Learning how to play no limit holdem is a fairly simple undertaking. Learning how to play it well is a task that has no end. Mike Sexton, WPT commentator and professional poker player, coined the popular phrase: “no limit holdem takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master”.
Quite often, I run into beginners whose poker education consists mainly of televised tournaments. They watch their favorite pros splashing about with various junk hands and they assume that this is the best way to play. While learning to play all types of hands in all types of situations is a mandatory skill for all good holdem players, there are a few problems with this strategy as it applies to beginners:
The hands you see on television have been pre-selected for their entertainment value. So while it appears that these pros are playing every single hand, the majority of the hands being played actually involve a single raiser and everyone folding (not nearly as exciting for TV viewers).
Pros don’t play this way all the time. TV poker is usually short-handed (6 or less players), and is typically in the late stages of a major tournament. The added pressure of escalating blinds and quicker rounds forces them to play more hands.
Professionals have played thousands of hours of poker. They know when to lay down middle pair, and when to re-raise all in with it. That type of skill can only come with time and practice. Beginners simply do not have experience to know what to do with their junk hands after the flop.
In general, the number one mistake I see new holdem players making is that they simply play too many hands. While mixing it up and aggression are certainly part of any good player’s arsenal, that type of skill must be built on top of a solid understanding of the game. Being tight early on in your poker career brings many advantages:
The cost of learning how to play is much cheaper. Since you’re not playing as many hands, you’re not making as many mistakes. Not making as many mistakes means you’re not losing at much money.
You can observe and learn an incredible amount when you’re not concentrating on your own hand. Observation is one of the key skills you must have to improve as a poker player. If you can sharpen this skill early on, it will be very useful later when you’re mixing it up with 74 off suit.
You can spend time learning how to properly play your good cards. I still see many semi-experienced players who get dealt Ace-King or a big pocket pair, and have no idea how to make the most money with it.
You learn how to be patient with the game. Patience is absolutely mandatory when playing no limit tournaments. If you learn how to stay out of pots now, you can make it through a bad string of cards no problem later.
While everyone wants to make the big bluff and show garbage, or limp in with junk and call a huge all-in bet with middle pair and have it hold up, these types of moves should be built on a solid foundation of poker knowledge.