NLHE Poker Strategy Part 1 (The Basics)

"Even great champions were beginners at some stage in their lives"

We all have to start somewhere: even great champions were beginners at some stage in their lives. In a game like poker, where money is often involved, starting out can be a daunting prospect. That, however, should not deter you from getting your feet wet. In the contemporary climate, especially, there are many ways to learn and practice the game.

When I was starting out, I played once a week at the university poker club; this was an enjoyable and beneficial way of getting a feel for live poker. However, like anything else, you need to practice as much as possible.

Reading poker literature is also a productive way of gaining knowledge and spending your time when travelling, for instance. At home, you can read online strategy articles, watch video tutorials and practice in play money games, without risking any money. Although the standard of play in these games will usually be low, it will give you a feel for the game flow and help you become more comfortable with how everything works.

"A solid grasp of the fundamentals will give you confidence"

The first piece of advice I would give to players new to poker would be to keep it simple. There are many different ways to play, and it can be a complex game when we get into the strategy element. However, getting a solid grasp of the fundamentals will give you confidence and a firm foundation.

Be selective with your starting hand selection - you want to play strong holdings as much as possible. If you enter the pot from early position, you should be doing so with premium hands; medium to large pocket pairs, suited broadway hands, etc. There are many players to act behind you and, therefore, a higher percentage chance that one, or more, of your opponents will have premium holdings, than if you are raising from a later position.

Be aggressive: although limping can be a play to consider in some situations, we usually want to be raising with big hands and getting our opponents to put money in the pot with inferior holdings. We also want to thin the field so that we are not faced with going up against a multitude of opponents post flop; as this can make even the strongest starting hands susceptible to being outdrawn.

"As you gain experience, you will realise that position can play a key role"

In middle to late positions, you can start to increase the range of hands with which you raise. Any pair, suited connectors, suited aces and broadway hands should usually be considered standard open raises from these positions.

As you gain experience, you will realise that position can play a key role in the game and is a big advantage in many situations. Therefore, we may opt to raise a wider range of hands from the cutoff and, especially, from the button, as we will have position on the entire table and get to act last post-flop. This is a big advantage, as we get to observe the actions of all of our opponents before we have to make a decision.

In terms of calling raises pre-flop, we can also do so with a slightly broader range of hands from the button; the positional advantage we have somewhat negates the disadvantage of having slightly less premium holdings. That being said, at this stage of your poker journey, try to play solid poker and take a relatively more conservative approach. If you play too many pots, there is a danger of bleeding chips as your hands will often be dominated. Only with time, practice and a greater understanding of post-flop strategy, can we start to open up our play and be more creative.

"Stack sizes play an important part in our decision making"

Stack sizes play an important part in our decision making at various stages. In tournaments, players usually start with very deep stacks, relative to the blinds. For example, each player may begin with 10,000 chips and blinds of 25/50. This means that we have 200 big blinds, which gives us much room for manoeuvre.

At such stack depths, we want to play hands that have the potential to win us big pots. It will generally be fine to play all pocket pairs, for instance, since we have the potential to win a huge pot if we hit a set. When considering whether to play a pocket pair, we should always consider what kind of odds we are getting. The likelihood of flopping a set is approximately one to seven. However, those initial odds are only part of the story: keep in mind something called implied odds, which refers to how much we could win if we hit a set. Consider this scenario: the under the gun player open raises to 150 chips at 25/50 blinds, and we have pocket fives in mid position. Of course, 55 is not a wonderful hand and, percentage-wise is an equity underdog versus the range of hands our opponent is raising with from early position. However, we only have to commit 1.5% of our stack to see a flop - assuming that no one re-raises behind us. The potential upside is massive. If we flop a set, there are an additional 9,850 chips in play, and we could win a large proportion of those from our opponent if they have a big over pair.

Conversely, if we had the same stack sizes but blinds were 250/500, calling a raise to 1500 chips with 55 would be way less appealing. We would have to commit 15% of our stack and will only flop a set about 12.5% of the time. There is also no way we can call a re-raise if someone behind us makes a three-bet. Whereas, in the previous example, we could consider calling a three-bet due to the sizeable stack to pot ratio.

"Maximising value from your strong hands"

Players who are starting in poker should focus a lot on how to make effective value bets. Maximising value from your strong hands is one of the most important aspects of poker. As most beginners will likely be playing a combination of play money, freeroll tournaments and low stakes MTTs/cash games, it is not recommended to bluff a lot. Players at low stakes generally call too often, and this makes bluffing much less effective in general. That is not to say you should never bluff - but the frequency should be relatively low.

At this stage, it is more beneficial to focus on your bet sizes and ensure you are getting a grasp of how much to bet on each street. Pre-flop you should have an idea of your open raise sizing. This will generally be bigger as stacks are deeper and become smaller as stacks get shallower. Bigger raises make it less appealing for our opponents to call pre-flop and allow you to steal the blinds and antes more often. Smaller raises give opponents a better price to call and, mathematically, will often mean pricing-in your opponents.

Post-flop, there are a number of factors which should be considered when choosing a bet size: how many people are involved in the hand; how coordinated is the flop; is the flop wet (draw heavy with potential flushes and straights out there) - or is it dry (disconnected, with little or no draws present). On a wet flop, we usually want to bet more, as there are a number of made hands and draws that will call us. We typically want to charge people to draw and get maximum value from dominated hands.

If we are heads up post-flop, we also will want to fire a continuation bet a high proportion of the time - given that it is difficult to flop a strong hand in No Limit Texas Hold’em. On later streets, we have to decide if our hand is worthy of multiple bets. Usually with over pairs and top pair hands we will want to fire bets on at least two, if not three, streets. Middle or bottom pair hands may be worthy of one, or sometimes two streets of betting - depending on the board texture and the strength of our kicker.

"You want to be the one extracting value, not getting picked off making too many bluffs."

NLHE Poker Strategy Part 1 (The Basics)

In low stakes games, you tend to find that players are very curious to see your hands; they will find it difficult to make disciplined folds and call too often. If you are unsure the amount to value bet, it can be useful to have a ‘go to’ number; one you use as a default if you are running out of time, or if you simply cannot quite get your head around the correct bet size in that particular situation.

As a default, I would recommend betting 50% of the pot (half pot) - as this gives our opponents a good price to call. Perhaps you could have got more money from them, but betting half pot usually ensures that you get paid off a relatively high percentage of the time. Whereas, something like a pot size bet is excellent when you do get called - but those times will be much less frequent.

As you gain experience and grow in confidence from making solid, winning poker plays, you can then begin to think of ways of taking your game to the next level. Your exciting poker journey has only just begun.