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Best of Dan Podheiser

Gaming Guru

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Top 10 tips for a poker room newbie

25 April 2016

Like most twentysomething poker players, my playing career began when Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event and sparked a poker boom around the globe.

I was 14 years old when I first learned Texas Hold'em, and for the first few years, my playing experience was limited to home games with friends. By age 16 I was playing online poker regularly, but it wasn't until I turned 18 that I first set foot in a real live poker room in a casino (it was Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort on an Indian reservation in Michigan, so I was of legal age).

For a beginning poker player, your first trip to a casino poker room can be intimidating; I know I was nervous, and I had four years of playing experience under my belt. I immediately realized that playing in a poker room is not quite the same as playing cards with your friends at home.

I wish someone had given me some tips for what to expect before I first set foot in a casino. Knowing what I know now, having played poker regularly in casinos for the past nine years, the following are the top 10 tips I'd give to a poker room newbie.

10. Get a player's card

Every casino worth its salt should have some sort of loyalty program, and I recommend you sign up for one before you sit down at the table for the first time. Typically, casinos will give new rewards members a signup bonus just for joining, and you can earn $1-$2 in comps for every hour you play at the poker table. That doesn't sound like much, but it adds up – if you play a five-hour session, you'll probably earn yourself a free meal.

Second, if a poker room has a "bad beat jackpot" or is offering any sort of "high hand" promotion, there's a good chance you'll need to be signed in with your player's card in order to receive the reward if you're lucky enough to win. Sometimes these jackpots can get as high as six figures – you don't want to hit a life-changing score and not be able to cash in because you didn't take the five minutes to sign up for the casino's loyalty program.

9. Be aware of all house rules

These rules can be broken down into two categories: game play rules and auxiliary rules. The game play rules are the most important, obviously, and not following them can get you into trouble. For instance, it's a standard rule in just about every poker room that if a player faces a bet and throws one chip, of any denomination, into the pot, it's a call. So if you're facing a $10 bet, and want to raise to $25, you can't simply put one $25 chip into the pot; you have to simultaneously say "raise" or "twenty-five."

One type of auxiliary rule is the typical "third man walking" rule. In most casinos, if two players leave the poker table to take a break, the third player who gets up from the table has just 15 minutes to return to the table before their chips are picked up and removed from the game. This rule is in place to make sure there is always a close-to-full table of players. So if you are looking to take a meal break and plan to be gone for more than 15 minutes, make sure you're not the third player to get up from the table.

In general, never assume anything. Different casinos have different, oftentimes quirky rules for their poker rooms. Observe how your fellow players behave, and don't be afraid to ask questions. It's better than making a mistake that could cost you your chips or your seat at the game.

8. Protect your chips and your cards

Never let your cards leave your hands until you fold or have secured the pot. And by secured, I mean you are already stacking the chips. Believe it or not, poker room dealers are not perfect, and are sometimes prone to mistakes that can cause you giant headaches or, worse, your money.

I was once involved in a hand where my opponent and I went all-in, and on the river we both turned up our cards. I had the winning hand, but the dealer turned my cards face down, shuffled them into the muck, and pushed the pot to my opponent. Now, if this other player had any sort of honor or dignity, he would have corrected the dealer and had him push the pot my way. Unfortunately, this guy decided to keep his mouth shut. Even as the eight other players and I pleaded with the dealer to correct his mistake, the dealer was either too dumb or too incompetent to realize his error. Thankfully, the floor manager was called, and after much deliberation (including looking at the security tapes), I was finally awarded the pot.

Sounds like fun, right? That whole ordeal could have all been avoided had I just turned my cards over and kept them in my grasp, but I never thought something like that could possibly happen. I now know better, and so do you.

7. Never show your cards unless you have to

Poker is a game of information. The more information you have on your opponents, the more capable you are to exploit them and take their money, and vice versa. When you show your opponents your cards, you give them information.

Now, it may sound simple, but poker players in card rooms everywhere still love to show their cards. Sometimes it's to show off a bluff or to show their opponents they're "not messing around." But what these players don't realize is that in almost all cases, showing their cards is taking chips out of their stacks and money out of their pockets in the long run.

For the poker room newbie whose only experience is playing in home games with friends, this will be a tough adjustment. When my friends and I played poker, we showed every hand. It kept things interesting and helped us all learn the game and each others' tendencies. Nobody had an issue with it, because everyone was doing it and it was fun. But in a casino, your opponents are not always going to be your friends. They're looking to take your money, and you need to be aware of that.

6. Pay attention to the action

Don't be that guy or girl who is always asking "Is it on me?" Don't make a habit out of folding or betting out of turn, either. These things piss people off.

The main reason to pay attention to the action, though, is because the action tells the story of the hand. You can't know what your opponent's turn check-raising range might be unless you know how they bet before the flop. Even when you're not in the pot, it's important to try to follow what every player does on every street, so that when you are fortunate enough to see a hand at showdown, you can understand the full story of how that hand got to that point. This is key to learning and improving your poker game.

