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How To Play Poker Without Embarrassing Yourself
Let me start off by saying that I am not a professional poker player. Not by a long shot. However, I play poker through Facebook via Zynga, and the people I play with there are downright awful. Just mind boggling, ridiculously bad. Frankly, it’s kind of shocking. Granted, through Zynga’s poker, you don’t play with real money (unless you’re particularly horrible), and that means that not everyone is going to take it seriously. But that’s no excuse for some of the moves I’ve seen. And to vent from what I’ve seen, I’m going to write this “How to” article. Reading this and following the advice I give won’t make you a pro, but you won’t be embarrassingly incompetent, and should have the edge on people who are.
That being said, I’m going to start off with the basics of poker (based off of Texas Holdem). First, you are dealt two cards (the hole cards) and a round of betting begins. Then three cards are placed face up on the table (the flop) and a round of betting begins. Then one more card is placed face up on the table (the turn), and another round of betting begins. Then one final card is placed face up on the table (the river), and the final round of betting begins. The winner is the person who has the best hand (5 cards) out of the 7 cards available (the 5 on the table that everyone shares, and the two in your hand).
Now… What are the good hands? These are the best hands in scale of worst to best (note, I will abbreviate Ace, King, Queen, Jack, and number cards to A, K, Q, J, 10… etc):
High Card: When you hold the best card (best is an A, only very rarely does this hand win)
Pair: When you hold two of the same card (Pair of As – A-A)
Two Pair: When you hold two of the same card, twice in your hand (A-A-K-K)
Three of a Kind: When you hold three of the same card (A-A-A)
Straight: When you hold cards that get consecutively higher (10-J-Q-K-A. Note, A can also be low, as this is also a straight: A-2-3-4-5)
Flush: When you hold cards that are the same suit (All Clubs, Diamonds, Spades or Hearts)
Full House: When you have a three of a kind, and a pair (A-A-A-K-K)
Four of a Kind: When you hold four of the same card (A-A-A-A)
Straight Flush: When you hold cards that get consecutively higher, and are all the same suit (10-J-Q-K-A, all in Clubs, Diamonds, Spades or Hearts).
And those are all the hands you can have. In case it wasn’t obvious, the harder it is to get a hand, the better it is to have that hand. Everyone is guaranteed to get at least a “high card” (though that “high card” might only be a 7), and unless you play a lot of poker, you may never see a straight flush (royal or otherwise). Now, if you want to get all gritty in the math involved in figuring out your odds of getting a good hand you’re going to have to look somewhere else for those odds (I recommend this site, but be warned, it’s very math heavy). In order to not embarrass yourself, you just need to know that each hand becomes exponentially harder to attain, and that (if you’re playing with nine other people) there’s a small, but not ridiculously small chance that someone could have a full house. You’re probably usually safe from four of a kind or a royal flush (unless you play a whole lot). But keep in mind, if you are going for a straight or better, and there is only one card left to be shown, the odds are very much against you of getting the hand you want (but not impossible).
Now… those are the hands, but the cards (and the odds of getting good cards) are only half the fun to this game. The other half is a psychological battle between the people playing. In a nutshell, you can bluff (try to make someone think your hand is better than what it actually is), and you have to try to see if someone else is bluffing. Bluffing adds a whole new dimension to the game, because if you bluff, you can win even if you don’t have the best hand. If someone THINKS you have a flush (when you only have a pair) they may fold to save themselves out of losing money. How you bluff can be different depending on your play style, but most people bluff by making betting more money than usual. Say, when you play, you usually raise the bet to $100 per person, and then raise it to $1,000 when you could have a flush (but don’t really), that’s a bluff.
Ok, so now that we have established the basics of poker. Now… how can you use the game mechanics to play… not embarrassingly? First are foremost is that you shouldn’t go all in (bet all your money) before you see the flop. I see this happen all the time, and it pains me greatly when I see it. The problem with doing this, is that you only have access to two cards, and therefore can’t see if you have a winning hand (or even a good one). Let’s say you and I are playing a game. You see that you have a pair of Aces, and I have a 2 and a 7 (note: these are the worst two cards you can get for your hole cards because both cards are very low, and they are too far apart to help you get a straight). With a 2 and a 7, I probably won’t win. The odds are very much against me. However, let’s say we go all in, and the five middle cards are 7-2-7-K-J. There’s no way you can tell that I was going to get a full house, and it would have been reckless for me to go all in with the worst starting position possible. In nine player tournaments on Zynga, I often see four or five people go all in on the first hand before the flop. Now… consider this: if five people go all in, you have a one in five chance of winning. And if your cards to begin with were a 2 and a 7… do you really want to place your chances of winning solely on dumb luck? Believe it or not… I’ve seen many people go all in with this hand. If you want to play only using dumb luck, at least have a pair as your hole cards; then at least you have a fighting chance to get three of a kind and/or the win.
