The majority of poker is played post-flop, making it the most important side of the game to focus on as you develop your game.
If you're a true beginner, just playing your very first hands of poker, you should also start with a very simple pre-flop game.
Making good decision pre-flop will help make all of your decisions on later streets much easier.
To start out with a primer on pre-flop play, check our How Not to Suck at Poker series here:
Now: On to some simple post-flop tips!
Watch the Player!
It's instinctual to want to watch the board as it's being dealt. But this is the most opportune moment in a hand to pick up a read on another player.
Almost every poker player will watch the flop as it's dealt. Many forget they are playing poker and let their guard down.
They'll react to the board in ways that couldn't make it more clear what two cards they have in the hole.
Online players are notorious for watching the board exclusively. All their poker experience has accustomed them to doing so because online they have nothing else to watch.
One of the most valuable things to watch for is players who look at the board shorter or longer than average. Players usually fall into patterns and rhythms.
A given player will look at the flop for almost the exact same length of time on every hand. When this changes, it means something is up.
If They Take a Short Look
Think about how long it takes you to register which three cards are on the flop and compute their suits and value, how they fit with your hole cards, what possible outs you have, what anti-outs you have and what dangers the flop represents.
That's a lot of information to process. A seasoned poker player will get all of that done in around two seconds.
Now if the player you're watching, seasoned or not, looks at the board for a mere fraction of a second that gives you a significant amount of information.
It almost always means that they hit a hand like a set or flopped a nut flush. A flopped straight still takes most people a little while to see (they have to count out the five cards in their head - don't laugh; you do it too).
The fact that they did not give themselves time to assess all those things that need to be computed means they only calculated how this affected their hole cards. It was done so quickly that there has to be a very obvious conclusion.
I would be scared of a set here.
Warning: Make sure the player doesn't look back when it's their turn to act. They could have started to look at the flop, then remembered to watch the other players and aborted.
If They Take a Long Look
A longer look at the board by a good player typically means they're recomputing the board. This happens when they are trying to look for obscure draws or hoping that they have a draw and just didn't see it.
So, a longer gaze at the board indicates that they missed, but that's only a general rule. If the player is an amateur they are very possibly counting their outs.
A duration change almost always means something is up; it's up to you to figure out exactly what it means.
Post-Flop Poker is All About Position
How you play post-flop has very much to do with position.
Late position almost always gives you a large advantage in the hand. This is why it's so important to take that into consideration when you're making your decisions.
It's obvious why late position is so advantageous: you get to see what everyone else in the hand does before you have to act.
As always in poker, the more information you can gather on that hand, the more likely you are to make the right plays.
The reason early position can occasionally be a strategic advantage is that you get the first chance to bluff at the pot. It's harder to come over the top to steal a pot than to open the pot for a decent bet.
The other time being out of position can benefit you is when you flop the stone-cold nuts. Check-raising a pot is impossible if you're on the button.
How to Read the Texture of the Board
Making a good accurate reading of the texture of the board is a skill. Many players don't realize the importance of this and don't work on improving their technique in this area or they allow themselves to get lazy.
This is one of the first parts of your game that falls off when you play while physically exhausted.
It can get to the point where you will fail to notice four cards to a straight on board. You will see people muck winning hands frequently in cardrooms simply because they didn't bother to read the board properly.
Assessing board texture is especially important in online poker. In online poker you get far fewer opportunities to pick up information about the hand, making the texture of the board a significant component of the information you will be offered.
You need to be able to quickly and accurately compute all possible draws including low-percentage draws.
The Backdoor Draw
People often exclude a backdoor draw from their flop assessment. This is a mistake, as people will consider their backdoor draws causing them to influence theaction they choose to to make.
A player with top pair, low kicker, who would fold to a large bet on the flop, might make the call if he had the same hand with a backdoor draw. A backdoor draw most commonly comes into play on a continuation bet:
You raise K-Q of spades. The flop comes 1026. You make a continuation bet on the flop and get called. You're now willing to fold your hand and definitely won't bet the turn unless your hand improves.
The turn comes 9.
Now you have a flush draw along with a gut-shot straight draw, totalling 12 outs. This, combined with your fold equity, is more than enough reason to bet again now.
