One of the great things about playing any form of No-Limit is the ability to manipulate the pot size. That is to say, you can bet any amount you have available in front of you in order to provide the improper odds to your opponent, or give the best odds possible when you’re opponents are drawing nearly dead. A very important component of maintaining a healthy poker bankroll is doing your best to play a small sized pot when you have a marginal or small hand, such as top-pair or even two pair, when the board presents the possibility of a much better hand.
There will be times when you can invest a large amount of money with only top pair and top kicker, but that’s only with a very good read of your opponent. You should do your best to keep the pot size small without a big hand and do your best to build a big pot when you do have a great hand. This is an important factor in winning the most when ahead, and losing the least when behind. One of the primary reasons that good players win more than most of their opponents is because they know how and when to control the size of the pot, and how much to bet to get maximum value when ahead, or lose the least when they are possibly behind.
The title should say it all. It’s just not profitable to bluff at small stakes poker games. This is something a lot of new players just don’t quite understand because they watch a lot of good poker players pull off great bluffs on T.V. There are several reasons that good high stakes players bluff and nearly none of them apply to small stakes games. Good players bluff in order to set up their opponents for future games because bluffing does the following:
- Disguises the strength of their future hands to ensure other hands will get paid off in the future.
- Confuses their opponents.
- Creates a complex metagame at a psychological level.
In order for these things to work properly, you have to have opponents who:
- Are paying attention to how you play.
- Are thinking about what your cards are.
- Can lay down good hands.
- Are thinking deeply about the game.
It won’t take much time, or attempted bluffs, for you to quickly realize that it’s just not a profitable play at small stakes. That’s not to say that you won’t make some well-timed semi-bluffs, but pure bluffs won’t net a profit at this level. Bluffing and making a profit is much more difficult than it may appear, even at higher stakes games.
You’ll see lots of people slow-playing at the small stakes level; don’t be one of them. It will be quite common for someone to flop a big hand like a set and then get sneaky against their three other opponents and check their set on the flop, only to get outdrawn by someone catching a gut-shot or other draw. When you flop a big hand, bet it for value. Don’t try and get sneaky, and hope to trap your opponents. The only way you can win a big pot is by betting and hoping to get called or raised.
Think about it this way; most of your opponents are loose-passive players. What do loose-passive players do? They call. They’ll call with hopes of catching their over card, gut-shot, second pair, or any other weak holding they may have. You stand to make the most by betting when you have the best hand, and checking or folding when you don’t. If you don’t happen to get called, then you likely weren’t going to win much money on that hand. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “well, if I bet, my opponents may fold.” Yes, that’s always true, but they may also call or raise. Don’t give your opponents a free card to outdraw you.
Will there be times to slow-play? Yes, but VERY rarely. If you happen to flop 4 of a kind or sometimes even a full house, then it may be best to check your hand and see if your opponent can catch something. Those times will not be often, so if you’re in doubt, just bet your hand.
Invest more money when you have a positional advantage and less when you will likely be out of position. That means, raise slightly less from early position, and raise big when you have position in order to apply the most amount of pressure to your opponents. When you have ultimate position, everyone before you has to worry about what hand you have and whether you will raise if they bet. You are in the driver’s seat. Make full use of your positional advantage when you have it.
Don’t play big or even above averagely sized pots with hands that are potentially dominated such as AT,AJ,AQ,KJ,KQ (often called trouble hands) and so on. It’s OK to put some bets in with these hands, but if you play beyond the flop with any of these hands, use extreme caution. Do your best to control the pot size by checking when possible, unless you know your opponent draws and chases a lot, or will pay off with weaker hands.
Make sure to pay attention when hands like AJ or AQ may not be good hands preflop and learn to fold them. If there is a raise and re-raise and you have AJ in the SB, fold the hand. Also be careful when playing these hands to raises when you are out of position or in the blinds. If you are facing a very tight opponent, it may be best to fold any trouble hand.
Avoid the temptation to chase with your draws unless you are getting the proper pot odds to continue. Sometimes you can call with slightly the worst of it since your implied odds are generally much higher at small stakes than at higher stakes. Even so, don’t go crazy unless you have plenty of outs.
Be careful, because people overestimate implied odds all the time. Make sure you know your opponent will pay off with a lot of marginal hands before investing a lot of money in the pot with a draw.
You hit a decent flop with your hole cards such as top pair or even two pair, only to see someone in front of you makes a small bet into the pot. You, of course, decide to raise with your hand, only to be re-raised by the initial small raiser. Fold. Unless you have a VERY good read on your opponent, this is usually the small stakes sign of, “Wow, I just nailed that straight or set on the flop. I don’t want to scare anyone off so I’ll make a smallish bet in hopes that someone will call or even be dumb enough to raise me.”
When you see this play, you better have the nuts or close to it. It usually means a VERY big hand. It’s the correct play to go ahead and raise your hand, but if you’re re-raised by the initially small bettor, fold and sleep well knowing you saved yourself money and made the correct play.
This is your goal, to become a tight-aggressive poker player. You will only play a select number of hands preflop (about 15-20%), but when you do play them, you will play them hard and aggressively post flop. Learning solid tight-aggressive poker is the foundation for learning and adapting to different styles of play. It looks like a lot of fun to play like a player such as Gus Hansen, but it takes a lot of poker experience and smarts to play a Loose-Aggressive game profitably.
Most of your opponents will be playing a loose-passive style of poker, a very loose-aggressive, or a tight-passive game. The best way to beat all of these styles combines the will to play tight before the flop and aggressive after the flop.