Before you can even consider start playing poker you need to understand the poker hand ranking. The hand ranking determines who will win a pot if a hand is played to the end (betting and calling).
In Texas Hold’em you have two private cards that are your own. These are called hole cards.  You use your hole cards and combine them with the common cards (community cards) to make a 5 card poker hand.
You can combine your hole cards with the community cards  in any way that is possible using zero, one or two of your hole cards. If you are not using your hole cards at all you can never have a better hand than your opponent, the best you can hope for is a split pot.
In poker the suit does not count, that is spade is equal in worth as diamonds (the pot is split if hands are of equal ranking).
If you are not familiar with this or want to practice becoming really quick at determining poker hand raking and who has the best hand I recommend that you use the Poker Training Exercises.

Poker hand ranking starting with the best:

Royal flush

A straight from a ten to an ace with all five cards of the same suit.

Straight flush

Any straight with all five cards of the same suit.

Four of a kind

Any four cards of the same rank.

Full house

Any three cards of the same rank together with any two cards of the same rank. If several players have a full house the player with the highest rank of the three cards with same rank wins. Our example shows “Aces full of Kings” and it is a bigger full house than “Kings full of Aces.”

Flush

Any five cards of the same suit (not consecutive). The highest card of the five determines the rank of the flush. Our example shows an Ace-high flush.

Straight

Any five consecutive cards of different suits. Aces can count as either a high or a low card. Our example shows a five-high straight, which is the lowest possible straight.

Three of a kind

Any three cards of the same rank. Our example shows three-of-a-kind Aces, with a King and a Queen as side cards – the best possible three of a kind.

Two pair

Any two cards of the same rank together with another two cards of the same rank. The highest pair of the two determines the rank of the two-pair.

One pair

Any two cards of the same rank.

High card

Any hand not in the above-mentioned hands. A hand with for example a 9 as highest card is called a 9-high. Our example shows the best possible high-card hand.

Poker games have gotten a lot tougher the last couple of years. The win rates that were possible 2008 are just not realistic any more. That being said there is still a lot of money to be made from poker, especially if you  are practicing good Table Selection.

The following is based on quite extensive research on various resources online including among others these:

What I say here does not apply for microstakes. You can achieve significantly higher win rates there.

It does not apply to live games either. Hopefully variance is a lot lower in live games since you can read your opponents body language and manipulate them. It is also common that the skill difference is much higher than online.

Cash games: Above 2 BB / 100 is great and above 3 BB / 100 is world class.

BB / 100 is an historical way of measuring win rate in cash games. It comes from Pokertracker and the big bet in limit games. 1 BB = 2 big blinds.

Multi-table tournaments: Above 20 % ROI is great and above 30 % is world class.

ROI means Return on Investment. If you for example buy-in in a tournament and you have an average ROI at 20 % that means in average you win $20 each time you play that tournament.

Sit and Go’s: Above 5 % ROI is great and above 10 % is world class. Even at higher stakes it is basically impossible to earn > $10 / Sit and Go.

If you have higher rates than this you are probably running hot.

Many people underestimate how much you need to play to have a reasonably accurate understanding of your winrate. And there are many opinions – which is understandable because it varies with competition, style of play etc.

Personally I go by this guideline which I think makes sense:

Cash games: 30 000 hands to see if you are a winner. 100 000 hands to have an idea on win rate.

Tournaments: 500 tournaments to see if you are a winner. 1500 tournaments to have an idea on win rate.

Sit and Go’s: 500 Sit and  Go’s to see if you are a winner. 1500 Sit and Go’s to have an idea on win rate.

I know, this sucks. Hate variance! When I realized this I strongly considered giving up poker. But still if you look at the graphs on the really good players who play a lot, they are consistently pointing in the right direction.

But if consistently winning money is an important concern in your poker game you have to accept these facts. Focus on the process of playing good poker. Make sure you do play good poker by analyzing your hands. Do not focus on the short-term results. You must learn to enjoy poker from the playing and not connect satisfaction to short-term winnings.

