The Ultimate Poker Beginner Guide Used by Pros (2021)

Poker beginner guide

This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Fran Ferlan.

“The name of the game is no-limit Texas Hold'em, the game that takes a minute to learn but a lifetime to master.” - Mike Sexton

Poker is a deceptively simple game. Everyone can learn to play, but hardly anyone can actually be a long-term winner. 

After learning the rules and realizing that it’s actually a skill game pretending to be a luck game, you start to delve deeper into the strategy aspect, hoping to figure it out and make bank. 

And very soon you start to realize the incredible complexity of it all. You encounter a bunch of terms you are not familiar with, and realize that poker has a language of its own. 

You want to learn, you want to improve, but you have no idea where to even start. Should you read books, watch Youtube poker videos, or just buy a course?

Furthermore, what are the best poker games for beginners to play in? 

I actually give you my top 5 most profitable poker games for beginners in my latest video.

  
Bottom line though, there is so much information out there, and it can get overwhelming quite quickly. If you find yourself in such a predicament, you’ve come to the right place. 

This article will give you a step-by-step process to accelerate your learning process and crush your buddies next Friday poker night or even making a sizeable side income in no time.

This guide is written with no-limit Texas Hold’em cash games in mind, and assumes you know the basic rules of the game and are familiar with the basic terms. 

This includes absolute and relative hand strength, the betting rounds (preflop, flop, turn and river) and how the blinds work. 

If you are still unsure if a flush beats a straight, I would advise learning that first, then coming back to this article. With all that said, let’s get into the actual guide.


1. Know Why You Are Betting


The basic premise of poker is simple: each player is dealt cards face down, and they wager a certain amount of money into the pot through the betting rounds based on their perceived card strength. 

You can win the pot in two ways: either by making the strongest card combination possible, or by making all your opponents give up the hand by betting and raising. 

The goal is to win as much money from as many pots as possible. In order to keep it simple, there are two main reasons you would choose to put money in the pot.

The first reason is that you think you have a stronger hand than your opponent and your opponent could pay you off with a weaker hand. This is called betting for value.

The second reason is you want your opponent to give up a hand that is stronger than yours. This is called a bluff.


Here’s a pro-tip: 

When starting to play poker, you shouldn’t really bluff often. There are a lot of factors to consider when deciding whether a bluff is profitable or not, but it’s way beyond the scope of this article. 

Nathan "BlackRain79" Williams actually discusses this in more detail in a recent video


What you need to know is that you will actually win the most money by making really strong hands (which don’t come around very often, so patience is key) and getting paid from a lot of second best hands.

The reason for that is when you start playing poker, you are ideally going to be playing against a lot of players who are beginners as well. 

They will play too many hands, call down too much, and make all kinds of crazy mistakes. 

So the best strategy when playing against them is to be patient, wait for a good hand, and then take all their money by value betting aggressively.


2. Know Which Hands to Play


So what hands should you actually play? Beginner poker players should be very selective with their hands, and should play only about the top 20% of all hands.

This includes all pocket pairs (from pocket Aces to pocket Twos), suited Aces (every Ace with the same suit, like AK or A♣2♣), broadway hands (hands that can make the best possible straight, like K♠Q or JT), and strong suited connectors (cards of the same suit adjacent to one another, like 8♠7♠).

Why only those hands? That sounds a bit restrictive. Should we really just fold 80% of the time? Where’s the fun in that?

I agree, it doesn’t sound fun. But that’s because it works. If you want to play for fun, you can play a hundred percent of your hands, but you can’t expect to be a long term winner. 

Poker is about weighing the risk and reward all the time, so you should be willing to risk a bit of boredom for the reward of actually earning money. 

If not, you’re better off watching Netflix or playing video games.

The reason for such a conservative starting hand selection comes down to basic math. Most hands actually miss most flops, and it’s actually really hard to make a strong hand in poker. 

For example, a chance of flopping a flush when holding a suited hand is only 0.8%. 

So you should only play hands that have a decent chance of actually hitting the flop in some meaningful way. And even those are going to miss the flop two out of three times on average.

Here are a couple of pointers to keep in mind to assess your starting hand strength:

Higher cards are better than lower cards because they can make stronger pairs. However, you shouldn’t just play any Ace or any King, for example, because you can often run into kicker problems. 

A kicker is the other card that doesn’t help you make a certain hand combination, but can determine the winner if both players have the same hand. The player with the stronger kicker will win.
 

Poker Beginner Guide Example Hand #1


You have A6♠ and your opponent has A♠Q♠.

