Don’t play like the pros do yet.

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.

Always Have a Good Reason to Bet the River

A fundamental mistake made by newer poker players is betting the river with a mediocre hand. Why is this such a costly mistake? Because when you bet a mediocre hand, you’re only likely to be called by a hand that has you beat.

Overall, betting a mediocre hand on the river, such as bottom or middle pair with a weak kicker, will lose you money. This play has what is commonly referred to as a negative expected value, or negative EV. When you bet the river with a mediocre hand, there are two likely outcomes:

Your opponent folds a worse hand, and you make nothing.
Your opponent calls with a better hand, and you lose money.
By checking down your mediocre hands, you will win the hands that are worse than yours (and not worth a call on the river), and save money on the hands he would have called your bet with.

So when should you bet the river?

1. You think your opponent has a worse hand than you do, and you’ll get a call.

If you suspect that your opponent has a pair worse than yours, or a weaker kicker, it’s a good reason to bet the river. For example, let’s say you decide to limp in early position with AJ. A couple of stragglers come in behind you. The flop is A84 rainbow. The blinds check and you bet out a ½ pot-sized bet. A late position player gives you a call, and everyone else folds. The turn is a 2. You bet out ½ the pot again, and he again flat calls. The river is another 4. Should you bet here? The answer to this question is yet another question: what do you think your opponent has?

In the absence of draws, if you have a read on your opponent’s play as being fairly passive, it’s probable that he’s in there with an Ace lower than yours. If he had A8, you’re fairly certain he’d have raised with it.

You decide through a read of your opponent, and his play up to this point that he is on AT. A bet here likely makes you a little bit more money. If you check, he will probably check behind you, so you have to lead out with a reasonable bet and hope he calls with his worse kicker.

2. You think your opponent has a better hand than you, but will fold to a reasonable bet.

Let’s say you’re on the button with 78 of hearts. A tight player in middle position limps in, and you follow along. The blinds flat call. The flop is A65 rainbow. The blinds check, and the limper bets 1/3 of the pot. Now, you’re getting 4:1 on your money to chase your well disguised straight draw so you elect to call. The blinds fold. The turn brings a Q, and the limper checks to you. You suspect he might have just been taking a stab at a bluff on the flop, or he might be weak here (small pocket pair, Ace with a bad kicker, etc), but you’re not quite sure just yet. You elect to take the free card off and make a decision on the river. The river brings a 2, and you’ve completely missed your draw.

Your tight opponent checks to you, again. What’s your move?

This is a perfect example of a time to bet with a nothing hand. Your opponent checked to you twice in a row, including the river (his last chance to make money off you). This almost always indicates weakness. If you check, you most certainly lose to his small pair, or higher kicker. Since he’s a fairly tight player, he’s not likely to call you down with a weak hand. Bet out something near the size of the pot (assuming it’s a moderate portion of his stack), and he’ll likely go away.

As you can see, making this simple adjustment to your game can make you a lot of money by ensuring that your good hands are paid off, your bad hands have a chance to win, and your mediocre hands don’t get you into trouble.