Compare the Top Four Poker Game Variants

Here’s a quick run down on the bare bones basics that differentiate each of the following “top 4” poker games.

Texas Holdem poker basicsEach player is dealt two “hole” cards which only he/she can see. One round of betting is followed by the first three “community” cards, also known as “the flop”. Two more community cards (“the turn” and “the river”) are turned at a time, with a round of betting after each card. The remaining players must make the best five-card hand possible from the seven in total order to win the pot. The amounts bet can differ in Hold’em according to whether the games is “pot-limit”, “limit” or “no-limit”. Here’s a run down of the 3 basic types:

POT LIMIT:  The maximum raise allowed is defined by the size of the pot. This is defined by the total in the pot plus all bets on the table.
LIMIT: A maximum of four bets is allowed per player during each betting round. These are: 1 A bet, 2 A raise, 3 A re-raise and 4 The cap (the last permitted raise in any round of betting).
NO LIMIT: The amount you raise is restricted only by the size of your stack (chips on table).

Omaha Poker basicsEach player is dealt four hole cards (which only they can see). Five community cards are dealt in the same way as in Hold’em, punctuated by the same rounds of betting. The players must use two of their hole cards with three community cards to make the best possible five-card hand.

Seven Card Stud Poker basicsEach player is dealt two cards down and one “door” card up. Whoever has the lowest door card initiates the betting. Each player is allowed one bet and three raises in each betting round. Three more cards are dealt face up (“fourth”, “fifth” and “sixth” street), with rounds of betting in between initiated by the person with the highest value card showing. The seventh and final card (the “river”) is dealt face down, and the player with the best five-card hand takes down the pot.

Five Card Stud poker basicsPlayed like Seven-card Stud, except that the players are dealt one card down and one card up. The only other difference is that the remaining three cards are all dealt face up.

There is one variation that is often used in conjunction with Stud (and Omaha):

Betting and dealing remains the same but the crucial difference is that the pot is divided between the best hand for “high” and the best hand for “low”. You really need to know your hand ranks for this variation.

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A Hand in Poker History: Doyle vs Gold

High Stakes Poker 3 – 2006 WSOP Champion Jamie Gold’s first hand.

Doyle vs GoldDoyle Brunson raises to 2K with AQ, everyone folds around to Jamie Gold, who calls with QT. Always the gambler Daniel Negreau also calls with 5-2 Clubs and we see a flop.

The flop lands 6-K-J and its checks all round. The turn is the ten of clubs, giving Doyle the absolute nuts.

Doyle fires out of the gates and raises to $8,000, Gold decides to try to make a move and re-raises to $20,000. Negreau quickly gets out of the way folding over to Doyle, who begins his poker lesson.

Doyle looks at Gold and casually jokes “This is real money here Jamie. How much did you start with…” Jaime replies “$100,000”. Doyle pretends to have forgotten his cards, re-checks his cards and replies “OK, lets go” and re-raises to $100,000.

Gold quickly folds muttering, “I’m not ready for that!” Now that was an understatement.

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The Pain Barrier – Manipulating Your Opponent

120px-bmpokerThere are many factors that affect your decisions at the poker table. Obviously, the cards you’re dealt often dictate whether you’ll even consider getting involved in a hand, but they’re just one part of the equation.

Once you’re playing, things like your physical state can also affect your play. If you’re hungry, tired or even a little drunk, you’re not likely to play your best, and your decisions may not be as smart. Emotion is a factor too. When you’re winning, you often feel like you can make any hand you need to win a pot. When you’re losing, however, a continued string of beats can seem unbearable. This can lead to tilt and keep you from playing at the top of your game.

Using this kind of information against your opponents is one of the keys to becoming a winning player. If you know they’re a little tired or a little tilted, you can determine if they’re likely to call a well-timed bet or bluff.

For example, let’s say you river the nuts and want to induce your opponent to put more money into the pot. What do you do? The answer often depends on your opponent, and what size bet you think you can get them to call.