5. Focus on betting patterns and not "live tells"

Along the same lines as paying attention to the action, it's important that, as a beginner, you try to disregard the "live tells" that poker players love to talk about. Physical tells at the poker table are very real, but they should only very rarely be used as a primary decision-making force in your poker game. Physical tells, rather, should be used to confirm or deny your hypothesis about what your opponent is holding as a secondary read.

Always follow the money. A player's chips tell the story 99% of the time. And if you've spotted one fish who you think always scratches his nose when he bluffs the river, make sure his line in the hand makes sense before you make the post-scratch hero call.

4. Some opponents will let your mistakes slide; others will not

We've talked a lot already about following the action, protecting your cards and chips, and generally knowing the rules of the poker room. The reason you need to do all these things is because a poker room is not a carnival full of fun and games – it's a financial marketplace masked as a parlor game. Every player, from the professional to the weekend warrior to the businessperson looking to blow off some steam, is there to make money. Nobody comes to a casino looking to make a charitable donation; there are much better places to do that.

This all is to say that, in any financial marketplace, there are hustlers, sticklers, thieves and general dishonest folk. If you give them an opportunity to profit from you, they'll do it, no matter how savage or inhumane. It's a sad truth, but it's one that is very real.

That said, you can still very much have fun playing poker in a casino. Just know that your fellow players might not be there to make sure you do.

3. Your willingness to "go broke" affects your playing style

Now that you're comfortable about what to expect in a poker room (or you're scared straight, either way), it's time to talk some strategy. I am of the belief that there is no one right way to play any cards or any hand of poker. There are always several competing factors at play, and many of them are tied personally to the players involved.

I will say this: You should never play poker or gamble with any money you literally cannot afford to lose. And in theory, you should be willing to take risks that could make you lose your chip stack if you want to get maximum value out of your poker strategy.

But it's perfectly OK to sit at a poker table for reasons other than to maximize your profits while still wanting to improve. Sometimes, it's worth sitting at a table just to feel what it's like to play outside your comfort zone. And it's OK to buy in with a short stack and only play premium hands, if your goal is mostly to observe and learn.

Just know that your stack size and willingness to gamble does affect your overall game plan. Come up with a plan that makes you comfortable, and base your decisions on that. Then, review and adjust as needed.

2. You can play "exploitable" poker and still be profitable

While the poker boom has long since come and gone, the good news is that low-stakes cash games ($1-$2 and $2-$5 no-limit Hold'em) at poker rooms all over the country are still loaded with bad players. These players love to call when they should fold, raise when they should call and generally put money into the pot in unprofitable situations.

That's where you come in. You don't need to trick these players into giving you their money. They'll do it consistently, and they'll do it even when you don't understand how they could possibly do it. Even if you only "peddle the nuts," as they say, they'll stack off to you. It's pretty great.

Of course, this "exploitable" style of play does not work against the grinders in the poker room, but that's OK. Try to identify who they are, and when you get involved in a hand with them, remain confident and play your ABC game. You won't profit from them in the long run, but you hopefully will avoid critical and costly mistakes as well.

1. Write down the hands you play to review afterwards

This is key for every poker player, from the beginner to the seasoned pro. Everyone can stand to improve their poker game, and the best way to do so is to review your play and to identify weak spots you can patch up (or, conversely, identify things you did well so you do them again!).

If you can, try to review these hands with a player who has more experience than you. As I said, there is no one correct way to play a poker hand, so collaboration is crucial to get the best understanding of different players' thought processes from a hand. As you improve, you can pay back your experienced friend by giving your own advice and insight on the hands they want to review.
Dan Podheiser

Dan Podheiser has covered the gambling industry since 2013, but he has been an avid poker player for more than a decade, starting when he was just 14 years old. When he turned 18, he played online poker regularly on U.S.-friendly sites until Black Friday in April 2011.

Since graduating from Emerson College with a degree in journalism in 2010, Dan has worked as the sports editor for a chain of newspapers in Northwest Connecticut and served a year as an Americorps*VISTA, writing and researching grant proposals for a Boston-based charity.

Originally from South Jersey, where he still visits occasionally to see his family (and play on the state's regulated online poker sites), Dan lives in Brighton, Mass. with his wife and dog.
Dan Podheiser
Dan Podheiser has covered the gambling industry since 2013, but he has been an avid poker player for more than a decade, starting when he was just 14 years old. When he turned 18, he played online poker regularly on U.S.-friendly sites until Black Friday in April 2011.

Since graduating from Emerson College with a degree in journalism in 2010, Dan has worked as the sports editor for a chain of newspapers in Northwest Connecticut and served a year as an Americorps*VISTA, writing and researching grant proposals for a Boston-based charity.

Originally from South Jersey, where he still visits occasionally to see his family (and play on the state's regulated online poker sites), Dan lives in Brighton, Mass. with his wife and dog.