Welcome to the third in my Texas Holdem Strategy Series, focusing on no limit Texas Holdem poker tournament play and associated strategies. In this article, we'll build upon the poker tournament strategy fundamentals from last time, with some important poker betting strategy basics.
Winning at Texas Holdem poker doesn't have to be a gamble, since it's actually a game of skill. Of course, there will always be an element of chance, but there's a lot more strategy and skill to poker than meets the untrained eye. When you learn to play the odds properly, it can make a huge difference in your winnings.
No limit Texas Holdem is the game of choice these days - and for good reason. The fact that anyone can decide to push a large raise or all of their chips into the pot by going "all-in" at any moment, adds an exciting dimension to the game. Unlike limit Texas Holdem, where each round of betting takes place in prescribed, fixed increments, no limit Texas Holdem is as varied as the players at the table, since everyone chooses their own betting style and approach.
When playing no limit Texas Holdem, you're faced with some important decisions. Arguably, the most important decision you'll make is how much to bet in a given set of circumstances; e.g., hand strength, your position at the table, total number of players, their styles, etc. There are many different betting strategies, but one of the first things to learn and pay close attention to are "pot odds" and whether you have a positive "expectation" to win.
You have a positive expectation whenever the odds favor you winning more than you're wagering at anything greater than 1 to 1 odds. For example, when flipping a coin, there is a 50/50 chance of it coming up either heads or tails. If you flip a coin enough times, both heads and tails will come up an equal number of times.
Casino games, such as craps, blackjack, slot machines, etc. all give the player a "negative" expectation and the casino a positive expectation. If you play these types of "gambling" games long enough, you will ultimately lose, since the game's odd structure is never in your favor - negative expectation. People who experience "hot streaks" also have losing streaks (they just usually quickly forget about the losing and don't discuss it). When you're making a wager, you'd always prefer to have a positive expectation. This is generally true in poker, but not necessarily always in no-limit poker. I'll explain why.
Pot Odds are the odds the pot is giving you for making a bet. Let's say there is $50 in the pot and it'll take $10 more to call - you're getting 5-to-1 pot odds to call, since if you win you'll be paid $50 in exchange for risking only $10. For purposes of this decision, any amounts you previously placed into this pot are irrelevant, since they're already expended and gone (if you fold).
It's essential to understand pot odds as it relates to your hand odds, as one key factor in making your betting decisions. If the odds of you holding or drawing to the winning hand are better than the odds the pot is giving you, you should call or even sometimes raise; otherwise, you should typically fold (unless you're going to bluff, a different story).
Continuing this example, let's say you're holding a pair of fives, and the board flops 9, K, 2 "rainbow" (no flush draw, different suits). With 9 players at the table, it's certainly possible and likely that someone else holds a King or a Nine, or both, making your 5's look pretty flimsy at this point. Your best shot to win is to draw another 5. There are two more 5's remaining out of the 47 cards that you can't see (in the deck or in another player's hand).
So, the odds of pulling that next 5 on the turn or river are: 2 in 47 (2/47 = about 4%) on the Turn, plus another 2 in 46 on the River (an additional 4%), for a total of roughly 8.6%, which equates to a 1-in-11.6 chance of pulling that third 5 to make a set. Since the pot is only giving 5-to-1 odds, it's generally time to fold. Otherwise, you'd just be "gambling" with a highly negative expectation of losing that additional $10. In no limit Texas Holdem, players will often raise the pot sufficiently to actually lower your pot odds so far that you can't possibly justify staying in the hand - at least not statistically.
Clearly you can't sit there in a real poker room with a calculator and run through all of these pot odds calculations while at the table! So, how does one learn poker odds well enough to apply them in real-time? Well, it starts by seeing the poker odds repeatedly, in a context that's suitable for you to learn and eventually retain them. A poker odds calculator is a piece of add-on software that runs on your PC, monitoring your actual online play. A poker odds calculator computes the prospective hands you and your opponents are capable of drawing at any point in time. It then displays all possible hands you and the opponents could draw, teaching you what the odds of making that kind of hand would be.
This makes it easy to see what's going on, and since a poker odds calculator displays the poker odds right there in front of you while you play, you'll begin to learn them, making it semi-automatic, so you don't even think about poker odds any more - you just know them. So, the first step is learning and internalizing these "hand odds". Then, you can quickly calculate pot odds anytime you'd like.
