No-Limit Hold’em has become a worldwide sensation thanks to its “easy to learn, hard to master” format that makes it appealing to newcomers and long-time players.
Considering how much money can be made by playing a good poker game it’s not surprising there is an overwhelming amount of resources dedicated to getting better at No-Limit Hold’em.
These days you can consume poker books, blogs, forums, newsletters, websites, videos and even Twitch streams in an effort to get better at the game. You can get free advice or you can spend thousands on personal coaching. Take your pick. It’s all out there.
To make things even more complex, poker is a game of immense creativity so there are diverse philosophies of how to approach the game. Every player has a slightly different style and there’s no “wrong” way to play the game (depending on what you are trying to achieve) so it’s up to you how far you want to take your journey.
All that said there are some basic strategies that can vastly improve your poker game with very little effort and we’ve compiled a list of things you’ll want to avoid when just starting out with No-Limit Hold’em.
1. Don’t Call All the Time
Most new players struggle with calling too much when they are just getting started playing No-Limit Hold’em.
The call is seen as the safer option over a bet or a raise, especially if you have a mediocre hand. In addition folding always seems passive so the call often seems like the ideal choice.
The problem is that there are two ways to win a pot in No-Limit Hold’em:
You are never going to get your opponent to fold by calling. That’s the inherent advantage of betting. You might win without having the best hand.
Think about how many times you’ve been dealt a crappy hand or you miss the flop entirely. That’s happening to your opponents as well and the best way to profit in those situations is being the one that pushes a bet into the middle.
It should also be noted that when you get your opponent to fold you win 100% of the time. The same can’t be said of being all-in with pocket aces because sometimes an opponent with pocket kings is going to get lucky.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever call. The call is a powerful tool in the poker players arsenal. One of the best times to call is when you are in late position with a mediocre hand and there are plenty of limpers in front of you. You essentially get a shot at hitting your hand on the flop for a cheap price.
2. Avoid "Limping" Pre-Flop
Limping is a nickname for when you call for the minimum amount pre-flop.
It’s very similar to calling and the same strategies apply. You want to avoid limping in early position because chances are at least one player is going to bet.
If your hand wasn’t good enough to make a small bet are you going to call your opponent’s bet? Not likely.
Limping is pretty much the most passive behavior you can display at the poker table and experienced poker players will likely exploit it by betting with absolute trash cards once they realize you’re limping frequently.
Every now and then you’ll see people in early position limp with very strong hands like kings or aces. The idea is that you’ll catch your opponent when they bet. There are problems with that strategy, however, and every now and then the flop will be particularly dangerous and you'll be forced to lay down your premium pair just because you gave your opponents a chance to catch up.
Bottom line: if you're limping all the time then you're effectively bleeding chips.
3. You Should Probably Fold More
For most poker games you should probably only be playing roughly 10-20% of your hands.
That’s a big surprise to anyone who’s ever watched poker on TV where it seems like everyone is playing every hand they get dealt. Poker on TV is edited, however, and they remove 90% of the boring hands where one player bets and everyone else folds.
You’re going to be primarily looking to play the top 10-20 best hands in Hold’em and throwing most of your trash into the muck.
This is especially true when you’re playing a nine-handed table where you’re almost guaranteed to run into someone with a strong hand.
You can loosen up and play a few more of your worse hands when you’re playing short-handed (anywhere from three to six players) or you’re one of the last players to act and everyone in front of you has folded.
You can also make adjustments when you realize your opponents are playing too many hands or too few hands.
If an opponent is playing nearly every hand you could potentially wait for a good hand and attempt to stack them. If your opponent is playing only 5% of your hands then you can feel free to raise them with trash but fold the rare occasions where they bet back.
The sad reality is that any good poker player is going to spend a lot of time folding.
4. Don’t Be Afraid of Bluffing
This might be strange advice after the last point but you shouldn’t be afraid of selective aggression.
Bluffing is the one part of poker that scares new players the most and — to be honest no one — likes getting caught in a bluff.
The reality is that bluffing is a pivotal part of poker. It will confuse your opponents and give you the ability to earn chips when you’re not picking up premium hands.
Bluffing also an incredible learning tool. Players who bluff frequently (with a clear intention) will likely improve their poker game much faster than players who avoid bluffing altogether.
The reason is that bluffing forces players to think about their opponent and what they might have rather than their own hand. It opens a whole new world of strategic possibility.
New players tend to believe that they will get called by everyone because their poker face is poor. The reality is that it’s extremely hard to put players on exact hands most of the time, despite their emotions.
Experienced players will tend to give new players even more credit because it’s not common for beginners to make big bluffs.
With all that in mind there are definitely better times to bluff than others. One of the best times to bluff is when a possible straight or flush draw hits the board. Quite often players with big hands like pocket aces or kings will fold because they don’t want to lose a huge pot.
5. Think About “Ranges” Not Hands
The next strategy concept is the first step towards thinking about poker from an intermediate perspective rather than straight-up beginner.
It’s a common misconception that poker professionals are always able to guess an opponent’s exact hand.
It does happen occasionally — as Daniel Negreanu has proven on several occasions — but for the most part poker pros rely on “ranges”.
The idea of a range is categorizing a broad assortment of hands together. For instance a common list of ranges might include:
1. All pocket pairs (A-A, K-K, Q-Q … 2-2).
2. Ace-x hands (A-K, A-Q, A-J … A-2).
5. Drawing hands (Suited or unsuited connectors like 9-8 or 5-4)
Now instead of thinking about the 169 exact starting hands that are possible in Hold’em you are instead thinking of just three general ones.
That’s a slight oversimplification of how ranges work but it gives you an idea about how you should be thinking about the game.
The first step to becoming an intermediate poker player is focusing less on your hand and instead thinking about what your opponent might hold. You don’t even have to be in a hand to develop this skill. You can simply observe how a hand plays out and make your own guess about what a player might be holding.
Break it down like this: Would it make more sense for your opponent to have a pair, ace-x or suited connector? Think about all the bets they've made (pairs are likely to bet pre-flop, etc.) and put them on a hand.
It will be a learning experience but you should always try and put your opponent on a range of hands. There’s a good chance you will learn more from the ones you get wrong so don’t be afraid to take some risks.