How to Win at Small-Stakes Poker
It's been said that only 25 percent of poker players are winners. That may not be accurate, but it makes sense.
Unless you play at home, the house is taking money out of every pot you play in the form of cash-game rake, or a fee for playing tournaments or sitngos. That means you have to play better than break-even just to beat the rake.
It's not hard to make a modest profit at small-stakes poker. You just need to think about your opponents and how to play against them.
Your opponents in small-stakes games have many flaws. They play too many hands, they don't know when to fold, they overvalue their holdings and they are too passive—or too aggressive. The key to winning is to know your opponent and how to play against someone with his characteristics.
Here are some tips, in no particular order.
Your chances are best if you're playing the right game, and you're in the right seat at the right table. The variables that affect these decisions can change at any time.
Most people play no-limit holdem. That's fine, but realize that the competition is becoming increasingly fierce at this game, even at the tiniest stakes. Players are often exceedingly tight, and you can encounter a lot of aggression.
Consider learning other games. Pot-Limit Omaha is growing in popularity, and the high-low version is worth learning. You can also learn the limit variants of Omaha and holdem. If you don't see a good holdem game, look for a good game at one of your other specialties. Each time you play, you want to be playing the game that you're most likely to win.
You may find a game that suits you better than holdem. Games require different skills. For example, at stud you need to remember what cards are out and know how to evaluate hands based on that information. High-low games require you to understand what hands have the potential to win the entire pot; only suckers play for half the pot. Omaha players must be able to identify free-roll situations. Do some reading so you have some idea of what you should be doing at a new game. A surprising number of players, particularly in non-holdem games, seem to be clueless about the game they're playing.
Once you've found your game, try to sit with a loose fish on your right and a tight player on your left. On the first round of betting, raise the loose player, which will usually cause the player to your left to fold, and will often isolate you with position against the fish. If everyone folds, then you've won the blinds or antes immediately, a great result. If the player on the left doesn't fold, you know he has a good hand and you can play accordingly.
Raising can isolate a weak player and tell you if your tight neighbor has a good hand. Don't limp unless you have a speculative hand such as suited connectors and you don't believe anyone will raise. You might also limp if everyone else has limped and you're in a late position. You will often get irresistible pot odds to limp. Even with a marginal hand, you should be calling with 5-to-1 odds, for example, and folding quickly if there's any action and you haven't improved.
With a tight opponent on your left, you have the opportunity to steal the blinds much more often. Tight players are likely to fold to a steal, and if they don't fold, then you're playing with position and you know your opponent has a strong starting hand.
If you're not in a good seat, leave the game and look for a better situation, or change seats at your table if you have the opportunity.
You must be patient if you want to win. You will often be tempted to play hands that you should fold. Learn to fold them. Wait for the right situation. When it arrives, you can win someone's stack. That should be your objective in big-bet games.
Be aggressive, but careful. If a tight player calls your bets, stop and think about why this is happening. You will often encounter tight, passive players at small stakes. They will call down with powerful hands until all the money is in the middle and you lose your stack.
The Power of Position
Play as often as possible with position. This means you should be the last player to act on each round of betting. Playing with position means you have more information than your opponents. Out of position, your opponents will have to make a betting decision with little information. With position, you can check back and your opponents won't know if it's because of power or for deception.
Position doesn't always go to the last player after the dealer. In stud, for example, the player showing the lowest card goes first on third street, and the player showing the best cards goes first on subsequent streets. So, if you're showing an ace, you'll go first on fourth street unless another player pairs his door card. Remember this when you're trying to steal the antes with a big door card.
When you have position, you can check back multiple streets, you can call reasonable bets if you have a strong hand or a good draw, or you can fold. You will have trouble doing any of these things if you're out of position.
Take notes on your opponents so that you know something about them next time you see them. If you play live poker, you'll probably want to take notes afterwards based on your memory. If you play online, you should be able to take notes with your site's software.
Develop abbreviations so you can be succinct. For example, I write “LPFR” to denote a loose pre-flop raiser. I often write something like “r3.5bAxsm” to note that a player open-raised 3.5 big blinds with a small suited ace from middle position. You can make similar notes about how an opponent plays each street. I often write “CDF7” at stud to note that a player calls down and folds when he misses his draw on seventh street.
