How to play poker
This guide will help new players learn how to play poker and beat the lowest stakes. It’s your crash course in how to win at poker. Almost all winning players start out as losers. We will teach you the tight, aggressive strategy that beats the micro stakes of today. The games are tougher than ever before, and the current game requires more than just an understanding of preflop opening ranges to win longterm.
This article will refer to using a HUD often. If you are a micro stakes player in today’s climate, a HUD is one of the best investments you can make. We have reviews of the two most popular HUDs, Pokertracker 4 and Holdem Manager 2.
This 10 part guide will walk you through everything I wish I knew when I started playing.
- What poker games should I play?
- TAG strategy and hand charts (preflop play)
- How to play your range on different board textures (postflop play)
- Exploiting your opponents: Understanding your opponents and proper note taking (common opponents at the micros)
- 3betting and reacting to 3bets: polarized and depolarized ranges
- Bluff Catching
- Check raising
- Bankroll management
- Tilt Avoidance
Part one: What poker games should I play?
I recommend 6max cash games of No Limit Holdem. Keep in mind that there is no hard and fast answer to which format you should play. The benefits of 6max are that because there are 6 players rather than 9 or 10, the game is less straightforward and looser. This forces you into playing a more aggressive style and learning how to respond to aggression. One of my greatest regrets as a player is starting with full ring games as it made the transition to 6max quite difficult. Learning how to play poker at 6max cash is a solid choice for your longterm career.
If you are transitioning from live to online, it may be easier for you to hop into full ring games. As well, because full ring play is easier, you are likely to lose less money in the learning process.
Heads Up Poker (1v1) is the most difficult form to play because of how wide the ranges are.
For example: In full ring, if a player opens UTG (the first position) and cbets on a flop of AJK, you know that it hits their range. This is because they are most likely playing a tighter range of strong broadway cards and strong pocket pairs.
If you are playing heads up, a cbet on this board is much more difficult to decipher as your opponent will be playing a much wider variety of cards.
Why do I recommend learning cash games?
The reason I recommend cash is because as beginner you are trying to learn the fundamentals. It is easier to transition from 6max cash to almost all other forms than trying to go from other forms to 6max cash. If you know that you prefer SNGs, MTTs, Spin and Go’s or other gametypes, please feel free to take this route. If you are unsure where you are going to be spending most of your time on the virtual felt then I recommend starting with cash. This guide on how to play poker focuses entirely on 6max cash.
Example: MTTs rely on poker strategy that requires a different skill set than cash, such as push/shoving, re-stealing, and understanding how different stack sizes will react to different plays. As well, you need to learn concepts such as ICM and preserving your chip stack to profit from pay jumps. These skills are not very transferable. Learning how to play poker for tournaments is a good long term strategy if you want to focus on MTTs. However, learning 6max cash will not hurt your MTT game if you decide to switch to that format. This guide will help you with the fundamentals of deep stack play and how to think about the game.
Disclosure: I am biased towards 6max NLHE because that is what I found the most beneficial to my own development. There is another school of thought that Pot Limit Omaha and mixed games are now the most profitable styles to learn. If you are starting out, you may wish to learn more about these games. If I was starting again, I might focus on PLO and learn how to play in different formats. Unfortunately, as I am strictly a NLHE player, I cannot help you with this. The learning curve is too steep for me to learn how to play poker all over again.
How many tables should I play?
Start with 1-2 tables. If you find yourself unable to follow the action, do not play more than 1 table at a time. You need to be able to take proper notes and get reads on your opponents as you play. There will be more information on note taking further in the poker guide.
Part two: Our poker guide to TAG Strategy and Opening Ranges
Even with the games getting tougher at micro stakes, a solid TAG strategy is still the way to win at poker at the micros. One of my favorite quotes is: “To be good at poker, you need to know how to play tight. To be great, you then have to learn how to play loose again.” Teaching you how to play poker with a LAG style would not be doing you any favors at the start of your journey.
Unless you are at a very weak table, do not vary your raise sizes based on your hand strength. Raising 2.5bb from all positions is good for a starting player.
There are six positions in 6max. In order of preflop action, they are Under the Gun (UTG), Middle Position (MP), Cut Off (CO), Button (BTN), Small Blind (SB), and Big Blind (BB). We are giving you a visual hand chart as well as percentage ranges for opening. These percentages correspond roughly with the hand ranges that you will get by using programs such as Pokerstove and Equilab (both are free). Equilab is a good program for getting a greater understanding of ranges. If you are an absolute beginner, you may need to check out our guide to learning poker rules. The following pictures are taken using Equilab. Be careful – you can’t have these programs running while you are playing on PokerStars.
Before you raise, ask yourself – what are my opponents like at this table? Are they aggressive preflop? Am I likely to end up vs 1 player or playing a pot multiway?
These ranges are for when you are the first preflop raiser. If you are not the first preflop raiser, then you can choose to flat or 3bet. In general you need to have a stronger flatting range than the preflop opener. You can determine your opponents preflop raising percentage using the RFI stat on PT4 (raise first in).
Hand Charts and opening percentages
UTG: 12 – 15% of hands should be raised
Do not be lured into playing too many hands under the gun. As you are just learning how to play poker, you want to be tight. When you go post-flop you have to act first. Position is the key. If you have to act first then opponents are able to gain information from you, which means that you need to have a strong range to be profitable. If you have position, you both gain information on opponents and have the optionality to put in value bets and bluffs easier on the river.
