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poker strategy hole cards

Just like chess, poker is easy to learn and hard to master. Because of the many poker variants and the many poker event types, you'll find vast amounts of poker strategy resources. This guide to poker strategy provides a basic overview of poker, plus strategy tips for each of the major versions of poker.

Basic Poker Strategy

Basic poker strategy begins with an understanding of poker's basic odds, the math underpinning strategy, table position and poker bankroll management.

  • Table Positioning: The button shows when each player at the table acts. If you act after another player, you have an advantage over them because you see what they do before you make a decision. Learn the different strategies associated with early, middle and late positions at a poker table.
  • Poker Bankroll Management: Bankroll management tells a player what blind levels they should play at, plus how much they should bet when raising. Start at low stakes when learning the game, then raise the stake level in small increments once you gain skill and build your bankroll.
  • Poker Math: Become grounded in poker math. Use poker software to calculate odds until you develop these skills (or if math isn't your strong suit). Poker Tracker helps you track your odds, while PokerSnowie is a good tool for those wanting to learn GTO strategy.
  • Play When You Feel Good: Only play when you are at your physical and mental peak. Don't play when you're tired, hungry, sleepy, bored, distracted or upset. You want to make decisions when no outside factor affects your decision-making process. This is one reason you'll only play at one table at first – to avoid distraction.
  • Poker Odds: Knowing the general odds of winning is important. If you're ever watched TV poker, you'll see the relative percentage each player has in the hand. While players in a game don't have the information to make this calculation, it's important to know how many outs your hand has. It's also important to have a general idea of the type of hand your opponent has.

Poker Odds Chart

"Outs" is a term for how many cards remain in the deck that would complete your hand. For instance, a gut-shot straight draw is a straight draw where only one card rank can help: 6-7-9-10 means only the four 8-cards would help. An open-ended straight draw – for instance, 6-7-8-9 – gives you 8 outs (four 5s, four 10s). Knowing how many outs you have lets you calculate your odds in a general way.

  • Gut-Shot Straight Draw: 4 outs
  • Two Overcards: 6 outs
  • Open-Ended Straight Draw: 8 outs
  • Flush Draw: 9 Outs
  • Flush Draw & Gut-Shot: 12 outs
  • Straight Flush Draw: 15 outs

Poker Strategy Tips

Some poker tips transcend the many variants. The strategy advice below applies to most of the major variants of poker. Whether you're playing Texas Hold'em, Omaha Hold'em, Seven-Card Stud or a less popular game, these tips and techniques should improve your game.

  • Play Tight But Aggressive: Loose/Tight is a measure of how many hands you play. Aggression is a measure of whether you raise or call when you do get into the betting. Playing tight means you'll play with better odds when you do get into hands, while aggression means you put pressure on other players instead of letting them dictate play.
  • Use Position: You'll play more hands in late position than you would in early position. Having late position lets you see what other players have done and how many opponents you're likely to face in a showdown.
  • Learn to Fold: Some of the best plays in poker are when you have the strength to fold (against temptation). At a nine-handed table, you'll have the best hand only one time out of nine hands. Thus, you should be folding most of the time. It's not a sign of weakness, but a sign of a smart player.
  • Don't Bluff Too Much: Most of the time, you should be in the hand only when you have a strong hand. When you play at low stakes with less skillful competition, players tend to make calls more often. Making an aggressive bet with weak cards can be a brilliant play for an experienced player. Even losing the hand can put doubt in the mind of an opponent, but big bluffs are something you should do only when you start to master the game.
  • Take Your Time: Remember to take your time and analyze the situation. Even top players often make automatic decisions, which hurts their odds. Take your time to analyze the situation and your opponent's behavior before making a decision.

Texas Hold'em Strategy & Rules

Texas Hold'em is the most popular version of poker these days. The World Series of Poker Main Event uses Texas Hold'em rules, while most of the poker on TV features the game. Use these Texas Hold'em strategy tips for a solid start to your poker career.

  • Read Your Opponent's Hand: Several factors give you an indication of your opponent's hand strength. These include their table position, their aggression in the hand, their general aggression level and what kind of possibilities the flop offers.
  • Opponent's Position: Narrow down the likely possibilities based on the player's betting position. Betting from early position typically suggests a stronger hand. Seeing the flop in late position (with few opponents) creates more possibilities.
  • Post-Flop Actions: What a player does after the flop provides another clue. Raising projects strength, while checking indicates uncertainty or weakness.
  • Community Cards:  A "dry board" – a flop without flush possibilities – makes for a more straightforward calculation. Look at the broad picture to narrow down what type of hand your opponent might hold.
  • Opponent Behavior: Does your opponent take a long time to make a decision? Is it shorter or longer than usual? What are the bet sizes? What are the bet sizes in comparison to the player's previous hands?

