Texas Holdem Strategy
Texas holdem poker is the most popular card game in the United States. It's also hugely popular in Europe and other countries. Omaha has a firm foothold in other countries, too, but Texas holdem has a big following just about everywhere.
If you want to be a winning poker player, it's almost a given that you'll need to learn at least the basics of Texas holdem strategy. After all, you'll be able to find more games (and more weak players) at those tables than anywhere else.
Texas holdem strategy is a huge subject, too. We have literally dozens of pages on various subtopics related to the subject. Below we provide brief introductions to many of the strategic concepts you need to understand. In almost every instance, we link to a comprehensive page devoted to that concept, too.
Low Limit Strategy versus High Limit Strategy
The strategies you use when playing for lower limits differ from the correct strategies at higher limit games. As a general rule—and make no mistake, there are exceptions—you'll find more unskilled players at the lower limits than you will at the higher limits.
For one thing, it means that a more direct approach to the game will often be rewarded. We can sum up this direct approach in 2 sentence:
Get the hands. Then bet the hands.
First of all, it means don't bother trying to play second rate hands. Don't spend a lot of time trying to bluff. Unskilled players have a hard time laying down hands, and bluffing only works if your opponents are willing and able to fold.
Second, it means that when you do get good cards, start putting your money into the table. Bet or raise. Don't cold-call. Don't check. Get paid off for your hands.
Finally, keep in mind something called "the schooling effect". Lots of players at this level are calling stations. This means that if you have a speculative hand, like suited connectors, you can often get enough other players into the pot to get paid off big when you hit a strong flop.
When you start playing in higher stakes games, you have to get more creative in order to win. Skilled players are likely to notice if you're playing ABC poker, and they'll be able to take advantage of that. So you'll have to learn how to mix it up.
Microlimit strategy is another aspect, too. The same strategic concepts that apply to microlimit games, only more so.
It's important to know how to play from the blinds. In fact, the blinds are some of the most important positions in a Texas holdem game. Correct blind strategy is a complicated subject, too.
Here are some of the basics:
What most players concern themselves with is defending their blinds. A situation that comes up often is that everyone will fold before the action gets to the player before the blinds, and you'll wind up with some aggressive player who will raise into you when you're in the blinds. They might be holding nothing.
You'll need to be paying attention to your opponents' tendencies when deciding whether or not they're just trying to steal your blinds. It's okay to fold when someone raises you in the blind, especially if you have junk.
Sometimes you need to call and then raise on the flop.
And sometimes you need to re-raise their raise before the flop.
Some of this depends, too, on what cards you're holding. If you have a solid hand (like KK or AA), and someone raises into your blind, don't be afraid to try to get them all in.
In fact, premium hands almost play themselves in this situation. As long as you avoid slow-playing, you'll be fine.
It's the more speculative opening hands, like low pairs and suited connectors, where you have to start making decisions.
And the best guideline to making those decisions is your knowledge of your opponents' playing tendencies.
If you've done ANY reading at all about playing styles in Texas holdem, you'll know that players are often categorized according to how many hands they play and according to how often they raise or bet.
- Players who play a lot of hands are called "loose", and players who play only their best hands are called "tight".
- Players who bet and raise a lot are called "aggressive"
- Players who call and check a lot are called "passive"
Most experts agree that tight-aggressive play is the winning formula, especially at lower levels. This means you should focus on playing good hands, and betting and raising when you have them.
You'll also find plenty of players who do well with a loose-aggressive style. They play a lot of hands, but they bet and raise so often that they win a large number of pots without a contest.
If you win enough smaller pots, you can use that money to "freeroll" your way into hands where you have more speculative holdings. This is an especially important strategy to think about when you get into higher limit play.
Guide to Playing Styles
Odds and Probability
Understanding the odds and probability involved in Texas holdem are a critical skill. The most important aspect of this to understand has to do with comparing the odds of hitting your "outs" and the pot odds being offered.
The first concept to understand is the concept of "outs". An "out" is a card that will complete your hand and give you the winning hand.
You have 2 cards in your hand, both hearts. And the flop also has 2 hearts on it. So you have 4 cards to a flush.
There are 13 hearts in a deck of cards. 4 of them are already out there, so 9 of them are left in the deck. And there are 47 cards left in the deck.
Those 9 cards are your "outs". Those cards will give you what you need to have a winning hand. (Assuming that you have the top flush at the showdown, anyway.)
You can compare those odds to the odds that the pot is offering you to decide whether or not to call a bet.
In this case, the odds of hitting the hand you want are 9/47, or about 1/5, or 4 to 1. But you get 2 chances at it.
Suppose there's $100 in the pot, and it only costs you $10 to call and stay in the pot. You'll lose 4 times for every time you win, but you'll win 10 to 1 on the 5th time. Overall that's a profitable play.