You might be wondering: why open up 55 and not A9o? Isn’t a decently strong ace a better hand? The reason that we open almost all the pocket pairs is because they are the some of biggest winners at the micro stakes. Either you flop a set, which is a concealed, powerful hand, or you miss the board and can easily get away from your hand without losing much money. This preflop hand range is aimed for beginners because you will likely either hit top pair with a good kicker, the nut straight and flush draws, and sets. It is designed so that you do not get into as many situations where you have the second best hand.
It is a matter of preference if you wish to include pockets 2s through pocket 4s. In fact, even 55 and 66 can be a fold vs a competent table. The reason we have left them out of UTG only is to reduce chances of set over set and because they simply have a lower win rate in first position as compared to other positions. While set over set is a rare occurrence, it is a costly one that almost always ends with your stack being pushed towards an opponent. If you are playing at a fishy table with lots of call stations, these pocket pairs can be profitable.
If you wish to open up more aces, skip the middle of the pack. Hands like A9s and A6o are just going to get you into trouble. Low suited aces be opened vs nits and fish in the big blind. This means that you can widen up your range to include A2s – A5s when a weak player is in the blinds. Nits will fold their bb too often, giving you immediate profit, and the implied odds of nut flushes and straights make these hands profitable against the two mistakes most commonly made at the micro stakes – calling way too much, or folding way too much. Against players who are folding too much to cbets, suited aces give you good board coverage with backdoor draws that allow double barreling opportunities. Against calling stations you will have good implied odds with the possibility of nut flushes and straights.
Quick tip: If you have active 3betters at the table (1 or more players to your left that has a 3bet percentage of higher than 10%) you can adjust by tightening your opening range.
MP Raise 14-18% of hands
Still tight! Slightly looser than utg, but you don’t want to add too many new hands. There is less of a chance of set over set, which allows us to open up all pocket pairs. Although the lowest pocket pairs are a fold at higher stakes, they have added EV at the micros. Beginner players can remove J9s and Q9s from their opening ranges. Again, with weak players in the blinds you will be inclined to open small suited aces. QJo is also an open vs a poor player. Why are we focusing so much on the blinds? Because they have money invested already, they are the most likely players for you to be up against. If you want to add hands, add in your smaller suited aces.
As always, you need to be considering the players at your table. If you have a player who loves to flat call opens in the cut off and button, you need to be prepared for 3way pots out of position. If you have an active 3bettor to your left, you need to be prepared for preflop aggression.
Adjusting your opening ranges are incredibly important to learning how to play poker. A quick thought experiment: if you have a player to your left who is 3bet jamming all in every hand, do we want to be opening the same range? The answer is that we should be opening a range which we want to play for our entire stack against the maniac to our left, and that we should also be expecting players to adjust to the maniac as well. There’s not a 100% correct answer to the question. The question is to give you the to tools to understand how you need to react to different players at your table.
Cut Off: Open 24-28% of hands
Here’s where you can start having fun. Post flop you have position on everyone but the dealer, so you can really force people into difficult spots. You might start facing more 3bets in these positions, as people know you are opening light. The easiest way to combat this if you do have an active 3better is to simply tighten up so that your range can withstand the action. As you grow in your skill level, you can try fancier plays vs this type of player, but as a beginner you want to chose the easiest route at the start.
Note: If you have a nit on the button, you can open even wider! This is because the nit will rarely enter the pot, allowing you to use a range similar to your button range and ignoring them.
As you can see, we have really opened up. The cut off and the button are your widest ranges, and these ranges are so wide because of how profitable it is to steal blinds. The second reason is that position gives us such a huge advantage against the blinds when they do call. The big blind and small blind have to have a good hand to call you, as they will be playing out of position when they do call you. If you find that the bb and sb are folding more often than other players, loosen up your range to capitalize. If you keep stealing and the blinds start fighting back, that’s when you can adjust to playing a tighter range and raising more for value than to steal.
What do you notice about our which hands are included in our wider opening range?
Lots of strong hands, and lots of hands that can become very strong. Suited cards are much better to play than unsuited cards. Flopping draws allow you to cbet and continue barreling. Flushes are incredibly strong hands, and having two suited cards gives you additional equity on flops where you have backdoor flush draws. We would rather have you open 76s than K8o, as 76s is less likely to get you in trouble. Suited connectors and gappers allow you to cheaply get away from your hand when you whiff the flop.
If you have a weak paired ace, be wary of continuing against a caller, as they may be likely to have a stronger ace on an ace high board, and generally be ready to fold to reraises and aggression.
Button: Open 45% – 60% of hands
The loosest position. Here is where you play a wide range of hands because of how powerful the advantage of position is. You are going to print money from people folding their small and big blind, folding to cbets, and abusing them using position. We get to act last post-flop against every other player at the table.
If you are playing against a SB and BB that are folding almost all their hands, it can even be profitable to open any two cards. The button is one of those spots where the range depends on who you are facing. As you become a stronger player, you can generally open all suited queens as well as smaller suited connectors.
It is more difficult to make a hand chart for playing the blinds. This is because it is so player dependent. If you are in the SB and the action folds to you, you need to look at your HUD stat for Folds: BB vs SB. You also need an idea of how they play post flop. If your opponent is calling 80% BB vs SB but folding to 75% of cbets, you can still open wide, as long as you exploit his tendency to overfold the flop.
