Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Very Simple Secret to a Winning Poker Strategy

winning poker strategy
Poker strategy has gone through so many changes over the years. Play tight aggressive, play loose aggressive, only 3Bet with the nuts, 3Bet with a 10% range, don't be a donkey and call down light, be a donkey and call down the aggressive regs light, polarize your range, merge your range and on and on and on.

And then we have the endless math theories, coaches and training sites, software tools, "solvers" and everything in between. Honestly, it is enough to make your head spin.

I stopped paying attention to most of it years ago. I just listen to a handful of pros who I know and trust and often just discover what works and what doesn't at the poker tables myself.

But I know from talking and working with many newer players at the lower stakes over the years that many of them are very confused these days. They have been given so many different conflicting pieces of advice that they are literally just pressing buttons sometimes and hoping for the best.

All of this information overload has destroyed their ability to see the one little thing that all elite poker players do better than everybody else.


I Think, Therefore I Win


Logical decision making. Critical thinking. Finding the highest EV (expected value) play. These are all lost on many poker players these days.

People are so overwhelmed by all of this maniacal over-thinking and over-analysis of the game that they have completely forgotten (or perhaps were never even taught) how to actually think about the game correctly.

The first book that I ever read about poker over 10 years ago was "The Theory of Poker" by David Sklansky. This book was published nearly 20 years ago and pre-dates online poker. It is also largely about Limit Hold'em if I recall.

Still, there is a reason why it is often considered one of the best books ever written on the game and it is one of the only books that I recommend (besides my own of course). This is because it teaches you how to think about the game.

In fact this is the subtitle of the book: A Professional Poker Player Teaches You How to Think Like One.

I see it every day in the hands that people post on my forum and elsewhere. The #1 reason why many people have so much trouble beating even the very lowest stakes these days is because they simply do not know how to think about the game correctly.

And by this I mean assessing a situation and quickly being able to determine the highest +EV decision. I see the wrong decisions being made in very simple spots again and again and again.


A Winning Poker Strategy is Very Simple


When you really think about it, winning poker is very simple. You always have just a handful of options in any given situation.
  • Bet
  • Call 
  • Raise
  • Fold
Pick the right one on a regular basis (or at least more often than your opponents do) and you will win. In fact you will crush the games. It really is that simple and this is what I have based my entire poker career around.

Let me give you an example from a hand that was posted on my forum the other day.

Now just to be clear here I am not making any assumptions about the person who posted it nor will I even name them (it is from a private member's only part of my forum anyways). I am just using this hand as an example because this is the type of thing that I see all the time at the micros.


PokerStars No-Limit Hold'em, $0.05 BB (8 handed)

MP1 ($5)
MP2 ($5.14)
CO ($7.90)
Hero (Button) ($5.50)
SB ($5.46)
BB ($5)
UTG ($6.13)
UTG+1 ($9.37)

Preflop: Hero is Button with Q, Q
1 fold, UTG+1 raises to $0.15, 1 fold, MP2 raises to $0.46, 1 fold, Hero raises to $1.05, 3 folds, MP2 calls $0.59

Flop: ($2.32) J, 4, 3 (2 players)
MP2 checks, Hero bets $1.15, MP2 raises to $2.30, Hero folds

Total pot: $4.62 | Rake: $0.19


So hero gets dealt QQ here and there is lots of action in front of us with 100bb+ effective stacks. Happy times right? Of course! We have the 3rd best hand in Hold'em! This is a great spot to be in. What's even better is that we are in position as well.

So raise it up right? After all we very likely have the best hand here. Many people would go ahead and make this play without even thinking about it. And that is fine. But let's look at this situation a little bit deeper first.

We have QQ on the button and there is already a raise and a 3Bet in front of us. If we go ahead and cold 4Bet here this basically screams from the mountaintops, "I have a monster."

Versus any two reasonably sane opponents this is going to force them to fold everything but the absolute nuts. So basically they will only give us action with their AA, KK or AK.

You can probably already see what a disaster this is by now right?