Another factor expert players consider is how likely it is that other players will fold. You have to take this into account when making decisions, too.
If you're playing against a super-tight opponent in the blinds, and you estimate that there's a 90% chance he'll fold against any raise, raising is almost always the correct play there.
But you can't estimate these kinds of odds unless you're playing close attention to your opponents' playing tendencies.
Preflop and Postflop Playing Strategy in Texas Holdem
The first 2 cards you're dealt in a hand of Texas holdem are your hole cards. That's considered your "preflop" hand, and you need a strategy for how to play them. We've seen estimates that suggest you can break even if you master preflop play, even if you're only an average player after the flop.
We mentioned a tight aggressive approach, earlier. This holds especially true when playing before the flop. It's also important to take into account position when you're playing preflop.
It's easy to find a lot of suggestions about which hands you should and shouldn't play from various positions before the flop in holdem. Our favorite way to think about these hands is to categorize them.
Here are some categories of preflop hands to think about:
High pairs are 2 cards of the same rank that are ranked 10 or higher. The higher they're ranked, the better. Aces and kings are super hands to play preflop, but the value of these pairs drops dramatically when you're looking at queens, jacks, or tens.
Most experts recommend raising from any position with a pair of aces or kings regardless of what your opponents have done. But you need more judgment when dealing with a pair of queens or jacks. If you've seen 3 players before you bet and raise repeatedly, those queens might be an underdog. Some of this depends on your opponents' tendencies, too.
Smaller pairs are legitimate starting hands, too, but you're hoping for them to improve on the flop. The higher the ranking of the lower pair, the better off you are. A pair of 9s isn't terrible, but a pair of 2s borders on worthless. That's because even if you hit another 2 on the flop and make your 3 of a kind, there are a lot of other potential 3 of a kinds that could beat you.
Suited connectors can be some of the most interesting starting hands to play. These are 2 cards of the same suit which are also close in rank. The 10 and J of spades would be considered suited connectors. These are speculative hands, because you need them to improve in order to win. But they have lots of potential—you could make a flush or a straight, for example. And if the suited connectors are high enough in rank, you might even wind up with a big pair.
Big-little suited is even more speculative, because you're missing some of the straight possibilities. The higher the cards, the better. An AK suited or an AQ suited is almost as good as a pair of queens or jacks, but an A4 suited is pretty speculative. Everything needs to go right in order for you to win a hand with those cards.
The tendency is to want to bet and raise with your really strong hands before the flop, but with more speculative hands, you want to check and call, hoping to get into the hand cheap with a lot of other players so you'll get paid off if you hit your hand.
Who has acted before you and what they did is also super important to your decision here.
We have entire sections devoted to preflop play, starting hands, and starting hand charts. All of these topics are closely related.
Tournament Strategy and Sit n Gos
Tournaments require a different strategy than ring games, because the goal is to be one of the last men standing in a tournament. In a ring game, you can play forever, and the chips are worth what the chips are worth.
But in a tournament, the values of the chips change as the game continues. The blinds increase on a regular basis during a tournament, too, so your strategy has to change based on the size of your stack versus the size of the blinds.
Some Texas holdem players specialize in tournaments. Others prefer ring games. The thing about tournaments is that they have a higher variance. Some players like this, but others prefer a steadier stream of winnings.
Here's what we mean:
You might play in a dozen tournaments with an average buy-in of $100 each. You might only place in the money in one of them, but you also might win $4000 in that one, so you're profitable. But it took you a while to become profitable.
A ring game player, on the other hand, might play steadily and win $1000 a month consistently 5 months out of 6, having a losing money only occasionally.
Your temperament will determine which is better for you.
We have sections about tournaments in general and about sit in go tournaments specifically, too. (A sit n go is a specific type of tournament that's most prevalent on the Internet.)
Psychology, Tilt, Tells and Texas Holdem Strategy
The psychology of Texas holdem covers multiple subjects. For one thing, understanding what your opponents' emotional tendencies are can be a big edge in any Texas holdem game. If you know that one player likes to be the sheriff (he calls a lot of hands to make sure you're not winning money by bluffing), you'll know the best way to extract the most money from him.
If you know that a player makes bad decisions when he's mad, and if you notice what makes him mad, you can subtly manipulate his anger to take advantage of those bad decisions. In fact, this is a serious phenomenon called "tilt".
A player who is tilting is putting money into the pot because of anger, not because it's the mathematically correct play. It's easy to take advantage of players with that tendency.
Understanding your own psychology is just as important. You have to know when you're on tilt. You also need to know how to avoid tilt to begin with. If you realize you're on tilt, it's time for a break. You might even need to take the rest of the night off from playing poker.
Tells are another aspect of poker psychology. Tells are subtle physical clues as to what kinds of cards your opponents are holding. Most players have tells. And most players aren't good at spotting them.