Some things to think about regarding variance:

  • It takes a huge amount of time for the fish to realize they are not the shark – and that’s a great thing!
  • It helps you cope with the down-swings. They are after all very natural, even for the best players in the world.
  • Variance can go either way,  it can make a big plus also!
  • If you are a winning player, most of the time you will go plus. Maybe it is 90% likely you will be up after each 30 000 hands if you are a +2 BB / 100 player.
  • If you play 4 tables of 6-max it will take less than 100 hours to reach 30 000 hands. That’s not too bad.


Bluffing on the river is a really import tool in your poker strategy. It can be very expensive or very lucrative depending on your skill.

To find the right spots and the right opponents is an art that usually takes many years of practice. A few guidelines on bluffing in general might be a starting point.

Since when you are on the river there are no more cards to come and you usually have a good idea if you have a  hand that it is worse than your opponents. So it is easier to see whether betting is for value or a bluff.

So let’s imagine a scenario where you are almost certain your hand is weaker than your opponents. The only way to win the pot is by bluffing.

Now the essential skill is to determine if you should bluff – and if you do how much you should bet.

The more you bet the more likely opponent is to fold (usually). So before you decide to bluff on the river you need to estimate your chance at success. But the more you bet, the higher the risk.

If you bet the pot you need at least 50 % of success for a bluff to be profitable (1:1 odds). If you bet half the pot you need at least 33 % chance of success to be profitable (2:1 odds). If you overbet the pot you need to be successful a majority of the time.

Think about the likely hand range of your opponent. Think about which hands in this range he will likely fold if you bet considering what you are representing and how well that matches your likely hand ranges and the story. And try to estimate how large part of his hand range that he is likely to fold.

The easiest way to get the thought process started is by considering a pot sized bet. Will it succeed at least half the time? If you don’t think it will you should probably not make the bluff unless the circumstances are special (for example an opponent who always fold to an all-in if he doesn’t have the nuts). If you think it will you can adjust the actual bet to a suitable size depending on the situation and the opponent.

Bluffing

Bluffing is an essential skill in No Limit Texas Hold’em. And difficult. Do it too much and you lose tons of money. Do it too little and people will be able to read you very well (unless you play small stakes).

On this site there are specialized articles on the most important bluff situations:

Bluffing is a complex topic and very situation specific. But some general things to think about when you are considering making a bluff are:

  • How many opponents do you have? The more opponents the less likely a bluff is to be successful. Let’s say each opponent is 50 % likely to see through a bluff you make with complete air and call. With one opponent you are 50 % likely to be called, with two 75 % likely to be called (1 – 0,5*0,5) and with 3 opponents you are 88 % likely to be called (1 – 0,5*0,5*0,5).
  • How is your opponent(s) playing? Will they be capable enough to understand that the hands you are trying to represent are a significant part of your range? Or will they only look on their own cards and decide that a good pair is always good for calling?
  • Tell a believable story. Don’t just throw out a bluff on the river without carefully considering how believable it is that you have what you are representing.
  • In general when there comes a card that is a good fit to your likely hand range, but a bad fit to your opponent’s likely hand range you have at least one good condition for a bluff.
  • Will your bluff make stronger hands fold? If it only makes weaker hands fold, should you really be making it? You might argue that it is the only way to win the pot with a weak hand against a super aggressive player who you know will most likely bet if you check – but under most circumstance it is better to wait until you have a hand and let him bet into you then.
  • Prepare the ground for the bluffs. For example, it is much more likely that a flop bluff will succeed if you 3-bet preflop than if you cold called.
  • In general you prefer to have some equity in the hand when you bluff, for example two overcards with a backdoor flush draw or a gutshot. This is called semi-bluffing, because you don’t expect to have the strongest hand right now, but it can improve to become the strongest hand. This adds more ways to win then an immediate fold.
  • It is preferable to have position on your opponent(s). You get to see their actions first and they are more likely to fold when they are out of position.

Depending on how you do Table Selection proper Seat Selection may be more or less important. If you often sit down at tables that are not full Seat Selection may be as important as Table Selection.