The book Harrington on Online Cash Games, by Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie, has a complete section on taking notes.
Bluffing is a tool to deceive opponents, but it should be employed sparingly in small-stakes games whose players will often call down with a small pair or weak draw. Leave the multi-street bluffs to the pros on High Stakes Poker.
You might bluff if you come up empty on the last betting round. Do this only against a single opponent as a rule, unless multiple opponents have shown weakness throughout a hand. A failed bluff can give players the idea that you may not have the goods when you bet. Use this later in a session, when you pick up a strong hand.
Fold Early and Often
Be realistic about your chances of winning a hand. In a nine-player game, you're only going to show up with the winner one time out of nine on average, and you'll have long streaks when you're dealt significantly worse hands.
Your opponents in small-stakes games tend to be straightforward. Many, if not most, bet with the goods and check otherwise. A passive player who suddenly becomes agressive is quite likely to have the best hand. Exercise good judgment. Unless you're fairly likely to win, just fold your hand and move on.
Are you a winning poker player?
You must be aggressive to win, but not all aggressive players are winners. Many small-stakes players think aggression is all that matters. These players can win a lot of money when they're hot. More often they lose their stacks and leave.
An aggressive player has two ways to win. He can show down the best hand or induce his opponent to fold. A passive player has only one way to win, which is by having the best hand, but he frequently has to fold before he gets there because he shows no aggression.
Most sites have rakeback programs that return part of the rake to players. You have to join the program to get rakeback, and this generally must occur when you first make a deposit. Some sites have their own programs. For others you must open your account through a rakeback site.
Rake can be quite costly, so it's imperative that you get rakeback. The rake is particularly high at lower stakes.
Never Stop Learning
You need to keep learning if you want to win. The player who doesn't learn is standing still while the game changes and his opponents get better. Visit online forums such as the extensive Two Plus Two Poker Forums. Discuss hands with friends or on forums. Read about the games you play.
Here are a few book recommendations. There are lots of good books—and lots more bad ones. Look for reviews before buying. I list a few of the better ones in each category. That doesn't mean you won't find something that works better for you. Some of these books are quite old; you will have to search for them on the used market.
Weighing the Odds in Hold'Em Poker, by King Yao
Small Stakes Hold 'Em: Winning Big with Expert Play, by Ed Miller, David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth
Easy Game 3rd Edition, by Andrew Seidman.
The Poker Blueprint, by Tri Nguyen and Aaron Davis
Omaha Poker, by Bob Ciaffone
Pot-Limit Omaha Poker, by Jeff Hwang
Tournaments and Sitngos
Secrets of Professional Tournament Poker, Volumes 1 and 2, by Jonathan Little
The Raiser's Edge: Tournament-Poker Strategies for Today's Aggressive Game, by Bertrand Grospellier, Lee Nelson, Tyson Streib and Tony Dunst
Sit 'n Go Strategy, by Collin Moshman
Seven Card Stud for Advanced Players, by David Sklansky, Mason Malmuth and Ray Zee
Seven Card Stud Poker, by Konstantin Othmer
How to Win at Stud Poker, by James Wickstead
High-Low Split Poker: Seven-Card Stud and Omaha Eight-or-Better for Advanced Players, by Ray Zee
Pot Limit Omaha 8 Revealed, Expanded Edition, by Dan Deppen
Draw and Lowball
Play Poker, Quit Work and Sleep Till Noon!, by John Fox
Winning Concepts in Draw and Lowball, by Mason Malmuth
Winning Poker Systems, by Norman Zadeh
Poker Strategy: Winning with Game Theory, by Nesmith C. Ankeny
Sklansky on Poker, by David Sklansky
Play Razz Poker to Win, by Mitchell Cogert
Heads-Up No-Limit Hold 'Em, by Collin Moshman
Poker: A Review of Easy Game 3rd Edition and an Interview with Author Andrew "BalugaWhale" Seidman: Andrew Seidman's Easy Game 3rd Edition caters to both beginners and advanced no-limit holdem players. To buy Easy Game is an easy decision.