The board runout: AJ♦35♣J♠

You both have a two pair hand, but since the goal is to make the strongest 5 card combination possible, an additional card has to be taken into account. Since a Queen is stronger than a Six, your opponent wins the pot.

Suited hands are stronger than their unsuited counterparts. For example, JT is stronger than JT

However, you shouldn’t play any two cards just because they are suited. 

As mentioned before, the chances of making a flush are really small. Besides, you run the risk of your opponents having an even stronger flush and potentially losing a big pot.

The closer together the cards are, the better, because they can make straights more frequently. For example, JT is going to hit the flop better than J9.

So you should only play hands that have the potential to make strong hand combinations, and avoid marginal hands that could potentially cost you far more than they could earn you.

Next, let’s consider the types of players were to encounter on our way to poker greatness.


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3. Recognize Different Types of Opponents


Poker is a game played against other people, so it’s important to recognize their tendencies in order to make the best possible decisions against them. 

While no two players are exactly alike, they all share certain tendencies, so we can make some assumptions about how they play based on two variables: how many hands they play, and how aggressively they play them. 

Based on the percentage of hands they play, players can be either tight or loose.

They can also play their hands aggressively (i.e. betting, raising and reraising often) or passively (i.e. checking, calling and folding).

The combination of these two factors give us four basic player types. Let’s look at each of them and learn the best way to play against them.

Loose and passive players are often beginners. They play too many hands and call too much (hence the term calling stations). 

The best way to beat them is to be patient and selective with the hands you play, and value bet them a lot. You shouldn’t try to bluff them often, or even at all.

Tight and passive players (also called the rocks) are very selective with their starting hands, but only play aggressively if they have a really strong hand. 

While often not total beginners, they are still easy to beat because they are very predictable and play their cards face up, so to speak. If they have a strong hand, they’ll let you know. 

The key to beating them, as opposed to loose and passive players, is to bluff them often instead. 

They won’t be willing to fight back as often, because they will only do so with very strong holdings, and as mentioned earlier, strong hands simply don’t come around too often.

So you should try to apply maximum pressure on them as often as possible, and when they do fight back, be sure they have you beat and just fold your hand.

The next two player types are trickier to play against. 

They are more experienced players who will make a lot less mistakes and won’t be as easy to outplay as the previous two. There are still ways to beat them, of course, but they will fight back, so be wary.

The tight aggressive (TAG) style is the one you should be aiming at if you are a beginner poker player. It consists of playing only strong hands and playing them aggressively.

Poker Beginner Guide

The reason this strategy works best in low stakes games is because it exploits the weaknesses of a large majority of the player pool who plays exactly the opposite. 

By being selective with your starting hands, you are giving yourself a mathematical edge over the players that play all kinds of garbage hands.

What this means in practice is that you will often win the pot by making stronger one pair or two pair hands, stronger straights, stronger flushes and so on. 

And when you do, you should play them fast, i.e. build the pot as soon as possible and win the most amount of money possible. 

A lot of beginners will pay you off with their second best hands, like top pair weak kicker, bottom ends of a straight, weak flushes etc.

And lastly, there is a loose and aggressive (LAG) style, which is arguably the most fun one, albeit more risky than the tight aggressive one. It consists of playing more hands and bluffing more than their TAG counterpart.

There is an ongoing debate over which of these styles is better, but it all depends on the circumstances, the games you play, the opponents you’re up against etc.

But in a nutshell, it comes down to risk management. The TAG approach is lower risk, lower reward, while LAG approach is higher risk, higher reward. 

This means that your results will be less swingy with the TAG strategy and should therefore be employed when first starting out.

That is why the TAG strategy is my #1 proven method to beat small stakes poker games.

With the LAG approach you’ll be able to maximize your winnings, but it will involve more risk, and that risk will outweigh your potential reward, especially when you are first starting out. 

Your goal at the start should be to learn first, earn later. 

LAG style is therefore appropriate only after you master the fundamentals, otherwise you’ll get into a lot of marginal situations without a substantial skill edge over your opponents, and that could spell disaster for your results.

When first starting out, you should keep things simple. Poker is an incredibly complex game, so there’s no need to rush anything. Learn and play at a pace you’re comfortable with. 

We’ve covered the starting hand selection and playing against weak players as the best means of achieving great poker results. 

Now let’s consider the last main ingredient of the poker success recipe.


4. Play in Position


When you play in position, you are the last to act in every betting round. This gives you a significant edge over your opponents for multiple reasons.

First, if you are the last to act, you have more information to work with. You get to see what your opponents did, and they have no idea what you will do, and you can act accordingly. 

If you are the one playing out of position, you will be at an informational disadvantage, as it is harder to gauge your relative hand strength and pick up on tells from your opponents. 

