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Stop Losing at Online and Live Poker
It has gotten more difficult to win at poker over the last two decades. At the beginning of this century, you could beat most poker games with one of two extremely basic strategies:
Be aggressive and pick up lots of pots uncontested, or
Play tight, and earn maximum value when you make a hand
However, modern players are much more advanced, which is why it is so much harder to win at poker these days, especially online. Computers allow players to run thousands of simulations to determine the best action for each hand and scenario. And while players certainly can't do this during play, they can use these tools to study. If you are not studying how to improve your poker game, you are at a severe disadvantage! The good news is that you don't need to run thousands of hand simulations yourself. Plenty of professional poker players have already done this for you, and many of them have been kind enough to share what they have learned!
Below are the best ways to learn how to win at poker, listed from least to most expensive (from left to right).
Books are one of the most cost effective ways to learn how to win at poker, and most are very beginner friendly. You can also re-read them as many times as you want for no additional cost! If you want to start winning at poker, then reading a book is the bare minimum amount of study required.
The biggest problem with books is that they are theoretical, and not everyone is good at imagining the scenarios presented by the author, or applying the concepts at the table. While many of the better poker books will give hand examples, you will ultimately need to practice what you have learned. Don't expect to read a book once and then immediately become a winning poker player. Books also become out-dated as strategies continue to evolve.
Poker workbooks are a great way to simulate playing. These guides help reinforce the concepts by giving you opportunities to practice via detailed hand breakdowns and quizzes. They are still not a substitute for playing against human opponents, but are a great way to raise your comfort level and experience, allowing you to learn from your mistakes in a cost-free environment!
Not only are most workbooks more expensive than regular books, but they are also much more focused. That is, a book might cover 20-30 concepts, while a workbook might focus on reinforcing just 2-3 of them. In other words, if you want to practice multiple concepts then you will need multiple workbooks, and yet there are far fewer workbooks than books available.
Although there are programs focused on training you to be a better poker player, most poker software focuses on analyzing hands. These are incredibly valuable tools that allow you to identify unprofitable tendencies in your play. However, you should not invest in any poker software until you have already learned the basics by reading several books, and/or completing at least one poker course. Poker software is best used for refining your skills not for teaching you new concepts.
Not everyone can read text and then perfectly envision the described situation, let alone apply the learned concept in the real world. Plenty of studies have shown that we learn best when presented with information in a variety of formats, and this is where online courses shine. The downside is that teaching you how to win at poker across multiple forms of media is far more expensive, which results in a higher cost.
However, when you consider that you are far more likely to retain the information presented in a course format, plus apply it better at the table, it is easy to see why online poker courses are so popular.
Poker coaching is becoming increasingly popular as games get tougher. However, if you have not already invested in several poker books, workbooks, a course or two, and some hand analysis software, then you are wasting your money hiring a poker coach. While most coaches can certainly teach a beginner how to beat most poker games, you do not want to be paying an hourly rate just to learn the basics!
Once you have read several books, taken a few courses, and used software to analyze your play, then hiring a poker coach is probably the next step if you want to continue to improve. If you already have a solid foundation, then a good poker coach can pinpoint exactly the areas where you need to improve.
Unlike most games, the majority of people do not get better at poker simply by playing. Plenty of players have played the game for decades without showing noticeable improvement. They make the same costly mistakes hand after hand, year after year. They are in a rut, and rather than looking for errors in their game, tend to blame "bad luck" instead. If you want to become a better poker player, you need to study (via books, workbooks, courses, software, and possibly coaching).
However, you can't spend all of your time learning either. Eventually you need to apply the concepts learned in a real game. Real world situations are rarely as simple as those presented in a book. At first you may even find that the things you have learned have actually made you a worse poker player! With practice you will learn when to apply each concept, and how to make the most profitable play for any situation. Subtle differences that occur in a real game are precisely why the correct answer to almost every poker question is, "it depends". There are so many factors that go into each decision, that it is impossible to present them all in a learning environment.
Ultimately, you need to practice everything you learn at the tables. The difficulty is in applying the theory in real world examples
Poker is most definitely a skill, but luck still plays an important role in short-term results. Poker is primarily a game of probabilities. Although you have no control over the cards (that's dependent on luck), you have full control over what you will do with the cards you are dealt. Not only can you choose whether to fold, call, or raise, but in no limit and pot limit games, you also get to choose how much you bet or raise, giving you opportunities to either drive players out of pots and extract maximum value from your winning hands. You can use poker workbooks to help you learn and practice the correct action in a variety of situations.
