Whether you’ve been invited to play poker with your mates or have decided to play online, your first live game can feel daunting. When you play online, you have software to give you a hand, like keeping track of your chips, notifying you when it’s your turn, and letting you see your cards at all times.
For live poker, there’s no software assistant. Plus, the environment is pretty different. The game is the same, but you’ll have a lot more to take in and a few more things to think about. It could be easy to make a mistake, get overwhelmed, lose money, or just not enjoy the experience.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Take note of these tips for beginner players at live poker. They’ll help you avoid faux pas, give you an awesome game, and set you on the right track for success.
10 Live Poker tips
These tips will help you build a basic strategy. They start with the fundamentals but also cover some of the finer points that will affect your game. Most importantly, they take into account what you’ll face when sitting at a live table.
Grasp the terminology
You might already know how to play poker without having heard these specific terms. Understanding them will help you get the most from this guide, as well as sound the part at your live games.
Flop - used for Texas hold’em and Omaha games, as there are community cards dealt face up. The flop comes after the first round of betting. The second betting round takes place, and the three community cards are dealt. You’ll also hear pre-flop, referring to the first betting round, the blinds and receiving hole cards. Post-flop is any decision after the community cards have been dealt.
Hole Cards - refers to the two face-down cards that each player receives. Only you see your hole cards.
Turn - comes after the flop and is also known as fourth street. It’s when the fourth community card is dealt face-up and comes before the river.
River - the name for the last card dealt to the community cards face-up in the centre. Also known as fifth street, the final card to be dealt. When you rely on the fifth card to beat an opponent, you river it.
Blinds - bets made before the cards are dealt; referred to as blinds as no one knows what they have. Blinds are usually used in games without antes, although they can be in addition. The small blind comes from the player to the left of the dealer and the big blind from the player to the left of the small. In a limit game, the small bet is half the mini bet, and the big is double that amount. A no-limit game is usually described by the blinds, £3/£6.
Fold - the first of our betting actions. After the betting opens, if you don’t like your hand, you can fold. You stop playing, any money you added to the pot stays there to be taken by the winner, and your hand goes to the muck, a pile of discarded cards.
Call - a betting action you can choose if you don’t fold. When the betting has already opened, you can call to match that bet, which keeps you in for the next betting round, meaning you see the flop, turn or river.
Raise - used when you like your hand and don’t want to fold or call. It means you raise the bet, so if £2 was bet, you’re now putting in £4. The other player now gets to decide whether to reraise to stay in. If they do, you need to match them or raise to stay in the hand. There are usually limits on the number of raises allowed.
Check - an option when the betting in a round hasn’t opened. If you don’t bet by setting your chips further in front of you on the table, you can check. It means deferring. Another player opens the betting, and you can choose to fold, call, or check-raise.
Check-Raise - specifically refers to when you initially check and then come back to raise after an opponent bets.
Table positions apply to online and live poker, and again they use specific terminology. Knowing about the positions is the first step, but you can build on that by getting to grips with the strengths, weaknesses, and behaviours of each. Your strategy will change based on your seat at the table.
The positions in poker are set by where the dealer is, and this usually moves around the table as hands are played. If you aren’t at a casual game with friends, the dealer seat is known as the button. A button with the word dealer on it moves around the table so everyone knows the order of play.
Next to the button is the small blind (SB), the big blind (BB), and UTG or under the gun. These are all early positions, which are generally considered weaker or more disadvantaged spots. Depending on how many players are at the table, you also have middle positions, which cover one or two seats to the left of UTG.
Next come the late positions, sometimes known as the hijack, the cutoff, and lastly, the button. These players place their bets last and have an advantage of seeing the others’ decisions. Typically, these players are ‘in position’, which is where most hands are won.
Bluff, don’t deceive
At a live poker game, it’s crucial to use your tactics wisely and follow the correct etiquette. One way to make sure you are treading that line is to bluff but never angle shoot. Bluffing involves betting or calling on a hand where you would usually fold in the hopes of convincing your opponents that what you have is better and getting them out of the game.