Some players have complicated rules for how they chose a seat with different rules for maniacs, LAGs, TAGs, shortstacks etc.

Personally I only have one guiding principle.

Sit with position on the players you will profit most from.

Or in other words, sit to the left of the fish. When doing your table selection you have identified your target fish, when selecting a seat you choose the position that gives you the best possibility to earn as much as possible from the fish.

In the Table Selection article we stated that in order to do table selection really well we need some software that supports table selection.

There are many alternatives to choose from but I believe these are the main alternatives:

It seems that all four has what is needed to make good table selection. So it is probably natural to choose the one connected to the tracker you are using. If you have Pokertracker (although the monthly fee may make you look for alternatives) or Holdem Manager and otherwise take a look at PokerTableRatings.

I am trying out TableScan Turbo right now and it seems to be good. First I couldn’t get it started though, so I am not entirely convinced yet.

Personally I use Table Tracker (screenshot above) which is mostly satisfying my needs. I use a customized scoring system where I give points at a Full Ring table:

  • 5 points if VPIP > 30
  • 3 points if VPIP > 25
  • 1 point if AF < 1,5
  • 1 point if AF > 4

On top of this I hide tables with too many short stackers and I color code tables with at least 2 players playing 1 or 2  tables.

The good thing with Table Selection Software is that they allow you to customize your scoring. Some players play better against certain types of players than others do – so you should put some thought into what works best for you.

An issue with the whole Table Selection business is that you need to play a lot to have enough hand histories to find the fish in a good way. Or datamine or buy hand histories – but this is not allowed by most poker rooms.

If you have a lot of hands in your database but still frequently find that you have 50 hands or less on a lot of players an alternative strategy might be to choose tables with several opponents you don’t have stats on.

Good Table Selection is becoming more and more important as the average players are getting better and better, at least if you are playing above the micro-stakes.

Imagine a player who plays at a big site with many tables (or have multiple sites he can choose from). He has a winrate of 0,5 BB / 100 in average at tough tables, if there is one fish at the table he is winning 1 BB/100 and if there are two fishes at the table he is winning 3BB/100.

The site has on average 60 % tables with tough play 30 % table with one fish and 10 % table with two fishes.

If he makes no effort to table select his average win rate will be 0,6*0,5 + 0,3*1 + 0,1*3 = 0,9 BB/100.

So let’s imagine he is good at table selecting.  He manages to play with two fishes 20 % of the time, one fish 60% of the time and with tough players 20% of the time.

His average win rate with good table selection would then be 0,2*3 + 0,6*1 + 0,2*0,5 = 1,3 BB / 100.

That’s a 50 % salary increase! Although this is a simplified and fictitious example it is by no means extreme.

Alright, let’s agree that table selection is very important. But how should it be done in a good way?

The most common advice is to look in the lobby and sort tables by how many players are seeing the flop and also look at the average pot size. If you are playing at microstakes, this is probably sound advice. There will be plenty of fishy tables to choose from and not so many tough tables.

At low and medium stakes this table selection strategy is not good enough (although better than nothing) for the following reasons:

  • The really fishy players will be few and one fish at a table might not affect average “saw flop” that much in a full ring. In a 6-max a high “saw flop” is not necessarily indication of fish – it might be highly competent LAGS
  • Both figures might be skewed significantly if the table is new or have changed number of players recently
  • This table selection strategy is used by a lot of other good players, so the best players will be lined up to play at these tables. And unfortunately the good players play in average longer sessions than the fish.

For these reasons using table average is not the best strategy.

The alternative then is to actually find the fish individuals. This is how I do it:

  • Mark the fishy players
  • Find players that are too loose
  • Find players that are too passive
  • Find players that are only playing one or two tables
  • Make sure the fish has at least 40 big blinds in their stacks

To be able to do this effectively you more or less have to use table selection software.

A comment on the multitabling part. Some are actually thinking the other way around saying that if someone is only playing one or two tables you should avoid them, because they can pay much more attention to what is going on. Although this argument have some merit, in my experience these players are in average far worse than the average multitabler.

