One of the most common reasons that people suck at poker is because they don’t really understand the game. Their strategy is a collection of snippets and tidbits of information that they compile as they hear them or read about them. Those chunks of information, with no real context, form most of the strategy knowledge for most beginning and intermediate players.
But poker is too complex for that. You can’t memorize every situation. There are just too many different spots. And every player is different too. A strategy that works against one player type may not work against another. If you want to actually get good at the game, and suck a lot less, then you need to learn to actually understand how the game works.
Things you may have learned (that suck)
Let’s look at a bit of advice that you may have stored in your brain over the years, and an example of a time when it’s completely wrong.
“Ace-king isn’t even a pair, it’s a drawing hand.”
This might make you play ace-king in a very passive way. If someone raises to three big blinds in a tournament and you have 15 big blinds in your stack, it would be truly terrible to just flat call here with your “drawing hand” to see if you catch an ace.
“With Ace-king you want to see all five cards, so get all-in or fold.”
While this is the opposite of the first piece of advice above, it’s equally terrible. If the stacks are deep, it’s crazy to play ace-king this way and you’ll end up winning tiny pots preflop when your opponent folds, and losing giant pots when they call with aces or kings.
“You should play really tight in the small blind.”
This is advice I have given to beginners myself, and it’s often true. But in a tournament with a short stack, I might get all-in with any two cards and, in fact, I’ve done so many times. Understanding equity and restealing is vital to being a successful tournament player these days, and ignoring that knowledge in the small blind is expensive.
“With suited connectors, call to see a cheap flop and see if you hit a monster.”
Another bit of advice that’s often, but not always true, and that will cost you a ton of money if you don’t know when to break the rule. There are many excellent spots to reraise with suited connectors, and most players play them far too often and for too large a percentage of their stack.
How poker really works
I know, I know, so far all I’ve done is convince you that most of what you know about poker is wrong. But I’m getting to the good part. You can actually understand how the game works and get really good at it. The knowledge is out there.
I definitely can’t tell you everything you need to know to truly understand the game in one article. Not even in one book. But I can show you the framework. And that starts with what poker is.
Poker is sometimes a struggle for the money in the middle. That is why we have blinds and, sometimes, antes. Because without them, there would be nothing to fight for and no reason to play a hand. And, the more money that’s in the middle, the more we should be willing to risk to win it.
At other times, poker is about winning the money that’s in front of another player. This is mostly true when the pot is small and your opponent isn’t very skilled. This is also much more important in no-limit and pot-limit games, and not a primary focus in fixed-limit games.
And poker is a game of equity. The equity your hand currently has, the “implied equity” that refers to money you might make later in the hand if you stick around, and “fold equity,” which is the chance that your opponent will fold multiplied by the money in the pot. Let’s look at each kind of equity and why they’re important:
- The equity of your hand is simply a function of how often you’ll win the hand if all betting stopped now and the rest of the hand runs out with everyone still in the pot. This is easy to find, even against an opponent with a very wide range, with a tool called an equity calculator. I prefer Equilab because it’s easy to use and it’s free. You can also often estimate your equity pretty well by using the rule of two and four and counting outs, or by memorizing the chances of various draws coming in.
- Implied equity is tougher to estimate in many cases, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle. If you think your opponent will pay off a $100 bet on the river if you hit your hand, and there’s a 20% chance of catching a card you need, then your implied equity is $20. If you think they’ll only pay you off half the time, then your implied equity is $10. Those suited connectors we mentioned earlier are all about implied equity, and most new players drastically overestimate implied equity.
- Fold equity is just a general term to many players, a phrase to indicate that your opponent will fold some of the time. But to an expert, fold equity is a real number. I use a spreadsheet that actually shows fold equity when I analyze hands with my students, and they’re often surprised at how big the number is. If your opponent will fold half the time in a $100 pot, then your fold equity is $50.
A hand that shows the three types of equity
You’re in the big blind with the A♦ 5♦ in a $1/2 No-Limit Hold’em cash game. A middle-position player raises to $6 and everyone else folds. In this spot, you may have some fold equity if you reraise, but you’d be risking a lot to win a little and, unless you think it will work out most of the time, a reraise isn’t correct here. Your implied equity is probably pretty good, and you have a great hand with which to see a flop, so you just call.
The flop is 2♦ 6♦ J♠ and you’ve flopped a nut flush draw (with an overcard as well). Not a bad board for you. You check, and your opponent bets $8 into the $13 pot. Because you don’t suck that much, you check his stack and see that he only has $35 left. Now you have a decision to make.
Your equity in this hand is probably around 38%. You’re not a favorite, but not in terrible shape either. You’ve got a real shot at winning this thing.
Your implied equity is about 38% of his remaining stack, but only if he’s going to pay you off every time you make your hand. Since he won’t always pay you off if the next card is the A♠, or a really scary card like the K♦, you guess that he’ll only pay you off 60% of the time. So your implied equity is .6* .38 * $35 = $7.98.
Since you’re calling $8 and may face another bet on the turn, your implied equity doesn’t look that great at only about $8 itself. If his stack was deeper and he was a calling station, then this number might be much bigger.
If you go all-in, your fold equity depends on what you think his hand range is, which is also true with the other types of equity. Let’s just assume that you think he’ll fold half the time. If that’s true, then your fold equity is worth half of the $21 that’s not in the pot, or $10.50. But if you go all-in and he calls, then you have the equity of your hand as well, which means that your hand is worth 38% of the $21+35 or about $21.28. When you add that to the $10.50 in fold equity, you get almost $32. That makes for an easy decision.
You don’t need to do the math (but it helps)
Balancing the types of equity, and knowing which is more important, is the way to develop a fundamental understanding of the game. And you don’t need to necessarily be doing all of the math at the table to do this. Just knowing that your implied equity is a little, your fold equity is a lot, and your hand equity is pretty good, would help you make the correct decision in this spot without pulling out a calculator or wracking your brain.
This is seeing the game from the top down. Start with the important stuff, the three types of equity, and then learn how to get more accurate estimates using all those little tidbits of information you’ve piled up over the years. Now you can go back and look at those little nuggets of wisdom that you’ve compiled and think about why they’re often true, and come up with times when they’re not.
If you really want to not suck at poker, you’ll need to get good at estimating your opponent’s range and how they’ll respond to different plays with different pieces of that range because that’s the only way to have accurate estimates of the types of equity you have. Starting with this fundamental understanding of the game will give you a framework to fill in.
Once you can accurately assess an opponent’s range, how they’ll behave with different pieces of it, and how common each of those pieces is, you can calculate — or just estimate — how much of each kind of equity you have.
And that’s how not to suck at poker.