The term "poker strategy" encompasses a wide variety of mathematical and psychological methods that improve a poker player's results beyond the confines of pure chance. Statistical probabilities can be calculated and applied to any poker form, offering a serious poker player
insight into their short-term and long-term odds of turning a profit based on the actions available. Refined psychological awareness and manipulation skills can give a player an edge over individual opponents, even in spite of the odds.
Players can use known information - every card that has been revealed thus far - to calculate the statistical probability of improving their hand. The knowledge that a deck of 52 cards contains 4 cards of each rank and 13 cards of each suit allows the mindful poker player to count the number of useful cards (called "outs") that may potentially remain in the deck. Depending on the poker form, there may be few or many cards revealed before players reach showdown.
To calculate hand odds (also called "poker odds
") for the next card, divide the number of outs that can improve the hand by the number of cards that have yet to be revealed (8 outs/47 unseen cards = .1702 or about 17%). Combined with the pot odds (discussed below), a player can make an informed, strategic decision about what action would statistically be most beneficial.
Determining pot odds - the ratio of the present pot-size to the cost to call the current bet in order to stay in the hand - can tell a player whether or not it is profitable, over the course of time, to always call that bet. One can simply divide the pot size by the bet amount to get the pot odds. A pot of $150, when facing a bet of $25 (150/25=6), is 6 to 1, represented 6:1. If the player's hand odds are better than the pot odds, it is a valuable call.
Using the hand odds example above, convert 17% hand odds (100:17) to a reduced ratio by dividing the percentage by 100 (100/17=5.8:1, nearly 6:1). In this scenario, with just under 6:1 hand odds and 6:1 pot odds, the player will roughly break even (with a marginal profit) by calling this bet every time. 5:1 hand odds with 6:1 pot odds would statistically turn a profit if called every time, whereas 7:1 hand odds with the same 6:1 pot odds would result in long term losses when consistently called.
Similar to pot odds, implied odds are calculated based on the estimated size of the end pot, rather than the current pot. When a hand is likely to result in a showdown, a player with strong hand odds can determine whether or not the projected value of the pot - relative to the cost of playing the hand out - will result in long term profits. However, because implied odds are based on predictions of how every opponent will play the hand, there is much room for error when using this particular poker strategy.
The term "equity," in poker, describes a player's expected share of the pot based on their probability of winning the pot. If a player wagers $10 on a hand with a 50% probability of winning, and is called by three opponents, the player has effectively paid $10 for an opportunity to win $40. To calculate the amount of equity the player has in the pot, multiply the pot by the probability of winning. Therefore, this player would have a pot equity of $20, "positive equity" because it is more than the amount "paid". If the same player's hand had a 20% probability of winning, the equity would be $8 - less than the investment, and therefore "negative equity."
A player's "position" at the table refers to how many opponents will act before and/or after that player in the betting round, and is an absolutely vital concept to grasp. The later the player acts in the round, the more information they gather about their opponents' hands. Players in early position - the first ones to act - require a much stronger hand in order to wager or raise a bet, given the number of hands that might be better. Players in late position - the last to act - can use the information gathered from opponents' actions in order to determine whether their hand is strong enough to play, or even get away with an aggressive bluff.
Players who rarely fold - playing most hands despite the strength of their cards - are referred to as "loose" players, whereas players who fold frequently - waiting for a stronger hand to play - are considered "tight" players. Players can also be classified by their betting habits, in that a player who mostly checks and calls is deemed "passive," as opposed to an "aggressive" player who bets and raises. These terms are commonly used to describe the "playing style" of poker players (example: Gus Hansen
is notorious for being an extremely loose, aggressive poker player).
Players can utilize an awareness of these characteristics in formulating a poker strategy. By switching between these playing styles periodically, a player can keep their opponents from predicting their intentions. Also, becoming cognizant an opponent's general tendencies when it comes to folding, checking, betting and raising, can help one to gain some insight into a predictable players' hand strength.
Additional poker psychology strategies include bluffing, recognizing tells, and reading an opponent's hand strength. Bluffing - when used sparingly in conjunction with other factors, such as table position and a deceptive playing style - can be quite effective as long as the player avoids gaining a reputation for it.
An observant player can also begin to recognize physical "tells" performed by opponents in live game play that indicate that player's hand strength or a sudden spike in their anxiety level; such as repeatedly glancing at hole cards, or readjusting a hat. Online poker
players reveal fewer tells outside of betting patterns and chatting habits, however, hand reading is applicable to both live and online poker games
. Related to tells, hand reading is more precisely the deduction of what hand, or range of hands, a player is most likely to possesses based on the cards revealed on the board, and the player's previous betting habits.
Having a poker strategy for which action to take under specific circumstances can allow a player to operate more decisively; projecting a greater sense of confidence to one's opponents. A plan will also reduce tells, such as taking too much time to think when an opponent suddenly raises the bet.
Checking allows a player to stay in the hand at no cost as long as no other players bet. In early position, with a mediocre hand, and no information about the hand strength of opponents, checking can keep a player in the hand to see the next card if the other players check (or fold), as well. Also, the big blind should never fold on the first betting round when the opportunity to check is available.
Players may choose to call for many strategic reasons. One purpose may be to prevent an aggressive player from re-raising, or to limit one's loss of pot equity. One may also wish to conceal a very strong hand by calling in order to prevent running players out of the pot. The pot odds may also direct a player to call in order to see if the next card improves their hand.
Raises can be used to force the folding of weak hands, gain information about the strength of an opponent's hand based on whether they call or re-raise, or to drive up the value of the pot. Bluffs and semi-bluffs executed from late position can induce players with relatively strong hands to fold if the last card to hit the board could potentially have formed an even stronger hand for the bluffer.
Playing tight by folding poor starting cards can save numerous chips in the course of a game. Also, when the odds aren't favorable - but checking isn't an option - folding will save chips in the long run. Another strategic reason to fold would be to conceal a failed bluff.
The number of players at the table can have an enormous impact on poker strategy. An important fact to remember is that the more players there are at the table, the greater the chances that one or more of them will develop a strong hand. The fewer players there are, the less likely it is that any player will form a decent hand. Therefore, in short-handed games with less than a full table, participants can be more loose with their actions, whereas a player at a full table would be well advised to play a tight game. This is a crucial concept to absorb, especially in tournament play where the the number of players will steadily decline into an ultimate heads-up competition. In heads-up play, it is recommended to play aggressively, forcing the opponent to pay for every card they see.