If your opponent is folding 50% or more then you can mathematically open 100% from the SB using a min bet of 2bb.
If your opponent is folding 57% or more, you can mathematically open 100% of hands using a min bet sizing of 2,5bb.
Unless you are playing against a complete NIT, I recommend using a 2.5BB opening size at the micro stakes. This is because opponents, even at the micros, will start to adjust to your tiny sizing and will want to fight back. If you are playing against someone folding a huge amount BB vs SB, then you can experiment with the min open and see how they react. Long term you are going to get plenty of chances to steal the BB from a player who is overfolding. You do not want to let them start to adjust to you. Don’t play in a way that naturally allows your opponent to make the right decisions against you.
We will be continuing with post-flop play in the following section. However, you should note that how your opponents are playing post-flop will affect your decisions in terms of opening the SB vs the BB. If they are folding to cbets a huge amount, then even if they are calling your opens, you can profitably cbet any board. If they are 3betting 10%+ against your sb opens, then you need to adjust by stealing less or by being prepared to either 4bet light or enter into 3bet pots out of position. We will explain more about 3betting and 3bet pots in further sections.
Part 3: How to play your range on different board textures
The first step is that we need to be playing aggressively. The hand ranges are picked out so that when you are opening from early positions, you will flop strong draws and pairs that you can bet aggressively. At the micros, one of the worst things you can do is miss out on value. At the micro stakes, you win a lot of money on boards like 58K when you have AK and your opponent has KQ. The general trend is people calling too much. Understanding what our range wants to do on different board textures is the basis of how to play poker postflop.
At the micros, we can generally overcbet flops against most players.
You should be worrying less about a balanced strategy and more about exploiting your opponents weaknesses. Once you are leave the micro stakes, you need to focus on playing a more balanced style.
Why do we cbet the flop?
As the preflop raiser, you need to understanding the fundamentals of cbetting. There are two main reasons for cbetting: Cbetting for immediate fold equity and cbetting for value. Preflop play is much more straightforward than postflop. You may find this section to be confusing. Do not attempt to rush through it, or read it as you play a few tables.
When you first start playing, you need to think before every single bet you make. Ask yourself – why am I betting? Why am I betting this amount?
The key is that at the micro stakes, we need to get value. It’s one of the most important things to learn when you are just finding out how to play poker. You should not slowplay a hand unless you have a very, very good reason to do so. You have no idea how many times when you show up on the river with the nuts and your opponent has a middle pair that you could have stacked them. People love to call. They want any excuse to put you on a draw. Let them make that mistake! That’s the general rule for the micros, but today’s game has far more nuances than just playing TAG. You know how to stack a calling station. Just pound the pot pot pot button and get paid off. When you’re at a table that isn’t completely full of droolers, you need to be smarter than that. Here is a checklist for understanding when to cbet.
When we cbet, we need to keep the following in mind.
- Villain’s fold to cbet
- Villain’s raise cbet
- Villain’s float flop percentage (in PT4, floating flop is defined as betting when the pfr checks)
- Villain check/raise percentage
- Our hand’s strength
- The strength of our opponents range
- Board texture and Bet sizing
- Cbetting light
- Our opponents stack size
Fold to Cbet
This is the first factor to think of when determining when to cbet. A villain’s fold to cbet determines how attached your opponent is to their hand. We call a player who folds too much to cbets a player who is “fit or fold”. Unless they flop a strong hand, they are mucking their holdings and can be cbet mercilessly. 55+ percent fold to cbet is high. 60+ is much too high. 65+ is reaching levels where your opponent is folding a ludicrous portion of their range.
How do we punish a high fold to flop cbet? Bet more often.
How do we punish a low fold to flop cbet? Bluff less, value bet wider.
You should have stats on your opponent for fold to f cbet as well as stats breaking it down into whether your opponent had position or was out of position. Once you get more hands on a player you need to focus on the different ways that they react to cbets when they are in and out of position. Some players are much stickier in position than out and you must adjust.
If villain has a high fold to flop cbet but a high WTSD (went to showdown) then they are much more likely to call turn and river bets once they have called the flop.
You should have a HUD profile showing villains fold to turn and river cbet as well. There are some villains who have a high call flop cbet but who will fold to sustained aggression. Against these players, you will find that if you bet once and check down you will lose to ace highs and low pocket pairs that would be folding to a second or third barrel.
- VS high fold to cbet bet more
- VS low fold to cbet bet highly weighted towards value and expand your value range
- VS high FTCB and high WTSD you can cbet flops light but must weigh range towards value on turn and river
- Make sure you have stats on how your opponent reacts to cbets in vs out of position
You need to consider the raise cbet stat as well. This situation occurs when you are the preflop raiser, you follow up with a cbet, and they raise you. If you find yourself getting your cbets raised a lot, it probably means that you are cbeting too much on boards that favour your opponents range more than yours. Even the fish are starting to learn how to play poker better, but they often will have an unbalanced raise flop cbet range.
If you are playing against opponents who have 15+ raise flop cbet, they are generally becoming unbalanced towards raising you with bluffs. The first adjustment you can make is to value bet a tighter range. This will allow your range to fare well against the extra pressure your opponent is putting onto you. They will be putting more money into the pot with weaker holdings than you.
