I Broke the Code on Winning at Poker (Here's How)

I Broke the Code on Winning at Poker

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

Most people lose money over the long run playing poker. Those that win over the long run aren’t necessarily more talented or lucky than the rest.

The players who are most successful over the long run are the ones that never stop learning.

And the most effective way to learn is by observing your own mistakes.

In this article, I will share some of the key insights that are the direct results of countless mistakes I’ve made over and over again.

I hope these will help you avoid the same mistakes, and save you some money and frustration in the process.

There’s a lot to cover in this one, so let’s get right into it.

1. Pick Your Spots, Not Your Cards

When you play poker, there’s a lot of things you can’t directly control. 

You can’t control the cards you’re dealt, you can’t control the board runout, and you can’t control the actions of your opponents.

The only thing you actually control is how you play the cards you’re dealt and how you react to the outcomes of hands.

Some players get overly focused on the cards they are dealt, and they play well when they’re “running hot”. But when the deck goes cold (as it inevitably does), their game deteriorates as well.

Add the frustration from running cold into the mix, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The best poker players, on the other hand, play close to the best of their abilities regardless of how they’re running.

In other words, they don’t rely on their hole cards alone to have profitable sessions.

Your hole cards are only one factor that determines your overall profitability.

You can be dealt great cards, but it’s not going to mean much if you constantly misplay them.

Amateur poker players pick the cards to play, while professional poker players pick their spots instead.

To pick your spots means to consider factors other than only your hole cards to determine the profitability of each play.

For example, an amateur poker player will look down on their hole cards and decide whether or not to get involved in the hand.

A professional poker player, on the other hand, will consider the following: their table position, the effective stack sizes, the previous action, the table dynamics, their history with other players, their table image, their opponent’s playing tendencies and so on.

Only then will they look at their hole cards and decide whether or not to play them.

If you know your opponent’s playing tendencies and where your edge lies, your hand strength (or lack thereof) is often totally irrelevant.

Winning poker is not only about waiting for good cards. It’s about maximizing your EV (expected value) in every spot you play.

One of the ways to truly maximize your EV is to look for the so-called auto-profit spots.

An auto-profit spot is a situation in which your opponent tends to fold too often, meaning you can bet profitably with any two cards.

This means that your bet is “outright profitable” or “immediately profitable".

The beauty of auto-profit spots is that your hand strength is totally irrelevant, since the goal of your bet is to get your opponent to fold right away.

Also, auto-profit spots are actually fairly common if you know where to look for.

Here are some examples of common auto-profit spots:

a) stealing the blinds against players who fold too often to stealing attempts

b) light 3-betting (aka 3-bet bluffing) against players who fold to 3-bets too often

c) light c-betting the flop against players who play too fit-or-fold post flop

In order to find the auto-profit spots, you need to determine the breakeven percentage of your bet, and compare it to your fold equity.

A breakeven percentage means that your bet or raise has the expected value of 0. 

Fold equity means the percentage chance of your opponent folding to your bet.

If the fold equity is bigger than the breakeven percentage, your bet is outright profitable (i.e. auto-profitable).

Here is the formula to calculate the breakeven percentage (BE%):

BE% = Risk / Risk + Reward


Risk = Your bet size

Reward = The size of the pot

For example, let’s say the pot size is $100 and you bet $50.

Risk = $50

Reward = $100

When you plug in the numbers, you get the breakeven percentage:

BE% = 50 / 50 + 100

BE% = 1/3 = 33%

If you expect your opponent to fold to your bet more than 33% of the time (i.e. the fold equity is bigger than 33%) your bet is auto-profitable.

This means you can bet profitably with just about any two cards.

Bottom line: 

Looking for auto-profit spots means you can have profitable sessions even if you're running cold.

By the way, check out my recent video on the 6 reasons why some players always seem to win at poker.

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2. If Poker is Exciting, You're Playing it Wrong

Playing poker for fun and playing poker to win are entirely different things. 

If you’re playing poker for fun, there’s nothing stopping you from playing just about any card that’s dealt to you, chasing every draw and splashing the chips around.

But you certainly cannot expect to win any money that way.

Winning poker, especially at the lower stakes, mostly comes down to discipline.