Calculating pot odds requires you to pay close attention to the game, a key trait of good poker tournament players. Unlike playing online, where the total size of the pot is easy to determine (the online Texas Holdem poker program typically displays the pot amount right there on the screen for you), when you play in traditional offline poker tournaments, you must keep track of the pot size and chip count yourself, so you can estimate the pot odds and your best betting options.
Pot odds become especially interesting as the blinds and antes increase as the tournament progresses. Let's say there are 10 players at your table, and the poker tournament structure has you at $25 antes with $200/$400 blinds. That's a total of $850 that's sitting thre in each and every pot before anyone even places their first bet! So, before you even look at your hand, you know that the minimum bet is $400, so you'll need a good hand (with roughly 1 in 2 odds or better) in order to simply break even.
At this point, people will be angling to "steal the blinds" by placing a hefty bet, typically at least two times the big blind, or $800, in order to make the pot odds so unattractive that everyone just folds. Therefore, the first player to act often makes off with the booty, since the pot odds become even less attractive and most everyone hasn't made a good enough hand to call. Of course, this can definitely backfire...
Let's say the first player to bet raises to $800 in an attempt to steal the blinds, making the total pot now $1,650. Let's say that a second player then calls with another $800, boosting this pot to $2,450. To get in on the action, you'd only need to call with $800, which means if you win the hand you're getting a slightly better than 3 to 1 on your money. If it's the Flop and you are one card short of making a King-high flush, then your hand odds are roughly 1-in-3. This would be "even money" if you joined in on this basis alone; however, you're holding a King and there's a King on the board from the Flop, so you now have a better than 1 in 3 chance of winning - a positive expectation! You place your $800 bet, so now the pot sits at $3,250.
You should generally make this bet, since it will yield a good return and you have the high pair (Kings), plus a flush draw, thereby improving your odds even further. Let's say there was an Ace also showing, making your Kings second best pair. In this case, it time to fold because you have a less than a 1 in 3 chance of winning this hand, and if you continued throwing money at this pot, you'll end up "pot-committed" and beaten by a pair of Aces (there's usually at least one player in 10 hanging in there with an Ace hole card).
So, let's say the last player to act goes "All-in" - after we've put our $800 in this pot. Now what? The first reaction should be - what kind of hand *could* this player actually hold? If the player is a relatively tight or solid player, chances are they've made a set or an Ace high flush. It's always possible they're bluffing, but very unlikely if they're a good player, since there are already far too many people in this pot and it's likely they'd get called with a real hand when bluffing.
So, what's happened to our pot odds? Let's say they went all-in with $5,000, pushing this pot up to $8,250. If you called with $5,000, you're now only getting a 8.25 to 5 return, or roughly 1.65 to 1 - especially unattractive under the circumstances with highly negative expectation and so many players in this hand, further reducing your chances of winning. Therefore, everyone will likely just fold; unless they have a very strong hand plus a great draw (some outs).
There's clearly a lot more to poker betting strategy, including position and acting first vs. last. Generally speaking, though, if you're going to take a shot at that pot, and you're in a position to act first, there's a good chance everyone else will fold; however, you'd better think carefully about the pot odds the opponents will be getting after your bet is in there.
If your bet modifies the pot size such that it improves their pot odds (by limping in with just a small bet), you're actually encouraging the opponents to hang in there with you, since they still have a good, positive (and improving) expectation level. If you bet enough, such as two to three times the size of the big blind, you'll be reducing their pot odds enough to swing into a negative expectation, so they'll be much more likely to fold. It's really important to think your bet amounts through and understand the pot odds implications of your betting.
When you make such a play at the pot, it's ideal to have some kind of hand, along with a good draw. If you find yourself short-stacked, then this may be as good as it gets. Bluffing will be covered more thoroughly in a later article, but at this point it'd be great to have at least a small pair, as well as a good straight or flush draw (since you'll also have the potential to make a set of trips, too). In this situation, you have so many good "outs" that your small pair begins to look a lot stronger, and your hand odds acceptable enough to go on a "semi-bluff" at this pot.
So, these are the basics of Texas Holdem poker tournament betting strategy that you should know and practice (the other good players do). Knowing your basic hand odds and being capable of quickly calculating pot odds are essential to making intelligent betting decisions under fire in poker tournaments, and regular ring game and limit play for that matter. A good poker odds calculator will help you learn the hand odds, and along with practicing calculating your pot odds, you'll be making better decisions and getting the best of it the next time you play Texas Holdem poker.
In the next article, we'll explore a popular Texas Holdem poker tournament format - the Sit & Go poker tournament. Until then, have fun. And as always - good luck!