The second advantage to playing in position is the ability to control the size of the pot. If you are the last to act, you can dictate the price. 

If you face a bet, you can choose to either fold, call, or raise yourself. If you play out of position, you can only bet or check, and your opponent can bet or raise you back, and they can control the pot size. 

So if you have a strong hand, you can build the pot a lot easier when you are the last to act. And if you don’t, you can still just call with your drawing hands or simply give up by folding. 

This means that you are the one to dictate the tempo, as opposed to just reacting to your opponents.

Texas Holdem Beginner Guide

Furthermore, it is much easier to bluff in position. As mentioned before, playing out of position puts you at an informational disadvantage, so it’s easier to exert a lot of pressure on your opponents by firing off bets street after street. 

As we know, it’s relatively rare to have a strong hand in poker, so a lot of players simply won’t have the heart to call you down, especially if they are out of position.

In conclusion, playing in position simply gives you more options and more information, and since poker is a game of incomplete information, any additional piece of it will help. 

So try to play more hands in position, preferably against weak players, and try to avoid playing out of position against strong and aggressive opponents. 

You can do so by getting involved in a hand in the “late position”, i.e. on the button (the button always acts last) and the cutoff (the seat to the direct right of the button. 

It’s called the cutoff because you are able to “cut off” the button’s advantage by betting or raising before it. 

By playing more hands in these two seats, and less hands in early positions and from the blinds, you are setting yourself up to play in the most profitable spots more often than not.

So if the only thing you take from this article is only one sentence, let it be this one: Winning poker is playing strong cards in position as a preflop aggressor. 

This is the cornerstone of the TAG strategy, so memorize these three key ingredients: be selective with the hands you play, play them in position, and play them aggressively. 

What about the game format? Should you play cash games, tournaments, or sit-and-gos?


5. Play Low Stakes Cash Games


This one depends entirely on you. You should play the format you like and are comfortable with. 

However, this guide is written with cash games in mind, as it’s the best format to learn the fundamentals quickly by the sheer power of repetition. Here’s a couple of reasons why.

When playing cash games, the blinds structure is always the same. If you buy into a $5 game online, the blinds are always going to be 2 cents and 5 cents, for example. 

When you play tournaments, on the other hand, the blinds are constantly increasing, so your stack gets progressively smaller all the time. 

This is important because your strategy (i.e. the hands you play and how you play them) will have to change based on the blind structure. You can’t play the same way with a hundred big blinds and fifteen big blinds, for example.

So by playing cash games, the conditions are ideally always similar, the blinds are always the same, the stacks are bigger, and you don’t have to worry about losing your tournament life.

Another benefit of playing cash games is that you can play a significantly higher number of hands in a shorter time. 

This means you will encounter a lot of similar situations often, which can help your learning process tremendously. More hands, more experience.

And ultimately more profits for you! 

This is how some people actually turn poker into their main side hustle.


Also, there’s a lot more freedom in playing cash games. You can sit down and play whenever you want, however long you want, and if you don’t feel like it, you can walk away any time. 

Tournaments simply don’t give you that much flexibility, and you don’t know in advance how long they are going to last.

And lastly, one huge factor in favour of cash games to other formats is lower variance. Variance in poker terms marks the difference between your expected results and your actual results. 

If you flip a coin 10 times and bet a dollar on heads, you would expect to win five times. If you win 6 times or more, you would experience positive variance, but if you win only 4 times or less, that would be negative variance.

In practice, this means that your poker results will be a never-ending swing of ups and downs. Sometimes you will get great cards and win more than your “fair share”, and sometimes you will keep losing horribly no matter what you do. 

This is an integral part of poker, and there is really no way around it. It’s something a lot of people struggle with and can’t get past, and it takes some time to fully wrap your mind around it. 

So when first starting out, cash games might be a better choice, because they have significantly less variance than tournaments. 

This means that you can achieve good results faster, because the more hands you play, the less the “luck factor” plays a role. 

Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t play tournaments or other formats altogether. 

Tournaments are a ton of fun, and you can potentially hit a huge prize way faster than you would by playing low stakes cash games. If you enjoy playing them, then by all means go for it.

Just be aware that even though tournaments offer disproportionately high rewards, it’s really difficult to cash out on them consistently, even if you’re a world class professional. 

So if your goal is to improve your poker skills and win with a relative consistency, low stakes cash games will be your best bet.

If you are just starting out, I recommend you start at the very lowest stakes, which would usually be 1/2 dollar live games, or 1/2¢ online (NL2) on most online sites. 

Even though these stakes might seem like insignificant money for a lot of people, skipping to bigger stakes is ill-advised for a number of reasons.

