When I first entered poker back in 2004, the landscape was quite different than it is today. Back during the ‘Moneymaker Boom’ there were a couple of poker forums worth visiting, a few pieces of poker software, and a limited number of books that deserved a read.
Now, the poker learning landscape is 100% different.
There are a nearly infinite number of poker forums to join (heck, there are Discord channels and FB groups to talk poker in now). There are hundreds of poker programs you can use to train, learn, and tweak various parts of your game. There are hundreds of poker books available, and seemingly a never-ending list of random authors writing new ones every day.
When I ask myself the question ‘would I rather enter poker in 2004 or in 2020?’ I find myself torn.
In 2004 you had to do a LOT more digging, more manual math, and more group-work to get beyond the basic level of poker discourse being discussed.
In 2020 you have software available for nearly every conceivable poker spot and such a vast amount of high-quality free poker content to digest. But the sheer amount of content also means there is a large amount of no-value filler that won’t help you grow, and could even stunt your growth at the end of the day.
So I wanted to challenge myself to write this article and answer the question ‘where would I start if I had to learn poker from scratch today?’
Which resources would I start with? What study methods would I use? And what would be my plan of attack for going from 0-100 ASAP?
Well…here goes nothing…
POKER IN 4 PHASES
When I begin to learn anything new, I do my best to figure out the overarching big pieces of the puzzle. What are the big buckets of knowledge that I need to acquire to really start understanding this thing?
Looking at poker I would say these are the core 4 buckets:
- Poker Math
- Tactics (Playbook)
- Psychology & Mental
Of course, we could expand this list forever – but I think focusing on those 4 things at first is a great way of going about it.
As I study and learn things, I will place the material as best I can into one of those buckets.
The list is also in order of importance (my opinion based upon my skillset). Math is required for the strategic and tactical parts of the game, so that is a given. But, if your mental game is so bad that you are constantly spewing back any winnings due to tilt – that may get reprioritized to #1.
Here are my suggestions for getting started with each bucket*. My goal is to offer some free and paid options for working through each phase so you have options regardless of your bankroll. That being said, do not automatically grab the free option and ignore the paid one – be sure to keep the value of your poker time (ROI) in mind.
As for a study methodology, remember that you get out what you put in. If you only study for 30 minutes per week, how could you possibly expect to improve quickly? I made this quick guide/video showing how you can set up your poker study routine to get the most out of every hour you put in away from the tables.
* Honestly, my goal here is to help you avoid wasting time with the wrong things (like reading any strategy by Phil Gordon), and help you stay focused on the content that will actually help your game. You are reading this because you want to value your time, so I had to cheat a bit and mix my ‘where would I start with poker’ mindset with my actual knowledge of content.
Hopefully you don’t mind ♥
LEARNING POKER MATH
Most of us do not identify as strong in math.
Math is tough, it can be confusing, and poker math can get really complex.
The good news is that you do NOT to be a math genius to be solid at poker. Some basic addition, some simple multiplication, and you’re on your way.
In fact, a lot of the poker numbers that you see in training videos and software output, begin to get ingrained in your poker brain over time. So don’t panic and hide away from math any longer!
The four most crucial math concepts are the following:
- Pot Odds
- EV (Expected Value)
(If you play SNGs/tournaments, I’ll add a fifth slot for ‘ICM’ in here)
The good news is that you can learn all of these in an afternoon.
Once you learn the concept, you’ll see it over and over again. Your ability to apply these will get stronger, and you’ll grow an intuition for things like frequencies and EV estimation. Combos and blockers will become an automatic consideration and you will keep a natural count of these during hands.
Resources for learning poker math:
Poker Math That Matters
There are TONs of poker math books out there, from workbooks to college-level textbooks. The best value, by far, is going to be Poker Math That Matters by Owen Gaines. PMTM dives into all of the concepts mentioned above, breaks them down beautifully, and even offers quizzes + answers for much of the material.
You can buy Poker Math That Matters here for $25, read it in a week, and be well on your way toward having the math-side of the game in your back pocket.
Free Math Articles & Videos
I’ve actually created videos on most of these things. While they won’t get into the depth (nor the quizzing) that Poker Math That Matters will, they will give you the big picture ASAP. Here are links to everything you need:
- What Are Pot Odds?
- What Is Expected Value In Poker?
- How To Use Poker Frequencies?
- What Are Combos & Blockers?
Poker Math Software
There is so much software available now it’s insane. When I first started playing poker there was PokerStove (high-five if you remember this ugly gem!) and eventually CardRunners EV.
