One Thing Every Poker Player Needs to Know

I recently had an inexperienced poker player ask me what the most important thing was he needed to learn about poker. My first thought was that it was too simple to try to include everything that you need to know into one thing.

But after I spent some time thinking about it, an answer came to me. I’m going to share what I ended up telling him on this page. When you’re trying to learn how to be a winning poker player, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It seems like there are 100 different things you need to know.

You’ve probably read or been told that you need to learn:

  • Starting hand selection
  • Pre-flop play
  • Flop play
  • Turn play
  • River play
  • Pot odds
  • Bluffing
  • Semi bluffing
  • Pot control
  • Position
  • Table selection
  • Game selection
  • Tilt and how to avoid it
  • Reading your opponents

The list could go on forever. When you need to learn so much about so many different things, it’s often easier to just give up and do something else.

But what if you could boil down everything you need to know about poker to one detail? Is it possible that one thing exists in poker that you can master to turn your game around?

I spent years learning everything on the list above and more.

It was a long and painful journey, but if I hadn’t taken the journey, maybe I’d never have learned how to be a winning poker player. Looking back on the journey, I can see a few things that would’ve made it easier if I’d had a better understanding of poker strategies.

Before I tell you the one thing that every poker player needs to know, I want to point out a couple of important particulars.

  • The first is that you still need to learn about all the things I listed above and more if you want to be a winning player.
  • The second is that even with this one important thing, you’re going to find many other important details as you learn about poker.

But when you use what you’re getting ready to learn as a different way to look at and process everything about poker in the future, it can shorten your learning curve a great deal.

The One Thing Is “Expected Value”

Every single thing you do at the poker table needs to be viewed based on the expected value. You need to constantly ask the following: Does this decision have a positive or negative expected value? How big or exactly how much is the expected value of this decision? Is there a different decision that offers a better expected value?

Expected value is simply a positive or negative value that you can expect from the outcome of a decision.

The expected value isn’t always the value that you receive in an individual situation, but it’s the average value you get by being in the same situation and making the same play over and over.

It’s easier to see how this works with an example:

For Example:

In a no limit Texas holdem game, you have a set of queens after the turn and the pot has $80 in it.

Your opponent bets their last $20.

From the four cards on the flop and turn, you know that you have the best possible hand, but it looks like your opponent might be drawing to a flush.

You can determine the expected value of making a call in this situation. Obviously, a call is the correct play, but just how profitable is the expectation?

You have to risk $20 for the chance to win your $20 back and the $100 in the pot. The deck has 46 unseen cards, so the easiest way to determine the expected value is to figure out how much you win or lose if each of the 46 unseen cards lands on the river and average the results.

In this situation, you assume that your opponent is drawing to a flush and that they need one of the remaining nine cards in their suit to win. They also need one that doesn’t pair the board, because if the board pairs you beat a flush with a full house. This reduces the number of cards they can win the hand with to seven.

  • If you play the hand 46 times, you lose seven times and win 39 times.
  • Your total cost to play 46 times is $920, which is $20 X 46.
  • The seven times you lose, you get nothing back.
  • And every time you win, you get back $120.
  • Multiply the $120 by the 39 times you win and get $4,680.
  • Now, subtract your total cost of $920.
  • You win a total of $3,760 over 46 hands.

Divide $3,760 by 46 hands to get an average expected value of $81.74. This means you can expect to profit $81.74 every time you play this particular situation. Even though you already knew that a call was profitable in this situation, this shows exactly how profitable it really is.

In the example, it’s fairly easy to see why the expected value is important. But you need to start thinking about it on another level.

Every single decision you make about poker has an expected value.

This is the most important thing that you’re ever going to learn about poker, so I’m going to repeat it. Read this as many times as you need to for it to sink into your mind at the deepest levels.

Every single decision you make about poker has an expected value.

Consider reading a book like The Theory of Poker. Your decision has an expected value.

In this case, reading the book has a positive expected value. It’s going to teach you what you can use every single time you play poker for the rest of your life, so it has a high expected value.

On the other hand, what if you decide that you don’t like to read, so you’re not going to read it and you’re going to watch television instead? This also has an expected value. In this case, the expected value is negative because instead of learning something about poker, you do something unrelated.

You can’t work on your poker game 24 hours a day, but you do need to understand how everything you do has a positive or negative expected value in concern to poker. The next section covers ways you can use expected value in poker.

How to Use Expected Value in Every Situation

The biggest problem with expected value is you don’t always have all of the information you need to make accurate predictions. This means that you need to develop your ability to make educated guesses in many different situations. But you still need to look at everything with expected value in mind.

It’s easy to understand why playing pocket kings and aces is profitable from any position:

  • Is it profitable to play ace seven suited from middle position?
  • What about from late position?

It gets more complicated because in some games you can play hands for a profit and in other games, you can’t.

This might all sound like a good excuse to ignore expected value while you play poker, but the truth is the more you think about it and learn how to use, it the better your results are going to be.

It took me a long time to understand how much table position mattered, but once I did, I realized that your pre flop position has a great deal to do with your expected value. Therefore, you can play more hands in late position than you can in early position.

Your goal needs to be to learn how expected value can be used in every situation, not to find an excuse to ignore it.

The best poker players understand expected value and use it for every decision they make. Losing players either don’t know anything about expected value or choose to ignore it. With this, you have the opportunity to choose what kind of poker player you want to be: a winning player or losing a player.


I believe that an entire book can be written covering expected value in poker. Maybe someday one will be available. It’s such a deep subject that it’s difficult to do it justice on one page. But I’ve given you everything you need to get started.

Once you start looking at everything from an expected value perspective, all of the things I listed in the first section start falling into place. If you’re trying to decide which starting hands to play, start trying to determine which ones have a positive expected value and which ones are negative.

If you’re deciding if you should bluff or not, make an educated guess of how often your bluff will be successful and then run the expected value numbers. When you use expected value, it helps you make the best decisions while you’re playing poker. As you continue using expected value, you’ll get better at making the educated guesses necessary to win. Eventually, all of your work will translate into increased profits.

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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