One factor to consider is how well your opponent is doing in the game. Are they winning or losing? Let’s say you know a player sat down with $500 and they now have $710. This player is much more likely to call a bet of $140 to $170 on the river than a bet of $220 or $250, because the additional money pushes them through what I like to call their “pain barrier”.

For your opponent, calling a $170 bet means they’ll still be up for the session, even if they lose the pot. Calling $220 or more means they’ll be down. For many players, the psychological difference between these two scenarios is huge, even if they don’t realize it.

There are other factors that can help you manipulate your opponent’s pain barrier at the table. For example, a player who is sitting with case money (i.e., they don’t have any more money in their pocket or stored in the cashier) is much more likely to be pushed off a hand by a big bet if they’re holding any kind of marginal hand. The pain barrier becomes even more effective if you know your opponent is about to quit the game. They might have had a phone call from a spouse or be going to dinner soon; then the $250 bet in the situation above works even more often, as most players don’t want to finish their session on a losing note.

Obviously, using the pain barrier won’t work every time but, if used properly, it’s a great weapon to have in your arsenal.

Joe Beevers

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Strategies for Short-Handed Limit Hold em

John plays exclusively online at Full Tilt Poker

I’d like to share some strategies for playing short-handed Limit Hold ‘em.

You’ll probably know that hand values change in short-handed play and that it’s proper to play a greater percentage of hands than would be wise at a full ring game. In these games, I play a lot of hands. So many, in fact, I’ve gotten the reputation of being something of a maniac. But there is a method to my madness. By the end of this article, I think you’ll agree.

Button Play

In a three- or four-handed Limit Hold ‘em cash game, I will raise about two of every three times I have the button. The quality of my hand is essentially irrelevant. The position raise puts me in control of the hand and, even if I’m holding total trash, the pressure puts the blinds in a spot where they need to catch a piece of the flop.

For example, say I raise on the button and the big blind calls with a modest but playable hand, maybe Qc-Td. Now, if the flop comes with any Ace or King, the blind is going to have a very difficult time continuing with the hand if he checks and I bet the flop. In fact, the blind is going to have a very difficult time continuing on any board that doesn’t contain a Queen or Ten.

If I follow up my raise and bet the flop with, say, 7-high, and get called or check-raised, it’s very easy to lay down the hand. I know this is going to happen at times, but I pick up the pot often enough to make the constant button aggression profitable.

Small Blind Play

When playing against opponents who raise frequently in position, I’m sure to respond with aggression in the small blind. If I’m holding a hand that’s likely best at a three-handed table – something as modest as A-9 might qualify – and I’m facing a button raise, I take control of the hand and three-bet. That puts additional pressure on the big blind. If I only call the button raise, the big blind will be getting great odds (5:1) to call the additional bet. And I’d far prefer to play the hand heads-up.

After three-betting from the small blind, I follow up with a bet on the flop almost 100 percent of the time. Since I represented a big hand pre-flop, I want to put my opponent to a decision immediately. Once I see how my opponent reacts, I can decide how I should proceed with the hand. I’ll have to give it up sometimes, but the pressure will force a lot of folds.

Big Blind Play

The big blind is the only place where I’m content to call bets pre-flop. In fact, a call is my usual reaction to a button raise. If I start with a moderate hand, I can see the flop and decide how to proceed. If I start with a strong hand, like pocket Aces or Kings, I’ll still call and look to check-raise the flop. I don’t like to three-bet from the big blind because it tends to announce my hand. My opponents know that I’m starting with a very big hand.

Overall Goal

As you can probably tell by now, I believe that aggression is key to success in short-handed Limit Hold ‘em. I think the constant bets and raises create two dynamics that can be exploited for profit. First, by being the aggressor, I have the opportunity to pick up a number of pots where both my opponent and I miss the flop.

Second, the aggression has the tendency to lead opponents to make some very bad decisions. After some time, opponents may call bets on every street with nothing more than Ace- or King-high. When they start doing that, I can tighten up and only bet hands that are likely to be winners at showdown.

