Imagine you’re a Renaissance sculptor – or maybe you are, in which case, think about how you go about creating one of those really nice statues. You start with a big block of marble, then you remove big chunks of it, then you remove smaller and smaller chunks of it, until eventually you have a naked person.
That’s the way learning how to play poker should be. In this flimsy metaphor, the block of marble represents the total set of actions at your disposal. Most of those actions need to be thrown away – when you’re new to the game, at least. After you’ve mastered the fundamentals of ABC poker, then you’ll be prepared to learn some trickier strategies. In the meantime, learning ABC poker will give you enough of a skill set to defeat the bad players who populate the microstakes, while protecting you (somewhat) from getting pounded by more experienced players.
Easy as 1-2-3
So what is ABC poker? There isn’t one unique strategy that’s been carved in stone – thank you, I’ll be here all week – but like a Renaissance statue, there’s a general consensus about what it is. For this article, we’ll stick with no limit hold ‘em, although each variant of poker has its own ABC strategies.
Since the game starts with preflop action, the most important thing to get a handle on right away is your preflop strategy. Having a specific set (or range) of opening hands for each position at the table is by far the smartest thing you can do as a beginner, and it’s not all that difficult to do. Generally speaking, the farther away you are from the button, the stronger your opening hands should be, since there are more people waiting to act behind you. You’ll find recommendations for opening hand ranges in any reliable book or online site for poker beginners. You can print these ranges out (or write them down), put them on your wall where you can see them, and refer to them while you play.
But They’re Suited!
Stick religiously to these ranges. Do not fall into temptation and open 76s from under the gun in a full-ring game. Not yet, grasshopper. Also, when you do open the betting, you’ll need a standard bet size. These sizes have been getting smaller over the years, but for now, just bet three times the big blind from every position. Did somebody 3-bet you? Go ahead and 4-bet with QQ+ and AK, and fold the rest. Make your 4-bet the same size as the pot. Did they 5-bet shove over top of you? Call with AA and KK, fold the rest.
You’ll also need your own 3-betting range; stick with QQ+ and AK, and make your raise three times the opening bet. Did somebody 4-bet you? Shove AA and KK and fold the rest. Keep it painfully simple until you know that you know what you’re doing. If you’ve been learning some intermediate strategies and you feel comfortable calling 3-bets or 4-bets with QQ and AK, do it with play money first. Baby steps.
The AKQ Game
Things get much more complicated once you reach the flop. No-limit hold ‘em gives you an almost limitless set of possibilities – they should have called it almost-no-limit hold ‘em, but that’s not very sexy. Don’t panic: You can navigate these waters with a simple strategy that will get you through for now. And it has to do with streets. Each round of betting on the flop, turn and river is considered a street. A raise is an extra street.
Some smart math guys (Bill Chen et al.) did a bunch of smart math about a decade ago and found there was an average threshold for how many streets each rank of hands could withstand. This is an oversimplification of what they said, but here goes: one street for a pair, two streets for two pair, three streets for a straight, four streets for the nuts. So, for example, if you have a pair and your opponent has put in two streets, fold. If you have two pair, call. If you have a set, raise. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’ll do.
You can also bet a draw on the flop, or raise your opponent if he or she bets first. This is only if you have a flush draw or an open-ended straight draw, and what you really want here is for your opponent to fold. If your opponent calls, just check down and hope you complete your flush or straight. Do not put any more money in. And as far as your bet size goes, bet half the pot on a board with no obvious draws, and two-thirds the pot on a board where your opponent might have a draw.
That’s one way to play ABC poker. There are other things to learn, so many other things, but this will get you started. One more thing: Play the easiest games you can. Get used to beating bad players, avoid good players, and slowly work your way up the ladder, one day at a time. That’s life in a nutshell. Poker is life.