How to Win in NL Holdem Cash Games
I am going to let the cat out of the bag here maybe, so I apologize up front. The secret to winning in NL cash games is not to lose. WTF?? I am serious here. If you can do a good job of not losing, you will be a winner. WTF kind of advice is this? It is some good advice so listen up.
If you can limit your losses when you don't have the best hand, or the best draw this will translate directly into winning. I am not talking about playing scared weak poker. I am talking about keeping your money on the table and in your bankroll so you can extract some winnings when you have the best of it. In NL Holdem cash games, you really need to grind your way slowly up. If you make a big mistake and lose your stack, it will take a long time to recover what you lost. Don't do this. Big hands will always determine your session's success. Make sure that the big hands are winners and not losers and you will be successful. OK, so how do you avoid losing.
Play +EV starting hands:
Play hands preflop that have a positive expectation from the position you are playing them. Different players play different hands differently, so I cant give you a list of hands to play here. Get PokerTracker, and play a bunch of hands in the style you normally play. Then list your starting hands by profit/hand. The hands that show a profit on average are the hands you should be playing. You will need to tweak your selection a little based on table position, but this is a good guideline. In general, all pocket pairs, AK, and two suited/connected big cards will be +EV. Also take a look at the hands that you lose the most with. These will usually be small suited connectors, small suited Aces, and Ace little. Stop playing these hands from out of position, or just stop playing them altogether. Some players will purposely play -EV hands (the hammer for example), but this is done on purpose to increase the +EV of the good hands. This is an expert play, that I would not recommend (unless you are an expert).
Don't get involved in Big Pots with just a Pair:
The single biggest mistake you can make in NL Holdem cash games is to play a massive pot with just a pair. You get AA, or KK and raise to protect it, but get a bunch of callers. The flop is low so you have an overpair. You make the continuation bet, and out comes a reraise. This situation will make or break you as a winning player. You have to be willing to fold here (same when you start with AK and flop an A or a K). I am not saying this is an automatic fold, but you need to recognize their is a good chance you are already way behind. You need to tank here, and evaluate the player doing this to you. Figure that you will be playing this hand for your entire stack if you continue. Is the reraiser a big or little stack? I would be more inclined to play on with a little stack. Is the raiser a winning or losing player? I would be more inclined to play on with a losing player that may be getting out of line here. Have you seen this guy make a reraise bluff before, or do this with middle pair or a draw? Just simply stop and think, and give yourself a chance to fold. When I get a big pocket pair, one of the first things I am thinking is "Don't lose your entire stack on this hand".
Don't Draw Without the Proper Pot-odds/Implied odds:
You need to learn the math. After the flop if someone comes out swinging and you have a good draw, see if you have odds to draw to the turn alone. Don't assume that you will see the river cheaply. Bet your draws to slowdown the made hands, and to get free cards when in position. Make sure that you are not drawing to the ass end of the straight when the top end is a likely holding. Make sure that you are drawing to the nuts or near nuts. Outside straight draws are worth much less if there is a flush draw out there or the board is paired. Flush draws are worth much less when the board is paired or your flush cards are low. Don't draw to gutshots. Don't draw to overs (unless you are getting a real good price).
Be Careful Value Betting on the River:
"Don't make a bet that can only be called by a better hand". You may have heard this one before. Live by this if you can. Lets say you have been betting top pair/top kicker in position all the way down. The river card comes and it fills in a flush draw, or makes for obvious straight possibilities, or the board pairs. Now you get checked to for the third time post flop. Be extremely careful here and think about checking behind. If you do decide to bet, be willing to fold to a reraise. Your opponent can easily check his made draw to you on the river assuming you will bet. When your value bet gets reraised you are in big trouble. Good players will make a big check raise bluff here sometimes and bet you off your winner. Don't get greedy, and check behind in these situations.
WTF, how is this going to save me from losing? It saves you by limiting the competition when you are playing a non drawing type hand. Big pairs and AK require a raise to limit the competition to 1 or 2 others. If too many people come, you could be taking a huge risk that someone hits the flop big, and will take your stack. Raising preflop gets you information on your opponents holdings. Limping does nothing. By all means, limp with drawing type hands (suited connectors, small pocket pairs). When you hit the flop with these, you can be pretty sure you are good. When you miss the flop with QQ in an unraised 6 way pot, who knows where you are at. It could get expensive finding out post flop. Remember this quote "Don't go broke in an unraised pot". It will save you $$$$.
Bluff Only in the Correct Situations:
To be a winning player at NL Holdem, you must bluff from time to time. However, it is very easy to take this too far and make bluffing -EV. You don't want to bluff into a large field. The more opponents that you have, the more chances your bluff will get called by a real hand. Your chances of success are directly proportional to the number of opponents in the pot. Bluff at the pot after you have raised preflop and missed. This represents a big pair, and is believable. Bluff post flop when it is checked around to you and you are last to act. No one has shown interest in the pot, so it yours for the taking. However, be aware of how many people are still in the pot, and don't do it everytime, or you may start getting check raised. Bluff when the board gets scary, and you can't put the others on a draw to the available board. When the board is real scary, often the first to bet will take it down. Don't bluff at massive pots. It will be hard to get someone to lay down a decent hand when the pot gets big. Make a good size bet if you plan on bluffing. If you bluff a small amount, and give your opponent drawing odds, you will get called. You want to be aggressive post flop, but it is so easy to take it to far. Experiment and find the correct level of aggressiveness so that bluffing does not cost you more than it is worth. I will stop here on bluffing, and have only scratched the surface of the topic. The point is bluffing at the wrong times will make you lose more money.
Be Willing To Make A Big Laydown on the River:
You may have flopped a good hand, but just could not shake off the competition with your post flop betting. Now on the river, one of the callers comes out firing. You need to tank here and consider folding. This could be a bluff, but often you have been slow played, and are beat. Look at what you have, what's on the board, how the betting went, who your opponent is, and make a good decision. Winning players win more then 1/2 of their showdowns. If you are calling down on the river to much with the worst of it, you will not be a winning player. Also don't overcall on the river ever. An overcall is when someone bets, and someone calls then you call. It takes a better hand to call with then to bet. The initial better saying he's got a hand. The initial caller is saying he's got a better hand. If you think your hand is even better, you should be ready to push-in. If you don't you should fold. It is rare that calling an overbet on the river is correct.
OK, I have tried to explain ways to avoid losing in NL cash games. The money that you don't lose is money that you win. It's exactly the same. If you are good at extracting maximum value when you are ahead, you will win more, but not if you are giving up to much when your behind. How to extract maximum value is a whole different topic. I try my best to extract maximum value, but I'm not sure if I am ready to write on this yet. See doubleas/pressure points for some hints on extraction.