If you are against opponents with high raise cbets, you need to be taking very detailed notes on what boards they are raising you on, and with what holdings. A common scenario will be a flop that has a flush or straight draw possible. Some opponents will raise hands as weak as middle pair on these boards. You need to take notes on whether they will fold these holdings against aggresion, or put you on a flush draw and stack off vs a 3bet. The same can occur on boards where straight draws are possible. On the other hand, opponents may be raising your cbets when they have nut draws, and are willing to go with it when you jam.
We will cover note taking in more detail further on in this guide. However, at this point what you need to know in regards to the raise cbet stat:
- Very low raise cbet (less than 5%): your opponent probably has a nutted hand
- Low raise cbet (less than 10%): your opponent is weighted towards value
- High raise cbet (15% and higher) your opponent is starting to get unbalanced towards bluffs and low strength hands. You need to note take properly to understand how to respond – the first step for a beginner is to tighten up.
Float flop (bets when pfr checks)
- If your opponent bets over 50% of flops that you check and has a high WTSD, you can check raise for value light
- If your opponent floats flops with bluffs, you can check raise as a bluff or with draws profitably
- If your opponent has a low float flop percentage, they generally have a range weighted towards strength and you can adjust by folding at a higher frequency
- If your opponent has a low float and a high call cbet, there is less reason to semi-bluff draws. It is generally better to simply take your equity if they are going to be calling you down.
Villains check/raise percentage
- If you opponent has a low check/raise, it is almost always value and you can fold hands as strong as top pair top kicker on dry boards
- If your opponent has a high check/raise you need to take notes on what hands they are doing it with and adjust either by tightening your cbet range or by 3betting and calling their check raises wider.
Our hands strength
If we have a strong hand, is it likely to get better or worse with turn and river cards? The more vulnerable the hand, the more we need to bet.
If we have a very strong hand that will remain strong, is our opponent a call station, someone who overfolds, or someone who is aggressive vs weakness? Vs a call station, we need to start betting in order to build the pot. Vs a tight player we can afford to check to let them pick up equity in order to make a call on the turn and river. Vs an overly aggressive player we can trap by either check raising or flat calling depending on how the villain reacts to each play.
Our hand may be weak, but have high equity and low showdown value. This is true of a hand like 2s3s on As4s8x. We have 3 high, which has no showdown value, but high equity with our up and down straight draw, and high fold equity because of the ace.
If our hand is weak, but the board favours our range, we can often chose to cbet light if the villain has an average to high fold to flop cbet.
The strength of our opponent’s range
If we are raising UTG and villain calls in the BB, which board favours their range better? AAK or 2s3s4s? The answer is obvious. Raising UTG we will not have 23,34,45, and often not even A2, A3, A4, 22, 33, 44 in our range. The BB has all of these hands. On these boards against the average opponent we should be betting a tighter range as we are more likely to face calls and aggression.
The biggest fish have lost their money long ago. The players that remain generally have a better idea of how to play poker in the preflop ranges, but even players with good stats can be hopeless post-flop. You need to be able to put them on a range using their pre-flop raise percentages from each position, and their preflop call percentages from each position.If the board favours our range better than theirs, we can bet our hands much lighter.
Board texture and Bet sizing
Here’s a quick thought exercise. You open from MP and are called by the small blind. Consider these two flops: 6s7sJ and 222. If you check on both of these boards, on which board have you committed a bigger mistake?
If the answer isn’t clear to you, try to think it through a little more. What kind of hands are calling your flop cbet on each board? On which board is your KK more likely to be the best hand?
If you check on 6s7sJ, you have made a far bigger mistake than checking on 222. 222 is an extremely dry board. Your KK is nutted and is very likely to be the best hand. What beats it? AA, A2, 23, and maybe some other combos of 2s against very loose players on the flop. What will beat it on the turn? Not much will change unless your opponent hits a set (unlikely) or an ace hits (and they don’t necessarily have an ace). On 6s7sJ, many hands can call your bet. Flush draws can call, 89 and 45 can call, plenty of jacks can call, just to name a few of the combos that are likely to call. You are missing out on value by checking and are putting your hand in danger of bad turn and river cards that will either make your hand the second best or kill your action.
Which board are we more likely to be called on. 9s10sQx or 223 rainbow? Obviously, it is the first. Our value hands will be more vulnerable on boards that have draws. We want to size our bets up because we are more likely to be called and turn and river cards can A) hurt our value hands B) complete are draws that we bet and require us to build the pot. We can size up between 2/3 – ¾ pot.
On a board like 223 rainbow, our value hands are less worried about turn and river cards. If we are ahead on the flop we are likely to be ahead on the turn and river. We can size down to 1/3 – 1/2 pot.
Against the worst call stations, why miss out on value? If our opponent is calling light, we can start experimenting with overbets and pot size cbets for value.
Against the biggest overfolding nits, why waste money on bluffs? If our opponent is folding light, we can start experimenting with bets in the 1/4 – 1/3 range on a variety of boards.
