How to Play

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Poker strategy and tactics from professional players

Whoever said less is more had obviously never heard of poker tactics. A vast, varied and well-stocked arsenal of weapons is a must-have when it comes to battling opponents across the table.

If there’s even the smallest hint that one of your rivals has got wind of how you're playing a hand then you've got to be able to change tact immediately. You need not just a plan B, but a plan C, D, E, F too to keep your edge.

Conversely, if that guy to your right is messing with your game plan you need a number of ways to unsettle him and then send him packing.

Used correctly, these advanced tactics will send a clear message that you are a player who knows exactly what they're doing and is not be underestimated in any circumstances.

Blocker bets

How to use blocker bets

Take the lead, be the aggressor and grind your opponents into the dust by betting and betting. That's the winning way in Texas holdem, right?

Except it’s not always that easy, is it? Sometimes you’re lumbered with a hand that’s just average. You think it’s the best one at the table but you don’t want to risk a big bet. In this situation the best form of offence is often defence. Welcome to the world of blocking bets.

Making a small bet can prevent your opponent forcing you into a bigger bet than you wanted to play and also wring some extra value out of an opponent with a poor hand who wouldn’t place a big bet.

Big warning: these bets can be unprofitable against strong, aggressive opponents. Good players can spot a small bet on the river as a sign of weakness.

In general, you should be ok making blocking bets until you’re playing against middle limits players willing to take big risks. Your blocking bet should be smaller than your value bets (30% of the pot should get the job done).

When to use

  • In a 1 on 1 pot when you’ve had the lead throughout the hand and arrive at the river with a marginal holding. Avoid being pressed into a big bet or fold with a blocker bet
  • When you’re in a reasonable draw. A defensive bet here can confuse your opponent and avoid you being painted into a corner
  • On the turn, to prevent your opponent betting on the river. Make this bet with a hand that might win the showdown but you’re not happy playing a big pot with

When not to use

  • Against a player who’s exploited your weaknesses before, who seems to be very perceptive or who plays aggressively
  • When you think you have the best hand and your opponent will call on a worse hand
  • When you think your opponent will make a small bet you’re comfortable calling

Spotting another player’s blocker bet is a great chance to make some money. The best players to bluff off a blocker bet hand are intermediate players with a solid no-limit game. They rarely make small (in relation to the pot) bets so when they do it’s likely to be a blocker and you can make some money with a big bet whatever your cards. It’s a risky play, though, as by the river it will take a large bet to force your opponent to fold.

Small ball poker

Going all-in is a risky business and can wipe you out of a tournament if you make the wrong call. Some of the pros favour small pot, or ball, poker to build up their chip stack without the risk.

When to play small ball

You can make a lot of money playing small ball in the early stages of a tournament. There are so many bad players floating around the first few levels of a tourney that it’s worth playing as many pots as you can. But it’s not enough to know your opponent’s a bad player; you need to know what kind of bad player:

  • The weak tight player. When they miss the flop you can swoop in with a continuation bet and walk off with the pot. They’ll only put their chips in the pot when they’ve got the goods, so there’s almost no risk
  • The calling station. This player will call you down with almost any pair. Get involved in as many pots as you can and look for excuses to play in position. Just remember not to bluff and to value bet them into making that crucial mistake
  • The big pot guy. This player just can’t stop re-raising you. Limp your way past the flop and get into position for a pot that’s not worth stealing but is worth having. These players are perfect to outplay after the flop as they have no idea what to do from there

In the mid-to-late stages of your tourney, remember that some players will be short-stacked and desperate. As you approach the bubble you should have a good chance to play small ball against the player that really wants to make it into the money. Against everyone else, be ready to adjust.

When not to play small ball

When you’re sat across the table from the big dogs and you’re ready to go with a decent hand. Play big, raise big and force them to put their money in before they want to.

The squeeze play

Fancy a squeeze?

‘Fancy Play Syndrome’ is spreading like wildfire. Players are trying harder to look clever and deceive the rest of the table than they are to win money. Sometimes, though, a fancy play can have a devastatingly good effect. The squeeze play is one of the best.

The aim of the game is to ‘squeeze’ another player out of the pot after they’ve committed their chips. Raise and re-raise big and early with a weak hand to force everyone else to fold.

