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Poker Strategy -- Basic Poker Math Made Easy

A Few Quick Tips

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Matt MatrosWhen you’re new to no-limit hold’em, numbers fly at you from every direction. Blinds, antes, bet sizes, pot sizes, stack sizes, raise sizes, rake, rakeback, jackpot, and do you want to make any prop bets on what suit will come out? It can be very tempting for a beginner to ignore it all and focus only on his cards. Unfortunately, players who fail to understand the numbers will be at an extreme disadvantage against even relatively weak opposition.

Fortunately, there are some easy ways to become accustomed to the basic math involved in no-limit hold’em without getting dizzy.

A lot of emphasis is placed on knowing how to calculate pot odds, but new players often get tripped up just trying to keep track of the pot size. My advice is to take it one step at a time. Don’t worry about figuring your odds or converting those odds to a percentage, at least when you’re starting out. At first, practice estimating the size of the pot during every hand that you play. Your count doesn’t have to be exact. One trick is to know how much is in the pot before the hand is even dealt.

If the blinds are $100-$200 with a $25 ante at a nine-handed table, there is $525 in the pot before anything else happens. You have to calculate that number only once. Now, if someone raises to $500 and another player calls, it’s relatively simple to know that there’s $1,525 in the pot. And if that $25 on the end is going to bother you, just round it off and make it $1,500. In fact, do as much rounding as you need to make the math easier.

It’s not important to have the pot size down to the penny. By knowing the starting pot size, and estimating as often as possible, new players can become adept at keeping track of the pot size with enough practice. A $1,000 bet into a $2,000 pot will start to feel completely different than a $1,000 bet into a $750 pot.

Along the same lines, new players are often forgetful of their stack sizes. They’ll make a normal opening raise, only to find themselves pot-committed after another player reraises. It’s important to know before the hand starts whether or not you have the kind of stack that dictates open-raising all in. This also applies when someone has raised in front of you. Does your stack size suggest that you should be reraising all in if you choose to reraise, or can you reraise to a lesser amount?

I like to keep my chips in stacks of 20 (the standard size), so that they’re easy to count and I have a rough estimate of my chip count at all times. Experienced players stack their chips in all kinds of creative ways — building castles, achieving maximum height, or even intentionally putting chips of different denominations in the same stack for aesthetic purposes. But experienced players already have a rough estimate of their chip count. They handle chips all the time. If you’re new to casino poker, keeping your chips in stacks of 20 will make your life a lot easier, and chances are that you’ll always be able to make a good estimate of your own chip count.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals of counting the pot and your stack size, it’s time to move on to the math that arises during the actual play of a hand. The first decision, of course, is whether to enter the pot at all. A factor that many new players overlook is the size of the ante. Or, maybe they don’t overlook it, but just don’t know how to gauge what makes an ante a big one or a small one. Luckily, there is an easy way to determine an ante’s relative importance. Simply look at the size of the ante compared to the small blind. An ante of one-fifth of the small blind is normal, one-fourth of the small blind is on the big side, and one-third of the small blind or bigger is enormous. A $100 ante with blinds of $1,000-$2,000 is almost insignificant. The same ante with blinds of $300-$600 is hugely significant. I will play a lot more hands in the latter scenario.

Finally, assuming that you’ve now learned to keep track of the pot size at all times, there are a few basic shortcuts that you can employ to calculate pot odds. Most post-flop bets fall into a relatively narrow range, and we can use that to our advantage. If an opponent makes a pot-sized bet, you’re getting 2-1 on your money. If a player makes a bet of half of the pot size, you’re getting 3-1. With a bet of one-third of the pot size, you’re getting 4-1. Once you’ve got that down, you need to know what it all means.

When getting 2-1, 3-1, or 4-1 pot odds, you need a 33 percent, 25 percent, or 20 percent chance of winning the hand, respectively, to show a profit. Memorizing these numbers will ensure that you’ll almost always have a pretty good idea of how the pot odds should affect your decisions at the table. You’ll find the same numbers cropping up again and again as you play more hands, and it will become second nature to think in terms of these percentages as long as you continue to practice the task. Knowing what to do with all of those percentages is where the mathematics ends and poker skill begins. That part is a lot tougher to teach with only a few quick tips. Spade Suit

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player. He is also a featured coach for cardrunners.com.