Angle shooting is different. The term refers to actions that deliberately set out to deceive your opponents to give you the upper hand. It’s usually a move that you could pass off as a mistake, so it isn’t technically illegal. Avoid inaccurate declarations, hiding big value chips, or faking actions.
Read the table
Now that you know about the actions you can take and the strengths of positions at the table, it’s time to combine them to determine your actions and to get an estimate of your opponents. A player makes decisions based on the cards, but there are some other building blocks to forming a strategy.
In general, you want to be an active or aggressive player and target passive players. When you are in later positions, use your advantage and be at your most active. Active actions are betting and raising. You can use your understanding of the table to adjust your play, especially if you look out for players in early positions that are passive.
These players are referred to as limpers. They don’t fold; instead, they check or call when under the gun. Their money is in the pot, and by being active, you can raise to get them to add more, even though they are in weak positions. Limpers are often inexperienced or just want to get as many games as possible.
Live poker gives you a chance to see your opponents, and they can try to read your face and actions too. Tells are signs that give other players an insight into the value of your hand or your decision-making process.
If you are new to live poker, don’t use tells as a basis for your decisions. You can add the information to your read of the table, but one look or gesture shouldn’t be enough to make you go all-in.
Recognising tells is useful, though. First, it adds to your information about the table. Second, and most importantly, you can adapt your behaviour to try to get rid of any obvious tells. It’s best to memorise your cards; that way, you can keep your thoughts to yourself at the turn and the river. Players who check their cards, especially when the flop has only one or two suits, and then bet give an indication of what they have.
Keep your head in the game
When you play live, you have more inputs and more distractions. Whether you bet, fold, call, check or raise, you should pay attention to what happens next. Focussing on the other players’ bets, the cards, and how each opponent uses their position gives you vital information.
Even if you aren’t playing that hand, you can observe and use the information to carry out the other tips in this list. You might identify limpers, determine the good and bad players, or learn a few moves. Plus, staying on top of the action allows for faster games. Faster games mean more hands and more shots at winning.
Decide, speak, act
Tracking the action will help you to act quickly. To make informed decisions as an active player, you need to get in the habit of having a set process. Take in the information, such as your position, hole cards, the flop, and other players’ actions. Use them to determine your next move. Only act when it’s your turn, which is another reason to follow the action.
As it’s a live game, everyone takes verbal cues, and the dealer needs to know what’s happening. Whatever action you take, make sure you announce it and then move. Loudly say fold, and leave your cards face down to be added to the muck. When you plan to bet, call, or raise, state which one you’re doing before you move your chip. If you don’t, your move will be accepted as a call; you could miss out or be accused of angle shooting.
Let math be your guide
If it’s more than a one-off poker game, then you can benefit from looking at probabilities and outs. They can help you make on the spot calculations about whether to continue with your hand, call, or raise.
An out is an unseen card that would improve your hand, possibly into a winning one, when drawn. You need to know your poker hands to calculate outs. For example, a hand like three of a kind has two outs. You have the pair, and there are only two possible cards in the deck that can complete it. A low number of outs means a low probability of getting that winning hand.
A hand with more outs means more opportunities and higher probabilities, so it’s a good time to call or raise. You can use the times two rule, where you multiply the outs by two to estimate your probabilities at the flop, and times four for the turn or river.
Prepare to fold
You came to play poker, but unless you are prepared to lose quite a lot of money, you shouldn’t aim to take every hand forward. Folding with bad hands or when in a weak position means you can let the game play out without betting money you’re going to lose. You can move on to the next one, where you might have the advantage.
Don’t see folding as a sign of weakness. Playing a bad hand could lead to getting exploited as a limper. Once you’ve read the table and calculated your probabilities, you should have a rough idea of whether it’s worth moving forward, so be decisive.
Ok, the final tip is really some general advice to take with you. Make the most of your poker playing experience because it’s meant to be fun. When your opponent wins, be gracious and think of it as equity that could come back to you in another hand. If they are a bad player, that win will keep them coming back for more.
If you view every game as an opportunity to have fun, learn from the other players, improve your game, and potentially win, then you’ll always get something out of it. Getting angry and acting out will likely lead to bad decisions and poor etiquette, which the other players certainly won’t appreciate.