Omaha Strategy Tips

Omaha Hold'em – usually just called Omaha – is a popular variant that looks a lot like Texas Hold'em. Instead of receiving two hole cards, though, each player receives four hole cards. The object is to build the best five-card hand using two hole cards and three community cards. This creates all kinds of new possibilities, thus making Omaha strategy even more complicated than Texas Hold'em strategy. 

  • Double-Check Your Hand Combinations: Choose your starting hand carefully. Four cards mean lots of possibilities, so it's easy to overlook the best hand.
  • Raise or Fold: Notice that the most successful players tend to either raise or fold but seldom check. It's tempting to call but calling means you aren't that confident in your hand – a sign it's a loser.
  • Watch Out for Big Raises: While bluffing is a part of Omaha, players don't bluff as often as they would in Texas Hold'em. A big bet means your opponent probably has a good starting hand.
  • Go For Strong Drawing Hands: Because of the many possibilities, a straight might could have 15 to 20 outs in Omaha. While you shouldn't focus strategy on straight draws (or flush draws, to a lesser extent), keep these possibilities in mind while betting.
  • Aces Aren't That Strong: A pair of unsuited aces in the pre-flop isn't a strong hand. Most players will see their hands improve when the community cards appear. Don't be misled into thinking your aces are that strong.

Seven-Card Stud Strategy Tips

Seven-Card Stud requires many different strategies than Hold'em and Omaha, though some strategy concepts remain constant. Like Texas Hold'em, getting involved in weak starting hands is a bad idea in Seven-Card Stud. Since there's an extra round of betting, you can get into the deep waters quickly.

  • Tight Strategy for Beginners: New players should play tight until they build their knowledge. A good tight strategy is to play all trips, big and medium pairs (AA to 88), any three broadway cards, and middling suited connectors.
  • Pay Attention to Discarded Hands: Everyone is dealt one upcard to start the game. Pay attention to the upcards of discarded hands. It helps you calculate the odds of hitting a draw, while also calculating your opponent's odds if you put them on a hand.
  • Learn to Read the Board: On that subject, learn to read the clues so you can make an educated guess about your opponent's hand. Their upcard is the most important clue, but having a good guess of the hand they're trying to build helps you strategize.
  • Play Big Hands for Value: If you get a three of a kind or high pairs (AA to JJ), play these to maximize their value. Sometimes, you'll want to slow-play a hand to avoid being obvious. Most of the time, press your advantage.
  • Pay Attention to Opponents: This goes for every variant of poker, but pay attention to opponents even when you fold. See which players call bets even when their opponent is showing strength. Later, you can target these players because they aren't likely to fold.

Basic Poker Strategy Tips

The three main types of real money online poker games are tournaments, sit 'n go events, and cash games. Whichever of the three is your first focus, here are a few tips that can get you started. Read our poker strategy pages for more in-depth analysis.

Poker Tournament Strategy

Because of televised events, the popular image of competitive poker is the huge poker tournament. These have many entrants, which swells the prize pools and offers life-changing first-place prizes. Many tournament types exist, from freezeouts to re-buys and add-on events. In any of these events against a big field of entries, certain tournament strategies apply.

  • Raise Small and Often: When sitting in late position, raising small and often is a good strategy against weaker opposition. This only has to work around half of the time to profit you. Most people have a good idea of what they want to do in early and middle position, but raising small in late position lets you steal hands early on. Only use this strategy when you have a firm understanding of poker math.
  • Defend Your Big Blind: If you're the big blind, the probabilities on small raises or calls often make sense. As a general rule, defend the big blind if you hold suited cards, have a straight possibility, or otherwise have a decent chance of profiting from the flop. One expert recommends defending your big blind at least 40 percent of the time against one opponent. Hitting even one pair often wins the pot.
  • Be Cautious with Multi-Way Pots: If you're defending the big blind against multi-way pots, the decision is more complicated. Your pot odds are greater, but it's hard to realize your equity on these hands. You want an easy decision on these hands. Don't defend offsuits with large gaps, in other words.

Sit & Go Strategies

Sit 'n Go events are one-table tournaments that are over in an hour or two. These online poker events are popular for players who don't have time for huge tournaments but like the feel of a final table. SNGs are fast and furious, though sit & go strategy requires a bit of patience (at first).

