Strategy in Texas Hold em Poker: Winning the Home Game
This article about poker strategy refers to Texas Hold 'em. It presumes that the reader is already familiar with the basics of the game. It refers specifically to games played at home with friends and/or family.
Few books and articles have been written about strategy in poker as it relates to the home game where player skill can vary wildly. There's usually a different flavor to a home game that changes poker strategy. The social element creates pressure not to raise so that everyone can play. Home games feature considerably more players in considerably more hands and this further changes one's poker strategy. A winning poker strategy requires a unique combination of observation, subterfuge, and solid play.
This is not an exhaustive article on poker strategy. The intention is to take a couple of examples of unique things about the home game and use them as examples of larger themes in the home game. By learning from these unique situations, players can extrapolate and figure out other approaches that will benefit them in the home game.
The Family Pot
Anybody who's played in the typical home game has heard of some version of the "family pot", which is what happens when everybody puts in the blind amount before the flop and nobody raises, meaning that every player is playing to see the flop.
The "family pot" is a much less common situation in a tournament. I am writing about it as a lead to illustrate a very basic difference between home poker and tournament poker. In tournament poker, any player with a reasonably good hand will raise before the flop. Occasionally, players will see a flop without a raise, but rarely will every player place the minimum bet.
At most home games, the blinds are usually low to encourage action and maintain a social atmosphere. The "family pot" frequency increases the luck factor and works against a skilled player if that skilled player is not raising his or her good hands in order to maintain the collegial atmosphere. However, what a skilled player will also recognize is that the "family pot" style of play often means that an emphasis is placed on hands with hidden strength that can be played cheaply and that knowing when to fold in a pot with a lot of players can be as valuable as playing good cards well.
In a family pot, it is often more valuable to play bad cards than it is good ones. If you have good cards and find yourself in a situation where perhaps you're in the small blind or big blind and everyone at the table has put in the minimum bet, you absolutely must raise to drive players out of the hand otherwise you are dramatically reducing your odds of winning.
While I'm writing about the "family pot" literally, I'm also doing so to illustrate a basic difference between regular play and home game play. The fact that a family pot occurs at all is symbolic of the fact that most hands in the home game generally include more players than normal (unless you have a very competitive home game). This means that in order to win consistently, a good player must be constantly aware that the odds of somebody at the table hitting something surprising are dramatically increased. Usually, the best player at one of these games is the one who folds the most. The players who lose are the ones who can't help but call bets because they just have to see somebody's cards. Losing players also overplay their good hands in situations where it should be obvious that lots of other hands beat them. If you are a good player and you ever find yourself assuming that other players at a home game shouldn't play a certain pair of cards because they should know better, then you are not playing a winning strategy.
In this context, the expectations of the good player should be something similar to the expectations in Omaha. If there are more than four players in a hand and the board ends up having a lot of possibilities, it's likely somebody made their hand. Thus, unless you are drawing to the best possible hand (the "nuts") or very near it, you should probably fold. The thing that destroys most players in this type of home game is when they hit top pair with either a mediocre or good kicker and forget that the odds of somebody making a lousy two pair are much better than usual. Too many players overplay their mediocre and decent hands and get crushed. The reverse of this, of course, is when you believe you are the best hand after the flop on a board with a lot of draws. You can play that hand knowing that if the river comes and you believe your opponents have missed their draws, you will win a big pot. These are often great opportunities because players with draws at a home game rarely raise the pot enough to drive out somebody with top pair, top kicker. They want to see cards for cheap.
Playing Aces (called bullets)
The funny thing about aces is how many home game players tend to be afraid of them. I often hear things like "I always lose with aces" and "I don't know what to do when I have aces." The problem playing aces in the home game is frequently the same as it is playing any good hand - how much to raise to get enough players to fold so only one or two remain. This presents another issue in the home game: raises that should get people to fold often do not. Thus, many players who draw aces before the flop have absolutely no idea how much to bet to get people to fold. They think since they have aces, they have an advantage, so they just go with the flow. This can be good and bad for the better player. While a player with aces will let you play a hand for nothing, it can also be dangerous because the good player frequently cannot read that a player is sitting on aces.
Good players can stand to raise aces varying amounts. Beginning players cannot. Often the best play for a beginning player or a player that is losing consistently is to go all-in. Because a bad player has precisely that reputation, the all-in will have the same effect as any other move - nobody will believe it and that player is likely to get called. Unfortunately, this is almost never the move a bad player makes.
A good player, on the other hand, has to make very sure that they are capable of folding aces because the need to fold is a situation that's going to occur much more in the home game than in any non-home game situation. The good player has to gauge their strategy with aces based on how many callers they get after they raise. If they get two callers, then they can play those aces aggressively most times. If they get four callers, then they have to realize the flop may easily produce a situation that can put them in trouble. Aces can be a nice trapping hand and fun to play, but the good player absolutely has to be ready and willing to fold them if the flop comes up bad.
What's a bad flop with aces? K-K-3. Three suited cards or two of three cards suited. Flops with open-ended straight draws. Stuff like that. And yes, you're probably ahead in many of these situations - two suited cards on the flop is a good example. The problem is that while all-in with aces might be the right move statistically, getting called is much more likely at the home game. Of course, you should always do what's statistically correct in poker, but the home game offers so many more situations where you'll have a bigger advantage that the all-in just isn't smart poker. If I'm in a tournament and I have aces and two cards that are suited come up on the flop, I'm always betting hard. Not always in the home game.
Approaches for Players of Different Skill Levels
Depending on your preferred style of play, I find there are two ways to consistently win at the home game. The first is to play aggressively and consistently apply pressure both before and after the flop. Lesser players, if they don't fold before the flop, will almost always fold after the flop if they don't hit something. Recognizing and isolating against less skilled players and putting consistent pressure on them will almost always result in wins.
The second way to win consistently is to trap. Since so many hands can be played with mediocre cards, it offers the good player lots of opportunities to play a wide variety of cards that end up hitting in strange situations. This is my preferred style of play. Players are more predictable at a home game and it's much easier to know when one is ahead by reading those players. During the course of many home games, one or two winning hands can make a player's night. Being patient and waiting for those opportunities can pay off big. Generally, during the course of our three hour home game, I usually encounter between two and six of these opportunities. Obviously, knowing when to fold becomes a vital skill and one will find oneself folding in places where it just kills. Remember though, the odds are much greater in this type of game that you've run into something and your opponent will almost always overbet their good hands.
The typical beginning player usually plays too many hands and finds himself overwhelmed because they're chasing draws most of the time. The best strategy for a beginning player is to relax, enjoy the social atmosphere, observe the flow of the game, and play only premium hands by raising pre-flop to simplify the decision-making after the flop. Beginning players can try to trap occasionally by playing their low and mid-pairs cheaply and pushing hard on the occasions when they hit their sets. Similarly, they can do the same with suited cards pre-flop or suited connectors. If they hit four to the flush, then they can proceed if it's cheap enough. The same goes for open-ended straight draws. Generally, beginning players play too many garbage hands and pay for it.
The home game is usually an entirely different animal from casino poker or tournament poker. Sometimes you're playing with the same 9 players. Sometimes there's a different group every week. Sometimes the players are fairly skilled. Sometimes it's a mish-mash of skills. In most home game situations, poker strategy must change. Be flexible. Know the players at your table. Always be ready to try something different. Don't be afraid to fold.
Good poker is good poker. Good home game poker isn't always good poker. Do what works.
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