Introduction and Background
A big area of growth in the online casino business is, without a doubt, poker rooms. When I say “poker”, I mean the type of poker played at a table with others, not video poker, although as you’ll see they both have a lot in common, not the least of which is the fact that a player can gain an advantage if the conditions are right and you know what you’re doing. Perhaps you’ve played some poker at home with friends or have given it a go at a brick-and-mortar casino or even on-line. I have done all of them, although not extensively, especially when it comes to playing in the poker rooms at the casinos near me. The big drawback for me has been that “live” games are slow, there are a bunch of rules that I’m unfamiliar with (stuff like “no ‘string’ bets”, “don’t splash your chips”, etc.) and I’m not one for looking my opponent in the eye whilst I try to take their $$$. Of course, I sort of do that when playing Blackjack, but I really don’t consider the dealer my “opponent.” He or she is just an employee of the casino, which is my real opponent and, truth be told, most Blackjack dealers are rooting for me to win because then I might tip them.
But my big problem with table poker has always been the fact that it’s so damned slow. A table poker game may proceed at a rate of 35 to 40 hands per hour, versus a Blackjack game that will go maybe 60 hands per hour at a minimum and 200+ hands per hour when I’m alone at the table. I can usually play Video Poker at 500 or more hands per hour, so any game in the 40 hands per hour category does nothing for me in terms of satisfying my urge for “action”. With me, it’s simple: if I have an edge, I want to play as quickly as possible, so long as the speed doesn’t affect the accuracy of my playing decisions.Another consideration has also been the basic fact that it takes a fair amount of skill to make $40-$50 per hour at table poker but that’s fairly easy to do at Blackjack, if you have a big enough bankroll.
On the flip side, the nice thing about table poker is that you don’t have to hide your skill from the casino, because they earn their profits from a “rake” of the bets at a table, so they really don’t care who wins. In fact, skillful poker players are hailed as some sort of folk hero, judging by all the publicity that tournament winners receive at events like The World Series of Poker that’s held every year in Las Vegas. It should be the same for skillful Blackjack players and, to a degree, that’s the case when it comes to tournaments, but I’ve always felt that the casinos are a little leery about hosting such events because of the fear that hoards of card counters will descend upon them, when in fact, card counting is of limited value in a tournament. However, I will say that a good portion – probably a majority – of those who enter the “high stakes” Blackjack tournaments are counters and what else are they going to do in between tournament rounds?
Okay, let’s drop the philosophical stuff and get back to the topic of making $$$ at table poker. I don’t know if you’ve experienced an on-line poker casino, but it was a revelation for me when I downloaded the software of a couple of them. What I found was poker in an automated format. It’s literally click and play with all types of nifty features that would be impossible to incorporate at a brick-and-mortar version: no sweating over the “etiquette” of the game because you can’t break a rule if you tried; the total of the pot is displayed and updated bet-by-bet (helpful when figuring the odds of a play, which I’ll get into later) and you are basically anonymous, beyond displaying your “handle” and, most of all, the game proceeds very quickly, at least twice as fast as most games in a brick-and-mortar casino. I’m constantly fascinated by the technology that is developed for the Internet and on-line poker is no different.
Think of the possibilities. Not sure if a Flush beats a Straight? No, problem, just tape one of those “cheat sheets” to your monitor and you’re set. In fact, you can have all types of helpful information right next to you as you play, which is something neither of us is likely to do at a “real” table. Well, that got me thinking maybe the world needed a “GameMaster’s Poker School” that was designed to teach people how to play a winning game of poker – Hold ’em poker, in particular – just as I have tried to do with Blackjack. Also, because of the very nature of the on-line games, poker played on the ‘Net is less of a “people” game and more of a “mathematical” game, although I won’t rule out the human element entirely. That said, it’s still a game of probability, expected value and return on investment, just like Blackjack and Video Poker and, like those other games, it’s relatively easy to calculate what can happen when there’s only 52 cards in a deck.
