If I were teaching a new player to play no-limit hold’em, and my goal were to get this player up to a professional level of play, how would I do it? What would my lessons look like?
Let’s say I had only three months to do it. With most people, I will admit, it would be a tall order. The learning curve is steep these days, and I don’t think everyone could make it from zero to pro in that short a time.
I’d have to make compromises. I couldn’t try to cover every possible situation. I’d have to find the important bits and skip the rest.
I’d also have to tailor the lessons a bit to a specific type of game. The most important skills in some game types are not as important in others. With this in mind, here are what I think my top five lessons would be for a new player trying to beat the $2-$5 no-limit hold’em games in Las Vegas.
Lesson No. 1. Don’t limp into pots ever. And don’t call preflop three-bets unless you are trapping with an ultra-premium hand.
Limping into pots, calling the preflop raise, and then check/folding the flop when you miss is an enormous leak. It’s also one that nearly every player who hasn’t been specifically coached out of it exhibits.
In my opinion, most players would see an immediate improvement in their winrates if they simply refused to limp in with any hand, especially if they chose to instead fold most of these hands.
For most players, refusing ever to limp means playing much tighter, particularly from out of position. Until you’re already an established pro player, tighter is better.
Lesson No. 2. Don’t pay off big turn and river bets.
This lesson might be different in some types of games, but in the Las Vegas $2-$5 games, it’s easily a candidate for the single most important piece of advice. Do not pay anyone off. When someone makes a big turn or river bet or raise, your one pair hand (or whatever other hand you’re thinking about calling with) is a bluff-catcher. That means, in the great majority of cases, your opponent won’t be trying to make a value bet with a worse hand. Either you’re beat or your opponent is bluffing. And players in these $2-$5 games do not bluff often enough to make calling worthwhile.
So you don’t pay off. I know it can be frustrating to feel like you’re getting muscled out of a huge pot, but the fact is, most players in these games do very little muscling. They try to make hands, and then they bet the hands they make. A big bet usually means a big hand. You don’t need to call to find out for certain.
Lesson No. 3. Your opponents will limp into pots, call raises, and check/fold flops. Take advantage of this weakness by raising lots of hands with position, betting the flop, and often also betting the turn.
It’s a simple play, but it’s one that generates a very consistent profit in these games. Players play too loosely preflop, are too willing to call preflop raises after limping in, and are too willing to check/fold the flop or turn if they miss. With many players, you can ignore your cards and raise the limps, bet nearly all flops, and bet most turn cards as well.
Say two typical players limp in a $2-$5 game. You raise to $25 on the button. Both limpers call.
The flop comes 10 8 2. They check, and you bet $50. One player calls.
The turn is the 5. Your opponent checks, you bet $120, and he folds.
In this scenario, and in many like it, it doesn’t matter what you have. Your opponents are beating themselves by playing call/call/fold so often. All you have to do is put the bets out there and let your opponents run repeatedly into the brick wall.
Yes, there is some nuance to this, and some boards are better bets than others. But against many opponents at the $2-$5 level, most flops, turns, and even rivers are good bets. Keep betting until your opponents prove to you that they won’t beat themselves by folding too much.
Lesson No. 4. With value hands, don’t try to blow opponents out of pots. Instead, play most value hands with the goal of keeping a player in through the river.
Value hands — hands like top pair, two pair, or any other hand you think is a favorite to be best — lose their value when all your opponents fold. If you win without a showdown, you might as well have been holding 7-2. (See Lesson No. 3.) With your value hands, you generally want opponents to get to the river.
Most players like to see showdowns if they feel like they can see them without losing too much money. No one likes to fold and think, “What if I was good?” If your opponents get to the river, often it’s an easy sell to get them to call a final value bet (as long as you don’t make it too big).
Calling these value bets is one of the biggest mistakes that $2-$5 players make. (See Lesson No. 2.) Allow your opponents to make this mistake.
Most players try to end hands early when they feel like they have the best hand. “Don’t want to get drawn out on,” they think. But this is backward thinking. End hands early with strong bets when you have nothing but a weak draw. Allow hands to reach showdown when you actually have something to show down! (Makes sense when I put it that way, doesn’t it?)
If I have top pair, I’d much rather get called for $30, $50, and $80 on flop, turn, and river than get called for $30 and then blow my opponent out of the hand with a $100 bet on the turn. The chance to win $160 with the hand instead of $30 outweighs the risk that I’ll get outdrawn.
Lesson No. 5. Think every hand about what strategies your opponents are using and how they’re thinking, and (almost) ignore the two cards in your hand.
I’ll put it bluntly. Most $2-$5 players beat themselves. They tend to play strategies that are extremely transparent, overly simplistic, and inflexible. You can beat some of these players simply by betting every time it’s your action (See Lesson No. 3.) You can beat other of these players simply by waiting for hands that beat top pair/no kicker and then making value bets. (See Lesson No. 4.)
Your job as a poker player is to identify the strategy each opponent is using and deploy a counter strategy. In many cases, the two cards in your hand become irrelevant. My experience is that the players that are always thinking about their hands never figure it out. It’s the players who are thinking on the next level that do. ♠