If you’re just starting out as a poker player you may think you know how to play poker based on what you’ve seen on television. Nothing could be further from the truth. You are seeing heavily edited sequences of play, taken completely out of context, and shown for entertainment value, hence they tend to be out of the ordinary, wild, and generally abnormal. As a novice you should focus on playing good cards, bluffing very rarely, betting those good hands for value (we will explain this concept later on), and most importantly, not assuming that others are bluffing you.
There is less bluffing in poker than you might think, and it is a good strategy to start out respecting other players’ bets, especially when those bets could place your entire tournament or cash bankroll for that session on the line. Professional players do make “moves” at pots, but it happens less regularly than TV would have you believe, and it also happens for a reason – that is to say they have excellent position for the bet, or their hand has the potential to improve, or they have a good read on their opponent, or the blinds and antes are so big (this happens in tournaments) that players are forced to raise with mediocre cards.
Arbitrary bluffs, where players decide to put in a big raise because they are bored, or because they “instinctively” sense weakness from the entire table, have no place in novice play. Furthermore, because you are likely to learn your poker playing online, you need to know that online players love to call down bets and see if they’re really beaten or not. It is very hard to get away with bluffs online, particularly in limit games, because online poker is much more loose and wild. It is impossible to bluff a weak player as a strategic move, because he does not know what’s going on with his own hand let alone with your hand, so as a novice playing against other novices in small games you need to steer clear of being overly clever at the table.
If you understand this first point, you should then realize that the key is to play good cards, and to play them strong. Make sure that you play starting hands with the potential to win the pot. 55 can win a pot, and a big one at that if a 5 hits on the flop. 52 can win very few hands. The same goes for J5, K5, or 85. When you do play good cards make sure that you play them with aggression. If you are faced with the choice of calling, raising, or folding it is fair to say that calling is usually your weakest and worst option. If you are planning to trap someone later on by calling now that is a different matter, but that is also far too clever and intricate for the novice game, so instead work on raising or folding when the betting comes round to you. Players need to respect and at times fear you. They also need to think that you are reasonable, and not some maniac who raises every single time. So fold that junk, and when you decide to play, raise until you feel you’re beaten or behind and then FOLD. Do not stay in a pot that you cannot win – simply fold.
Finally, when you do get a decent hand you need to make others pay in order to stay in the pot. They are probably drawing to make a better hand, or hanging around hoping to catch miracle cards. Both scenarios will unfortunately unfold a number of times, but you must make those hands pay a premium to get lucky against you. If you give someone the wrong odds to beat you enough times you will eventually come out way ahead at poker. Poker is a game of mathematical expectation, and by making your opponents pay the wrong amount to beat you, you ensure your own profit in the long run. There will be many times when your good hand remains the best, and all those straight draws and flush draws and smaller pairs are beaten. Those are the times when your value bets – betting your good hands for what they are worth – will reap rewards for you. Don’t worry about bad beats or players who have no clue what they’re doing. Poker takes care of them ultimately, and your good play will make money as long as you are aggressive when you need to be, conservative when you’re starting out, and not inclined to bluff or think you’re always being bluffed by others.