At times my style may look maniacal. But in short-handed limit play, it works.


[John D’Agostino is Nicknamed “Jdags” and has won 2 WPT final tables in the last 12 months]

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Poker: How Bad are the Beats?

Tips from the pros: Steve Brecher

While playing on Full Tilt Poker, I have said that there are three topics I won’t discuss in table chat; politics, religion, and whether online poker is rigged. That’s because many people’s opinions on those topics are hardened and not amenable to friendly or productive discussion.

Away from the table, I’ll venture a couple of comments about improbable events in poker. While not direct instruction in the tactics and strategy of play, these comments may help you take “bad beats” in stride — and that, in turn, is an essential part of poker maturity.

First, let’s consider what most would view as a typical “bad beat” — a lower pocket pair winning against a higher pocket pair in hold ’em, such as KK beating AA. When those hands share one suit, the chance of the worse hand winning is about 18%. The chance of the lower pair winning twice — that is, the next two times that such hands happen to go against each other — is about 3%. If in one session of play, a lower pocket pair beat a higher pocket pair twice, that might seem a little, well, weird to some players.

Consider another situation involving chance. When two dice are thrown, the chance of rolling “snake eyes” (1-1) is about 3% — about the same as a lower pocket pair beating a higher pocket pair twice.

Suppose there were 600 craps tables using standard, unaltered dice with nine players around each table — a total of 5,400 players — and these tables operated for a three-hour “session.” How many players would observe snake eyes being thrown at least once? The statistical expectation result is not important. The point is that it’s easy to intuitively see that a large number of players would.

Further, do you think some players might see snake eyes thrown several times in an evening — say, three or four times? (That is equivalent to six or eight poker “bad beats.”) And if some of those players would be inclined to report their observation on forums and in chat, then it might seem to some as if the dice were “fixed.”

Let’s go back to poker. Recently, I played a hand of No-Limit Hold ‘Em on Full Tilt Poker. An opponent four seats in front of the button open-raised pre-flop. It was folded around to me in the big blind, and I called. I semi-bluff check-raised the flop, continued with a semi-bluff bet on the turn, was raised all-in, and called the raise. I made my draw on the river. After the hand my opponent chatted:

opponent: ur horrible steve
opponent: why the [****] did u call that?
opponent: horrible that this site rewards that

(Confidential to opponent: I know these comments were made in the heat of the moment after a big loss and don’t necessarily reflect your considered view.)

Let’s take a look at my call on the turn. I held Ad Td; my opponent held Kd Kc. The board was Qd 9d 7h Jc.

With my opponent’s actual holding, I had 16 outs to win the pot on the river, making me a 1.75 to 1 underdog. Of course, it could have been worse for me against other holdings, but even the worst case for me would have been to be up against K-T (a made straight), and then I would have been only a 3 to 1 underdog.

After my bet and the opponent’s all in-raise, I was getting pot odds of 3.7 to 1 to call, so the call is clearly correct. But it seemed to my opponent — and to at least one observer — that I made a bad call, and that my winning with a 36% chance to do so when I called was a bad beat for my opponent.

The moral of this story: While “bad beats” (low-probability events) do occur, sometimes a closer examination of a poker hand can change first impressions and allow you to continue to play with a cooler, clearer head.

Steve Brecher

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Poker: What’s Your Starting Hand Really Worth?

Another top from poker pro Steve Brecher

Most players know that pre-flop position is important in hold ’em. The earlier your position, the more players there are behind you and, unless you hold pocket Aces, the bigger the chance that one of them will have a hand better than yours.

There is another aspect to position: It’s better to act after your opponent(s) rather than before. But for this tip, I’m going to investigate the chances that a player behind you will have a better hand.

