How to Play Poker in Five Easy Steps

As a beginning player, you’ve already got a grasp of how a poker game plays out (see our poker rules guide for a refresher). But learning how to play poker well is your first big challenge.

Maybe you’ve read other strategy articles or watched some training videos, but these can seem overwhelming, using confusing language and aiming at more experienced players. To help you, Replay Poker, the home of free poker online, has compiled the five key factors that you must consider on every hand of poker you play.

Following this advice will put you on a solid foundation upon which you can build more in-depth strategies and will stop you from being an easy target in your early career.

1. Play Only Your Better Hands

When you’re new to the game, the first thing you want to do is dive in and get involved in as many hands as possible. The idea of folding hand after hand while the action goes on around you seems odd, but that is exactly what you should be doing as you learn to play poker.

Play too many of the wrong starting hands (your two hole cards) is a recipe for disaster as you’re likely to be losing out to another player from the start. With hands like 7-J and A-6, you will be dominated so often by players with better kickers. For example, calling a raise with A-6 and hitting an ace on the flop might look fantastic, but quite often the raiser will have a much better ace, playing for example A-K down to A-J. In this case, he has you dominated.

You must be selective in the poker hands you play. In most scenarios you can play any pair, your aces down to A-J or even A-10, connecting cards like 10-J, J-Q, Q-K, and then a wider selection for suited connectors, for example, 9-10 of diamonds. Connectors open straight possibilities, while suited connectors add flush chances, too.

So, choose wisely, especially at the start of a tournament. Why risk losing a huge pot, or worse your entire stack, on a weak hand that you could easily have avoided?

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2. Importance of Position at the Poker Table

You’ve now got to grips with the range of starting hands you should consider playing. But before you jump in the next time a marginal hand like A-10 turns up, you must consider your position at the poker table.

By position, we mean where you’re sitting in relation to the dealer. If you’re in the blinds or the next seat along, you’re in early position. Next comes the mid positions in the middle of the table, and finally you get the dealer and the player to his right who are said to be in late position.

Why is position important? Basically, because the later position you have, the more players must act before you. So, if you’re the dealer, you have much more information on other players and what they’re up to compared to someone in early position.

This means you get to bet last, so you can exert pressure on your opponents. In late positions, you can widen your opening hand selection. Let’s say that before the flop, everyone folds around to you on the button. You can pretty much try and steal the blinds by raising with a wide selection of hands. If they call you, they do so knowing they must act first after the flop and beyond, putting them at a disadvantage.

Simply keep in mind that if it’s folded around, the later you are the fewer people are still to act, so your hand value increases. It’s one of the basic concepts of how to play poker.

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3. Risk v Reward in Poker

Now with starting hands and position taken into consideration, your next strategic decision is to note the size of your stack compared to those of your opponents. If you’re both ‘deep’, that is having large stacks and small blind levels in a tournament; then this is less important.

But if you are short-stacked and others have more, you can’t afford to dabble in speculative pots only to fold. Doing so risks your chips bleeding dry, or gets you pot committed, meaning you must pretty much play out the hand for all your stack, perhaps with a weak holding.

If short-stacked it’s better to grab an opportunity to push all-in, weighing up the risk v reward: the risk is you’ll be called and beaten, the reward is everyone folds, and you pick up the blinds, or someone calls and you double up.

On the flip side, if you’re in late position with a large stack and the big blind is short-stacked, open-raising (if everyone else folded to you) to try and steal the blind has more risk because the big blind might end up shoving all-in, possibly with the better hand. You might now be committed to calling and before you know it, you’ve doubled the player up.

You may also have heard of pot odds. Explaining this is a level above the requirements here, but you can grasp the principle behind it. If you can work out in percentage terms roughly how likely it is your hand will improve and win the pot, you must compare it in percentage terms with how many chips you’ll need to commit in relation to the total size of the pot.

In other words, if you have a 25% chance of making your hand, don’t call a bet equivalent of 50% of the pot!

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4. Keeping Your Emotions Level

When someone asks how do you play poker, many would say it’s about keeping a poker face. This means your opponent can never be sure how strong or weak your hand is. It keeps them guessing. There’s another phrase you may have heard about – going on tilt.

This happens when you’ve experienced bad luck or feel you’ve been hard done by. You start to boil up inside and then lose all sense of playing correctly. You play way too many hands, bet too much, call off too many chips and, of course, lose more as a result.

Don’t be the player who goes on tilt, hard as it may seem when you first learn poker. If an opponent plays terribly and lucks his way to winning a big pot against you, don’t express your anger. These things happen, you just have to remember that over the longer term, you will make a profit in the same circumstances.

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5. Your Table Image and Player Notes

On a similar theme, but a little more subtle is table image and notes. Always concentrate on what the other players are doing, because over time you’ll get a read on what sort of player they are. Do they play too many hands (loose), so you can give them less credibility for holding good starting hands? Perhaps they play too little, known as tight or a rock? If so, steer clear when they come out betting because they’ll only be playing something strong. And raise more to them pre-flop because the chances are they will fold.

Online poker software usually allows you to make a note next to a player at the table, so you can jot down observations of how the player bets or any other pattern you notice. The next time you come to play this opponent, you have a pre-existing read to use to your advantage.

While that’s all well and good, never lose sight of the fact that other players will also be observing you. Try to mix up your playing style a little, playing the odd loose hand if it’s cheap enough, and changing up your bet sizing so that it does not become predictable, offering clues to the strength or otherwise of your cards.

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Now Try for Yourself with Free Poker

With these five how to play poker for beginners steps, you can put yourself in a much better position to become a winning poker player. It might seem a lot to take in at first, but before long, after a little practise on Replay Poker, it will become second nature.

Good luck at the tables.

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