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The first step to getting better is admitting that you have a problem. We know… it hits like a ton of bricks, right? S’okay, it should; that’s the entire point of this article. So with that out the way, what I want you to do for me right now is go to the closest mirror. If you can’t find one, use your camera phone. Got it? Good. Next, I want you to say out loud the following words: “I suck at poker.” Go on. Don’t skip ahead to see where I’m going with this; just do it.
Done? Congratulations! You’ve just taken your first step on the road to recovery, and by recovery, I mean all that money you’ve donked off. But also, uhhh, the road to becoming a better poker player! Yes, that’s it!
Now that you’ve admitted you have a problem, what can you do to fix it? Well, luckily for you, we’re here to give you the advice you need to fix how you play poker. We’re not here to sugarcoat it; it’s going to be some tough love. But, if you’re serious about improving your poker game, you should read carefully. To make it easier, we’ve split it into the three categories you’re likely messing up the most.
Preflop is the foundation upon which you build your poker strategy. If you have shaky preflop fundamentals, it’s like building a house of cards on jelly–you’re not going to get very far. Luckily, preflop isn’t a highly complex street, so taking this advice should get you most of the way to becoming a solid preflop player.
Why you suck:
The mistake that almost all recreational players, and even somewhat serious players, make is they don’t fold enough. They play too many hands from all positions, costing them money. It could even be the primary factor between being a winning player and a losing player, particularly at the micro stakes where the rake is so high.
You’re not Tom Dwan, Viktor Blom, or Garrett Adelstein. You can’t play 86s from UTG in a 9-handed game and get away with it, particularly online. You need to play a solid preflop strategy made up of strong hands and only start to loosen that range when you get close to the button. Discipline is the name of the game when it comes to preflop play. You need to be able to fold that baby pocket pair from early position or that raggy offsuit ace from middle position. If you do, you’ll likely see an immediate upturn in your results.
One thread that is going to run all the way through this post is that you’re not aggressive enough. The first place that manifests is in your preflop play; you call far too many hands against raises and don’t 3bet anywhere near enough. 3betting is such a powerful tool, especially in low-stakes games, as it gives you the chance to win the pot preflop. Even if you don’t, you have the betting lead and the range advantage going into the flop, making you the favorite to win the pot postflop.
If you’re playing low stakes, particularly micro stakes online, the rake is a huge factor you shouldn’t ignore. The rake is high enough that calling some hands against a raise becomes a losing play. The best way to counteract this is to 3bet a lot of strong hands that will punish your opponents for calling too often; or, if they fold a lot to 3bets, a lot of bluffs that will punish them for folding too often.
The last major mistake you make preflop is calling from the big blind far too often, particularly against early position raises. I know what you’re about to say, “but in the big blind, I get a discount; I’d be stupid not to call with a wide range of hands.” This may look like sound logic, but it’s flawed. By calling a wide range of hands, you end up check/folding the majority of flops, losing a big pot with a second-best hand on other flops, and occasionally winning a big pot with a “disguised” hand.
Now, I’m not advocating that you start folding all your hands from the big blind, but you need to be smarter about the ones you pick. Calling with weak offsuit aces against early position raises will not be a winning play, but calling low, suited gappers allows you to attack the low boards that they won’t hit. Against late position raises, you should be fighting back with more 3bets than you do. It’s far too easy to just call from the big blind with a lot of hands, but you need to be upping your 3bet percentage against late position raises to at least 10% from the BB.
Now that we’ve covered how to be a more solid preflop player, let’s look at what happens after the flop is dealt. While preflop sets up your strategy for the rest of the hand, most of the money is won or lost postflop–particularly on the turn and river–so if you want to increase your win rate, pay attention!
For most players, bluffing is hard. There’s no real way around it. Betting when you have absolutely nothing, knowing that if you’re called, you’ll lose your hard-earned money, is a tough prospect for most people. However, to be a winning poker player, you’ll have to learn to suck it up and pull the trigger more often.
If you don’t bluff enough, your opponent has no incentive to call your bets, meaning that you lose almost all the value from your strong hands. The great thing about bluffing is not all bluffs have to be made with pure air. Betting with your draws is a great way to increase the number of bluffs you have while still giving you a chance to make the best hand. Be more aggressive with your draws, and don’t be afraid to empty the clip!