This means being very selective with the hands you choose to play preflop and making your decisions based on the expected value of each play.

Unfortunately, this approach involves a lot of folding, i.e. not playing.

Winning by not playing may seem counterintuitive at first. But being selective with the hands you play is the single best way to give yourself an edge in this game.

In fact, playing too many hands is the single most common amateur poker mistake you should avoid.

In no-limit hold’em, most hands miss most flops (2 out of 3 times, to be precise).

So the more hands you play, the more often you’ll miss the flop, and lose more money as a consequence.

So you should only play hands that have a reasonable chance of connecting with the flop, and ditch the rest.

Check out my other article on exactly which hands to play preflop for more info on the topic.

In practice, this means you will spend about 80% of the time not playing.

This may seem outright boring at times, and fair enough.

But risking a bit of boredom to win relatively easy money is a fair tradeoff, as far as I’m concerned.

When you consider how hard it actually is to earn money, sitting around and watching other people play cards for a while sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

If you’re not directly involved in the hand, it doesn’t mean you should just zone out and wait for your turn to jump into the action.

Instead, you should use this down time to observe the action and your opponents.

This is the best time to pick up on valuable information like physical tells, betting patterns and so on.

Remember that you’re still playing the session, even when you’re not directly involved in the hand.

Another common pitfall to avoid is to not overplay your hand when you do get something playable.

The best poker players are able to let go of their hand at a moment’s notice.

This means that they don’t get emotionally attached to their hands, and they don’t stay in hands longer than they should.

A lot of amateur players, on the other hand, get irrationally attached to their hand, and refuse to let them go even though it’s obvious they’re hand is no good anymore.

So they will often stay in the hand to the bitter end, hoping to catch that miracle river card.

Or they will convince themselves their opponent must be bluffing them, so they call them down trying to make a “hero call”.

Alternatively, they may attempt all sorts of ill-advised bluffs to make things interesting.

All of these mistakes have one thing in common, and that’s trying to make something happen by forcing the action.

This is the equivalent of trying to swim against the current. You may get away with it from time to time, but you’re better off just going with the flow.

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3. It's Better to Play a B Game With an A Bankroll than an A Game With a B bankroll

Due to the nature of variance, you’re bound to experience prolonged losing periods despite your best efforts.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to work around this. The best you can do is get mentally prepared for it and keep playing your best.

One of the ways to reduce the negative effects of variance is to simply increase your winrate.

The bigger your winrate, the less impact variance will have on your results. This means you need to put in the work away from the felt to plug leaks in your game.

If you’re using a hand tracking software like PokerTracker 4, you can quickly identify your leaks by using the Leak Tracker feature of the software.

Leak Tracker tells you exactly where your stats fall out of norm for most winning players, so you can see where you’re bleeding money.

Aside from improving your skills and your winrate, another way to reduce the negative effect of variance is to simply increase your bankroll.

Your poker bankroll is the set amount of money you use to buy in for the stakes you’re playing.

Having a sufficient bankroll will help you weather negative variance without the risk of going broke.

At the very minimum, you should have at least 30 buyins in your bankroll if you’re playing cash games, and at least 100 buyins if you’re playing multitable tournaments.

You need a bigger bankroll for tournaments because they have bigger variance compared to cash games.

This means you can go for longer periods without making any significant cashout.

Check out my full bankroll management guide for a much deeper dive.

It’s worth noting, however, that the following bankroll management rules only apply if you’re a winning poker player to begin with.

If you’re currently losing at poker, the biggest bankroll in the world is not going to help you.

It’s just going to take you longer to go broke.

If you’re beating your current limit, however, it may be wise to bump up your bankroll a lot more than the standard recommendations, especially if you have a low winrate.

All things being equal, it’s better to be overruled than underroled for the stakes you’re playing.

There are multiple advantages to having a big, fat bankroll:

a) You reduce the risk of going broke

This one’s fairly self-explanatory. The bigger the bankroll, the harder it is for you to go broke, even if you encounter a soul-crushing downswing.

b) A big bankroll allows you to take shots at higher limits

The goal of every poker player is to move up the stakes. Even though you might not be ready to make a jump at  the higher limit yet, you can take occasional shots at them if you have a decently sized bankroll.