Entire books have been written about spotting tells at the poker table. Tells are only one aspect of Texas holdem strategy, but they're a "sexy" aspect of it. Some players, especially beginners, spend too much time and energy thinking about and trying to spot tells.
Texas Holdem Tips and Advice
We have pages devoted to Texas holdem tips and Texas holdem advice, too. These are a great way to get introduced to some of the more basic concepts in holdem.
We can provide you with a couple of quick pieces of advice and a few tips, here, too:
Tip #1Read books
You'll find a lot of really great books with in-depth treatments of poker strategy. The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky is essential reading for any poker player, regardless of which game you're playing. Super/System by Doyle Brunson (and others) is also worth reading, especially the sections about limit and no limit holdem. Anything by Ed Miller is worth your time, too. And those are just for starters. Expert Texas holdem players are almost always well-read Texas holdem players.
Tip #2Take notes
If you're playing online, you should use the note-taking function in the poker room software to take some notes on your opponents. If you're playing live, you should keep a journal and write about what's going on. You should keep book on your opponents, but you should also track your results and how you got them. Texas holdem is a thinking person's game. Few things clarify your thoughts on a subject better than writing about it.
Tip #3Get aggressive
Good players bet and raise. Weak players check and call. You can find loose aggressive players who are profitable, and you can find tight aggressive players who are profitable. What you can't find are passive players who are profitable. Loose passive players are calling stations, and they lose money right and left. Tight passive players are rocks, and they lose money, too—just more slowly than calling stations.
Tip #4Play tight
If you're a beginner, you probably need to play fewer hands. As you grow more proficient, you can play more hands. You might even be the type of player who can succeed as a loose aggressive player. But we don't recommend that as a starting goal. That's something to experiment with once you've mastered tight aggressive play.
Tip #5Start small
If you're new to the game, play for stakes you can easily afford. Microlimits online are a great place to start. If you're playing live, start with the lowest stakes limit games you can play. You can move up in stakes as your bankroll grows and as you become more confident in your skills as a player.
Find some buddies who can talk intelligently about playing Texas holdem, even if they're only online buddies. You can find excellent discussions of poker strategy on various forums. Two Plus Two is one of our favorites, although they're not as friendly toward newcomers as we would hope.
Being detached from the outcome of each hand is a crucial mental skill that many players can't master. If you're getting mad about results all the time, you're going to have a hard time playing correctly. How do you become detached from the outcomes? Pat yourself on the back for making the correct play, regardless of the results. You might also spend some time studying meditation techniques. These can help you get your emotions under control.
Tip #8Stay sober
There are no advantages to being drunk at the poker table. Alcohol impairs your judgment, period. It's better to just stay sober. We know players who "pretend" to be drunk at the table in order to take advantage of other players. But most of them are not really pretending. If you smell like booze, you're probably drunk.
Tip #9Ignore televised poker
A lot of players try clever fancy moves at the poker table because they've watched too many episodes of World Poker Tour. Here's the secret about those shows: they're heavily edited. Most poker hands are boring in the extreme. They show you the most exciting ones. But it's easy to get confused and think poker is played one way based on what you've seen on television, but it ain't necessarily that way in real life.
We mentioned this before, but Texas holdem is a thinking person's game. If you want to succeed, you need to pay attention to what's going on, even when you're not involved in the hand—which is going to be most of the time, because most of the time you won't have playable cards. Think about the numbers. Think about what cards the other players might have when they're making their decisions. This will go a long way toward improving your game.
Our best Texas holdem advice?
Don't get suckered into thinking you're a great player just because you're on a winning streak. This is the biggest mistake most new players make. Texas holdem is a high variance game.
That means luck is a big factor.
We have an entire section devoted to advanced strategy for Texas holdem players. We won't get into a lot of detail about advanced tactics on this page, but we will say that advanced strategies only start to matter when you're playing other expert players.
Solid ABC poker is good enough to beat novice players.
But once you start dealing with thoughtful, expert players with lots of experience, you have to start taking things like game theory into account. You have to start bluffing and semi-bluffing occasionally. Deception becomes more important. (We also have a section explaining Texas holdem and game theory.)
Raising with your good hands and folding your bad hands is good enough to win when you're playing novices, but when you're dealing with advanced players, you need a more multi-dimensional approach.
Cheats, Cheaters, and Cheating
We don't recommend cheating at Texas holdem. It's an easy enough game to beat if you play honestly—if you're willing to do the work of becoming an expert player. And the risk-reward ratio for cheaters is awful.
In fact, we're firmly convinced that cheating at gambling is a bad idea for lots of reasons. Karma is one of the significant ones.
If you don't want to get cheated, don't try to cheat other players. Being a good player is more fun and more satisfying, anyway.
And there's not much risk involved in becoming an expert player.