We get every hand that we crush and want to play against to fold and only get action from hands that we flip with or which absolutely crush us. Lose/lose.

From a logical perspective the highest expected value decision in this spot is instead to simply flat the 3Bet especially given the fact that we are on the button and get to play the entire hand in position.

If I was going to cold 4Bet here I would rather do it with either the absolute and total nuts (KK+) or with a bluff (Ax blocker hand). I would not want to do it with an amazingly strong hand like QQ but which can't stand huge action preflop or postflop.

Now once again, I am not trying to shame this player in any way. I understand the reason why he played it the way he did and this is a mistake that anyone could make. I have done it many times myself especially if rushed.

I am using this hand instead to illustrate why it is so important that you forget the math, the odds and every little theory you have been told over the years and just simply assess each situation in poker for what it is.

Simply ask yourself this: What is the best play right here and right now?

What play is going to yield the highest return/profit for you in the long run? This is what a winning poker strategy is all about.

There is usually going to be one specific decision that yields the highest EV in any given situation (even if it is a negative amount). If you make this decision on a regular basis, you will without a doubt absolutely crush the games.

This is the big "secret" that all elite poker players already know about.


Mathematical Analysis Paralysis


One of the biggest reasons why I believe so many people fail to find the highest EV decision on a consistent basis in a spot like this is because they are too caught up trying to turn poker into one big math equation.

This works in a game like Limit or maybe Pot Limit but in No Limit Hold'em with deep stacks, endless bet sizing possibilities and sometimes crazy implied odds, it simply doesn't work this way.

No Limit Hold'em, especially with deep stacks, is much more art than science. It is more logic than math. You can't just look at the equity or the odds like in the hand above and make a decision from there. Because the mathematically correct play is not always the EV correct play as we just saw.

Too many people these days are becoming robots who can't even think about the game properly anymore because they are obsessed with studying advanced mathematical theories, equity tools and trying to play like their favourite high stakes hero.

The problem is that most of this stuff has little to no value at the lower stakes where you are often playing against very weak competition with large imbalances in their play. You should be learning very basic strategies to exploit their weaknesses instead.

The other reason why this stuff will harm your poker career is because it leads to mass over-analysis of the game and ultimately paralysis. How can you ever make any money in this game and become successful if you don't even play it?

Beyond the basic math of the game (which you should definitely know and which you can learn in an afternoon on Google or in an article I wrote right here), the key to success is endless trial and error at the poker tables.

I don't know any top player who hasn't played millions and millions of hands. Because this is how you learn how to think about the game. Much like you learn how to speak a new language by the relentless use of it, not by studying textbooks.

Continuous application of a very simple strategy is how you learn to understand poker on a deeper level. This is when it starts to click and you don't even need to think about common spots anymore.

You just know.


Final Thoughts


The big "secret" to a winning poker strategy shouldn't even be a secret at all. There is so much noise and over-analyzation nonsense out there these days that many people have simply forgotten how to even think about the game anymore.

Winning poker at the lower limits is not a math formula and there is no secret theory or guru that is going to show you the light either. It is really just about assessing each situation as it stands and thinking logically about what the correct play is.

This becomes much easier the more you do it because you have seen the same situations over and over again. If you put in millions of hands and thousands of hours like I have, you can literally just play this game in your sleep.

There is almost always one decision that is better than the others. In the few cases where it is razor thin (these are most of the hands that people post on forums and squabble about), it really doesn't even matter. Flip a coin.

If you want to know the very simple strategy that I have used to create some of the highest winnings in the history of online poker at the micros make sure you grab a copy of my free poker ebook.

Let me know your thoughts below. Do you think that good decision making is the key to a winning poker strategy?

winning poker strategy

24 comments:

  1. Hey Nathan,

    Long time reader and sadly a long time losing/break even player. This is with me playing and studying relentlessly for the last year and a half (not to mention the years prior)

    My big question, and one I've failed to see anywhere recently, is an actual winning players winrate over a certain sample. One of my dreams is to travel the world and play poker as I go but I really am beginning to question if it is even viable. It seems every pro poker player also has an alternative source of income and I am beginning to think that is actually NEEDED, not just a bonus.

