Avoid the 5 Mistakes Amateurs Make

Amateur poker players often make avoidable mistakes when they play Texas Hold ’em, the most popular poker game. Steer clear of the following five strategic errors, and you can greatly increase your odds of walking away from the poker table a winner. Sure, your goal in a friendly game is for everyone to have fun—but it’s always more fun to win, right?

Play your opponents, not just your cards. Many amateurs play each poker hand based almost entirely on the cards they are dealt…with little or no attention paid to what their opponents are doing. They are wasting a wonderful opportunity. Odds are, most or all of the other players at the table are unknowingly revealing information about the strength of their hands.

What to do: Study your opponents’ betting patterns in search of their “baseline behavior”—the way they typically bet. Do they tend to bet approximately half the size of the pot when they play a hand? Do they love to “limp in”—that is, call rather than raise? How long does it typically take them to bet? Once you have established this baseline, pay especially close attention when they deviate from it—what does it mean when they bet more…bet less…bet faster…or bet slower? Good players will vary their betting habits to keep opponents off balance, but few amateurs do this effectively or consistently.

Also: Monitor your opponents’ attention levels. Amateurs often become more distractible when they have relatively weak hands—they might quickly glance at their phones or the TV…or chat with others at the table. An opponent who suddenly seems locked in on his cards is more likely to have a strong hand.

Stop overplaying OK-but-not-great hands. The trouble with OK hands is that they tend to win small pots but lose big ones. Why? If your OK hand really is ahead, that means everyone else at the table has a weak hand that they likely will fold if you make a sizable bet, limiting the amount you can win…but if other players have significantly better cards than you, you’re likely to get called or raised, which could lead to a big loss.

What to do: Play marginal starting hands only if you truly have reason to believe that no one else at the table has better cards, perhaps because most of the other players at the table have ­already folded or limped in.

When you do play a marginal hand and get the cards you were hoping for on the flop (which are the first three cards that arrive on the board after the first betting round), don’t become so focused on the fact that you got what you wanted that you overlook the fact that your hand still might be just OK, not great. Most of the time, the smart move with mediocre hands is to fold them and not to call when another player makes a large bet or raises.

Example: You have King-Jack unsuited, a decently strong, but not amazing starting hand, and the flop comes King-7-4. That’s a very good flop for King-Jack—you have top pair, which means a card in your hand pairs with the highest card on the flop. However, another player could easily have Ace-King or King-Queen, leaving you little hope of winning because his/her side card, either an Ace or a Queen, is higher than your side card, a Jack. If you bet and someone who typically plays a conservative strategy makes a large raise, you should tend to fold.

“Limp in” only if your starting hand has the potential to become great. Some amateurs try to limp in—that is, call rather than raise—whenever they have a weak starting hand. They understand that other players probably have better cards, but they hope to get lucky on the flop. This is a poor strategy that is likely to slowly bleed away your chips. Your goal should be to put money into the pot only when you believe that you are likely ahead…and fold or check (meaning you pass to the next player without adding more money to the pot) if that is an option when you suspect that you are behind.

What to do: Limp in only with hands that have strong “implied odds”—that is, the hand has a realistic chance to become great if the right cards come on the flop. Hands with strong implied odds include “suited connectors”—two cards of the same suit in a row, such as ten-nine of clubs…and “suited one gappers”—two cards of the same suit that have just one card between them, such as Jack-nine of hearts. These hands could turn into either flushes or straights. Limping in also is a viable option if you are dealt an ace and a low card (nine or below) of the same suit. If you hit a flush, the ace guarantees you will beat any other flush.

Stop playing weak unsuited aces. Some people cannot bring themselves to fold when they are dealt an ace in Texas Hold ’em. But while an ace is the best card in the deck, a weak ace—a starting hand consisting of an ace and a low card nine or below—usually is not a starting hand worth playing (unless both of your cards are of the same suit and you can get into the pot inexpensively, as noted earlier).

The trouble with a weak ace is that if an ace comes on the flop, as you are hoping, your opponents likely will suspect that someone at the table is ­holding an ace. Most players expect their opponents to never fold before the flop if they have an ace in their hand. This leads them to fold on the flop if they cannot beat a pair of aces when facing any amount of aggression. When you make top pair with your weak ace and someone raises or calls, it likely means that he/she either has an ace with a stronger second card…or a hand even better than a pair of aces.

What to do: Definitely fold a weak ace if you are in an “early position”—that is, if you are one of the players who has to act first after the cards are dealt. It is OK to play weak aces if you are in a later position and everyone before you has folded…if there are just a few players still in the pot…or if your cards are of the same suit and no one has yet made a significant raise.

Stop playing super tight against very aggressive players. The natural response when confronted by a maniac player—someone who seems to bet and raise virtually every hand—is to fold ­almost every hand and play only when you get great cards. Trouble is, the ­maniac—and your other opponents—are likely to notice that you are chronically folding…deduce that you probably have a very strong hand on those rare occasions when do you call or raise…and then fold quickly, greatly reducing the size of the pots you end up winning.

What to do: The maniac’s strategy is to make everyone else back down. Instead, apply pressure back. When you suspect you’re ahead in a hand, check to the aggressive player, then raise his bet. Also bluff on occasion to show your opponents that they cannot assume you stay in pots only when your cards are very strong. It is important to keep your opponents guessing.