5 Basic Poker Mistakes Most Amateurs STILL Make

5 Basic Poker Mistakes Most Amateurs STILL Make

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

In today’s day and age, it’s easier than ever to learn new skills, and poker is no exception. 

Yet, even with the plethora of available information just a click away, a lot of amateur poker players keep making the same basic mistakes over and over again.

In this article, we’ll take a look at 5 most common poker mistakes, and why they will cost you money over the long run.

By dispensing with these common mistakes, you’re guaranteed to see a dramatic improvement in your poker results immediately.

Let’s get right into it.

Basic Poker Mistake #1: Playing Too Many Hands

The number one mistake most amateur poker players make is playing too many hands. Playing less hands to win more may seem counterintuitive at first, but it’s by far the best way to quickly improve your results. 

That’s because in no-limit hold’em, most hands miss most flops (two out of three times, to be precise). So the more hands you play, the more often you’ll miss the flop, and the more money you’ll lose. 

Making a strong hand in no-limit hold’em is more of an exception than the rule, so you should only play hands that have a reasonable chance of connecting with the flop in some meaningufly way. 

This includes only about the top 20% of all starting hands. This includes pocket pairs, broadway hands, suited Aces, and suited connectors.

5 Basic Poker Mistakes Most Amateurs STILL Make

The rest is trash and should be thrown away.

Check out my other article on EXACTLY which starting poker hands you should play and how to play them.

Now, folding 80% of the time may sound too restrictive. But by playing stronger hands than your opponents, you’re automatically giving yourself a mathematical advantage. 

This means your hands will often dominate your opponent’s, instead of the other way around.

A dominated hand is the one that’s unlikely to win against another hand. For example, if you hold Ace-King, you are dominating all the other Ax hands due to the stronger kicker.

A kicker is the hole card that doesn’t help you make a certain hand combination, but can the determine the winner if both players have the same hand combination.

For example, if you hold Ace-King, and your opponent has Ace-Jack, and the board is: 


You both have the top pair, but you win because you have a stronger kicker.

Situations like these are very common in no-limit hold’em. A stronger kicker can often determine the winner.

That’s why you want to play strong hands and ditch the rest. In practice, this means you’ll make stronger combinations like stronger pairs, straights, flushes and so on.

In poker, the most of the money you’ll earn will come from spots where your opponent has a strong hand, but you have an even stronger hand.

As the saying goes, the worst hand in poker is the second best hand. By only playing strong starting hands, you drastically reduce the risk of having the second best hand.

Now, if folding so much seems boring to you, fair enough. It can be boring at times.

But playing poker for fun and playing poker to win are not the same thing. 

If you want to have fun, you can play just about any hand that’s dealt to you and hope for the best. But you can’t win any money that way.

Having the discipline to follow the proven winning strategy will pay off, and it’s worth risking a bit of boredom to do it.

This doesn’t mean you should just tune off if you’re not directly involved in the hand. It’s exactly the opposite.

While you’re not directly involved in the hand, use the downtime to observe the action and pay attention to your opponents playstyle, their betting patterns, physical tells and so on.

This has a couple of benefits. First of all, you won’t be bored.

Second,  you’ll be able to pick up on useful pieces of information you can later use to make better decisions.

Poker is a game of incomplete information. The players with the informational advantage will come out on top more often than not.

Check out Nathan's recent video where he discusses the number one thing holding most players back in their game.

Basic Poker Mistake #2: Chasing Bad Draws

Aside from playing too many hands, one of the most common amateur poker mistakes is playing too passively (i.e. checking and calling instead of betting and raising). 

If you have a strong hand, your best bet is usually to play it aggressively. 

If not, you should usually fold.

As a general rule, calling is the last action you should consider in a given hand. 

Yet a lot of players make the mistake of calling too much, either with mediocre to weak hands, or with drawing hands that aren’t likely to win.

bad draws poker

A lot of amateur poker players make the mistake of calling with just about any drawing hand without any consideration, which causes them to lose a lot of money over the long run.

In no-limit hold’em, most draws actually don’t complete, so drawing hands are an underdog to made hands on the flop.

For example, flush draws and open-ended straight draws have 35% and 32% of completing from flop to river, respectively.

And weaker draws complete significantly less often than these. 

If you’re playing a drawing hand, you should only do so if you’re getting the right pot odds on a call, or if the implied odds are favourable.

Check out my other article on everything you need to know about poker odds for more info on the topic.

Basic Poker Mistake Example hand #1

You are dealt 87 in the SB (small blind). Villain open-raises to 3x from the MP (middle position).

