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Essential Poker Strategy

Poker is a game of money played with cards; it's not a game of pots played with money. It's also a game of skill, not of chance, and players who go at it solely by the seat of their pants stand no more chance of winning at poker than they do at roulette. Without a solid basis for making decisions about whether to check, call, fold, raise, or re-raise, you might just as well play the lottery.

Winning poker players understand and apply strategic concepts. Let's take a look at some:

Win Money, Not Pots
Anyone can win pots, but winning money is the aim of the games. Pots are only incidental. If your goal is to win the most pots, that's easy. Just play every hand and call every bet until the bitter end, and you'll win every pot you possibly can. But you'll lose a ton of money in the process. The very best players engage in few hands, but when they get involved they're usually aggressive - they maximize the amount they win when the odds favor them.
If your goal is winning money, don't look for reasons to play hands or you'll soon talk yourself into playing too many. Money saved is just as valuable as money won, so knowing when to release a hand that appears to be beaten is just as important as knowing when to bet. Remind yourself of this every time you sit down to play poker!

Be Selective and Aggressive
Selective and aggressive play separates winning poker players from consistent losers. There's not a single consistent winner who fails to practice this principle. Odds shift as cards are dealt across the table or across the Internet. Winning players recognize when they have the best of it, and they're determined to get more money in the pot when conditions are favorable. By the same token, they're extremely reluctant to commit chips to a hand when the odds don't favor them.
Aggression and selectivity generally don't walk hand in hand, so you'll need to learn when to come in with guns blazing and when to hunker down. If you're too aggressive, particularly when your cards don't warrant it, your opponents will eventually recognize your tendencies. They'll wait until they have better hands than yours, allow you to do their betting for them, and then raise on late betting rounds to collect double bets when they have the best of it. On the other hand, if you're too passive, you won't win enough money with your good hands to overcome the hands you lose, the blinds, and the rake.
Remember this: Aggressive players have two ways to win a hand. The first is to wrest control of the pot by forcing opponents out. Your bet or raise might cause someone to release the hand that would have beat yours, had the hand been played to conclusion by all. Passive players - those who check and call most of the time - have only one way to win: presenting the best hand at showdown.

Play only the Best Starting Hands
If you're playing correctly, you'll release all of your weak starting hands unless you're bluffing in a shorthanded game. Poker is all about minimizing losses with weak hands, and maximizing wins with good ones. Since the cards figure to break about even in the long run, if you're not selective as well as aggressive, the best you can hope for is a lifetime of breaking even - which really translates into a lifelong loss since you have to overcome the cost of the rake. Poker is like any other for-profit venture in that you have to overcome your cost of doing business in order to turn a profit. The way to do this in poker is through selectivity and aggression.

Use the Internet's Cloak of Anonymity to Study Your Opponents
Winning poker players scout playing styles of opponents as diligently as football coaches. On the Internet, take full advantage of anonymity by playing spy. Observe any games before taking a virtual seat. The players won't even know you're there, and you can take lots of notes while you're watching. When hands are turned over at showdown notice that is holding and try to recall betting patterns earlier in the hand. With a little practice - OK, OK, with a lot of it - you'll be able to characterize opponents after a round or two. Got `em nailed? Got plenty of notes in your hard drive? Great! Now jump into the games and put that knowledge to work!

Use Position
In poker, position means power. Acting after opponents is valuable because you garner clues about their hands while giving out minimal information regarding your own. Also, against one or two opponents, you can often take the pot with a mere bet if they've checked to you. In most things in life, you hate being last. In poker, you'll learn to love it.

Take Advantage of the Information Explosion
More has been written about poker since 1990 than had previously been written in the entire history of the games. Along with reaping that harvest, you can benefit from products made by Wilson Software, a company that produces some very sophisticated computer poker programs. This software allows you to practice against opponents programmed to act just like players you'll find on the Internet. You can even tweak the programs if you're so inclined, changing the player profiles and other factors to create a game tailor-made for your purposes.
You can also use the software for research purposes. It's easy to set up almost any sort of simulation to test the strength of one hand versus another in either a heads-up situation or against a table full of player profiles of your choosing. Your authors have been using this product for years to do just that sort of thing.

Frequent Decisions Are Important
Decisions, decisions, decisions. Poker is a game of decisions. But not all of them are equally important, and not all of them are critical. Things that occur all the time are important. Even when a loss attributed to a wrong decision is small, it eventually adds up.

Always defending your small blind in hold'em, for example, illustrates point. Suppose while playing online in $2-$4 Texas hold'em, with $1 and $2 blinds, you always defend your small blind – even with abysmally weak hands like 7?-2?. Based on the random distribution of cards, you're typically dealt such a throwaway hand about one-third of the time.

At 60 hands per hour - a typical pace online if the games is running efficiently and most players are attentive and have good Internet connections - you're dealt the small blind six times every 60 minutes. If you always call, you wind up calling twice each hour when you really shouldn't.
That's only $2 each hour, but if you play ten hours per week, at the end of the year it can add up to a large loss. Sobering thought, isn't it?

Costly Decisions Matter Too
Decisions costing a significant amount of money, while not occurring often, are very important. Suppose all the cards have been dealt, and your opponent bets into a fairly large pot. If you call when you should have folded and your opponent wins the pot, that's an error, but not a critical one. It cost only one bet. But if you fold the winning hand, that's a grievous error, because now the cost of that mistake was the entire pot.
We're certainly not advising you to call every time someone bets on the river. But remember: Calling doesn't have to be correct too often to pay off handsomely over time. If the cost of a mistaken fold is ten times the price of a mistaken call, you need to be correct only slightly more than ten percent of the time to make calling worthwhile.

Early Decisions Matter Most
Early choices usually mean more than later ones because of their impact on subsequent decisions. Whenever you make an incorrect move up front, you run the risk of rendering each subsequent decision incorrect as well. That's why your choice of starting hands is usually much more critical than how you play on future betting rounds.

Keeping Your Equilibrium When Your Luck Goes South
No magic elixir can eliminate the troughs everyone experiences now and then at poker. Losing streaks are no fun. Even the realization, that you're not the only poor soul tossing about in the same sinking boat sheds little consolation when you've been buffeted by the vicissitudes of fate.
At such times, remind yourself that poker is a lifetime endeavor, and that as long as you continue to play your usual solid games based on good decisions, your discipline will eventually pay off.

Gearing down
We recommend one course of action to any player mired in a losing streak: Shift gears. We all change gears during a poker games - sometimes consciously, as a planned strategy - and sometimes we just wind up playing differently later on than we did when we first sat down.
When you're losing, consider gearing down way down, by playing fewer hands. Losing means it's time for lots of traction and not much speed. It's a time for playing only the best starting hands. Not marginal hands, not good - or even very good - starting hands, but only the best hands. That means you'll throw away hand after hand, and it takes discipline to do this, particularly when some of the hands would have won. But here's the recipe for gearing down:
• Stay away from troublesome, marginal hands. Go with the gold.
• Make opponents pay to draw out on you. Most of the time they won't get lucky, and that extra money in the pot will wind up in your stack of chips
• Never play weak starting hands from early position.

These concepts apply to all forms of poker. But they're not enough. Each form of poker is quite different, and each demands the application of specific strategies and tactics if you're to win consistently (and we hope you will!). We present the five most commonly played Internet poker games in the very next page, but we leave it to you to blend the basic concepts of this page with the games-specific ideas you'll learn in coming pages. Once you've done that, you'll be on your way to becoming a solid, dangerous poker player - whether online or off.