Poker is also a game of psychology and deception. With skillful betting, you can trick players into folding weak (but winning) hands, or trap them into calling or even betting with strong (but losing) hands.
What percentage of poker is luck?+
The exact amount of skill vs luck involved in poker is extremely difficult to quantify. In any given hand of poker, luck plays a major role. The best pre-flop hand in Texas Hold'em is AA, and the worst hand is an unsuited 72. And yet, 72o will still beat AA 10.78-12.40% of the time (depending on the suits). So, you can play the worst possible hand in the worst possible way and still win, or play the best possible hand in the best possible way and still lose. However, as you play more hands, luck will become less of a factor and making winning plays will result in profit and making losing plays will result in losses. Just as you can call "heads" and be right on 2 consecutive coin flips 25% of the time, your odds of being right 10 times in a row drops to 0.1%!
Luck will always play a factor in every session of poker you play, but if you want to stop losing at poker then you need to focus less on luck and more on improving your skills! To the right is a graph showing the impact of luck on my results in a weekly cash game I play. The math behind the graph isn't 100% accurate, but the graph (or rather the dotted exponential trend line) nicely conveys how luck is a major determining factor for a single session, but declines over time. A key take away here is that luck is still a significant factor even after 20 session (about 100 hours of single table online play).
How do you win in poker?+
There are two answers to this question, depending on whether you want to know how to win a hand, or how to win at poker in the long run.
To win a hand of poker (no matter the variant of the game), you need to either have the best hand once all the cards are dealt, or make everyone else fold until you are the only one left.
To become a winning poker player (i.e. to win in the long run), you need to learn to consistently make the correct decision at the poker table. Once you know what the correction decision is for each situation you face, you then need to vary your play so that you are not predictable (which ensuring that you are still making the correct decision the majority of the time).
How do you win at poker every time?+
As we've discussed in previous FAQ answers, luck will play a huge role in short term poker results. As a result, you can play perfect poker strategy and still lose. Your goal isn't to win every hand, or even every session, but rather to learn to maximize your poker winnings in the long run. If you really wanted to win every time you play, then you should adopt a very tight strategy and only play against weak opponents who do not know how to exploit your sub-optimal play. This approach will increase how often you win, but decrease your winnings. The goal of poker is to win as much money as possible, not win pots or even individual sessions.
For example, imagine it's the last hand of the night in a game of $1/$2 NLH. You've got $100 invested in the game, and have $105 in front of you ($5 profit). The first player to act raises it to $10, the next player raises to $30. Both players have just $40 left and everyone else folds around to you. You look down and see pocket aces. If your goal is to win sessions, then you should fold (because folding guarantees you have a profit on the session). But since your goal is to win money, you should raise. Sure, you might lose this hand which would turn a winning session into a losing one, but your goal should be to maximize profits and raising here is the best way to do that!
At its core, winning poker strategy is about making the mathematically correct decision as often as possible while exploiting your opponents' incorrect decisions. You want to provide your opponents with opportunities to make a losing play, and extracte the maximum value possible from each of their sub-optimal decisions. That is, if they call too much, then you want to both value bet against that opponent more often, but also bet as much as you think they will call with a weaker hand.
Always keep in mind that your goal is to maximize profits. That is, it's better to lose $100 in 80% of your sessions and win $500 in just 20% (for $20 average profit per session) than to win $10 every session! Although winning consistently is nice, the most profitable poker strategies tend to also carry the highest risk. As a result, profitable poker typically involves losing more sessions (and even losing bigger when you do lose), but also winning bigger when you win. This also happens in tournaments where playing tight to consistently reach the money can be profitable. However, playing aggressively to build your stack to increase your chances of reaching the big payouts is more profitable in the long run (but can also result in some very long barren stretches).
How do I learn to play poker?+
There are a variety of ways you can learn to play poker better:
Pre-flop hands you should play, and when to raise with them
Drawing odds, pot odds and implied odds
Practice what you have learned by playing online for free. If you enjoy tournaments, then we recommend playing freerolls. Not only will you get to practice what you have learned for free, but you can also start to build a poker bankroll.
Once you are comfortable with the basics, you may want to invest in more advanced poker training, and playing poker for real money (either live, online, or both).
How long does it take to learn poker?+
Mike Sexton once famously described poker as "the game that takes a minute to learn but a lifetime to master." He was talking specifically about Texas Hold'em, which is one of the easier variants to learn.