You call. 

Pot: 7.5 BB

Flop: JT2

You check. Villain bets 4 BB.

You: ???

You should fold.

This is a textbook example of a bad draw, and the best you can do is fold right away and save your money.

You have an inside straight draw, and any Nine will give you a straight. But there are plenty of problems in this particular spot.

First of all, inside straight draws are weak draws that complete only 17% of the time.

By the way, you can quickly calculate the percentage chance of your draw completing by using the so-called rule of fours.

Rule of fours: simply multiply the number of outs you have (i.e. cards that complete your draw) by 4 to get a rough percentage chance of your draw completing.

As you can see, 4 x 4 = 16%, so the rule of fours is fairly accurate for most in-game situations.

If you want to figure out the chance of your draw completing on the next street (flop to turn or turn to river), simply multiply the number of outs by 2 instead of 4.

There’s another problem with playing these sorts of draws. Even if you draw completes, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll have the best hand. 

You are drawing to the bottom end of the straight, so if a Nine comes, your opponent could still beat you if they have KQ, which makes a stronger straight.

Also, one of your outs is “tainted.” 

If a Nine of hearts comes on the next street, you’ll make a straight, but your opponent might make a flush that beats you.

If you’re playing a drawing hand, make sure you’re drawing to the nuts (i.e. the strongest possible combination). Otherwise you’ll need to take the reverse implied odds into account.

Implied odds refer to the amount of money you can potentially make on future streets if your draw completes. 

Reverse implied odds, on the other hand refer to the amount of money you stand to lose if your draw completes, but your opponent ends up having an even stronger hand.

This is the problem with playing weak draws: even if they complete, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll win the pot, and sometimes you’ll end up losing a huge pot instead.

Check out my other articles on how to play straight draws and how to play flush draws for much more on how to play your draws.

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Basic Poker Mistake #3: Open Limping

Open-limping is one of the telltale signs of recreational poker players. It’s basically announcing to the whole table: “I’m a huge fish, please take all my money!”

Open-limping is the act of just calling the big blind preflop when you are the first player to enter the pot.

This is different from limping behind, which means limping when another player or players have open-limped.

Limping behind can be a viable strategy sometimes, but as a general rule, open-limping should be avoided.

If you are the first player to enter the pot, you should do so with an open-raise.

There are a couple of reasons why open limping is a bad play.

1. You can’t win the pot outright preflop.

If you open-raise, you can sometimes force the blinds to fold so you win the pot right away. 

If you open-raise from the late positions (the cutoff, the button, or even the small blind) with the intention of taking down the pot preflop, this is called blind stealing.

Stealing the blinds is an effective strategy to employ because you often don’t even need a particularly strong hand to pull it off. It’s one of the easiest ways to to quickly improve your winrate.

If you open-limp, on the other hand, you can’t steal the blinds, and you’ll need to play the rest of the hand to win the flop.

2. You are playing without the initiative.

If you open-raise, you are the one that’s perceived to have the strongest hand. This gives you the initiative post-flop, meaning you can make a continuation bet on the flop.

A continuation bet (or a c-bet for short) is a bet made by the previous street’s aggressor.

C-bets are usually profitable, and they are the default play on the flop. If you have a strong hand, you continue betting to build up the pot and extract value.

5 Basic Poker Mistakes Most Amateurs STILL Make

If you don’t, you can still make a c-bet, since you’re still perceived to have the best hand. 

Since your opponent could have missed the flop just as easily as you, they will often fold to your c-bet, even if you don’t have a strong hand.

If you open-limp, on the other hand, you won’t have the opportunity to make a c-bet, which makes it harder to win the pot.

Check out my other article on flop c-betting for more info on the topic.

3. You’re failing to extract value from your strong hands.

If you have a strong hand, you want to build up the pot as soon as possible. The more you build up the pot preflop, the more money you’ll be able to win on future streets. 

This has to do with pot geometry. Pot geometry dictates that slight adjustments to your bet sizing can lead to a significantly bigger pot by the end of the hand.

If you open-limp instead of open-raising, you won’t build up the pot, which will result in leaving money at the table.

4. You run the risk of getting raised.

A lot of amateur poker players open-limp because they want to see the flop as cheaply as possible. Ironically, this actually proves to be far more costly over the long run. 

Aside from the previous points, you also won’t be able to see a cheap flop, because another player will open-raise instead of you. 

This means you’ll need to pay up to see the flop anyway, only this time you’ll do it without the initiative.

In the long run, it’s cheaper and way more profitable to open-raise instead of open-limping.