We’ve covered some of the factors to cbetting light. One of the most important things to think about is what happens if we get called. If we have a gut shot or overcards, the turn and river are much more likely to improve our hands than if we an underpair that needs to find the magical set to be the best hand when called. In summary, these are some reasons to cbet light:
- High fold to cbet
- Dry Board
- Favours our range more than theirs
- Opponent is folding to small bet sizing
- Opponent is rarely check raising and raising cbets
- The turn and river are likely to improve our hands
- We have backdoor flush or straight draws
Opponents stack size
Deep stack play is different than short stacked play. The most important thing to understand is that the effective stack is not necessarily the biggest stack. Knowing how to play poker against short stacks is completely different than playing against full stacks.
You are playing a 3 handed pot as the PFR, UTG vs SB and BB. You have 100BB. SB has 200BB. BB has 20BB. The effective stack is 100BB in this hand. You cannot lose more than 100BB, but you cannot gain more than 100BB. You cbet. The SB folds. Now you are heads up.
You have 100BB, and the BB has 20BB. The effective stack is now 20BB. You can no longer lose more than 20BB and can no longer gain more than 20BB.
If you generally bet 2/3 pot, think about how long it will take for your entire stack to go into the pot. Will it take 1, 2, or 3 bets? If you are playing against a short stack, especially in a 3bet pot, it can sometimes take only 1-2 bets to get the entire stack in. This occurs when the stack to pot ratio is low. When your opponent has only 1 pot sized bet left behind, you are now playing in a 1 street game. 1 standard pot sized bet can get the entire stack in.
Part 4: Exploiting your opponents and proper note taking
There are common themes in the players you will be up against at the micro stakes. Understanding these players is the key to how to play at the micros and win.
1. The nits.
If you have a HUD, these players are going to have very low VPIP and PFR. This could look something like 14/3 VPIP/PFR, or 12/10 VPIP/PFR. Even a range like 15/14 VPIP/PFR is nitty, but when the stats are closer together and nearer to what you would expect from a reg, you are probably dealing with a better player. If you don’t have a HUD, you can know these players by watching carefully. They rarely raise, and rarely call. In fact, you probably see them play only about 10% of their hands, and when they get to showdown, they (almost) always have the goods. Set mining is a very profitable poker strategy against this sort of player! These guys have decided that how to play poker profitably is just a matter of raising very, very good cards. If they are at a table of call stations, it can work.
What do you want to play vs these players? Pocket pairs and suited connectors, when you both have large stacks and the raise is not too expensive preflop. (You want the stacks to be at least 10x the amount you have to pay to see a flop with your pocket pairs). That’s because when you hit a set vs their AA, they are going to lose a stack.
If you get 3bet by a NIT, fold! Unless you have an incredible hand, you need to get away because there are some players who only 3bet AA and KK. I’ve personally thrown away KK vs a player who every time he had AA, would just shove all in preflop! It was the only time he ever shoved preflop, and after seeing him do it twice it was the easiest lay down in the world. An exception is that if you have a read on their post flop play that they are stacking off when they have KK+ on almost all board textures, pocket pairs and set mining can be very profitable.
During post flop play, getting reraised by these players most often means TPTK+. Nits most often have a very low raise flop cbet and low check raise. That means that their ranges are weighted towards value! Some players will only reraise sets, for example. If you hold AQ on a board of A54 and a nit reraises you on the flop, the most likely hands that your opponent has are AK, 55, or 44. Looser, more aggressive opponents will also have 23, 45, and 67 in their range, some of which are value and some of which are semibluffs.
2. The regs.
If you have a HUD, these players will have something like 16/14 VPIP/PFR to 28/24 VPIP/PFR. At the micros regs generally 3bet too little, so you will see a lot of nitty 6% 3bet ranges and tighter. There are also laggy regs running as high as 35/32, but these guys are generally much more spewy than they realize. Don’t play pots with solid regs in marginal situations. Avoid them, as if you are a beginner they will often be better than you. Beat them by using a range advantage rather than a skill advantage until you are good enough to go against them. The money is NOT won vs regs. It’s won vs our favourite players, the fish. Regs generally know how to play poker, even if they still have major leaks.
3. Passive fish
These guys generally have a VPIP of 35+ with a wide gap between VPIP and PFR. The beauty of a player using a range of 35/10 is that they are limping their marginal hands and raising strength, and you can play accordingly. They generally also have low 3bets, and do not have a 3bet bluffing range except in rare occasions. They will often have high WTSD (went to showdown). Passive fish are the easiest players to play against. They are the players that you can bet for thin value, and expect to get called down and shown a weak hand. Be careful – when they do reraise you, they generally have it. These players are what you call weak passive. They play the opposite style that you do. Passive fish tend to use a depolarized style rather than a balanced one. They are generally weighted towards raising with strong hands, bluffing rarely, and preferring to check and call instead of thin value bet.
4. The maniacs
They love to raise, sometimes any two cards. These guys don’t seem to care about much except the thrill of the game. They just want to gamble and push people around. What do you do against them? Let them bluff you. Vs these players, ace high can be better than top pair against a nit! While the most consistent money is made off the fish, the quickest (but highest risk) money can be made vs maniacs. You may be surprised that maniacs often survive at the lowest stakes by their aggression alone. If someone is going crazy at the table, the best strategy is to continue playing your solid, tight aggressive game. Many low stakes regulars lack the self control after losing a few pots to a maniac and end up widening their range and start spewing, thinking that their opponent is always bluffing against them. Some of these so called “maniacs” are able to win because other players get caught up and start playing their game of wide ranges and aggressive play. At this point, the maniac has plenty of experience playing J8s from under the gun, but his opponents will be out of their element if they open up their range to fight back against the aggression.