Taking a shot at a higher limit lets you test your game and gauge the competition, which is crucial if you want to improve your game.

Also, let’s say you’re playing poker online, and you see a huge whale jumping up the stakes.

If you see a free seat to their left, you should obviously take it.

But if you’re barely even bankrolled for your current stake, this may be too risky and cost prohibitive to you.

If you have a deep bankroll, on the other hand, taking a shot like this is well worth the risk.

c) a big bankroll gives you a peace of mind

If you have a big bankroll, you don’t need to worry about how you’re running session to session. 

This is probably the biggest benefit, because it allows you to keep playing your best without worrying about individual outcomes of hands or sessions.

A big bankroll eliminates the “scared money syndrome”.

Basically, it gives you peace of mind to make “risky”, but +EV plays, like making big bluffs, hero calls and so on.

A lot of players are scared to make big plays like these, even though they may be profitable, because they’re scared of losing money.

In poker, scared money never wins.

It’s true that you need to be cautious when playing, but if you’re overly cautious, you’re likely missing out on a ton of +EV spots over the long run.

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4. Bad Beats Are a Sign You're Playing in Profitable Games

Poker has a short term luck element involved, meaning you will sometimes lose even if you play perfectly.

Even if you follow the proven winning strategy to a tee, you will still experience prolonged losing periods due to variance.

Simply put, variance measures the difference between your expected results and your actual results over a certain sample size.

Let’s say that you bet on the outcome of the flip of a coin 10 times.

You would expect to win 5 out of 10 times, since the chance of winning a coin flip is 50%.

If you win more than 5 times, you are experiencing positive variance, and if you win less than 5 times, you are experiencing negative variance.

Variance can, and will have a profound impact on your short term poker results.

This means you will sometimes run significantly worse than you expect, and unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do about it except to simply ride it out.

Dealing with variance is arguably one of the hardest aspects of poker, and a lot of players simply can’t truly wrap their heads around it.

This is totally understandable, of course. It’s quite frustrating to do everything right and seemingly getting punished for it over and over again.

But that’s poker for you.

When talking about negative variance, we’re usually referring to bad beats, suckouts, coolers and so on.

A bad beat is a situation where your hand loses despite being a clear favourite to win.

For example:

Let’s say you go all-in with pocket Aces preflop and your opponent calls you with pocket Tens.

Another Ten comes on the board and your pocket Aces get cracked.

In this situation, your hand is a clear favourite, and you have an 80% chance of winning the hand.

But this means you’re still going to lose 1 out of 5 times, and there’s nothing much you can do about it.

Over the long run, you’re still going to win far more than you lose.

In other words, your play has a positive expected value.

Winning poker is all about maximizing the expected value. The individual outcome of certain hands is totally irrelevant.

Of course, this doesn’t mean much when you’re on the receiving end of a bad beat. You don’t care about the long run. 

You care about what’s happening RIGHT NOW.

If you are having trouble with adopting a long-term outlook (most of us do), try looking at it this way: bad beats are a clear sign you are playing in profitable games.

Remember, good players suffer bad beats, and bad players inflict them.

If you suffer a bad beat, it means you’ve put the money in with a mathematical advantage.

The fact that that advantage didn’t materialize in this particular case is totally irrelevant. 

Bad beats can be especially frustrating when they are inflicted against you by bad players.

I Broke the Code on Winning at Poker (Here's How)

But if this happens to you, you should also embrace it.

All things being equal, it’s better to lose money to a bad player than to a decent player.

There are two main reasons for this.

First of all, it’s easier to win back the money from bad players than from good players.

Secondly, the bad player gets “rewarded” for their bad play from time to time. 

This is beneficial for you in the long run, because they are more likely to keep repeating the same mistakes in the future.

Some players feel the need to berate and “educate” the players when they misplay their hand.

This is a colossal mistake, and there’s nothing to gain from it but protecting your ego.

When your opponent makes a mistake and wins the hand, you should smile and congratulate them.

If you berate them instead, they will only do one of the following:

a) stop making the same mistake in the future

b) get offended or

c) simply walk away from the table.

Each of these is a losing scenario for you. Let the fish have their fun.