Basic Poker Mistake #4:Overvaluing Top Pair Hands

Another common mistake amateur poker players make is overvaluing top pair hands.

This means playing big pots and staying in the hand way longer than they should.

One pair is the most common hand combination you’re going to make in no-limit hold’em, so knowing how to play them is going to be crucial for your overall success. 

Top pair hands can often win you the pot, but it’s important to know that it’s a relatively weak hand combination. This is especially the case when your top pair has a mediocre kicker.

A lot of amateur poker players will play just about any Ax hand, for example, just for the prospect of hitting a top pair. 

This is often a costly mistake, because they will often get in kicker trouble, which will cause them to lose a big pot.

Check out my recent article on poker hands only losing poker players play for more info on the topic.

Top pair hands are vulnerable to getting outdrawn, especially on wet, coordinated boards.

If you suspect your hand is no good anymore, you should be able to let it go at any given moment, regardless of how much money you’ve already put into the pot.

In fact, making disciplined laydowns is what separates the poker pros from the rest.

A lot of amateur poker players, on the other hand, get too attached to their hands, and will play them to the bitter end, even though they rationally know their hand is probably no good anymore.

5 Basic Poker Mistakes Most Amateurs STILL Make

In psychology, this is known as the sunk cost fallacy.

Sunk cost fallacy is a logical fallacy where a person continues to invest into something that is no longer beneficial to them just because they’ve already invested a considerable amount of effort, time, or resources into it.

This is why people keep repairing their crappy old cars even though they’d be better off buying a new one, or why people stay in unfulfilling jobs and relationships.

Winning poker is all about quality decision making. And in order to make quality decisions, you need to dispense with misguided judgments, sunk cost being one of them.

It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve “invested” into the pot already. Once the money leaves your stack, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to the pot. 

It’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to continue playing. But this decision shouldn’t be based on how much you’ve already invested.

Here’s a tip to quickly dispense with the sunk cost fallacy. During the hand, ask yourself how much money would you be willing to pay to get involved in the hand with these cards if I were not already involved?

If the answer is: “not much”, then it may be a good indication you need to fold the hand. 

This may seem like mental gymnastics, but it works.

In poker, knowing when to cut your losses is just as important as knowing how to maximize your winnings.

This is discussed in more detail in The Microstakes Playbook.

Basic Poker Mistake Example Hand #2

You are dealt AK UTG (under the gun). You open raise to 3x. 

Villain calls from the SB (small blind).

Pot: 7 BB.

Flop AJ8

Villain checks. You bet 3.5 BB. Villain calls.

Pot: 14 BB.

Turn: Q

Villain checks. You bet 7 BB. Villain raises to 21 BB.

You: ???

You should fold.

This is one of the spots where there’s nothing left to do but to make a begrudging laydown. A lot of amateurs won’t be willing to part with their hand in similar spots.

But making disciplined folds in spots like these will save you a ton of money over the long run.

Let’s break down the action street by street.

Preflop you have a standard open-raise with a premium hand.

You flop a top pair, top kicker and life is good. Villain checks so you fire off a standard continuation bet.

Villain checks again on the turn, so you continue barrelling to keep applying the pressure.

Then villain plays back at you with a check-raise. Now what?

Spots like these suck, but there’s not much left to do here but to fold. That’s because there simply aren’t enough hands that you’re ahead off on a board like these.

There are a ton of hands that beat you here, ranging from the nutted combinations like KT or T9, sets, or two pair hands like AJ or QJ.

It’s highly unlikely the villain is taking some random mediocre hand and starts blasting off big bets out of nowhere. In a large majority of cases, they will have something to show for it.

This means you can exclude a bunch of hands from their range that you’re ahead of, namely random Ax hands like AT or A7, for example.

Granted, there could be a couple of bluffs in their range as well, but again, it’s highly unlikely they just randomly decide to bluff in the middle of the hand.

And suppose they are bluffing and you decide to bluff catch with your hand. What if they fire another shell on the river? 

Would you be comfortable with calling a huge bet on a soaking wet flop with only a single pair?

Probably not. 

By looking ahead in spots like these, you can save yourself a ton of money over the long run.

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Basic Poker Mistake #5: Donk Betting

Donk betting is another betting mistake a lot of amateurs keep making. Donk betting means betting out of position when you are not the previous street’s aggressor.

For example, you call the raise preflop, then lead out with a bet on the flop instead of checking to the open-raiser.

Donk betting can be a viable strategy at times, but a lot of players do it for all the wrong reasons.

Most players donk bet when they have a mediocre hand they’re not entirely sure what to do with, so they donk bet either to get their opponent to fold or to “find out where they stand” in the hand.