Bluffing and Semi-Bluffing
New players think that bluffing is a more important part of Texas holdem strategy than it actually is. There are several things to keep in mind about bluffing. Most of them just flat out have to do with the math.
Let's look at an example of a situation where you might want to bluff:
The first player to act bets. The 2nd player to act raises. Player 3 re-raises. A couple of players fold, so now it's your turn to bet. (This is preflop.)
Trying to bluff these 3 players doesn't make a lot of sense from a mathematical standpoint. They've all indicated a strong hand—sure, one of them might be bluffing, but all 3 of them?Unlikely.
After all, the good cards have to be somewhere.
Let's look at another situation. You're the last person to act before the blinds, and everyone has checked. (Again, this is preflop.)You fire off a raise.
But you don't have good cards. You're just hoping that everyone else has weak cards.
What are the odds that the player in the small blind, the player in the big blind, and all the other players who checked have weaker hands than you do? And even then, what are the odds that if they all have weaker hands that they're all going to fold? Or that some of them won't improve?
You then have to compare those odds with how much you're going to get paid off if they do all fold. There would have to be a lot of money in the pot.
Let's say you assume that each of these 4 players at the table have a 50% chance of folding in the face of your raise. 50% X 50% X 50% X 50% = 6.25%. That's the probability that they'll all fold in the face of your raise. That's about 15 to 1.
So to make that a profitable bluff, you'd need to have at least 15 units in the pot for every unit you bet. With that much money in the pot, even some of the less sophisticated players are going to stay in just in case their longshot comes through for them.
Semi-bluffing, on the other hand, often makes a lot more sense. This is when you bet and/or raise even though you probably don't have the best hand, but you still have a chance at drawing to the best hand.
An example of this is when you have 4 cards to a flush on the flop. You figure your opponent has a high pair. He's the favorite to win, but when you add together the chance that you'll outdraw him with the chance that he'll fold in the face of your bet/raise, you have a positive expectation situation.
You have a 33% chance of hitting your flush (roughly). But suppose you also have a 30% chance of him folding. You don't need a lot of money in the pot to make that a bet worth making.
We have an entire page devoted to the subject of bluffing and semi-bluffing, too.
Cash Game Strategy
Earlier we mentioned that there's a difference between tournament strategy and cash game strategy. We want to reiterate that here and point you toward that section of our site.
Your goal when playing in cash games is to maximize the amount of money you win per hour. That might seem obvious, but when you're mapping out a specific strategy for a specific game, you need to start with what winning looks like. In cash games, it means maximizing the amount won on average per hour.
Contrast this with strategy during a tournament. Your goal isn't to maximize the number of chips you win per hour. Your goal is to maximize your return on investment on the entry fee. The chips have no real value. Another way to look at it is to say that the value of the chips varies based on where you are in the tournament.
If you're "on the bubble", which means that almost everyone has been eliminated except for the players who are going to land in the money, a short stack of chips might be "worth" a lot more than your starting stack of chips.
This has interesting implications for your playing strategy.
Coaches, Coaching, Trainers, and Training – Where to Get Texas Holdem Lessons
We're not convinced that everyone needs a poker coach. Coaching is probably not a bad idea if you're serious about your game, though. The distinction between a Texas holdem coach and a trainer is probably not great—we don't know of any training that differs in any significant way from coaching. In fact, we're confident in saying that the two words are synonymous in this context.
Where to get Texas holdem lessons?
We're not convinced that you need them, but if you're looking for a poker coach who gives lessons, we suggest taking a look at some of the more reputable poker forums online. Get to know some of the players there, develop some relationships, and when you start to get comfortable with some of these folks, ask someone for a recommendation.
We offer more observations and tips about finding poker coaches and lessons on a page devoted specifically to that topic.
When to Fold in Texas Holdem
Really you can ask multiple questions about betting options in Texas holdem:
- When should you fold?
- When should you bet?
- When should you call?
- When should you check?
- When should you raise?
- When should you bluff?
None of these questions, including "when should you fold", have definitive answers. Some situations are clear folds—if you're out of position before the flop and you have 27 offsuit, you should probably fold. If you're in late position facing lots of callers, and you have pocket aces, you should almost certainly raise.
The goal is to get your money into the middle of the table when it's a positive expectation move to do so.
The other goal is to avoid putting money into the pot when it's a negative expectation move to do so.
We go into a lot more detail about when to fold in Texas holdem on our main page.
Texas holdem is a lot of fun. Luck's a big factor, but Texas holdem strategy is the difference between long term winning and long term losing.
We're constantly expanding this section. Entire books have been written about some of these concepts. We've tried to provide comprehensive explanations of each off these concepts, but we might have left out a detail here or there.
If you see a mistake we've made, or if you think we should add something to cover the subject more completely, please contact us and let us know.