Most people understand the very basics of how to play poker – end the hand with the best cards and win the pot. But very few know what will increase their chances of winning at the poker table.
The American country and western singer Kenny Rogers had the right idea in the lyrics of his famous song, The Gambler. In it, the chorus recites: “You got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em.”
But how do you know when to fold your cards and wait for the next hand? Or when is the most profitable time to hold them and play on (an action that lends its name to the most popular poker variant, Texas Hold’em)?
The answer is maths. And while some people might worry they are terrible with numbers, you can pick up the basics by learning the odds. There are whole books dedicated to winning strategies, but a simpler starting point is an easy guide to poker odds.
A Game Of Probabilities
Poker, like blackjack, is a game of incomplete information. In blackjack, you do not know what the dealer’s face-down card is. In poker, you know your own two cards, but you don’t know what your opponents’ two cards are, and you don’t know what community cards will be dealt to everyone, cards with which you will try to make your poker hand.
So, without this crucial information, you might ask yourself how you are supposed to understand the strength or otherwise of your hand.
The answer is in your number of “outs”. An out is a card that will help you make your hand or improve your hand. Think of it as a get-out-of-jail card!
In poker, you are commonly drawing to a possible outcome that will improve your hand. You might have two cards of the same suit, see two more of that suit on the flop and need just one more to make a flush. Or you might have a hand like 8-10, and the flop has a 9 and a Jack. Now you will be drawing to a straight.
But what are the odds of you making your hand? Let’s break it down.
Working Out The Odds
First, you must work out how many outs you have. If you’re chasing a flush, we have established you have two of the same suit, while two more are already out on the flop, giving a total of four.
With 13 of each suit in a standard 52-card deck, nine more cards out there could make your flush.
After the flop is dealt and before the turn card (the fourth community card), you multiply your number of outs by 4, giving you the approximate percentage chance that you will hit.
After the turn, you multiply the outs by 2.
After flop: Outs 9 x 4 = 36% chance you will hit
After the turn: Outs 9 x 2 = 18% chance of hitting
Now consider making a straight. In our earlier example, you have 8-10 on a 9-J-2 flop. You need a 7 or a Q to complete a nicely disguised straight that would likely win you a big pot. Four 7s and four Qs in the deck give you 8 possible outs. Use the same equation:
After the flop: Outs 8 x 4 = 32% chance of hitting
After the turn: Outs 8 x 2 = 16% chance of hitting
Of course, things are not always this simple. Many times, you will have a hand which has several possibilities. Let’s say you have 10-J of spades, the flop comes 8-9-J, and the 8 and 9 are both spades.
This is a huge flop for you because you have made top pair but can improve your hand to a three-of-a-kind, to two pairs, to a flush and to a straight.
Your outs are two jacks, three tens, nine spades, four sevens and four queens. One of each of the sevens and queens are spades, so you cannot double-count those.
But add the rest up, and you have 20 outs to improve your hand (which might be winning already with top pair)
After the flop: 20 x 4 = 80% chance of hitting
After the turn: 20 x 2 = 40% chance of hitting
However, in this scenario, you should tread carefully. Let’s say you hit a 10 on the turn, making you two pair. While this has improved your hand, the chances are the board has now improved your opponent’s hand. The board is now 8-9-10-J. If your opponent has a 7 or a Q, then you lose to a straight!
It’s up to you to pick through these potential wins and pitfalls, and before you know it, you could be on your way to winning the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas!
The other odds to learn in poker is the probability of being dealt or flopping a particular hand.
Knowing how rare it is gives you a better idea of how likely you are to win the hand and how strongly you should bet.
Here are some key probabilities:
- Odds of being dealt a pocket pair: 5.9%
- Odds of being dealt suited connectors, 10 or better 3%
- Odds of flopping a royal flush: 1 in 19,600
Try It At The Table
Now you know the basics of poker probabilities, why not test your new skills out at the table?
Like all good game guides, reading up takes the guesswork out of the equation, and you might start making much better decisions.