Proper Note Taking
If you are unable to take proper notes as you play, you are playing too many tables. In today’s games you can’t just understand the fundamentals and think you know how to play poker. You need to know how to play poker in a way that exploits your opponents biggest leaks.There was a time when all you needed know was to open a tight range and bet for value against the call stations. Not so anymore. You need to note down how your opponents play their hands. There is no hard and fast rule to writing proper notes. Abbreviations are helpful in order to write them quickly as you play. For example, the first example, Bet Size = Hand Strength could be shortened to BSHS.
There are a lot of different things you need to be looking for. This is where the difference between a 5bb/100 win rate and a 10bb/100 winrate is made.
Bet size = Hands Strength
Often, players will have a bet sizing tell in which the strength of their hand is correlated with their bet size. If you notice that the player is betting pot when they have a set or better, but only 2/3 pot when they have top pair, you can correctly assess your odds to improve, and whether you can call down the river profitably.
The player is bluffing large, and value betting small because they want a call. We adjust by overfolding against small bets, overcalling large bets, and overbluffing against large bets.
Thin vbets or not:
Is your opponent value betting thin with their flop cbets or do they only bet a polarized range – their very strong hands and very weak hands, preferring to check down the middle of their range? It is also key to note if they are stabbing at turns when you check the flop as the pfr with only a strong range or a wider value range.
Opponents are bluffing a certain way on certain board textures with a specific part of their range. For example, they are betting 10% pot with sets on dry boards, or 100% pot with overpairs on wet boards. You need to be observing how your opponent is betting on different board textures. If they have been betting half pot on wet boards every single hand, why are they suddenly betting 75% pot? Take notes on which part of their range they are varying their bet size with. It could be draws, for example, while another player is varying his bet size with the absolute top of his range.
Yes, there are timing tells. And yes, good players are going to be watching how long you take with your decisions. Generally, a very quick call means that they did not have to think about it. Depending on board texture, that can mean a top pair, middle pair with a good kicker, or a draw. What it probably isn’t is the very top of their range. Why? Because they didn’t even think for a second about raising you.
Does not bluff missed draws:
Some players are very predictable. When they miss their draw, they check it down, even if they do not have showdown value.
Bluff missed draws:
You can make very profitable plays by noting when an opponent is bluffing their missed draws. This can be obvious draws such as flush draws, but for looser opponents can also include strange gutshots and other draws. It is important to note as well if they are bluffing with missed draws that have showdown value. Against a player who bluffs rivers with bottom pair and a missed flush draw, it will not be nearly as profitable to call down as vs a player who checks his draws that have showdown value and only bets those that are worse than A high on the river.
Overbetting does not occur very often at the micros. When it does happen, it almost always means a big hand. When you see it happen, note down if it was strong or weak and you will be able to react accordingly if it happens again.
Donking on wet boards:
Another common tendency of micro stakes opponents is donking wet boards. They may flop top pair top kicker on a board that has a flush draw, and not want to see the turn. Make sure that you note what they are donking and how much they are betting. I have played against opponents who, like clockwork, donk full pot when they hit a set on a wet board, and 2/3 pot when they have top pair. Make sure that your HUD profile includes a statistic for donk flop. Quick tip: if your opponent is donking 20% of flops and folding the other 80% of flops, it is fairly obvious that he is donking the strong part of his range. These types of players are very easy to play against.
Raising flop cbets:
What are your opponents raising you with? Often at the micros this means a very strong hand, but sometimes players will get spewy after getting cbet over and over and go crazy with a top pair weak kicker sort of hand. Make sure that you jot down whether they are doing this with strong hands that they want to get the money in with or weaker hands that are convinced you are bluffing.
Weak donk or strong donk:
At the micro stakes, you are going to be facing donk bets. Some players are weighted towards weak stabs at pots with nothing, while others prefer to bet out strength because they are afraid you might check. If a player is folding to 80% of cbets and donking 20%, what does this mean? Think about it. It generally would mean that this player is checking all of the hands that they are going to fold and betting out the hands that they are willing to play.
Quick tip: If you are playing against opponents who know how to play poker, they are going to be looking out for these exact things. That’s why a balanced strategy is required at higher stakes and against better players. If you’re playing against fish who don’t really understand how to play profitably, they probably won’t be taking diligent notes on you. But they will start to notice if you only overbet with the nuts after a few times of calling off their stacks. Don’t be too obvious.
Part 5: 3betting and reacting to 3bets: polarized vs depolarized range
3betting is where a HUD really helps. At the micros, most players 3bet only for value. Many will only 3bet with AA, KK, or QQ. Against these players, you can easily throw away all of your hands except AA and KK (with the exception of pocket pairs to set mine with). These are some of the easiest players to go up against. They basically TELL you when they have an amazing hand. If you get 3bet by one of these players and you hold JJ, you can call but not because you think JJ is the best hand, but because if a J hits the flop and you get a set, they are going to hand you a stack with AA, KK, or QQ overpairs. 3betting is an essential part of how to play poker because of the size of the pots. Winning or losing a 3bet pot can have a 50bb – 100bb effect on your win rate. When win rates are often in the range of 5bb – 10bb per 100 hands at the micros for a winning player, you can see just how important it is to play these pots properly.
