Why Texas Hold’em is NOT a Game of Chance (Poker Misconceptions part 1)

*This is the first part of a three-part series detailing many of the misconceptions the general public has about Texas Hold’em.  Much of the information in these articles apply to poker in general.  However, I am specifically talking about Texas Hold ’em because it is easily the most well known and most popular variant of poker.

Part 2

Part 3

**I realize this is a ridiculously long post, nearing 4,000 words.  However, I wouldn’t have made it this long if I felt like there were parts not worth reading.  I’ve been working on this for multiple weeks, and I hope you enjoy.
In society, Texas Hold ’em generally gets a bad rap.  This is probably from a number of reasons, the most obvious being that it is often played in a casino.  People have the notion that many participants in games like poker are problem gamblers, or that playing poker leads to addiction, and because of that, many dislike the game.  However, there is a lot about hold ’em that people don’t even bother to learn.  In reality, it’s an extremely fun and mentally challenging game that is easy to learn but difficult to master.
The granddaddy of all misconceptions about the game is that Texas Hold’em is straight gambling, and dependent solely, or at least mostly on luck in order to win.  While admittedly luck is important and an inherent part of the game, Hold ’em is definitely not a game of chance.  There are multiple different strategies, all of which work for differently people and can be used effectively in different situations.  This makes poker different from any other game in a casino.  It isn’t a game where you just hope you get lucky and win such as craps, roulette, or slots.  Additionally, it isn’t like blackjack where there is essentially a “correct” way to play the game.  While different people employ different blackjack strategies, there is an optimal way to play the game.  Poker just isn’t like that.
The thing that sets poker apart from other casino games is the fact that in poker the casinos do not care who wins.  The casino takes rake from the players, but besides that it, is a fair game.  In all other games, over the long haul casinos have an advantage over the players, whereas in poker you play against other people, and over a large sample of hands the better player will come out on top.
There are some poker players that make millions of dollars and get to travel the world playing in poker tournaments and cash games.  Some make their money playing online on websites such as Pokerstars.  The point is, for these people, playing poker is their job.  They are professionals.  In a game of chance, there would be no professionals because no one could be any better than anyone else.  There is no person who can claim to one of the best in the world at roulette because of the nature of the game.  The term “crapshoot”, referring to an unpredictable event, gets its name from craps, because there is no right way to play the game other than to not play at all.  Poker is a game where the best players consistently perform better than the average player.  You can only get lucky so many times at a roulette wheel before reality checks back in.
To become a strong Hold ’em player, you have to practice, and try different strategies, and really think about the game.  You have to decide what works and what doesn’t against different kinds of people and why, and use that information against future opponents.  In the end, the secret of success is picking the right hands to play and make strong EV, or expected value decisions.  Basically, do what you believe will make you more money in the long run, and then let luck take over.  Sure, everyone gets unlucky once in a while, but if you can consistently put yourself in positions where you are more likely to win than lose, eventually the chips will come your way.  If you look at it this way, playing poker is far more like investing in stocks than gambling.  It’s all about making smart choices by minimizing risk while maximizing gains.
There’s a lot of ways to figure out what the right decision is, and the right decision might be different for different people, which is what gives the game its tremendous depth and draws many to the game.
Here is a very basic example of what I mean.  For this example, let’s look at two independent scenarios.  In both situations a player is holding an extremely strong hand after the flop and is first to act against one opponent.  However, one player is very tight and does not play many hands, whereas the other is a member of almost every pot.  Either of these playing strategies can work, as long as the players can each play their technique well.
While other information may influence the player’s decision, the tight player should probably check.  Since their opponent knows they don’t like playing many hands, they are likely to feel a decent size bet will make the tight player fold.  By tricking the opponent, the pot becomes greater without the tight player looking aggressive.  This strategy is sometimes referred to as the “rope a dope.”  However, if the tight player raises, the opponent will know they are up against a strong hand, and is likely to fold.  These means the tight player loses out on the chips they could have gained from letting their opponent bet.
