There’s a certain irony in poker — the more serious that you get about the game, the more you go back to the fundamentals of poker. Strangely enough, there’s a lot of math and logic that goes into the game, and this is a point that isn’t fully appreciated by newcomers until they’re deeper into the game. In other words, if you really want to grow as a poker player, you need to make sure that the foundations of poker are firmly in your head. You don’t want to rush into every hand. In fact, if you were to just rush into a hand without thinking about it, people at the table are going to immediately think that you’re a fish that can’t hack it. They will take advantage of the fact that you’ll rush into any pot that looks good, and this will keep you from enjoying the poker success that you deserve.
So what’s the best fundamental to focus on? Knowing whether to jump in a pot or to stay out of it.
To figure this out, we’ll need to make a return to counting your outs, and calculating your odds. If you’ve ever seen a live poker event on TV, you’ll often see your favorite players going all in. Then a little box will pop up that has percentages. Well, those percentages represent the odds that the player is going to win based on the type of outs that they have based on their hole cards.
There are two types of odds to focus on: pot odds and card odds. Thankfully, both concepts aren’t that hard to grasp in a short amount of time.
Let’s start with pot odds. Simply put, this is just the ratio of money (or chips, if you’re not playing for money) that you’ll get back from the pot when compared to the bet.
If you’re playing at a $10/$20 table and there’s $200 in the pot and your bet is $10, then your pot odds are 20:1. Most players are going to be interested in those types of odds!
Card odds — in essence, your “outs” — take a bit more explanation. The short answer is that your outs are all of the cards that you could use to win the pot when it’s time for the showdown.
In practice, it gets a little sticky.
Let’s take everyone’s favorite hand — the flush draw. If your hole cards are Ts9s (10 of spades and 9 of spades), and your flop comes down as 8sQs9d (8 of spades, Queen of spades, and 9 of diamonds), then you’re probably going to be pretty excited. However, before you do anything rash, you need to consider your outs. The number of cards that you can use in order to make your flush is 9 — there are 9 outs. Remember that there are only 13 cards in a suit. You have 4 of those cards on the board. That means that there are 9 left. See, we told you that “outs” wouldn’t be that hard!
How does this concept feed into card odds? Well, card odds are the probability that the cards you need (your outs) will actually come to you. It’s a ratio, just like the pot odds.
Card odds are calculated like so: (# of unseen cards – outs) / outs (ratio form for the result). So what happens if you get that flush draw? You have 9 outs (13 – 4 = 9). However, there are still 47 unseen cards after the flop (52 – your 2 hole cards – 3 flop cards = 47). Yes, this is also counting the cards that your opponents have, because you can’t “see” them, now can you? That’s what we thought.
So your card odds would be (47-9) / 9 = roughly about 4:1.
So the question is, do we plunge in when our card odds are like that? Well, things could still go either way. We need more information — or rather, we need to use the information that we’ve already collected in a big way.
Most poker players will not plunge into a pot if their pot odds are less than their card odds. In both examples, our pot odds were 20:1 and our card odds were 4:1. That’s a pot that we would want to pursue. The odds are in our favor big time.
Now, there are times where you can calculate these odds and still have the cards turn against you. Poker isn’t just math and logic — it’s sometimes about luck too. That’s why there is a term like “bad beat” — when everything seems perfect, chance can really ruin your good feelings about the game of poker.
Still, having the math on your side can help you build the confidence you need. We can’t forget that poker is also a game of psychology, and the more that you can psych yourself up, the better off you’ll actually be. The strongest poker players in the world are skilled at these calculations, and they also know when to back out and save their chips for another round rather than just plunging in. Does bluffing come into the picture? Sometimes, but it’s really better to focus on solid play rather than psychological intimidation — especially when you’re just starting out!
So, when the chips are down, you know what to do — calculate your odds, and then make an informed decision. That really is the best thing that you can do, all things considered.