There is no universal definition of what “better” means when comparing hold ’em starting hands. For this article, I needed some reasonable, quantifiable criterion. So in the following, I’m assuming that one hand is “better” than another if its showdown equity is greater. A hand’s showdown equity against another hand is the average portion of the pot it will win across all possible combinations of board cards. This is similar to the percentages that TV poker programs display next to player hands when the players are all-in. If you’re interested in investigating this for yourself, there are several free computer programs and websites which calculate the showdown equities of user-specified competing hands.

For example, Ah 2d all-in pre-flop against Kc Qc will, over all possible boards, win an average of 53.9% of the pot. So the A-2 is the “better” hand against K-Q suited by our definition. Obviously, it is not better for all purposes; at a full table I’d usually open-raise in early position with K-Q suited, but toss A-2 offsuit.

Given some specific hand category – such as K-Q suited – we’ll need to know the chance that a random hand dealt from the remaining 50 cards will be “better.” This requires that we have a showdown equity calculation for each of the 1,225 possible opposing hands and tabulate against how many of them the K-Q suited has the worse (less than 50%) equity. It turns out that 238 of the 1,225 possible opponent hands are “better” in this sense. So we say that the chance of a random hand being better than K-Q suited is 238/1,225 or 19.4%; conversely, the chance that a random hand will not be better is 80.6%. This tabulation would be too tedious to do by hand. For the example results below, I developed some simple software to do the calculations.

Suppose that you are considering an opening bet pre-flop. There are players yet to act behind you. I’ll denote the number of hands to play behind you as N. For example, if you’re on the button, then there are two hands – the blinds – behind you, and N would be equal to 2. What is the probability that none of some number of random hands will be better than yours? It is the chance that one random hand will not be better than yours multiplied by itself N-1 times, which is the same as saying it’s that probability raised to the Nth power. For example, if there’s a 40% chance that a random hand won’t be better (i.e., a 60% chance it will be better), then the chance that none of three random hands will be better is 40% x 40% x 40%, or 0.4 to the 3rd power, which equals 0.064. Hence, the chance that at least one of the three hands will be better is 1.0 – 0.064 or 0.936 or 94%.

Its all in the numbers!

I think the most interesting thing about these numbers is the difference between earlier and later positions. This is something to consider when you’re thinking of open-raising in early position.

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Check-Raising on Draws

Steve Brecher poker pro

In No-Limit Hold ’em, drawing hands can be very difficult to play out of position. Most beginners take a straightforward approach when they flop something like a straight or a flush draw; they check, then call a bet and hope the turn brings something helpful. But, simply check-calling can present difficulties later in a hand. If you miss on the turn, you’ll probably have to check and, oftentimes, end up facing a turn bet that is too large to call. Any bet of normal size in relation to the pot will be too large because the odds against hitting your hand are typically more than 4-to-1.

The problems don’t end there. What happens if you check-call the flop, then hit your draw on the turn? If you check the turn, your opponent might very well check behind you, fearing that you hit. If you lead at the pot, you’re pretty much announcing that you made your hand and your opponent might fold. So, even if you hit, you may not get paid in proportion to the risk you took by calling on a draw.

Rather than check-call, I often like to check-raise when I flop a draw out of position. This sort of situation comes up most frequently when playing from the blinds. For example, say that I’m in the big blind with Ad-6d and I call a raise from a late position player who popped it to three times the big blind. The flop, Td-5d-3s, gives me the nut flush draw.

After calling from the blind, I’d expect to check the flop almost every time. It’s the natural progression of the hand: my opponent took the lead pre-flop and I’m going to allow him to keep it. I’d expect him to make a continuation bet most of the time, even when he misses the flop completely. Most aggressive players will stab at small pots in these situations.

If he does bet, this is the perfect kind of flop for a check-raise. It’s likely that my opponent raised with two big cards – something like A-K or A-Q – and, if that’s the case, he’s missed this flop completely and will almost certainly fold to the check-raise. Or, if he’s got something like A-T or K-T, he may be worried that he’s run into a bigger hand and he’ll likely just call the raise.