On the other hand, the loose player’s best move would probably be to continue betting.  This person seems like the type to take more chances, and naturally someone who plays more will have a strong hand less often.  By betting, and playing the hand similarly to many other hands, the opponent may assume the other person is bluffing, and just trying to scare them out of the pot, leading them to call.  The sizing of the bet would also play an important role here, as a bet too large might not give the other person the right odds to call.  Alternatively, a bet too small means the player won’t get as much money from the other person as they could.  Depending on just how aggressive this person plays, checking might actually send off the warning flags of the opponent.  If they almost never check, and now they are, the opponent could easily feel something must be up.
This is about as simple as example hands go, and entirely abstract since I introduced no actual cards or chips to the scenario, but even so it introduced several important concepts in the game.  The biggest one is that disguising your hand is extremely important.
If you always bet the same amount when you have a strong hand, and always check when you have a weak one, it won’t take very long for a player with any kind of experience to pick up on your betting patterns.  Being predictable is the worst thing a poker player can be.  When a player’s opponents can read them like a book, they can easily figure out when to fold, meaning the predictable player gets less value out of their strong hands.  Additionally, the predictable player can be bullied out of pots, or even tricked into giving away more money than they have to.  It would be next to impossible for a player like this to have any major success.
The whole idea here is that a poker player should try not to give away any more information than they have to, while quietly noting patterns in the play of their opponents, whether it be through betting or physical tells, which may be used later to strong decisions.
Two additional large concepts introduced in the sample hand are pot odds and the idea of extracting maximum value.  Since oftentimes these go hand in hand (horrible pun), I’ll discuss them together.  Pot odds are essentially the ratio of what’s in the pot to what a player must put in the pot to call a bet.  For example, if a pot contains 100 chips, and a player has to decide whether to call a bet of 50 chips, you could say that they are getting 2:1 pot odds on the potential call, since 100/50=2.  Yes, this does mean that math is involved.  Luckily for those who despise math, this only involves division and ballpark estimates can usually suffice.  Anyways, according to pot odds, for this person to make a mathematically correct call (without considering anything but the raw numbers), they should feel that they have the best hand one third of the time.  This is because two out of three times they lose 50 chips by making the call, but once every three times they make 100 chips by calling, essentially meaning they break even over the long run.  This goes back to the main idea of making +EV decisions.  If this player believes their chances of winning are above 33%, then a call (or raise, depending on the situation) should be made.  If their odds are lower than 33%, a fold would be mathematically wise.
Back to the hand.  Essentially, if the loose player knows he has the best hand, his main goal should be to steal as many chips from his opponent as possible.  After all, opportunities are scarce when you know your hand is best.  This is where a strong poker player will combine the ideas of pot odds and maximum value to milk as much money as he can out of the hand.  Let’s say the pot contains 100 chips.  What should this player bet?  Well, like everything, it varies depending on the specific situation, but generally here’s the deal.  If they make a very small bet, say 10 chips, the opponent is almost guaranteed to call.  That’s good, because they want the other player to continue playing against them in the hand so they can make more money.  However, a bet this small gives the opponent 11:1 odds, since they must call 10 chips to win a pot of 110.  It almost isn’t worth the loose player’s time to make a bet so small, since they win almost no money.  Remember, the goal is to get as many chips as possible.
On the other hand, a bet of 100 chips would also be unwise.  Yes, if the opponent calls, the loose player has succeeded in making the pot large.  However, the chances that the other player matches your raise are slim.  2:1 odds definitely aren’t horrible, but a bet that large definitely shows a lot of confidence, even for someone who likes to throw chips around.  The opponent doesn’t even need to know what pot odds are to tell that they’re against something good.  Additionally, if the opposition doesn’t have a hand, they will surely fold.  Even if they have a decent hand, they probably fold to a bet that large, meaning they won’t be able to give away money on the turn or river, either.  Usually, when you the other person calls, they have a great hand themselves, which puts the loose player at serious risk for losing a lot of chips.  There is the off chance that an opponent calls simply believing that they’re up against a bluff (which is awesome), but it’s a far less likely scenario.
