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Tips to Better Poker Playing (Beyond the Basics)

Semi-recently, "professional poker games" were televised, including brief pre-commercial briefings on how to play the game. Texas Hold-em Poker swept the nation and become a common hobby for many. It's a very simple poker game to learn. In fact, I was able to teach my 10 and 8-year-old stepdaughters to play.

Everyone has 2 cards in their hands (holecards) and 5 shared cards (community cards) on the table. There are 4 rounds of betting, whether you are playing for fun or gambling. After the cards are dealt, you decide if your hand is playable, and how much it is worth playing for. That is the pre-flop betting round. Then, the flop (first 3 community cards) is turned, and another round of betting takes place. One more card is turned (known as either "the turn" or "4th street"), another round of betting and then the final card, the river. Then everyone bets again before the winning hand, or the winner, rakes its profit. (It takes a damn good player to convince the winning hand to fold.)

Even the terminology is easy to learn. "Pocket rockets", "big slick", "snowmen", and even "dead man's hand" are all phrases my stepdaughters understand. However, I can not teach them to play well. It's okay if you play for fun, but if you want to play for money there is more to the game than "the basics" you learn from TV. Here are a few poker tips for those who take that next step and play poker for money.

  1. Unlike 5-card draw poker, a pair is not that great of a hand, especially if you have a low pair, like deuces. Low pocket pairs are literally worthless, unless you actually hit a third on the flop. If not, it's not worth playing after the flop unless it's free.
  2. Pay attention to the cards on the table. Not just what you have, but what other players have as well. Even if you have a good hand, like a straight, you'd be a fool to think you have the winning hand if there are 4 suited cards on the table and you don't hold a 5th. Even if you do make a flush by holding, say, a 7 there are 6 cards out there that beat you. I can't stress this poker tip enough. Pay attention!
  3. Fish all you want, but not at the poker table. Even for all the times you do catch, it's not worth it for all the times you won't. Open-ended straight draws are dangerous and foolish to play.
  4. Patience is key to survival. Loose players may win big in the beginning, and they also get knocked out long before those who learn to only play good hands. Train yourself to watch other players as you "sit out" for a long consecutive number of hands. You may learn a lot of 'tells' that will help you in the good hands that you do play.
  5. If you want to win, stay away from alcohol. Similar to driving, it can alter your perception. You may think you have a good hand, but be very wrong and lose a lot of money this way. Drinking also makes you a loose player. If playing in a casino, order a non-alcoholic drink that looks alcoholic. It helps if other good players think you are drinking, they may misjudge you. If playing with friends, have one beer and nurse it for the same effect. Never get a buzz at a poker table though, or your chances of winning will be severely affected.
  6. Let it go! This applies to a number of things. In one case, you will fold a hand before the flop because it is a bad hand and should not be played. It could be 7 and 2 off suit, it could be 5 and 10 suited, it doesn't matter. You are your own judge of what's worth playing. However, I can promise you that at least once you will see an amazing disappointment. Using 7/2 as an example, you may see the flop turn out 7, 2, and 7. I can almost guarantee this will happen more than once, depending on how many poker games you play. It is important to let it go, unless you want to play every bad hand you're dealt, in which case 1 out of 20 times there's a chance of something similar happening, while the rest will turn out as expected - a waste of money. The other thing you need to let go of is a bad beat. For example, once I had pocket aces, and the flop was ace, king, and king. Naturally, I thought I had an unbeatable hand, and I went in against somebody who actually had pocket kings. That loss on my behalf gave him what he needed to beat me in the long run at the game as well. Not just in stack size, but after that hand I just played so awful. I couldn't clear my mind of the beating I'd taken, and I wasn't able to focus on anything after that hand. If I had just let it go, I would have been able to win easily, because while I was hanging on to a bad beat, my opponent was hanging on to a very, very lucky win. Full tilt can work either way, it is helpful to use that to your advantage and not let it affect your concentration.
  7. If you choose to gamble, the most important tip I can give you is contradictory. Whether or not you are playing for pocket change or a cash value buy-in, play as though you are playing for a big pot. Play as though you invested $50+ in this game, and you refuse to leave with less than double what you paid.

    At the same time, play as though it is just a game. Some days you will lose, some days you will win. No matter how skillful a player you are, a large percentage of the game is luck. Nobody should gamble with money if they can't afford it or handle the loss.

In summary, knowing how to play poker does not make you a poker player. There is a common sense so many players lack, and although it benefits my pocket I almost pity those who make the same stupid mistakes. If you still find it wise to raise all in after the river with a hand no better than 2 pair, despite there being 4 suited cards on the board, well I have an open seat for you at my table this Friday, buy ins are $50.

- Caryn Murray

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