An alternative or complement to this strategy is to start up tables yourself or sit down at tables with free seats. Fishy players often don’t want to wait so they tend to choose tables with free seats. This might however not give you the biggest fishes available at any moment. And even more importantly, you have to be really good at playing Heads Up and really short-handed. If you are a 6-max or Full Ring player, you should be aware that Heads-up really is a very different game. And that it takes hundreds of thousands of hands before you can see from the results if you are good at it due to the enormous variance.

Using a HUD

A HUD is a Heads-up display that let’s you see data that you have collected on your opponents (and your own data). The HUD is presenting data that has been collected by your Poker tracking software. The data is overlayed on your poker tables, so you can see it without taking your eyes away from the action.

This can give you a lot of information on how your opponents tend to play and can help guiding your decisions.

Usually a HUD has two sets of data (or more), one over the table and a pop-up that shows when you click on the overlay.

If you have not used a HUD before I recommend a simple set-up showing the most basic things. And the pop-up can wait until you are more comfortable with the use of a HUD.

First of all, a small disclaimer. It is easy to get carried away with all the very detailed information you can get on how opponents play.  Some really great players are playing successfully without a HUD and actually advice against using one. You should always judge decisions more on hand ranges, game flow and how the hand plays out than on detailed stats on your opponent. The data sample might be to small, might not be relevant in this exact situation, opponent might have changed their play etc. That being said, I personally believe a HUD can be very useful if used correctly. It should normally be used as a small part of what is influencing your decisions (just like a tell in a live game).

The number in parenthesis indicates the number of hands that are needed before the data starts to be reliable. If the opponent is extreme in some sense half this number can give an indication. But otherwise it is better to assume the opponent is average until you have more data.

All stat intervals mentioned below are made of extensive data analysis of hundreds of thousands of players and more than 5 million hands on $1-2 Full Ring and 6-Max. The intervals are based on the most successful players with more than 30 000 hands of data. Optimal play might of course be different on significantly higher or significantly lower limits.

Basic set-up

Name

The name of the player to make sure your looking at the right stats.

Number of hands

You need to know the number of hands so you can judge the quality of the data. Different stats take different amounts of data to become meaningful. For example with only 10 hands, none of the data will have any value. With 50 hands VPIP and PFR can start making some sense. Aggression might take hundreds of hands.

VPIP (100 hands)

Voluntarily put money in the pot.

This shows how money hands the player plays preflop.

A good player normally has a VPIP between 12-20 % in Full Ring and 15-25 % in 6-max.

This stat helps you establish the players hand range. It should be used in combination with PFR since the strongest hands are normally raised.

PFR (100 hands)

Preflop raise

This shows how often the player is raising preflop.

A good player normally has a PFR between 10-15 % in Full Ring and 15-20 % in 6-max.

Helps you establish the range of hands opponent is raising with.

AF (300 hands)

Aggression Factor.

Shows how often the player raises or bets compared to how often he calls.

A good player normally has an AF between 2,5-3,5 both in Full Ring and in 6-max.

This can be somewhat difficult to use, but it shows general aggression. The most obvious use is when someone with very low aggression (< 1,5)  is raising and betting like crazy. That means a really strong hand most of the time.

Advanced set-up

You can use color coding to display when people are out of the norm to easier spot things to exploit.

Cold call % preflop  (300 hands)

How often the opponent is cold calling before the flop. Cold calling means calling a raise when you are not in the blinds.

A good player normally cold calls 5-9 % preflop in Full Ring. And a lot more on the button than in other positions.

This stat helps you judge what hand range the player is having after he cold calls a raise.

3-Bet % preflop  (300 hands)

How often the opponent is 3-Betting before the flop.

A good player normally has a 3-Bet % 3-6 % preflop in Full Ring.

Helps you judge the range of hands he is 3-Betting with.

Fold to 3-Bet preflop (1000 hands)

How often the opponent is folding to 3-Bets before the flop.