When to use the squeeze

  • When the risk is worth it and you’re confident it will work. You’re putting a lot of chips on the table with a terrible hand
  • When you have a tight image. The move won’t work if you can’t bluff a strong hand
  • Late stages of a multi-table tournament. This is the best time to use the squeeze as the risks are too high in cash games and the early stages of a tourney
  • When your opponents are neither experts nor beginners
  • When the first player is open-raising with lots of hands

When not to use the squeeze

  • When your opener is very tight. They probably have a strong hand and you’ll end up in trouble if they call
  • If your second player re-raises. They probably have a strong hand too
  • When you’ve made a similar move recently, even with a strong had the first time

Your raise must be big enough to scare the second player away from calling. The squeeze play is a powerful technique when used correctly and it can completely baffle your opponents. It's an excellent way to loosen up your game if you have a tight reputation. But use it carefully, or it could be you losing all your chips instead of your opponents.

Mixing up your play

What are short-handed games?

Short-handed aggression-filled cash games are by far the most popular games on the internet at the moment.

With only six players, these are action games and you need to become an action player if you want to succeed. You can't just sit around and wait for good hands if you want to come out ahead, especially as you leave the lower stakes behind. You must play a wide range of hands aggressively.

How much money do you need to play?

If you watch the players at the higher limits, you will see players raising and re-raising each other pre-flop all the time. Frequently, they will get all their money in on or after the flop – sometimes with fairly dubious hands.

Because of this, the demands on your bankroll are much higher as the variance in these games can be huge.

If you plan to play mid to high-stakes poker you should already be thinking of a bankroll in terms of 30 buy-ins or more. If you regularly play in six-handed games at stakes of 5 €/10 € or above then a sensible bankroll should be in the region of 50 buy-ins. This is because it is usually the most aggressive players who win the money. They do this by forcing their opponents to fold when they have a marginal hand with an aggressive image that allows them to get paid-off when they do have a big hand. In the biggest online games, everyone knows this. So, it becomes a battle of aggression with each player trying to get the others to back down, allowing them to take control.

Starting positions

Suited connectors, face cards and medium pairs are all non-premium hands that you should be re-raising loose-aggressive openers with some of the time. This balances the times you raise with a big hand such as aces or kings. You should also be calling with these holdings to keep your opponents guessing about where you are in any particular hand.

You should almost never be open-limping from any position. Raising three to four times the big blind – with any hand you want to play – will give you the impetus to win the pot by continuation betting the flop if you are called. If you are not called, you will still have taken down the blinds without a showdown.

Similarly, you should not make a habit of passively limping behind another limper pre-flop. If they habitually do this, you should be raising with any type of playable hand to around five times the big blind, in position, to isolate them. Be prepared to continuation bet the flop if faced with a call.

What happens next?

As suggested, most pots will have been raised or re-raised before the flop. So it is standard practice for the last raiser to continuation bet. However, the higher the limits you play, the more you will see people reacting to this strategy by floating (calling with a weak hand in position hoping to take the pot away later), bluff-raising or smooth-calling with any made hand.

To counteract this, you will need to mix your continuation bets with check-raises and check-folds in order to keep your opponents off-guard. You should also float more yourself against opponents who have shown an ability to fold in the face of turn aggression. As always in these games, the key is to play the players far more than the cards you are dealt.

The turn and river are interesting streets in single-raised pots, as with 100 big blind stacks a player who raises pre-flop and bets close to the pot on every street will usually be able to get their stack all-in by the river. For this reason – and because continuation betting is so prevalent – you also need to be double-barrel bluffing against persistent opponents on the turn a decent percentage of the time (especially when the board changes or you pick up outs).

You also need to follow through on the river with an all-in bluff often enough that it balances the times you value bet a big hand and puts your opponent in a difficult decision. If you follow this general strategy and play aggressively on all streets with well-balanced frequencies, you will be a formidable opponent.

Controlling the pot

The cash floating around cash games means everybody’s a little crazy and you need to switch up your game. There are a couple of simple things that mean you can limit how much you’re risking and what you’re exposing yourself to.

Control yourself

Control yourself, protect your stack. If your hand isn’t very strong then check and call rather than raise and bet. This isn’t always the place to raise with the hopes of forcing your opponents out of the game. Everyone’s looking after their money so they’ll fold if the risks get too great or they’ll re-raise you if they’re feeling confident. Play to eke out value from other players when your hands are decent by judging their play and adjusting accordingly.

Master of disguise

Representing your hand against opponents who are capable of guessing what you’ve got and guessing what you think they’ve got requires a master of disguise. Limping until you’re late in the game and then raising disguises a good hand to drag out some value from the rest of the players. Playing small pairs the same way represents a set and might fool some of the more trigger-happy players. Check-raising on the turn will throw a thinking opponent into turmoil and force many better hands to fold, leaving you with the pot.

Watch for other players trying to control the pot: you can re-raise them out of their comfort zone and force them to fold, taking the pot.