If he does call the check-raise, I can then make a decision on the turn. Sometimes I’ll check and sometimes I’ll lead out, regardless of whether I hit my draw. If I missed, I may continue the semi-bluff or I may check with the hope that my check-raise on the flop was sufficient to make my opponent nervous and get me a free river card. If I hit, I may choose to continue my aggressive play and put my opponent to a decision or, I may check, deceptively representing fear of my opponent’s having the draw.

Of course, things won’t always work out. If the initial raiser has something like pocket Aces or a set, I’m likely to be re-raised and shut out of the hand. But nothing works out every time in poker.

Try varying your play when you flop draws. Look for opportunities to check-raise. It may be the best way to proceed with a draw when playing out of position.


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Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone

Ben Roberts - poker pro

Many beginner poker players naturally gravitate toward a level of game where they feel most comfortable. The reasons for their choice may vary, but often include the size of their starting bankroll, and the amount of money they feel comfortable wagering in a particular hand or throughout a session.

This is perfectly normal and reasonable. One of the things that separate truly profitable players from winning players, however, is their willingness to step out of their comfort zone and explore higher limit games.

After a few hundred hours of play, many people can determine whether or not they are beating their regular games. For those players who are showing a profit, there are some for whom taking home an extra $100 or $200 per week is perfectly acceptable. They’re mainly playing for fun and the winnings are a nice benefit. For others, however, poker may be a steady source of income, and boosting their bottom line could significantly affect their lives away from the table.

One of the smartest things these players can do is to stretch their games and play at higher limits. With proper planning, and the right approach, the rewards can be immeasurable. To that end, I have some suggestions for players who are thinking about taking their game to the next level.

First and most important, make sure you have the bankroll to sustain yourself at a higher level. If you take a shot and lose, you shouldn’t have to worry about rebuilding your bankroll from scratch. A good recommendation is to stockpile enough money so that you can comfortably afford between eight and 10 buy-ins before you have to retreat to a smaller game.

This leads to my second piece of advice, which is not to let a few losing sessions affect your attitude or impair your judgment. I’m not saying that losing doesn’t sting and that tilt doesn’t happen. They do. But, players who successfully move up the ladder understand that not every session will be a winning one, and that by constantly analyzing their games – and those of their opponents’ – they’ll be able to make adjustments that will help them succeed.

When moving up the poker ladder, you’ll inevitably encounter players with more experience and skill than you possess. Recognizing these players and learning from them is one of the smartest moves you can make. Conversely, letting your ego and pride get in the way of observing these players can lead you to keep investing money in a losing situation and, eventually, affect your overall performance and excitement toward the game.

Remember, successful people fail more often than unsuccessful people. Successful people try new things, fall down, pick themselves up, and try again. So, if your first attempt to move up to a higher stakes game falls short of your expectations, don’t despair. Look at your play and the play of your opponents, regroup, and try again. The experience will be worth it.


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Play More Pots

Erick Lindgren a Full Tilt Poker pro

In tournaments, I play lots of hands. I’ll put my money in with all kinds of connected cards, especially when in position. I might limp, I might min-raise or raise a little more than the minimum, depending on the circumstances. I’m looking to keep my table off balance so they don’t know where I’m coming from.

My overall goal is to pick up a lot of small pots without a lot of resistance. I might raise in position and hope for a call from one of the blinds. If I raise pre-flop with something like 6-7, I might miss the flop entirely, but the raise puts me in control of the hand. On the flop, I’ll likely bet if checked to, even if I miss. That small bet on the flop will usually win me a small, but helpful pot.

Of course, sometimes it won’t work out. I’ll bet and get check-raised on occasions. But that’s okay, because I actually don’t lose much in the hands that I have to surrender. Overall, I get to gradually add to my chip stack by chopping at small pot after small pot.

The other major advantage to my style is that, occasionally, I will hit a flop hard. If I do happen to flop a straight, it’s difficult for other players to put me on something like 5-7 or 6-8. If one of my opponents also gets a piece of the flop, I’ll get paid off in a big way.