A good player normally has a fold to 3-Bet % 70-80 % preflop in Full Ring, but it depends a lot on how light opponents are 3-Betting.

Helps you decide whether to 4-Bet or not.

4-Bet preflop (1000)

How often the opponent is 4-Betting before the flop.

A good player normally 4-Bets 6-9 % preflop in Full Ring, but it depends a lot on how light opponents are 3-Betting.

Be careful with this, since it takes a huge amount of data to become meaningful.

Attention to steal % (300 hands)

How often the opponent is stealing from Cutoff, Button and small blind.

A good player normally has an ATS 25-35 % in Full Ring.

Fold big blind to steal (300 hands)

How often the opponent is folding big blind to steals (open raise from cutoff, button and small blind). This generally give you a good idea of how often they fold in small blind as well (more often).

A good player normally folds big blind to steal 70-85 % in Full Ring.

BB Raise Steal  (300 hands)

Went to showdown. How often a player reraises steal attempts when in the big blind.

A good player normally has a BB raise steal 7-10 % in Full Ring.

Squeeze preflop (1000 hands)

How often the player takes the opportunity to squeeze preflop. Squeezing means 3-Betting when there has been a raise and one or more callers.

A good player normally squeezes 3-6 % in Full Ring.

Isolation raise (1000 hands)

How often a player is raising when there are limpers in the pot. This is often called isolation raise, but it is somewhat misleading since you will frequently be even happier if you win the pot right away.

A good player normally raises limpers 13-17 % of the time.

c-Bets on flop and turn (1000 hands)

How often the opponent is continuation betting.

A good player normally c-bets between 60-75 % on the flop in Full Ring and 35-50 % on the turn.

Checkraise flop (1000 hands)

How often the opponent is checkraising on the flop. It could also be used on other streets, but it takes a lot of hands to converge and can easily be misleading so it might be better to use the flop as a more general indication.

A good player normally folds big blind to steal 70-85 % in Full Ring.

Fold flop (1000 hands)

How often the opponent folds on the flop. Some prefer using fold to c-bet on flop instead, but personally I prefer the more general Fold flop to get an idea on if they will be easy to get rid of by c-betting, donk betting or raising. And it converges faster.

A good player normally folds on the flop 28-32 % in Full Ring.

WTSD (1000 hands)

Went to showdown. How often a player goes to showdown when they have seen the flop.

A good player normally has a WTSD 22-27 % in Full Ring.

Winrate – BB/100 (30 000 hands)

BB/100 means big bets per 100 hands, not big blinds. A big bet is twice the size of the big blind. This has historical reasons.

Before you make a bet in a poker hand you should always have a clear idea on why you are making it. Some people say there are only two reasons to bet, for value or as a bluff. On the river this is almost always true, but not necessarily earlier in the hand.

Reasons for betting:

  • Value betting – you have a hand that you believe is stronger than you opponents and you bet to extract value. In general you don’t mind if he calls – but you need to make sure he is not getting correct odds to do so. We use the term for cases where you bet to protect your equity also – cases where you don’t expect value from a weaker call, but bet to avoid giving a free card. For example with A 3 on a 2 2 3 rainbow flop.
  • Bluffing – you have a hand that is probably weaker than your opponents and you bet hoping he will fold now or later in the hand.
  • To control odds. For example if you have a drawing hand it can sometimes be profitable to bet a size that gives you correct odds to continue the hand – knowing that if you let your opponent bet, he will most likely bet so big that your odds will be incorrect. Sometimes also applies on the river when you have a decent hand (called blocking bet). This should rarely be used and normally only against opponents that will not understand what’s going on. Note that this is not the same as when you bet with a drawing hand mainly hoping that the opponent will fold – this is a semi-bluff and belongs to the category above.
  • To increase pot size. For example you have 67s on the button and a fish has limped. You know he is very bad and can make huge mistakes. So you raise even though he will call most of the time. It is not a bluff since you expect a call. And it is not for value since you don’t expect to have the better hand in average.