To conclude, a proper size bet would probably be somewhere within the 30-50 chip range.  While the other player probably still folds if they have absolutely nothing, it largely raises the odds that a player with any pair, draw, or even an ace or king high will call.  This bet size gives pretty good odds to the opponent, and will often get a call by a worse hand, which is the desired outcome.  It also gives the loose player the betting lead, effectively giving them control of the hand.  If the turn and river are cards that don’t threaten the loose player’s hand, then similar betting should be done to continue extracting value.  If the bet on the flop ended up being 40 chips, and the opponent called, the pot would then be 180.  The idea on the next few two bets is to increase the bet size while giving similar odds.  For instance, a bet on the turn could be around 60-80 chips, and a river bet could be somewhere around 100-120 chips.  This way the bets increase steadily and hopefully will result in calls from weaker hands.
However, here are a few potential scenarios in which a different betting strategy could be successful.  If a player shows poor body language that would suggest they do not like their hand, they will probably fold to an average bet.  This may lead to betting smaller.  If the opponent is someone who will play any cards and just loves to gamble, then this person should be taken advantage of with larger bets.  Remember, the objective is to figure out where the imaginary line in the other person’s head lies between calling and folding, and bet just under that line.
Also, if the board suggests that an opponent might be drawing to a hand (for example, if the board contains two or three of a suit and it seems likely that one more of that suit could give the other player a flush), then it might actually be a good idea to make a very large bet and not give the adversary good odds to call, so they never have a chance of making their flush.  Lastly, if the loose player has been betting a particular amount consistently, it would do them well to continue the pattern in order to disguise the hand as just another average hand they raise with.  Remember, it’s always important to be aware of how an opponent perceives you.
Sometimes, knowing what the rest of the table thinks of your style and skill level can definitely play to your advantage.  Since we just revisited the loose player, let’s change it up and talk about the tight player.  Now, we said that a good line to take would be check and hopefully bait the other player to fall victim to the rope-a-dope strategy, basically inducing big bets and growing the pot without taking any aggressive action.  However, that’s if the tight player is holding a great hand.  What if the hand is worthless?  If everyone sees this person as only betting with a strong hand, then they have no reason to believe a bet here would be any different.  A passive player could easily scare off the competition with a good size bet.  They can then take the blinds, antes, and any pre-flop raises without having to hit any cards.
It sounds great, doesn’t it?  However, there are a few basic rules about doing this.  First off, this strategy can’t be employed very often.  The only reason this works is because the table views the better as tight, and always having a hand when betting.  Bet too often, and it becomes impossible to have a hand every time.  Gradually, everyone else will become aware of this and the strategy will no longer become valid.  Secondly, the bet sizing typically will have to be large.  There’s no use in trying to get other players to call a bluff, it goes against the entire purpose of bluffing.  Instead of a raise of 30-50 into a pot of 100, a bet closer to 100 would be more appropriate.  Finally, if the first bet is called, a crucial decision must be made on the turn.  There are two options.  The former is simply giving up on the hand, checking first and folding if the opponent bets.  The latter is continuing the bluff.  To do this, one should be confident in their abilities to get a fold, and show lots of strength by betting far more than the previous bet.  This is referred to as a multi-street bluff, since a bluff is made multiple different times within a hand.  The important thing here though, is to avoid reaching a showdown at all costs.  If you have to show your hand after a river bet being called, or you and the opponent checking the river, than two things happen.  One, you lose a good amount of chips.  Two, everyone else now knows that you are capable of bluffing, making it harder for the technique to work in the future.
So there are several different ways to win hands.  You can bet with the best hand, call the bets of others with the best hand, and bluff everyone else out of the hand.  However, no matter which way you try to win, you can almost never be 100% sure that you will end up winning.  Why?  Because of a thing called nuts.
Imagine you’ve bet the flop, turn, and river in increasing increments, thinking the whole way that the opponent is just easy money.  Then they turn it over- the one hand that could beat yours, the nuts.  You’ve been rope-a-doped.  How about this: you try playing rope-a-dope and check, then call when the other player raises on all three post-flop opportunities.  Just as you start raking in the pot, you come to the agonizing conclusion that you’ve been taken to value-town.  Or this: you’ve made a convincing multi-street bluff, but for some reason your opponent won’t buy it.  Why would they?  They can’t lose!