Because all of the on-line poker rooms that I’ve visited up to this point allow you to try out their software in a play-money mode, the opportunities to practice your game against real, live opponents are plentiful and instructive. By their very nature, the play-money games aren’t necessarily a reflection of how things will go for you in a real-money game (the play-money games can best be described as “loose”, in the sense that raises come quick and often and you cannot bluff very effectively), but they do have considerable value. First of all, if you can’t win at a play-money game, you simply aren’t ready for the real-money version. Plus, playing for “fun” gets you familiar with how the software works and it’ll give you the opportunity to not only test out my ideas, but to get organized so that you have the information I’ll give you set up in a way that it’s quickly and easily available.
I should mention that although I’ll be focusing primarily on Hold ’em poker as it’s played on-line, much of what I’ll show you will apply to “live” poker games as well. In time, if you do as I say, you’ll memorize most of the information you need to win and that should enable you to do well at your local, friendly brick-and-mortar casino, not to mention a poker night with “da boyz and/or gurlz.” And yes, poker has been – for quite some time – a male-dominated activity but the Internet changes all that. Don’t want people to know your gender? Fine, pick an ambiguous handle (“golfnut”, “9 iron” and “wingnut” are some players I met recently) and the world won’t know (or care) whether you’re a man or woman, or something in between; all that matters is how you play. Of course, if you’re “Sexylady”, “Hooters” or “Psychoboy”, people are going to make some guess as to your gender, although they may be totally wrong and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. In my case, I use “Aceten” as a handle and I really don’t care what people think I am; I’m there for the $$$, period.
Okay let’s get started. Just like my Blackjack School, this will unfold as a series of lessons that present various concepts, show you how to learn them and, as always, will include some “homework” that’ll reinforce what I’m teaching. Just how many lessons this will turn out to be remains to be seen, but my guess is that it will be much bigger than the Blackjack School, which currently stands at 24 lessons. But for starters, here’s what I intend to cover:
- The Basics of Hold ’em Poker
- Limit Hold ’em
- Pot Limit Hold ’em
- No Limit Hold ’em
- The Mathematics of Poker
- Money Management
- Playing Strategies
- Poker Tournaments
I’ll begin with limit Hold ’em because that game is, in my opinion, the most popular and is the easiest to learn, plus it’ll form a good base of reference for the other types.
If you have never played Hold ’em poker before, you first need to understand just how it proceeds. Fortunately, it’s one of those games, like Blackjack or backgammon, that’s easy to learn. Unfortunately, it takes a fair amount of time and effort to become really good at Hold ’em, but don’t worry because it’s not nuclear physics and if you do as I say, I’ll turn you into a winning player.After all, that’s why you’re here, right? And, I should mention (as a little motivator) that the rewards can be considerable. Setting aside all those fabulous multimillion dollar tournaments for the moment, it’s not unreasonable for a very good player to generate a profit of 1 to 2 “big bets” per hour off a minimum total bankroll of 400 big bets, all on a reasonably consistent basis. To use an example, most limit poker games are described by their small bet/big bet size, like a $10/$20 limit Hold ’em game. What this means is that the minimum bet is $10 in the early part of the game and it goes up to $20 in the later part. Of course, raises are permitted (also with a limit; usually 3 or 4), so you might find yourself betting as much $200 or more on a single hand, which is why you need a bankroll of at least $8000 to play a game like that. But, if you’re good, that $8000 bankroll might very well generate an income of $600 per week, or $30,000 per year, if you play 20 or so hours a week.
I’ll cover bankroll requirements, standard deviation and all that math stuff in later lessons, but let me clarify something about “minimum total bankroll” before we get too far. What I mean by that term is the amount of $$$ you should have set aside as risk capital for this adventure, just like I recommend for playing Blackjack. The reality is that most of you probably won’t set up a separate account for your poker play because you have an alternate form of income (a job) that allows you to “refresh” your bankroll, should it become depleted. If that’s the case, what you need is at least 100 top bets ($1000 for a 5/10 game, for example) on deposit in your casino account and available to you at all times, especially if you’re playing on a regular basis. If you’re nervous about leaving your $$$ at the casino and prefer to deposit before you play, then 50 top bets should (but won’t always) suffice for a 3-4 hour playing session.
