How to Be a Smart Texas Hold’em Poker Player

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Texas Hold’em poker is the biggest poker game in the United States. And if you visit a poker room at any major casino destination in the country, most of the tables will be Texas Hold’em tables.

When I started my poker career a couple of decades ago, I specialized in Seven-Card Stud. In fact, I didn’t really know how to play Texas Hold’em. I even got started on Party Poker playing Stud games.

It wasn’t until some of my colleagues in the online poker industry invited me to some friendly Texas Hold’em games that I learned how to play. Since then, I’ve studied the game enough to be what I would consider a “talented amateur.”

Here’s what I’ve learned about how to become a smart Texas Hold’em poker player.

1 – You Must Be More Disciplined in Texas Hold’em

Texas Hold’em is a fast-paced game, and it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and put a lot more chips in the pot than you intended to. You can lose a lot of money fast in Texas Hold’em, especially if you’re playing the pot limit or no limit version of the game.

I used to play in Dallas with a guy named “Rock.” That wasn’t just his name; it was a good description of his playing style.

We wound up in Vegas at the same time playing poker once, and he raised once when he was the first person to act preflop. I had ace-queen suited, so I shoved.

Here’s a tip:

If a guy’s nickname is Rock, he probably has good cards if he’s raising from early position. Of course, he had pocket aces, and I lost my entire stack minutes after sitting down.

If I’d had more discipline, I might have called his little three-bet raise and seen a flop before deciding what to do next. Still, it makes for a great story.

The reality is that if you’re going to play real money Texas Hold’em well, you’re probably going to fold preflop about 80% of the time. And that takes a lot of discipline.

2 – Position Might Be the Most Important Element of the Game

Paying attention to position might have been the weakest aspect of my game when I started. A buddy of mine used to tease me about it all the time.

Here’s the Idea Behind Positional Play:

You need stronger cards to play in early position than you do in late position. After all, if you’re in late position, you have more information about your opponents and what they’re thinking than you have in early position.

Let’s suppose you get 78 suited from early position, and you limp in. The player behind you raises. The player behind him re-raises. Two more players call, and another player raises again.

Your hand is almost certainly dominated unless you’re in the loosest game in the world. And you don’t win in Texas Hold’em by putting a lot of money in the pot when you’re dominated. You have to fold in this situation, and you’re out a bet.

On the other hand, if you have 78 suited in late position and have four limpers and callers in front of you, calling makes sense. You’re getting pot odds for if you hit your hand, and they’re probably not dominating you, either.

Position matters throughout the game, too, not just before the flop.

3 – It’s Important Recognize the Nuts

I know that I just said that position might be the most important part of the game, but if you can’t recognize the nuts, you’ve lost before you’ve even started.

What are the “nuts?” That’s the best possible hand given the community cards that are showing.

Let’s say that the board has an ace, a queen, a nine, a six, and three. Let’s also assume that you have two of those cards in one suit, and the other three cards are each in a different suit. It’s impossible to make a flush in that situation, and the cards aren’t connected enough to make a possible straight. Since none of the cards are paired, a four of a kind or full house is impossible, too.

In fact, if you have a pair of aces, you have the nuts in this situation. No other hand can beat a three of a kind made up of aces here.

If you understand this, you’ll know not to fold, and you’ll also know that your job is to get the most money into the pot possible.

Swap out that three for a king, though, and you now have queen, king, and ace; anyone holding a 10 and a jack has the best possible straight, which is the nuts in this situation.

Also, if three of those cards were of one suit, your three aces wouldn’t be the nuts anymore because someone might have a flush.

If you don’t know what the nuts are, though, you can’t decide what to do with your hand. The worst-case scenario is to fold the nuts, but it’s also possible to think you have the nuts when you don’t. In that case, you’ll donk off a bunch of chips to the player who really does have the nuts.

It’s hard to understate the importance of recognizing the nuts in Texas Hold’em. It’s considered a basic skill, so you don’t see it talked about much in the strategy books. But it’s so important.

4 – If You Have a Strong Starting Hand, You Prefer Fewer Opponents

A strong starting hand is one which can possibly win without improving. Big pairs like aces, kings, and queens count as strong starting hands. Ace-king or ace-queen suited are also strong starting hands because of the possibility of hitting a big pair and having an excellent kicker.

You should bet and raise with these hands for a couple of reasons. For one thing, you want to face fewer opponents. The more opponents you have, the likelier it is that someone will draw out on you.

For another thing, when you have a mathematical advantage, you want to put more money into action. Betting and raising when you have a strong starting hand accomplish both.

5 – If You Have a Weak Starting Hand, You Prefer More Opponents

Of course, a really weak hand like 2-7 offsuit should just be folded, but what about weak starting hands like a pair of sixes, or a suited connector like 9-10 suited?

In these cases, you want to see additional cards without putting too much money into the pot. This means that checking and calling are usually correct. If someone raises, it’s often a good idea to fold.

It helps to have position when you have drawing hands, too. They play better in late position than in early position. Finally, with more players in the pot, you’ll get paid off more when you get in cheap and let other players participate in the pot.

You’ll win less often. So, when you do win, you need to make sure you get paid off.

6 – Starting Hand Requirements Are Essential to Your Strategy

You can find books and websites that feature charts and tables telling you how to play your starting hands in Texas Hold’em. Those are okay and for the most part accurate.

But this isn’t blackjack. You don’t have a mathematically perfect way to play every hand in every situation because you don’t know what your opponents are going to do. So, it’s better to understand hands according to their types.

Here are some insights into the different types of starting hands in Texas Hold’em:

  • Big pairs are fun to play. And by big, I mean pairs of 10s or higher. The bigger the pair is, the likelier it is to win without improving. I suggest playing these aggressively, betting and raising with them. Aces and kings are the best starting hands you could ask for. A pair of 10s, though, might be a hand you’ll have to fold if enough tight players get aggressive with you.
  • Small pairs, on the other hand, are tricky. After all, a pair is theoretically a winning hand, but in practical terms – you almost always need your small pair to improve to continue in the hand. Really, you’re hoping to get a three of a kind on the flop. The odds of that happening are 8 to 1, so a lot of times, you’ll have to fold a small hand on the flop.
  • Suited cards have flush potential, but they’re better when they’re connected and/or high in rank. Ace-king suited is the best possible drawing hand you could start with, but 23 suited isn’t even worth playing. Even 67 suited can often get beaten by a bigger flush on a regular basis.

You’re basically looking at four things when evaluating a starting hand:

  1. How high are the cards ranked?
  2. Are the cards of the same suit?
  3. Are the cards adjacent in rank?
  4. Are the cards paired?

You’ll learn which starting hands work best in which situations.

7 – Learning How to Fold on the Flop Is Only the Beginning

It doesn’t matter how strong your hole cards are. If they don’t fit the flop, you’re liable to have to fold them. If you have a pair of kings, and the flop comes up with three cards all of the same suit, and one of them is an ace, you’re probably going to have to fold.

That’s because of the likelihood that someone else paired that ace or hit a flush, or at least a flush draw. Recognizing the texture of the flop comes with time, but the rule of thumb for beginners should be “fit or fold.” If your hand doesn’t fit the flop, get out of the hand.

A bet saved is worth just as much as a bet won.


Texas Hold’em is a great game, and it’s not that hard to become a smart player. Just because you’re better than average doesn’t mean you’ll be a winning player, though. Luck matters, too, and you might face opponents who are even smarter than you are.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for since early 2016. ...

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