  • Play Tight at First: Fold most hands and wait until several players are eliminated before making bold moves with most hands. Preserve a decent amount of start chips.
  • Situational Middle Stage Strategy: Look at the chip stacks during the middle stage of the game. If only one small stack remains between you and the money, stay out of harm's way. Make more all-in bets to steal the blinds and build up your chip stack. If a player shows commitment, don't risk too many chips with a marginal hand.
  • Final Three Strategy: Once the SNG gets down to three players, play loosens up considerably. The blinds are probably high and everyone is in the money. The smallest change in pay position is 30 percent (if it's a 50/30/20 pay structure), so it's time to shoot for the stars. Force the action with a decent hand.

Poker Cash Game Strategy

Online poker sites also have cash games, sometimes called ring games. Whether you play poker online or in live cash games, the same principles apply. Here are cash game strategies to remember the next time you join an ongoing game.

  • Mostly Bet With a Strong Hand: When you hold a strong top pair or better, you should bet most of the time. You want to increase the size of the pot when you're likely to hold the strongest hand, so only slow-play strong hands in order to keep your opponent off-balance.
  • Use Medium-Strength Hands to Bluff-Catch: Medium-strength hands are hard to play, but they're a good hand in small pots with bluffers. Avoid bloating pots when you have medium-strength cards, though, because this is likely to draw stronger hands.
  • 3-Bet with a Premium Hand: Don't be afraid to get into big pots with premium cards. Three-betting is when you re-raise after an opponent raises. It usually refers to pre-flop betting, though it also refers to post-flop raising. This technique makes your opponent's decisions tougher and builds the pot when you (likely) have the advantage.
  • Check the Flop in Multi-Way Pots: If more than one other opponent sees the flop, you should check the flop more often. Multiple opponents increase the odds that an opponent caught the flop or has a serious straight draw. If the flop didn't give you an overwhelming hand, it's often best to check.

Advanced Poker Strategy

Once you master the basic strategies and start to build your bankroll, you'll want to begin a serious study of poker. It helps to play a lot of hands, but intermediate and advanced players should always look to build their theoretical knowledge and technical skills through research. Here are some of the tools that emerging players should consider.

  • Use Poker Software: If allowed on a site, use poker software to calculate pot odds and analyze the play of opponents. If you don't want to do these in online poker, then choose Anonymous Tables or Zoom Poker-type games.
  • Listen to Top Poker Podcasts: Poker podcasts are often a matter of taste, so we'll give players a range of options. The Red Chip Poker podcasts have over 3.5 million downloads and include interviews, guest coaches and high-level strategy discussions. Chasing Poker Greatness discusses how players like Fedor Holz, Jon "Apestyles" Van Fleet, and Dan "Jungleman" Cates attained their status. Smart Poker Study Podcast offers over 250 episodes of strategy content for beginning players.
  • Read Top Poker Books: Read the best books on poker strategy. Classics like David Sklansky's Theory of Poker (1983) and Tommy Angelo's Elements of Poker (2007) give you good grounding in poker theory. Dan Harrington's Harrington on Hold'em (2004) is good advice for those who want to play No-Limit Texas Hold'em tournaments, while Ed Miller's Playing the Player (2012) focuses on your opponents and on GTO (game theory optimal).

Poker Strategy FAQ

Is poker a luck or strategy?

Poker is a game of skill that has elements of luck. Thus, it's a game of chance combined with a game of skill. Poker players calculate the odds, disguise their intentions, make educated guesses about their opponents' hands based on clues, and learn to read their opponents through body language and a working knowledge of human psychology. Professional poker players make a living using these skills, so poker has many strategies and skill elements.

What are the 10 ways to win in poker?

Poker has 10 hand ranks, so the poker hand ranks are the 10 ways to win at poker. Someone probably has written on 10 ways people can win at poker, while many online sites have 10 poker strategy tips. No famous poker book or formal poker strategy is called "the 10 ways", though. Look at our poker hands chart above for the 10 ways to win at poker.

Is there a basic strategy for poker?

Not in a formal sense, but certain basic strategies can help a beginner become competent quickly. For newcomers, playing a tight/aggressive strategy works best. When Richard Nixon was in the US Navy during the Second World War, he built up a bankroll that he used to pay for college. Asking a friend if there were strategies to win at poker, the friend said, "Yes, but it's boring. Basically, fold until you have a strong hand and then make big bets." That's basically the tight/aggressive strategy in a nutshell.

What is the best strategy for poker?

Again, playing tight/aggressive is the best poker strategy for anyone who isn't an expert. Someone with expert knowledge might develop their own style but that's a bad idea for beginners. Good players get a firm grounding in the fundamental strategies, then develop their game based on experience and personal quirks.