enough player to play the cards, learning how to play the players is putting the cart before the horse.
5 – Start Keeping Detailed Written Records
Keeping records is one of those poker meta-skills that anyone serious about poker needs to develop. If you’re not keeping records of the amounts you win or lose, how do you even know if you’re winning?
I had a great boss when I worked for Hotels.com who used to tell me that you can’t hit a target you can’t see. This is just another way of saying you need specific, measurable goals. Otherwise, you’re missing the boat entirely.
You should also track which games you’re playing in which locations for which limits. You might learn that the $4/$8 limit games at the Winstar are easy for you to beat, while the $4/$8 games at Choctaw are a lot tougher. If that’s the case, you can start to focus around the games where you make more money.
Tracking the times for when you play can also help you. You might find that the afternoons at a particular poker room aren’t especially profitable, but the late evening games on Friday and Saturday are loose and juicy.
If you’re not keeping records, you’ll have none of this data.
All you need to get started is a spiral notebook and a pen or a pencil. You can transfer this data into a spreadsheet if you want to get fancy and technological about it. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, either.
6 – Read Some Books about the Game
Even if you have lots of experience, you can learn more about the game of Texas holdem by reading some of the many excellent books on the subject. In fact, you’re much better off studying poker books published by reputable experts than you are just reading blog posts here and there.
For me, Holdem Poker for Advanced Players by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth was a life-changer. After reading that book, I understood the game in all kinds of new ways that I couldn’t have even imagined before reading it.
Holdem Poker for Advanced Players focuses mostly on limit poker, though. If you’re interested in improving your skills at no limit holdem—which is admittedly more popular—I’d suggest checking out No Limit Holdem Theory and Practice by Ed Miller. It’s as useful for the no limit player as Holdem Poker for Advanced Players is for limit players.
Of course, Texas holdem tournaments also have their own strategic considerations, and you can find plenty of books that cover those subjects, too. I suggest Tournament Poker for Advanced Players as a starting point.
You don’t have to stop with those 3 books, either. You can get something useful out of almost any book about Texas holdem poker, even if it’s a bad one. I know plenty of people who despise John Vorhaus’s Killer Poker books, but I love them, even if some of the specific advice is less than optimal.
And if you haven’t yet read Doyle Brunson’s Super/System, well… you’re in for a real treat.
7 – Get Rid of the Training Wheels
My friend Steve Badger likes to emphasize when he’s writing about poker that the starting hand charts and by-the-book strategies for how to play certain hands are just training wheels that you use while learning how to ride a bike. His point is that creative winning pokers don’t do anything by rote. They learn the basics, but more importantly, they learn how to think about the game.
Texas holdem is a game of situations. It’s also a game of incomplete information—you don’t know what cards your opponents have in the hole. Your best chance of becoming a winning player is to get good at thinking about these situations and these unknowns in a rational, strategic manner.
And that means knowing more than just how to memorize a starting hand chart.
In fact, not only do the situations change dramatically based on the cards on the table, they also change based on the tendencies of the other players at the table. Learning how to react to those situations is something you can’t do by rote. It’s something you have to learn how to do analytically. You’re required to be mindful and make decisions based on the situation you’re in, rather than based on some theoretical situation from a book somewhere.
Learning how to win at Texas holdem poker is a lifelong endeavor for most gamblers. Most of the players who catch the bug, though, think it’s also a worthwhile endeavor. A blog post, even one as detailed and lengthy as this one, can only hope to provide an introduction to the subject. For a lot of beginners, just these few concepts can turn the boat around faster than they thought possible.
Most beginners need to focus on tightening up their starting hand requirements. They also need to learn to play tighter on the flop. The turn and the river almost play themselves, but those are critical moments during the game, too.
After you’ve learned to be more selective about which hands you’ll play and how far you’ll take them, it’s time to move on to learning some aggression. This means betting and raising more often than you’re comfortable with. Remember that if a hand is good enough to cold call with, it’s good enough to raise with.
Learning how to read other players starts with just paying attention to their general tendencies. Is your opponent a rock (a tight, passive player)? Or is he a maniac?
Your decisions about what to do next should take into account your opponents’ tendencies.
Finally, start keeping records and reading some books. Reading and writing are the 2 crucial meta poker skills that most players don’t pay enough attention to. If you’re paying attention to your results, and if you’re learning more about the game all the time, you’ll have an edge over almost all your opponents.