This strategy doesn’t really work well. Suppose you donk bet and your opponent calls you. What information does that give you?

They could have a strong hand they’re slowplaying. They could have a mediocre or a drawing hand that might improve on later streets. 

Or they could have complete air, and they are calling you because they intend to take down the pot from you on later streets.

Either way, you’re none the wiser, but you’ve committed money to the pot anyway.

In poker, there are two main reasons to put additional money into the pot. 

You can either bet for value (when you’re trying to get called by weaker hands) or bet as a bluff (when you’re trying to get stronger hands than yours to fold).

Donk betting is not the best way to accomplish either of those.

Suppose you’re betting as a bluff. This isn’t likely to work because you don’t have the range advantage, as you’re not the previous street’s aggressor.

A player with the range advantage is the one that’s perceived to have the strongest hand. If you’re trying to represent the best hand (this is the point of bluffing), why didn’t you raise or reraise on the previous street?

If your opponent asks this sort of question, they will likely see right through your bluff.

Betting for value isn’t likely to succeed, either. 

Your opponent will fold all their weak holding, and they might only give you action with hands that have you beat or have a huge chunk of equity against you.

The fact that you’re playing out of position doesn’t help your prospects, either. Playing out of position makes it harder to both bluff your opponents and to extract value with your strong hands.

A better alternative to donk betting in a large majority of cases is check-raising.

Check-raising is a very powerful play that can only be done out of position. It’s a great way to offset the positional disadvantage and take away the initiative in the hand.

If you have a strong value hand, you’ll be able to build up the pot more with check-raising than you would with donk betting.

If you are bluffing, your bluff will seem much more powerful and will be more effective if you check-raise instead of donk betting.

Granted, there will be some exceptional situations where donk betting can be a viable play.

For example, if you are up against a fishy player and you have a very strong hand on the flop (like two pairs, a set etc.). If you check, you’re running the risk of your opponent checking back, so you fail to build up the pot.

In this situation, it may be better to lead out with a bet and build up the pot as soon as possible.

But again, as a general rule, you’re better off avoiding donk betting in most cases.

Basic Poker Mistake Example Hand #3

You are dealt A8 in the BB. A tight and aggressive player open-raises to 2.5x on the BU (button). You call.

Pot: 5.5 BB ♥♦♠♣

Flop: K62

You: ???

You should check-raise.

This is a great spot for semibluffing with a check-raise.

A semibluff is a bluff where you don’t have the best hand yet, but your hand could improve on later streets if your draw completes.

Semibluffing is usually preferable to stone-cold bluffing (where the only way to win the hand is getting your opponent to fold). That’s because you have some hand equity to fall back on if your bluff gets called.

In this spot, you can either win the pot outright with a check-raise, or you can make the nuts flush on future streets and potentially take down an even bigger pot.

For more advanced poker strategies like this, check out Modern Small Stakes.

5 Basic Poker Mistakes Most Amateurs STILL Make - Summary

You don’t need to know a lot of advanced poker strategy to be a long term winner in this game. All you need to do is to avoid some common basic mistakes, and you’ll see a dramatic improvement in your poker results.

To sum up, here are amateur poker mistakes you should avoid at all costs.

1. Playing too many hands

You should only play hands that have a reasonable chance of connecting with the flop in some meaningful way.

This includes pocket pairs, broadway hands, suited Aces, and suited connectors. The rest is trash and should be thrown away.

2. Chasing bad draws

Drawing hands are almost always an underdog to made hands on the flop, so playing just about any draw is a surefire way to burn through your money quickly. Always consider the pot odds and the implied odds when playing drawing hands.

3. Open-limping 

Open-limping is a telltale sign of a recreational player, and should be avoided. If you are the first player to enter the pot, do so with an open-raise. This will give you the initiative, allow you to win the pot outright preflop, and build up the pot with your strong value hands.

4. Overvaluing top pair hands

A lot of amateur poker players have trouble letting go of what they believe to be a strong hand. One pair hands are vulnerable to getting outdrawn, so you should be able to let go of them at a moment’s notice.

Making disciplined laydowns with seemingly strong hands is what separated the true professionals from the amateurs.

5. Donk-betting

Donk betting can be a viable play in some cases, but as a general rule, check-raising is a much better alternative. Check-raising allows you to build up the pot more with your value hands, and makes bluffing more effective as well.

Lastly, if you want to know the complete strategy I use to make $2000+ per month in small/mid stakes games, get a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.

5 Basic Poker Mistakes Most Amateurs STILL Make