Eventually, once you calm down from the bad-beat, you’ll wonder, “how could I have realized that I was up against that hand?”  Well, sometimes it’s practically impossible to figure it out if the opponent played well enough, but there are some factors that can help you what kind of a hand you’re up against.
A main one is stack size.  Naturally, the chip leader will play more hands than a short stack.  So, if you’re playing a short stack, watch out because the odds are far higher that they have a strong hand.  Also, the player’s chip stack compared to the blinds in addition to the other players is important.  Sure, a stack of 5,000 chips might seem like a lot, but if the blinds are 250/500, then that player only has 10 big blinds, which means they have to be comfortable risking everything if they want to play a hand.
Position is a huge deal as well, for both you and your opponents.  If you play a hand from early position, meaning you are one of the first players to act, it shows that you are confident because you are okay with playing even knowing than many other players after you may also call or raise.  It also means that post-flop you will be acting first, giving the other player(s) the advantage of knowing what you are doing before they have to make a decision.  Players from later position, on the other hand, play more hands because they already know how many people will be in the hand and that they will act later post-flop, meaning they can afford to play more hands.
I know it’s a big shocker, but the cards also matter!  Just comparing the actions of the other members of a hand to the board can give a pretty good idea of what they have.  For instance, if someone bets the flop and turn of a king-high board with no possible straights or flushes, then checks when an ace comes on the river, you could be pretty confident they have a king.  They knew their hand was strong with the top pair, so they bet.  However, when a card came up that could beat them, they checked to see if anyone else would bet, likely holding an ace.  The reason why they are far more likely to have a king than two pair or three of a kind is because if they were holding one of those hands, the ace wouldn’t scare them because their hand is stronger than a pair of aces.  They would probably have continued betting since they can’t be beat by a straight or flush.
As I’ve said multiple times already, image is everything.  A poker player has a strong advantage if they can figure out what kinds of hands their opponents will play, and how they like to play those hands in different situations.  Do they usually check or raise with a strong hand?  What size do they usually bet?  Is it any different when they bluff?  Having answers to these questions can really aid a player in deducing the opponent’s cards.
Lastly, although they aren’t as common as some would like to make them out to be, spotting any tells a player has can easily point towards the nature of one’s hand.  They won’t be obvious to find (no one starts fist-bumping the air when they see good cards come), but finding any subtle, sometimes subconscious actions, can make a player dangerous.  Some players might raise their eyebrows, quickly check their cards, or gaze at their chips whenever a community card comes that helps them.  Some players will practically throw their chips into the pot when bluffing.  Others will take a sip of their drink or start breathing heavily after trying to deceive an opponent.  Again, it’s very difficult to spot these (and some players don’t have strong tells), but picking up on something could become huge when deciding whether to call or fold in a big hand.
Although, beware when picking up on tells that on occasion very strong players might try to act like they are giving away a tell when in reality they are just trying to influence your beliefs on what hand they actually have.  For example, in a game with friends I was playing heads up for the win and I was raised all in.  After a minute of considering whether or not I should call, my opponent whispered to the guy who was dealing that he wished he could take the bet back.  In my mind, this made me feel as if I was against a bluff, leading me to call all-in.  My friend then turned over a straight and I took second.
So far I’ve shown many different strategies and ideas surrounding the game of Texas Hold’em that prove that there is a large amount of skill involved in becoming a strong force at the tables.  There’s only one problem here.  When you play Hold’em, you play against other people.  That means many of them will be familiar with these concepts themselves, and will be ready to employ all of these tactics against you, taking the mental aspect of the game to a whole new level.  In the end, most hands end up becoming a mental and psychological battle between its participants, with the luck factor appearing in the uncertainty of upcoming cards which can make or break hands and force everyone to modify their strategies.
Poker is a lot of things, but one thing it isn’t is a game based on luck.  Sure, sometimes people get streaks of strong hands, but streaks don’t last forever, and the game is more about how well you can your cards than what the cards actually are.  That’s something not a lot of outsiders to the game realize.

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