3betting for value is quite a simple concept. As you play against players, you will find out how they react to 3bets. There are some players who almost always call 3bets, and then fold to a cbet on flops they miss. Against players who call 3bets often, you can 3bet your strong hands and expect a call. You see flops with a range advantage, and can beat them by the strength of your cards combined with a basic understanding of the game.
One common theme at the low stakes is players who almost always call 3bets, but then fold on flops that they miss. The reality is that on any given flop, you are more likely to miss it than hit it! This is why we are able to cbet profitably in general. The concept applies to 3bet pots and non 3bet pots. That means against players that are often calling 3bets, you can adopt a strategy of betting almost every flop after you 3bet. When this type of opponent calls, they always have a hand, and you can throw away your bluffs, knowing that in the long run their bad habit of over-folding will print you money.
3betting light to steal pots is another strategy. One of the often overlooked aspects of this strategy is that it allows you to take down pots without having to pay rake. There are opponents who fold even hands as strong as AQs, and against these players who are folding 75% – 90% of the time against 3bets (a HUD will help you know these stats, otherwise you have to pay very close attention), it can be profitable to 3bet hands such as A3s and KQ which block the most powerful hands that they will call with. If they are only calling you 3bet with AA, AK, QQ and JJ, then having KQ in your hand makes it less likely that they have KK and QQ.
Factors to 3bet light
- We have position on our opponent
- We have blockers to their calling range
- They have a high fold to cbet
- We have a hand, that when called, has equity (A2 suited has over 30% equity against KK)
- Opponent is overfolding to flop cbets in 3bet pots
A more advanced idea in 3betting is polarized vs depolarized ranges. Polarized means that you have either very strong or weak hands in your range (for example 78s or AA) but just call your mid strength hands such as 1010. This strategy has the advantage of giving you strong board coverage, as your opponents cannot be certain that their AK is good on a 8J4 board. As well, if your opponents decide to call or reraise you, they know that they might be up against your nutted hands. We recommend using a polarized strategy of play for almost all positions vs good players, especially against button and cut off late position ranges where your opponents are often simply trying to steal your blinds.
The opposite of a polarized approach is the depolarized approach. This is where you 3bet the top part of your range. This strategy works best for the small blind, where you some players prefer to never call and instead 3bet the top 15% of their range, knowing that they have to play the pot out of position but with a range advantage.
You can use a depolarized or polarized range in the BB depending on your opponent. If your opponent is over folding, it is better to choose a depolarized range. If your opponent is defending correctly, a polarized range is the better choice.
When you are defending your BB against the button, you need to be 3betting. This is essential to stop the button from constantly stealing your blinds. A liniear range in the BB against a button open range would be around 15% of your range. Vs the sb, you would want to bet a little tighter, closer to 12% of your range.
Against an opponent who is calling 80% of 3bets, it does not really make sense to have a polarized range. You want to work out what his calling 3bet range looks like and 3bet hands that dominate his range.
3betting and 4betting are more advanced concepts, and luckily at the micro stakes happen much less often than at 25NL+.
Part 6: Bluffing
When should you bluff? This is very player dependent. If you are playing against a call station – don’t bluff. If you are playing against someone who folds too often, then you can bluff scare cards – when a K hits on the turn of a 10 high board, for example, or when you can rep a rivered flush. The general rule to bluffing is that you want to be bluffing hands with little to no showdown equity on a runout that is going to give you a high amount of fold equity. If you opponents range contains a lot of middle pairs, then the river card completing a straight and a flush as well as putting another overcard on the board could be the perfect card for you to bluff.
When you’re learning how to play poker at the micros, bluffing is very low on the priorities of what you need to learn. As you play, you are going to start to naturally get an understanding of good bluff spots.
In the lowest stakes, cbetting is generally enough while very rarely bluffing otherwise. At the micro stakes, you win most of your money against the players who call too easily, not the ones that fold too easily. Until you have a good understanding of why people will fold mid strength hands, bluffing should be done seldom unless you are against a very tight player.
You want to be exploiting your opponents major leaks at the micros. If a player has a very high call flop cbet and call turn cbet but a high river fold to cbet, it means you need to have triple barrel bluffs in your range or else you are going to check down the river and lose to underpairs and ace highs. The biggest way to exploit players tendencies at the micros is to underbluff. This is because most of your opponents are overcalling. Don’t fall into the trap of bluffing a spot that makes perfect sense vs a reg against opponents who love to call.
It is much better to semi-bluff than bluff. For example, on a board of 6C 2H AC, if you hold 7H 8H, and you bet on the flop and get a call, your opponent could possibly have a hand like a pocket pair between 77 – KK which did not want to fold immediately to the first bet on the ace high board. When the turn comes 9H, you can profitably barrel by making a second bet. When you get called, you still have outs to getting the flush or straight, and you can get many hands that beat you to fold. Bluffing should come naturally as you learn how to play poker over your career and watch carefully at hands that you aren’t even a part of. Start figuring out what cards players are folding on.
Bluffing is one of the biggest factors in profitability at higher levels than 10NL.
Part 7: Bluff Catching
Bluff catching is the other side of the equation. Bluff catching is where you use a relatively weak hand such as an ace high or third pair to call someone when you suspect that they have a lot of bluffs in their range. At the lower stakes, there are some players who only bet for value. They will have very low cbet stats and low raising stats in general. Against these players, you should never bluff catch.