For someone to make an accurate read against you they would have to have taken backdoor draws into consideration on the flop.
How Many Opponents Are There?
The more players in the hand the less equity you have. Also, the more players in the hand the more likely there is someone who has enough of a hand to make a call.
This makes bluffing a low-probability wager. Dan Harrington teaches that you should only c-bet if you're heads-up to the flop. The other factor introduced into multiway pots is the ability to create much more attractive pot and implied odds.
What's the Betting Story?
The betting story, along with the texture of the board, almost always accounts for a huge portion of the information you'll have at your disposal while playing online.
Live or online, it's the most important part of a No-Limit Hold'em game. But as it's almost impossible to write out every possible betting story for every possible situation, the best is some general advice.
Poker is a straightforward game in principal. If everyone plays perfect, tight ABC poker, then players will make bets directly proportionate to the hands they have.
A big bet will always be a big hand in this scenario. That scenario is the basis of poker; everything starts from there. In a science experiment, this would be your control.
If you have no information about any of the players you are in a pot with you have to assume, until you have reason to believe otherwise, that these players are playing poker similarly to the control.
You'll often hear good poker players say things such as, "If he had bet half my stack of my stack or so I would have had to fold, but when he went all-in I knew I could call."
Big Bet = Big Hand ... But Not Always
Now, this may sound contrary to what the general rule we just discussed. The all-in is a bigger bet; therefore shouldn't it mean your opponent has a bigger hand?
Here's the logic behind how a player could make such a statement.
In a situation like this it's going to be a larger-sized, action pot. Almost always heads-up.
The betting story would have been such that both players are saying they have a big hand through their actions. The aggressor is making big bets, and the caller (who made the statement) is making calls.
When it gets to the river, the aggressor moves all-in $1,000 into the $900 pot.
Both players have the same size stack. The aggressor has made many bets and raises; he has been saying with his bets that he has a very big hand. Because the other player is calling, he knows that that player must have a very big hand as well.
If the aggressor has the nuts, he wants to make a perfect value bet to get the highest amount of money he can on the river. So why would he move all-in? An all-in is a very scary bet. If he wants a call, why would he make a play that by default is meant to scare away the other player?
Unless the player's chip stack was so small that any bet other than all-in would be absurd, a good player wanting a call will almost never move all-in. Therefore, he doesn't want a call, and the caller's hand is probably good.
Are You the Aggressor or Caller?
If you're the aggressor in the hand, you have the most fold equity. Therefore, the aggressor by default will win more pots in poker than the caller.
The more you can be the aggressor rather than the caller, the better. As Mike McDermott says in Rounders, "Tight but aggressive professor, that's your style."
It's always better to be tight-aggressive than weak-tight. The aggressor is in control of the hand.
But it's not always an option, or the best option, to take control of the hand. There are times when you want to take the odds being offered and run with them. There are other times where your whole goal is to trap.
The aggressor vs. caller roles can change throughout a hand. If you're the aggressor leading into the river and your opponent suddenly bets out on the river, the betting story just got messed up and the roles have changed.
If he made a reasonably small bet, it doesn't make sense that it's a bluff. It's most likely a value bet. If that is the case, coming over the top is going to cost you many bets. Unless you have the nuts, it's better to call or fold without risking your entire stack.
Again, there are exceptions to this example.
Most players play poker with a mix of math and psychology. Therefore when you make a value-bet bluff or call, you have to take the odds into perspective.
Betting $15 into a $200 pot will almost always get immediately called by anyone with any hand. You have to make the bet big enough that the odds aren't ridiculous but small enough that it doesn't look like a bluff.
Deception is an important part of the game when you're playing post-flop against strong players. But if you're playing against a table full of complete idiots, it pays best to play perfectly straightforward poker.
They'll make so many mistakes that you'll make money. Getting creative and fancy will only increase the chance of you making mistakes yourself.
When playing against strong players, though, you have to start playing a deceptive game. If you check-call a flush draw the whole way down to the river, a strong player will know you have a flush draw and won't pay you off when you do hit. You either get pushed out, or win nothing when you hit.
Playing a straightforward tight-aggressive game with zero deception will make you very little money at a table full of good players and will make you no money at a table full of great players.
Playing this way will put you back to being at the mercy of the cards.