So… if you aren’t relying on dumb luck to win… how can you win? The answer requires you to be patient. Play hands. Win sometimes, lose sometimes. The trick is to make your wins as large as possible, and your losses as small as possible (you’d be surprised how many people struggle with this concept, and choose to only rely on dumb luck). Now, how can losing a hand help you win in the long run? The answer is based on the psychological half of this game. Let me give you an example of a game I played with someone once:
It was the end of a tournament, and there was only him and I left playing. The total money to be won (to win the tournament) was $9,000. He had $7,800, and I only had $1,200 (he got lucky with some dumb luck hands that had eventually eliminated everyone except him and me). Now, he had that large lead, but after a few hands with him, I realized something. This guy never bluffed. Ever. If he thought he was going to lose, he folded as soon as possible. Now, while this may seem like a good strategy, it ended up costing him the game because he was very easy to read. When he had a bad hand, it was obvious. When he had the best hand possible, he bet everything he could. When he only had a good hand (but not the best hand possible), he would bet a large amount. The more confident he was in his ability to win, the more he would bet. Which meant if I (with my basic knowledge of the odds of winning) read his bets correctly, I would win (or minimize my losses). Which is how I won the game in the end.
If he had lost a couple of hands, bluffed, or varied even a little from his strategy of trying to minimize his losses, he might not have lost (boggles the mind a little doesn’t?). Remember each hand is a battle. Don’t win the battle, only to lose the war.
So… if you shouldn’t let luck decide who wins and you shouldn’t play ultra-conservatively with your money… how should you play? It’s complicated, but poker is a complicated game. Some people play while pretending to be incompetent. They pretend to make bad decisions (not bet when it’s obvious they are going to win, or bet too much when it’s obvious they’re going to lose). Depending how they keep up this charade, they can surprise everyone by making a good decision for a large amount of cash.
Some people let the odds do the talking. When they have a better chance of winning, they bet more, when they might lose, they bet less. This can be a very good strategy, as long as no one realizes that this is your strategy.
Some people prefer to outplay their opponent. They have no strategy; they only counter other people’s strategies. They usually do this by avidly looking to find other player’s tells. A tell is something that gives away that you are bluffing. Everyone has a different tell, and the best poker players train themselves to get rid of their tells. A tell can be something simple like smiling when you have a good hand, coughing when you have a bad hand, stalling when you have an OK hand… or something along these lines. If someone has a tell, and you know how to read it, you can easily outplay your opponent (which I did with that guy in my earlier example). This strategy is definitely one of the better ones, but requires patience and experience to be able to pull it off.
I personally like to combine the strategies whenever I can, or actively switch strategies while in the middle of tournament. Remember, while you are trying to figure out your opponent, your opponent is trying to figure you out. Even if you are able to read your opponent well, if he can read you even better… who do you think has the upper hand?
In the long run, you need to figure out what works for you. If you play poker online, don’t go to the big tables when you first arrive. Start off at the tables that play for extremely low amounts of money and figure out your style. If you don’t want to learn a bunch of math for calculating odds, play at those poor tables until you get a feel for odds. Stay there and learn how to read tells (even online, there are tells to be read). If you want to be the best, you have to put in the time to gain experience. Even gambling isn’t a ‘get rich quick’ scenario. But… if you just want to play, and have a decent shot at winning, just remember:
Know what hands beat other hands
Know the relative odds of getting a good hand
Don’t rely solely on luck to win
Don’t play the game, play your opponent (how you do this depends on your style, and really must be discovered through experience).
Be patient, and be willing to spend some time to learn how to play the game.
Now, these tips may seem really obvious, but I have won many times because I keep playing people who don’t understand these basic concepts. It’s kind of sad, though I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much because if people keep playing this way, I can keep winning. Oh well. Anyway… good luck, I hope these tips will help you to play poker without embarrassing yourself.
Incidentally, if you want to play against these people, feel free to play poker with me with Zynga. If you go here, you can access a page to let you play Zynga’s poker through Facebook, MySpace, and a few other sites.