If you’ve ever seen the film Cool Hand Luke, you likely remember the scene in which Paul Newman’s character is able to bluff his way to a major poker haul. As he puts it, “Sometimes nothing can be a pretty cool hand.” But most times it’s not. For those of us who don’t possess Newman-esque coolness, we can at least better our chances through basic strategies and a positive mindset.
Memorize Hand Rankings
Quick, which is better: flush or straight? Knowing the hierarchy of hands is the foundation for a smooth poker session. Committing it to memory will make play a lot easier. Here is a nifty chart in case you need a reminder.
Know when to hold ‘em . . .
Know what constitutes a good starting hand. Check out this quick rundown of the best Texas Hold'em starting hands. If you’ve been dealt something great, you’ll want to take it as far as it can go.
…Know when to fold ‘em
Similarly, acquaint yourself with the worst starting hands in Hold'em. You might be tempted to hang around till the flop or beyond, but tipsters often recommend being selective because playing as many hands as possible will not help your chances at winning.
If you’re playing fewer hands, you’ll want to make the most of the ones you do play. So when you know you’ve got a good hand, ride it. Bold, steady betting will likely knock less confident contenders out of the running and fewer players means greater odds for you.
Say things don’t go your way at the flop and your hand that originally seemed pretty strong is now staggering. Don’t just say to yourself, “Well, I’ve come this far.” Recognize instead that you can opt out and minimize your losses. Here’s an example: If you’re sitting on a pair of Queens in the hole, and the flop shows two Jacks, you’ve got yourself two pair. But it could also mean an opponent now has three of a kind, which beats your two pair. You’ll want to focus on how others bet after the flop and what it could mean. Which leads to the next point . . .
Study Other Players
Even if your opponents are inscrutable behind their neutral facial expressions and thick sunglasses, their playing patterns can speak volumes. Consider how they react to the flop, turn and river — how much time they take, their betting behavior, etc. It’s a game that demands ongoing attention and calculation so you must stay focused even after folding.
When To Bluff
Bluffing is obviously a risk, but it can be a useful tool when trying to figure out an opponent’s style of play. It’s therefore especially useful in a one-on-one match-up so you can narrow your observations. It's also important that you be very deliberate about what betting actions you take and when. Like telling a story, make others believe you have a good hand.
Another psych-out comes in the form of the check-raise. If you’re in an early betting position, leading off with a check might cause opponents to think you’re sitting on a weak hand and they’ll push in chips hoping to force you out. When the betting comes back to you, raising the stakes will put others in a tough spot, often called “trapping.” Either they fold or kick in, less confident than before.
Tilt, as it relates to poker, can be defined as rash playing behavior stemming from extreme emotions typically brought on by a string of bad luck at the table. Develop mental strategies to stay relatively even-keel and avoid a total nosedive. The vast majority of us play for fun, anyway.
Do Some Math
This is optional, as math often takes the fun out of things. But if you really want to get in the weeds of poker’s odds and outs, you probably want to study a chart or two. You’ll be better able to calculate your chances as the round progresses.