These “return on investment” numbers may impress you, but if they also scare you, don’t worry because there are plenty of games where you can play for much less. Naturally, you’ll earn a lot less, but you’ll be learning at the same time, so it’ll be a decent investment. There are plenty of limit Hold ’em games in the $.25/$.50 format that’ll need a bankroll of only $200. Probably the most popular on-line limit Hold ’em game is the $1/$2 version, which requires a minimum total bankroll of only $800 and a “session” bankroll of just $200 or so. The beauty of Internet poker is that the casinos have very little overhead, so a low-limit game can be offered at the same cost as a $100/$200 game. And, as you’ll see when you get more into this, the casinos are making a fortune by offering these games. On a recent Saturday night, one poker room had almost 1000 tables in action, so at a rate of, say, 60 hands per hour, and an average rake (percentage of the pot) of only $1 per round of play, they were taking in (literally “raking” in) $1 x 1000 x 60 = $60,000 an hour! And believe me, that’s a conservative figure. Of course, Saturday night is also a peak time for them and I’m sure they don’t do nearly as well on a Tuesday morning, but you get the idea: there’s a lot of $$$ to be made at poker on both sides of the fence, so why not get your share of it?
By the way, the method by which the Internet poker rooms earn their profit makes them a totally disinterested party to how well you do, because any $$$ you make doesn’t come from them, but from the other players. As such, you just don’t hear all the whining, “this game is rigged”, etc. ad nauseum, that you hear about Blackjack and other games at Internet casinos. The on-line poker rooms have a vested interest in seeing to it that you play in an honest game and, while I have no doubt that there are players out there who can and will cheat if possible, the poker rooms claim to have a handle on it, particularly collusion between players, like one being at the same table with a cohort while talking to each other on the phone. In any event, this isn’t likely to happen at a $1/$2 game, but it has to be a concern as you move up in your level of play and protecting yourself is something that I’ll cover as we move on.
Speaking of moving on, let me give you a quick explanation of how to play Hold ’em poker. While each poker room may have some slight variations (and you should thoroughly read the rules at whichever poker room you visit), generally it goes like this:
- Any number from 2 to 10 players may be at the table.
- Although the casino deals the cards, the “dealer” for each round of play is designated by a button, marked “dealer” and that person will act last.
- Before any cards are dealt, the player to the immediate left of the dealer must post a bet called the “small blind”, which is typically one-half of the minimum bet for the game ($5 in a 10/20 game, for example).
- The player to the immediate left of the “small blind” also must post a bet. It is typically equal to the minimum bet for the game ($10 in a 10/20 game, for example). This is called the “big blind.”
- The two players making the blind bets, all of the other players and the dealer are then dealt two cards face down, which are called “hole” or “pocket” cards.
- The player to the immediate left of the big blind begins the general betting by either folding (at no cost), calling (matching the $10 “big blind” bet), or raising the big blind’s bet ($10 in a 10/20 game, for example). If this player folds, all of the others must all either fold, raise or call. There are no “free rides” to the next card.
- The betting action continues around the table, clockwise, until it reaches the player who made the small blind bet. That player may, at his option, fold (thus forfeiting the bet), call or raise (assuming the raising limit hasn’t been reached; usually 3 or 4 raises are the limit). If the decision is to call, this player receives credit for the small blind bet that he or she placed, so in a 10/20 game where no other player has raised, the small blind may call for $5 or raise for $15.
- It’s now time for the player that made the big blind bet to act and his or her situation is just like that of the small blind; only the bet sizes are different. If no one has raised, then the big blind can just “check” to be in the pot. However, the big blind may choose to fold because there was a raise, thus forfeiting the bet, or raise, (assuming the raising limit hasn’t been reached) by betting an additional increment ($10 in a 10/20 game, for example). All of the bets are then pulled to the center of the table by the casino’s dealer and, in the case of Internet poker, a “pot” total is displayed.