First of all, the cold hard reality of poker is that most people actually lose money in the long run. And if you’re just starting out, you’re basically guaranteed to lose money for a while. 

Poker is an incredibly competitive game, and since there is actual real money on the line, people just won’t hand over their hard earned dollars without a fight. 

When you add to it the aforementioned short term luck factor, losing some money while learning the ropes is basically inevitable. So it doesn’t really make sense to risk more than is necessary.
 
Also, there is a relative skill difference of players between the stakes, so you should start with the low hanging fruit, so to speak. 

If you can prove to yourself that you can win consistently over a considerable sample size, you can move up the stakes.

Just remember that there’s no rush. Poker is a long-term game, and slow and steady wins the race. This is also how you can learn to make poker your main side hustle.


6. Work on Your Mental Game


One last thing to mention doesn’t have anything to do with the strategy and technical knowledge of the game, but is arguably a crucial aspect of your long-term profitability, and that is the mental game.

This is all about handling the aforementioned never-ending swings of fortune you’re bound to encounter. If you’ve already played poker for some time, you know it can be quite a frustrating experience, to say the least.

The outcome of a lot of situations is simply beyond our control, no matter how well we play. The short term luck factor can be brutal, and there is no way around it. If you play poker, you will lose more than you would deem “fair”.

This will cause you to forget all about what you’ve read in this article, abandon the tried and true strategies, chase losses, pile up even more losses, until you rage-quit and break your laptop.

I’m exaggerating for effect, but it does happen. It’s called tilt, and it’s the bane of every poker player on the face of the earth. Nobody is completely immune to it.

Nathan Williams actually discusses this specifically in his latest video


Now, I’m not saying this to dishearten you. I’m saying it to let you know that keeping your emotions in check is just as important, if not more, than learning which hands to play in which position. 

Poker is a game played by humans, and we humans are tragically ill-equipped to deal with odds and probabilities. 

We’re built to act emotionally first, and think about the consequences only after it’s too late. Things will go wrong, and you won’t react as well as you might hope to. 

So be aware of it going in. Know that you will have to work on your mental game, as well as your technical knowledge to truly get ahead.

That’s why game selection is so important. You should only play in games that you can beat, and with the money you can afford to lose. 

It sounds blatantly obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people disregard something that should be common sense.

So if you take all this advice to heart, you’ll be well ahead of the learning curve.


Summary


When you scratch beneath the surface, you soon realize that poker is an incredibly complex game, and the learning curve can get quite steep. It’s no walk in the park by any means. 

Learning the lingo and the winning strategy can be overwhelming, especially with the sheer amount of information (as well as misinformation) out there.

But the good news is that you don't have to study a bunch of advanced poker strategy in order to get winning quickly as a beginner.

Fortunately, by following the simple tried and true methods outlined in this article, you can start winning consistently in no time, but it will take some patience and practice.

You should start with the basic tight and aggressive (TAG) strategy.

This includes playing only strong hands preflop, like pocket pairs, suited Aces, broadway hands and strong suited connectors, which equates to about 20% of the hands. 

This is just an average, of course. You should play less hands in early position (as little as 10%), and progressively opening up more hands the closer you are to the button. 

When on the button, you can play as much as 40% or even more in some cases.

You should also be familiar with basic player types you can encounter, and opt to play as many hands as possible against weaker opponents. 

You should value bet recreational loose and passive players relentlessly, and bluff often against tight and passive players.

More caution is advised when playing against more experienced TAG and LAG players, because they know the power of aggression, and will often fight back against you. 

It’s best to avoid them, as they will make significantly less fundamental mistakes than the other two types. 

The third factor to keep in mind is trying to play more hands in position than out of position. By doing so you are getting a significant edge over your opponents by having more options and information, by controlling the pot size, and by being able to bluff more effectively.

As far as the game selection goes, you should stick with low stakes cash games to learn the game inside and out in the most efficient way. 

You should start with the lowest stake possible (NL2) and gradually work your way up when you feel confident about your game. Just remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

And finally, remember that winning poker is a lot more than knowing what cards to play in a certain spot. 

How you approach the game when chips don’t fall your way for an extended period of time will determine your long term success more than anything else. 

Keep learning and keep improving your technical knowledge, but don’t forget about your mental game. It’s also a skill like any other, so keep working at it.

Follow these steps, and you’ll transition from a complete fish to a veritable semi-pro in no time.

Lastly, if you want to know the complete strategy to crush beginner poker games, make sure you grab a copy of the free BlackRain79 poker cheat sheet.

Best Poker Beginner Guide