The mechanics of poker are quite simple. In every variant there are multiple rounds of betting, giving you the option to bet, raise, call, or fold. However, knowing when to take each of these actions, and how much to bet is where the difficulty lies. And you cannot simply memorize the odds and play a perfect strategy either, because the perfect strategy depends on your opponent. For example, if your opponent calls too much then you want to bluff less and bet for value more. If they fold too much, you want to do the opposite. This is known as an exploitive poker strategy (where you use your opponent's tendencies against them).
Poker is also constantly evolving, so you need to stay up to date on the latest strategies. In the past, simply following up a pre-flop bet with a bet on the flop (called a continuation bet or "c-bet") would win you the pot the majority of the time. Players have since adapted and now call more (sometimes with nothing), just to see what you will do on the turn (called "floating"). The current rage is GTO (game theory optimal) poker, but that too is constantly evolving. To maximize your winnings, you need to play a combination of GTO and exploitive poker (because even GTO players don't play perfect GTO), and you need to constantly adjust your strategy as your opponents adjust theirs.
How do I get better at poker?+
If you already know the fundamentals (which hands to play, drawing odds, pot odds, and implied odds), then you should invest in more poker training that focuses specifically on skills you would like to hone. If you are not sure which areas of your game need improvement, invest in some poker hand analysis software.
Once you know which areas of your game need improvement, look for online poker courses that focus on those concepts. Poker workbooks are a great way to practice specific skills. Most importantly, you need to make sure you adjust your play to incorporate what you have learned at the table. Far too many players know the best strategy, and yet keep making the same mistakes anyway.
How do you get good at poker fast?+
The fastest way to get good at poker is to purchase an online poker course. A good poker course will teach you the basics of the game, as well as some advanced strategies. Most poker courses vary in price from as little as $7 to several hundred dollars. Regardless of price, a good poker course will pay for itself in no time, because the cost of learning via trial and error is steep!
How do I learn online poker?+
One of the best ways to learn online poker is to just play. Find an online poker site that allows you to play for free (using play money), or join a poker site with lots of freerolls (poker tournaments that are free to enter, but have real money prizes).
This lets you learn the basics of how to play poker online risk free. However, you may want to improve your skills by reading strategy books and articles, or investing in a poker course before you play any real money poker online.
How to win at online poker?+
The basic mechanics of online poker are no different than live poker. It's just much much harder! The 3 biggest reasons that online poker is so much harder than live are:
Good players play more tables. If you go to a casino with 10 pros and 40 casual players, then there will be an average of 2 pros and 8 casual players at each table. But online if each pro is playing 8 tables and each casual player is playing just 2, then there will be an average of 5 pros and 5 casual players at each table!
Players can use all sorts of tracking software and printed charts to optimize their play online.
Losing players know they're losing when they play online. In live games, nobody is tracking results, so losing players fool themselves into thinking they are breaking even, or only down a little. Losing players cannot fool themselves online because the money isn't going in and out of their wallet. That is, it's not mixed with other expenditures, so these players will know exactly how much they're losing and are thus more likely to quit sooner thereby decreasing the number of losing players playing online.
To get better at online poker, you absolutely must invest in good poker tracking software. This will help you identify weaknesses in your game so that you can improve. Once you know your weaknesses, you will want to invest in poker strategy books, courses, and/or poker coaching.
How to beat bad poker players?+
The biggest mistake you can make when playing against a weak poker player is using complex strategies. In general, you want to just play basic ABC poker: bet your strong hands for value, draw when you're getting the correct pot odds (or implied pot odds), and rarely bluff.
You will want to vary your strategy depending on what makes your opponent bad. If they constantly call with weak hands, then you want to bet bigger with your made hands, and rarely bluff or semi-bluff. If they fold too much, then you want to bluff them more. If they bluff too much, then you want to call them down more with medium strength hands, and slow-play your made hands. Basically, figure out what makes them bad and then use that against them!
Far too many "good" poker players try to out-play bad opponents. They'll think, "Okay, I know my opponent has two pair, but the river completed both the flush and the straight, and I've played my hand exactly like I would if I was on either of these draws. So, if I push all-in, he's got to fold!" They then push all-in with no pair, and their opponent thinks, "I've got 2 pair. I like 2 pair and I've won with far less. Plus, he could be bluffing and I HATE getting bluffed! I need to see it, even if I'm beaten." They call and the "good" player rages, thinking, "How can this idiot call here. How does he not think I've got him beat?!?!". Meanwhile, the players who are actually good are thinking, "What an idiot. Why would you EVER bluff that guy? He calls everything! Gotta love a guy who donates his entire stack to the worst player at the table!"