    I wish I was one of these beginnings who asks stupid questions but the fact is that I have dedicated a huge chunk of my life to this and have failed to see results. Obviously a lot of that has to be down to me, my work rate, logical thinking and all the other stuff you mentioned but I'm not sure how much I can continue to work hard and not see not even a decent payoff (and I'm not talking about bags of cash, just steady improvement)

    What is slightly worrying is that I haven't seen a winning players winrate on any of the forums or searches that I have carried out in the last year. I'm not scared of hard work and I know that I have to work harder than everyone if I really want to live the life I want...but I am genuinely scared that I am just 'wasting my time' (I still love poker so even just getting better at it is a bonus but you know what I mean)

    Anyway sorry about the rant. Hope you can point me the right direction and so I can make this year the year that it finally all pays off

    Daryl

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    1. Hi Daryl,

      Tons of poker players still post their results over big samples. The thread for 2016 results over at Tiltbook for instance is huge with some people earning close to 7 figures.

      But of course people also tend to post their results more often when they have a good year or month. Many others like myself have just chosen to stop posting results quite as often for a bit of privacy as well.

      It's not easy to make big money in this game these days and travel the world but there are still many people who do it. I meet them all the time over here in SE Asia. Is it smart to have a backup income source though even if it is outside poker? Absolutely.

      I do feel your pain but I also can't really make that decision for you about whether poker is worth it or not. I just try to put out information here (almost always free) that hopefully helps people out. All the best.

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    2. Cheers for the response Nathan. I've been playing on Pokerstars since time began, do you think moving sites might make a bit of difference? I've heard it's tougher on there but also the reward scheme is better...And I'm definitely not after big money! I just want to head over to India or Thailand like yourself and be able to survive on poker...certainly not live like a king!

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    3. I personally play mostly on other sites because the games are often much better (more fish). I wouldn't worry much about rakeback unless you are a really hardcore grinder. Every site has some version of it, the differences aren't that big. I created a list of some easier sites that I play on right here

      I understand your ambition, I would definitely suggest proving that you can win for awhile though (several months at least) before heading overseas. You probably already know this anyways. Thailand and India are both cheap but they aren't free either. There are many ways to make money online non-poker as well.

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    4. I am very curious about one thing PokerVagabond .... how many hands you played ? You didn't mention that ... do you have at least 1 milion hands ? Can you tell me that you played at least 1 milion and you never turned a profit out of it ?

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    5. Hi Poker Vagabond, at which limit do you use to play? I guess your are playing is some serious games if you plan to make a living playing poker and in this case it can be tough. At the micros it is an easy game (but you don't make money there, you play for fun) and at the entry levels it's not even poker. Good luck.

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    6. Hi Enache, I don't think you really need one million hand to have a good idea of your win rate. 100K or 200K hands are enough to give you a good approximation of it unless your are an extremely aggressive player subject to huge swings. With that sample size, even a bad variance period of several thousand of hands doesn't move your win rate so much if you are quite tight.

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    7. I know about the 200k sample rule Dalseno ... after all Blackrain talked about it himself on his blog in another article ... but I am just curious how many hands he played since everytime I see somebody struggling in poker I never see him mentioning the sample size either ... I bet he didn't even played 200k hands lol.

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    8. Hey guys. Sorry for the late response! I played around 450,000 last year, spent the first 9 month sort of aimlessly trying to learn and had no real proper plan in place. It's certainly different playing a few hundred hands a day and not taking it too seriously, to then trying to play close to full time and really trying to make a go of it. In the end it was a very steep learning curve, and so has the beginning of this year been.

      I foudn it was all well and good playing close to your A game the majority of the time, but mistakes and downswings really can set you back by a decent week, 2 or even a month and that can have a real negative effect on everything else. Yeah I've been searching for other ways to make money online as well but I think the vast majority would require me to go back to school/uni and probably get involved in a career that I really didn't have any passion for.