- When this “pre-flop” betting is completed, three community cards are dealt and turned face up in the center of the table. These cards, called the “flop” are community cards, in the sense that all the players still in the game may use them in combination with their two pocket cards to make the best hand possible. The general betting at this point is begun by the player that made the small blind bet and he or she may check, fold (foolish, because checking costs nothing at this point) or bet. If this player bets, it’s for the minimum amount of the game ($10, for example in a 10/20 limit game). The play now proceeds clockwise around the table to the player who made the big blind bet and he or she must either check (only if the small blind checked), call, raise or fold and that’s true of every other player. The two players “in the blind” must call any raises to stay in the pot or they must fold.
- Once the flop bets are all made, they’re pulled to the center of the table and another community card is dealt. This card is known as the “turn” or fourth street card. It’s placed face up in the center of the table, next to the flop and is available for the use of all the players remaining. Then, another round of betting begins with the first remaining player on the dealer’s left, which may or may not be the player who made the small blind bet. On this round if that player wishes to bet, it must be for the maximum bet in a limit game ($20 in a 10/20 game, for example), although he may check, if desired. If the player does not check, the other remaining players must either call, raise or fold to stay in the pot. Again, the betting goes in order around the table, all of the bets are pulled to the center and a fifth card, known as the river or fifth street card is placed face up in the center of the table, next to the others.
- When the river card, which is the last to be dealt for a round has been placed, the fourth and final round of betting begins with the first player to the left of the dealer. This player may check or bet, as desired. If he decides to bet, it must be for the maximum bet ($20 in a 10/20 limit game). Should this player check, then all others may check until someone bets. If a player does bet, then all the players that checked must either call, raise or fold. I emphasize this because a lot of “newbies” to the game will fold when the bet has been checked to them and that’s a big mistake, because checking is free. No matter how bad your hand may be, you can always fold it if someone acting after you bets or raises, but you just might check yourself into a winner.
- After the betting has been completed, it’s time for the “showdown” and this is where the Internet casinos have a huge advantage over the brick-and-mortar casinos. Because you may use any 5 of the 7 cards you’ve seen (your 2 pocket cards and the 5 community cards) to make your final hand, it sometimes is confusing as to what the best hand is. At a brick-and-mortar casino, you may display your hole cards to the dealer and he or she will figure out where you stand, but that also gives your opponents a lot of valuable information that they can use against you: do you draw to inside Straights, did you raise with a weak hand and so forth. Plus, you might look downright stupid showing a four-card flush that you thought was a winner, but that won’t happen at an Internet poker room because the computer already knows where you stand. If you’ve lost, most of the software programs will tell you so and you can “muck” the hand without showing your hole cards, plus – and I guarantee this will happen one fine day – if you have a winner that you thought was a loser, the computer will tell you that, too. There’s no doubt in my mind that players who are new to the game throw away hole cards that are actually winners because they’re too embarrased to ask for help. This happens a lot with hands that have multiple winners, such as when the 5 community cards make a Full House or Straight Flush. That simply cannot happen in an Internet poker room, assuming you’ve stayed in until the showdown, of course. However, one thing the computer can’t do for you is give you back the cards once you’ve folded your hand.
- Following the showdown, the chips are distributed to the winner(s), the deck is shuffled, the dealer “button” is moved one player to the left, blind bets are placed, the pocket cards are dealt and it starts all over again. Hopefully this made the procedures of the game a little more clear to you, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
- Download at least one poker room’s software and spend some time poking around. A nice feature of most poker rooms is that you may watch games in progress, either real-money or play-money games at any time. Watching both types will show you just how “wild” the play-money games are in comparison to the real thing. Also, watch some tournaments to get a feel for how they work.
- Make a visit to what is undoubtedly the best poker discussion forum available today. It’s free and can be found here: http://www.twoplustwo.com/
I’ll see you here for Lesson 2.