If you’re beating your current limit and are sufficiently bankrolled for the stakes you’re playing,  there’s no reason to get upset over bad beats.

Instead, take bad beats for what they really are: slight bumps on an otherwise profitable journey.

5. Your Edge Lies Where Other Players Won't Put in the Work

Poker is a game of skill, and the only way to win at poker consistently is to play in games where you have a significant skill edge.

Improving your poker skill takes time and dedication. But if you’re determined to improve your game, you’re already way ahead of the majority of your competition.

That’s because most players simply don’t put any effort into improving their game.

In fact, some of them don’t even see the point, because they think poker is all about luck in the first place.

It’s true that luck plays a significant role in the short term, but over the long term, skill prevails.

And the only way to improve your skills is to work on fixing your leaks off the felt.

This is something most players simply don’t feel like doing.

That’s because playing poker is fun and exciting. Studying preflop charts, analyzing your hands and identifying mistakes in your game, less so.

But here’s the deal: your edge in this game lies where other players simply won’t put in the work.

Taking this a step further, you should identify the parts of your game that you yourself struggle with the most, and work on improving it.

Chances are, you will find aspects of the game a lot of other players struggle with as well, but can’t be bothered to improve in any way.

Here’s a specific example to illustrate the point: poker math.

At its core, poker is a game of odds and probabilities. And the most successful play the game accordingly.

Recreational players, on the other hand, don’t feel like crunching the numbers, and claim they’re more of a “feel player”.

But this is a BS excuse. While intuition is an important part of poker, it’s not a substitute for logical decision making.

Getting the hang of some mathematical principles may be daunting for new players, but it’s not rocket science.

Basic poker math is no more complicated than what you learn in grade school. If you can do fractions and percentages, you’re good.

If you want to learn more about poker math and don’t know where to start, check out my ultimate poker odds cheat sheet.

Another important aspect of the game that often gets overlooked is the mental game.

The mental game is all about how you handle variance and prolonged losing periods.

More specifically, how you handle the inevitable periods when the winning poker strategy is not producing the results you may be hoping for.

These days, it’s often not the lack of skill, but the lack of emotional resilience that keeps a lot of players from achieving their poker goals.

Fortunately, this is a skill like any other, meaning you can get better at it with practice.

For more tips on the mental game, check out my other article on how to dealt with poker variance.

I Broke the Code on Winning at Poker - Summary

You don’t have to learn a lot of advanced poker strategy to be a winning poker player. 

All you have to do is get familiar with a few basic concepts and stick with them diligently.

These are some of the key insights I wish I knew when I first started playing poker. Hopefully they will help save you from some mistakes I made when I first started out.

1. Pick you spots, not your cards

Recreational poker players pick cards to play, while the professionals pick their spots. If you know your opponent’s playing tendencies and can exploit them accordingly, your hand strength (or lack thereof) is often irrelevant.

2. If poker is exciting, you’re playing it wrong

Playing poker for fun and playing poker to win are not the same thing. Winning at poker, especially at the lower stakes, comes down to discipline. 

This means being willing to endure a bit of boredom in the process.

3. It’s better to play a B game with an A bankroll than an A game with a B bankroll

No matter how well you’re playing, you’re going to suffer prolonged losing periods from time to time.

In order to mitigate the results of negative variance, it’s better to have a big, fat bankroll for the stakes you’re playing.

Having a big bankroll reduces the risk of going broke, and gives you a peace of mind to keep playing your best, no matter how you’re running session to session.

4. Bad beats are a sign you’re playing in profitable games

Bad beats are frustrating, but they’re a core part of the game, and without them, poker wouldn’t be profitable.

If you suffer a bad beat, it just means you’ve put your money in with a mathematical advantage, and that’s all that matters over the long run.

5. Your edge lies where other players won’t put in the work

Most players don’t put any effort into improving their game, so if you’re reading articles like these, you’re already way ahead of your competition.

To truly get ahead in today’s games, you need to put in effort where other players slack off.


This article was written by Fran Ferlan
Poker player, writer and coach
Specializing in live and online cash games

For coaching enquiries, contact Fran at email@franferlan.com
Or apply directly for poker coaching with Fran, right here

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

I Broke the Code on Winning at Poker (Here's How)