      I have started a very basic coding course just to SEE how coding works and look into that as a possible future income source. But for now poker is what I really want. I know many people have said that I should be winning over a decent sample at the micros but I think yet again most people don't play hundreds of thousands of hands in a year and actually live through what it would mean to become an actual pro.

      Certainly don't plan on heading out without any money. I'm cycling to Italy soon as a little break and will probably have to get a job when I come home to fund my year out to India or wherever.

      Cheers for the responses guys! I think this has hepled me to really focus on my decisions just a little bit more and not try to play so robotically

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    9. Hi Poker Vagabond, 450K in 9 months is a good sample size, but, in my opinion, not impressive for a full time player. How many tables do you play simultaneously? At what limits? There is good post here talking about the various level that might give you an idea of the time you need to scale up:
      http://www.blackrain79.com/2017/01/how-long-get-good-at-poker.html
      Maybe, but I might be wrong, you've been too impatient to get to the higher limits (where the real moneys are) and didn't give yourself the time to learn step by step. It looks like you took it seriously, studying and playing, but the micros are a world apart. You can't play serious poker there, it's simply doesn't work since most player there don't think at all. Read the various post here and possibly Nathan's book if you already haven't done it.

      PS Cycling in Italy should be wonderful (I'm Italian even though I live abroad), but pay attention because in February, especially in the North, it could be too cold to enjoy it. The best season is spring, more or less around Easter this year, not too cold nor too hot.

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  2. Hi Daryl,
    I'm exactly like you, except I've been playing since late July 2016 (I did play online years ago 2005-ish but learned nothing). Try this if you haven't already, switch to Zoom poker. I saw a positive return when I did after a few thousand hands. Eventually, I began to understand which hands I should play and in which position. Honestly, I'm still not in profit but I am confident I can make it in a couple of weeks, maximum. I actually got within 4 cents of profit last night but then bombed. I should have quit much earlier in the night.

    I'm recommending Zoom because players seem to play more straightforward, folding more bad and speculative hands. Less of a free-for-all.The other great benefit is seeing vastly more hands, those that work and those that don't. This will sink in to the unconscious mind and I expect to improve very quickly. Don't be too worried about the speed the blinds come around, you will hit good hands to play.

    Apologies if you're already doing this and it's still not working out. Perhaps raising and folding in the right places more often is the answer.
    Cheers, Ray

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    1. Hey I don't think you should look at poker as more folder is a good thing. You want those guys who play to wide of a range and take them to far. That is where the real money is made in poker. Hope you take these thoughts in to consideration. Poker is like a stock market that gets harder but will never crash. Maybe more like real-estate and that implies it is harder for people to do good now. Players are tougher and to many mixed styles and what people think about poker. GL

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    2. "Poker is like a stock market that gets harder but will never crash" - Great way of putting it!

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  3. Blackrain good job man. I have been telling people this for a long time,even at higher stakes. I tell my students it is all table selection. We can beat any stakes if we sit in the right game. Whenever I go on a downswing the first thing I notice is I got lazy with table selection. That usually fixes most problems. I also agree with everyone lost the scope of what poker really is. Using so many formulas advanced software etc causes a bit of robotic play less hand reading and less adjusting. It is refreshing to see you still understand the scope of the game. GL and I always read your posts even as a higher stakes pro. Thank for the letters and posts.

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    1. Thanks Chez, appreciate your thoughts also!

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  4. Blackrain79 i really learned a lot from your articles and i still do. But i dont aggree with you on that QQ hand.

    1) In games i play, most regulars dont have positional awareness. So early position preflop battles doesnt always mean nuts.
    2) If cold 4betting is screaming that we have a monster, we can cold4-fold KQs, AQ, AKo and even AJs and cold4-call QQ+ AKs.

    I am also ok with not cold 4 betting and calling our whole range including AA, KK. But calling with QQ AK and cold4 betting with KK+ and some bluffs doesnt seem very good to me, when we play post flop as preflop cold 3bet caller. What do we do with QQ overpair vs 2 and 3 barrel postflop. do we call down? Do we fold?