By adding to my stack early, I have a real advantage over players who play a cautious, tight game. The extra chips that I accumulate allow me to survive some tough spots. So, if I happen to get involved in a race with A-K or a pair of Tens, I can withstand a loss. An opponent who’s playing tight will likely be on the rail after losing a single race.

New players often ask me how they can learn to play more pots. I always suggest that they drop down significantly in stakes and practice. If you’re playing $2-$4 no-limit, drop down to $.50-$1 – a level where some losses won’t hurt you.

Once you’re at that table, try to play eight hands out of 10. Play everything but 2-8 or 3-9 – hands that are entirely unconnected. When you get yourself involved with this kind of frequency, you’ll have to concentrate more on your opponents than on your own cards. You’ll have to be on the lookout for opportunities to take down pots with well-timed stabs. You’ll also learn how to proceed in situations where you flop a good, but dangerous hand.

By dropping down and playing a lot of hands, you’re going to learn a lot about poker. You’re also going to have a lot of fun. Lord knows, playing 50% of the hands is a whole lot more entertaining than sitting around waiting for Aces.

If you look at the success that Gavin Smith, Daniel Negreanu and myself have had over the last couple of years, you’ll see that being active can be an excellent way to score big in tournaments. It takes practice to play this style, but it can lead to great results and be a lot of fun.

Erick Lindgren

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Playing Big Slick in Deep Stack Tournaments

Paul Wolfe another great poker professional in the Full Tilt Poker team

During this year’s World Series of Poker, I talked with a number of pros about the problems that so many online qualifiers had playing Big Slick during the early blind levels. It seemed to us that a huge percentage of the field – we estimated as much as 70 percent – was more than willing to go broke with this hand if they hit a pair on the flop.

But many pros, myself included, feel that Ace-King is a very difficult hand to play in the early levels of big buy-in tournaments, when the stacks are deep compared to the blinds. The fact of the matter is, top-pair/top-kicker is probably no good if another player is willing to risk all of his chips. This isn’t always the case – you may find an extremely weak player willing to go broke on K-Q, but that’s the rare exception.

The real problem with A-K early on is that it’s very difficult to get an idea of where you’re at in a hand. Even on an innocuous looking flop of something like K-9-2, you may think your hand is good. But you can’t be sure.

Say that you raise pre-flop with A-K and a late-position player calls. The two of you see a K-9-2 flop. You bet strong on the flop and then again on the turn. He calls on both streets. What now? Do you bet the river and pray that you’re not raised? Or do you check and hope that your opponent does the same? It’s a difficult spot and there are no great options.

Playing the same hand in position is a little easier, but it’s still tough.

While the blinds are low in a big buy-in tournament, I’m actually looking to see flops against the players who overplay top-pair/top-kicker. When I’m in position, I’m happy to call a raise with something like a small pocket pair, 5-6 suited, or even 8-T suited. I’m looking to flop a big hand or a big draw.

If I flop a set, I have a good chance of wiping out the guy with top pair. If I flop a draw, I have a chance to see if my opponent will give me a good price to hit my hand. The beauty of a suited hand like 5-6 or 8-T is that there’s no way I’m going to get in serious trouble playing them. If I flop anything less than two-pair or a quality draw, I’ll fold, having lost very little.

I think there are two major reasons many players over value Ace-King. First is that in online tournaments, where the stacks start relatively low, Ace-King is usually worth playing aggressively. Players who win online satellites do so by playing Ace-King fast, so they come to big tournaments feeling good about this starting hand. The second reason is that many people have seen TV commentators crow about Big Slick, calling it a “huge hand.” At a six-handed final table, Ace-King is a very big hand, but as Howard Lederer has pointed out, you need to realize that short-handed final-table strategy differs greatly from early tournament play.

When you’re playing in deep-stack games, learn to play A-K cautiously. The pros don’t like to go broke with this hand and you’d do well to follow their example.

Paul Wolfe

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