Check-raising at lower stakes seems to only be done with the nuts or a monster draw. Don’t worry; it’s not just you–no one in these games seems to check-raise enough, particularly when you consider how often people c-bet. You may have noticed that it’s become trendy to c-bet very small with 100% of your hands on flops; everyone seems to be doing it–even in spots where it isn’t optimal.
If you see these players, they’re prime candidates for check-raising, as they’ll struggle to call enough after c-betting all of their hands. Players tend to play very honestly against check-raises, only continuing when they have a decent hand/draw and not floating enough with weak hands. This means you can check-raise almost any two cards and see a profit against these players–so do it.
If you remember the first criticism of your postflop play, I said, “You don’t bluff enough.” This criticism can be extended to pretty much all players in low-stakes games. But, if I were to add a P.S., I’d say, “, especially on rivers.” Most of the players you’re playing against at low-stakes games aren’t bluffing rivers anywhere near an optimal amount–particularly if they take a bet-bet-bet line.
I know it’s fun to put on your mask and cape and make a hero call, especially when you win. Unfortunately, in the long run, these calls are setting money on fire. You need to be disciplined and learn to throw away that bottom pair when your opponent takes a strong line. Money saved is money earned in this game, and if you want a positive win rate, start folding rivers more often.
The last area we will look at is arguably the most important–the mental game. I’ve already mentioned it several times, but poker is a game of discipline. You need to fully control your emotions; otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for failure. In a game like No Limit Hold ’em, you can quickly decimate your bankroll if you’re not careful.
Texas Hold ’em is a game of controlled aggression. You must constantly apply pressure on your opponents, trying to force them to make mistakes. You must be betting and raising with a balanced combination of bluffs and value hands. Too many bluffs and your opponents will always call; too many value hands and your opponents will always fold. The key point is that you should try to be the aggressor as often as possible.
You’re playing poker too passively, checking and calling in spots where you should be betting and raising. If you’re consistently taking passive actions, you’re not applying any pressure to your opponent, instead allowing the pressure to rest on you. If you constantly feel like you’re being put in tough spots by your opponents, it’s time to flip the script and become the aggressor.
Poker is a tough game on the human psyche, particularly when played for money. Everyone hates losing, everyone hates losing money even more, and losing money through no fault of your own (such as an unlucky river card) is the worst of the lot. So it’s natural to feel upset or annoyed when you lose; it’s just human nature. Your problem is that you let it affect how you play after it happens.
One or two unlucky hands and you’re raging, talking about how the world is against you, and there must be some big conspiracy amongst the poker sites to prevent a player of your obvious talent from winning. Stop it. When you lose a hand, take a deep breath, and calm down. Nothing good comes from getting emotional about it. In fact, it makes it more likely that you’ll keep losing.
If you feel yourself tilting, stop playing until you’re calm. Your bankroll will thank you.
Poker is so hard on the human brain because you can do everything right and end up losing, or everything wrong and end up winning. Our brains are hard-wired to look for patterns based on results, so if we see ourselves do something that results in losing, our natural inclination is to change what we do to change the outcome–even if we’ve done everything right. It takes a lot of discipline to tell yourself, “No, I am doing the right thing; the results are just beyond my control.”
There’s a good chance that many of the mistakes you’re making are because they happened to work out for you when you first started playing poker. You played a few hands with 96o and won, so now you play it every time because it’s your “lucky hand.” The biggest step you need to make if you want to become a winning poker player is to disassociate your performance and your results. Focus on the process, not the outcome, and you’ll see the changes in your game.
We’ve covered quite a few important points in this post, but the three most important things can be summed up like this.
Following these three essential rules will help you make the steps you need to become a winning poker player. If you’re interested in more in-depth content, check out our “How To Play Poker” series of articles, where you can learn the ins and outs of poker strategy.
Jackpot! You’ve flopped a winning hand! This article has surely added some extra chips to your stack. Tune in for more valuable insights and pro-level strategies!
Looks like you’ve been dealt a bad beat. We’ll shuffle the deck and try again.
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