What exactly is a bluff catcher? It’s a hand that has enough showdown value to call, but is not strong enough to value bet.
Bluff catching works best against aggressive players or maniacs who you have seen show up to the river with nothing. When should you bluff catch? Generally, the easiest way to bluff catch is to watch how players play their flush and straight draws. Many players will bet one street, check the turn, and then bluff rivers when they miss their flush or straight. Against these players, a strategy of at least sometimes calling down light on rivers that miss obvious draws is profitable. Other players you will notice bluffing scare cards. They will play passively, but when an ace or king hits on the river, they suddenly make a big bet, hoping to scare you off the pot. Bluff catching is a more advanced strategy and requires attention to the mannerisms and an understanding of how to use your HUD. If a player has a higher river bet percentage than flop and turn, they may be the type of player who is likely to try to bluff you off on the river. Against these players, you can often induce an extra bet by checking your mid strength hands.
Bluff catching is very player dependent. If your opponent has a reasonable preflop range and an 80% flop, turn and river cbet (that’s ridiculously high) it means they are going to be showing up to the river with a bunch of garbage. If they are only cbetting 30%, maybe it’s time to throw away that king high.
You want to know how to play poker at the micros? Stop bluff catching against passive players that always have the goods. Stop putting them on busted draws when you have never seen them bet a busted draw.
What does it mean when your opponent reraises on the river?
This is one of the biggest leaks that micro stakes players have. They rarely bluff rivers. When you get raised or reraised on the river, you are almost always up against a strong hand. Make a note of what players raise on the river, and see if your opponents follow the norm. If your HUD shows that they are reraising river bets often, then they are in the minority of micro stakes players that are weighted towards bluffs on the rivers.
Part 8: Check raising
The most effective way to check raise at the micros is when you have a very strong hand, like a set or two pair and you are the preflop caller, not the preflop raiser. Most opponents like to cbet boards, and you can get an extra bet out of them when they have nothing, and you can trap them when they have a mid strength hand like tptk.
How is your opponent reacting to check raising? If they have a low fold to check raise but a high cbet out of position, you can start check raising a wider value range. If they have a low cbet and low fold to check raise, then you are going to be getting called by strong hands and need to tighten up your value range and lower your check raise bluffing frequency dramatically.
Against opponents who you notice cbet far too often, you can get a sense of which boards they hit and which they miss. For example, if someone is cbetting 80% of the time, check raising them on a board like 237 rainbow can get them to fold many hands like KQ or AK that might be ahead of you. Think about what hits your range and what hits theirs and use check raises as bluffs on boards where they are, over the long run, weaker.
Part 9: Bankroll management
How does a good, winning player go busto? It’s a story as old as the game itself. Playing stakes higher than their roll can handle, and tilting off stack either on the table or the casino. Fish love to play in the highest stakes they can play. Just because you can beat a game does not mean you can beat variance. It doesn’t matter if you know how to play poker if you don’t practice BRM. You’re just gambling.
A good rule of thumb is to have 30 buyins for the stake you are playing. So, if you are playing 0.05/0.10, which has a maximum buyin of $10, you should have $300. If you beat the game at a solid win rate of 5bb/100, it would take you 120,000 hands to earn the $600 dollars to grow your bankroll to $900, which is 30 buyins at 0.15/0.30. That is a lot of hands. That’s where we have the concept of being able to “take a shot” at the next level. Basically, if you prove to yourself that you can beat the stake you are playing at soundly, then 20 buyins is sufficient to attempt to move up to the next level – as long as you have a plan for if you lose. Generally, losing 5 buyins is enough to show you that it is time to move back down to the stake you can beat until you both get better and grind up a better bankroll.
Part 10: Tilt Avoidance
Turns out the question of how a good, winning player goes busto has another answer. Tilt is the ugly beast that can take your bankroll and light it on fire. If you read online forums, you have probably read posts from people who have turned winning sessions into disaster by getting tilted. Tilt often occurs when a player is not properly rolled for a game. And watch out for reverse tilt – the biggest losing sessions often follow winning sessions when you feel as though you are an untouchable god. Quick poker tip: don’t play drunk.
Knowing how to play poker is not enough. You need to learn how to master your own mind and emotions.
- Wanting to move up in stakes to win back what you lost
- Wanting to add more tables to get back your money quicker
- You stop taking notes and observing the tables actively
- Making decisions quicker and calling down lighter
- Using a higher variance strategy and becoming much more aggressive with draws
Whatever you do, don’t hit the table games trying to win back your money. Sites draw in people who enjoy gambling using Texas Hold’em knowing that a significant portion of them will try out the table games. Don’t get sucked in, no matter how badly you want to win back money.
We hope that this guide will help you beat the lowest stakes. Texas hold em poker games at the lowest stakes should not be too much of a challenge if you play a tight, aggressive style and respect your opponent’s aggression. For more in depth strategy and to ask questions, we recommend the Twoplustwo.com microstakes forum. Twoplustwo is the biggest strategy site on the web, and although much of their strategy content is older, the forum provides up to date information.
Feel free to ask questions in a comment if you didn’t understand any part of this guide on how to play poker. We will do our best to respond quickly.