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    1. It is really player dependent but I have no problem playing QQ in position here. I think it is a great spot to be in with an under-repped hand.

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  5. Hi Nate great post,getting back to basics.
    I to was wondering about that hand personally I would call or fold (only folding to a nits 3-bet BTW).
    Calling does put us in a tough spot post flop with overs to that board if we cold 4-bet I agree were only getting called by KK or AK (assuming he would probably shove AA if we did cold 4-bet).
    So post flop assuming we call what would be your play to a single/double barrel?
    Defo a tough spot even with position.
    Thanks nate

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    1. Thanks Matthew, postflop it is very player dependent but I don't really mind playing QQ here in position. I think we could potentially win a huge pot even unimproved sometimes and we don't always have to stack off versus a tight player who barrels heavy.

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  6. I think the right advice is THINK. In poker you can never say what is the best strategy, it depends upon your opponents and their way of playing. 4bet with AA? Sometimes, when a huge fish is involved, it is much better shoving: they tend to see it as a sign of weakness/bluff rather than a demonstration of force. Anyway, as a rule with two regs involved (no fishes, no nits), I would have played QQ form the BTN as suggested (flatting) and then played poker on the flop, but it's just my humble novice opinion.

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    1. I agree 100% Andrea, you nailed it. That really was the point that I was trying to get across in this article. There is no magic formula to success in poker. Once you get the basics down then you have to learn how to think through this game yourself and find the right plays on a consistent basis. It is always different depending on the opponents, situation etc. Experience helps a lot with this.

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  7. Hey Nathan, just wanted a few thoughts on how you might play the example hand out after the flop? So you cold call the 3-bet, and likely get led in to on the jack high flop. I assume you call a bet here. What if something like a 7 comes on the turn? Would you call another bet? I guess what I'm getting at is don't you end up losing less potentially by the action playing out the way you described it vs calling a flop and turn bet and then potentially calling again on the river or folding?

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    1. I think the EV of flatting the 3Bet versus cold 4Betting is way higher and here is why. Yes, on occasion they will fire two shells after the flop and we will have to fold. They either hit a set with JJ or they have KK or AA. Remember that we will bink our two outer on occasion here as well though and win a monster pot.

      But here is the reality of the situation. There are so many more combinations of hands like AK, AQ or AJ, worse pairs, or even random other holdings that they could have. Most of the time what will happen is that one of them will fire a CBet and then give up on the turn. Remember that we also have position on both of them and this makes our decisions very simple throughout. We can even let over aggro regs completely hang themselves when they overplay a hand like AJ for instance.

      By comparison, when we just force the action preflop by cold 4Betting we either win a small pot or have to fold a great hand with no chance of winning the few times they have it. Sometimes a hand like AK will also outplay us by 5Bet shipping.

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  8. Hey Nathan,
    Thanks for this one.
    I recently posted here about how shitty of a stretch I had at NL2 (like 20k hands with an actually negative total) and while of course I didnt play optimally or probably still far from it (what else would you expect) Im still fairly sure that it was good enough to say that it really just was a bad stretch.

    However, in the last days this has been reversed ridiculously. I am fairly certain that I started playing better, partly because of this article, because I did just start thinking more (I did before, but not as much), definitely played better vs CBets, thought in ranges more, and, while I of course knew that position means a lot, I really really started internalizing and feeling how good it is.
    I must admit, on top of playing better, i also have just been getting very lucky, now having won 38BB/100 on a 5000 Hand stretch (this last session right now lasted 2 hours with 750 hands and 90BB/100, just everythng worked), which I am of course aware of is not just coming from playing better, but hey, it definitely helped getting closer to the max out of the lucky situations.

    So yeah, having shot up this hard, I am finally reached the threshold to go to NL5.
    Not exactly sure what the real point of this post is and I know its NL2 and that it wont go on as good, but still wanted to share it I guess.
    Thanks again, your articles really helped, this one especially.

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