Now there is software for practicing your play against bots all the way up to getting GTO-specific range construction. If I were starting out today I would download these right away:
Equilab (PC & Mac)
A free piece of software that allows you to do equity calculations in seconds. This crucial when working with EV and getting a general feel for how hands/ranges perform in a variety of situations.
A low-cost software that has changed the way I study, visualize, and exploit the game. Answer questions from ‘how often does 77 flop a set?’ to ‘how often does that K♠ give my opponent a flush on the river?’
PokerTracker 4 (PC & Mac)
If you play online, you need to be tracking your results. PokerTracker 4 automatically does that on most sites, while also tracking your stats, leaks, and more. Beyond that, PT4 also gives you access to a HUD on rooms that allow it, which gives you up-to-date statistical information about your opponents as you play against them. Prices start at $59.99, and you can take a free 30-day trial of PT4 here.
Especially useful for live players, PokerSnowie allows you to practice your skillset against a very smart AI. Play extra hands between real-money sessions, get actual advice on your lines, and see which line the AI would suggest. Of all the AIs I’ve played against, this one is consistently the toughest and will force you to focus on stay competitive. Learn more about PokerSnowie here.
LEARNING POKER STRATEGY
Once you have the math down, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of poker hands, lines, and beyond. Which takes us to strategy.
Truth be told, most players don’t understand the difference between strategy and tactics. Here is the simple breakdown:
- Strategy looks at your poker game as a whole. You look at the game from a very zoomed-out point of view finding holistic approaches to crafting ranges and choosing +EV lines.
- Tactics look at zoomed-in examples and usually end up with the exploration on a single hand within a vacuum. There are lots of plays that are tactically +EV given the situation, but they aren’t great plays in the context of a strategy.
Put another way, strategy looks at all of the hands you will play from MP and what your barreling plan is with your range when you get a single caller. Tactics would look at whether you should double barrel AK-high when the turn is an overcard and your opponent is a nit.
Strategy is zoomed-out. Tactics are zoomed-in.
Truth be told, it’s nearly impossible to find solid strategy advice for free. Building a profitable strategy requires a lot of time and it’s not something you can teach in a 10 minute YouTube video or a 1K word article.
If you are looking to build an actual poker strategy, I suggest starting with my new course The One Percent. This course takes a holistic look at the game, dissects the behind-the-scenes math, and breaks down an actual strategy that protects you even against the toughest of players. You will walk away with a complete strategy in your back pocket, rules to follow, ways to exploit players who break the rules, and something you can refine with tactics and hand reading in an intelligent way.
Truth be told, if I had to learn poker from absolute scratch today, this is where I would start. It breaks down the game in a way that 99% of players will never even understand, and gives the top-1% such an insane edge.
If you prefer reading instead of videos, here are some poker books that I’ve read over the years that work on building a strategy first…
No Limit Theory & Practice
This is the first poker book that I ever read multiple times, and it’s paid for itself SOOOOO many times over. It really tied together the poker math and the actual application, highlighting many of the things I was doing incorrectly. NLTAP does a great job of zooming in and out, tying together both strategy and tactics.
Applications Of NLHE
Not for the faint of heart, this book takes a deep-dive into the math and application of poker. Author Matt Janda explores balance, frequencies, and ranges in a way that is extremely illuminating. That said, the book is very complex and goes a long way toward refining the information from The One Percent course mentioned earlier, and I suggest that you read it AFTER you take the course rather than before.
Easy Game Vol 3
The third and final edition of Seidman’s popular book ‘Easy Game’ lays out a great way of thinking about poker from a 10,000-foot view. Each chapter lays out the right questions coupled with the right discussion to really start piecing together a complete approach to the game.
LEARNING POKER TACTICS
Once I had the math down, and a basic strategy in place, I would spend quite a bit of time working on tactics. Remember, tactics are the zoomed-in pieces of the game. Essentially, tactics are your playbook, and with a strong playbook, you can find tons of extra pots to fight for along the way.
The good news is this: most content you will find will be tactical in nature.
The bad news is that most tactical advice is garbage.
The good news is that if you have a strategy, it’s super easy to spot bad vs. good vs. great tactical advice!
See why we need a strategy first?
When reviewing tactical advice (and BTW, when you see something titled as ‘3betting strategy’ or ‘double barreling strategy’ it’s almost always way more tactical than strategic), you need to do the following:
- See what assumptions the coach is making
- See if the suggested line is mathematically profitable
- See how it fits within a strategy
The biggest issue that new players have is that they are looking for cookie-cutter advice. They want rules like “always 3bet X hands” or “always check-raise your flush draws” because rules are simple and easy to follow. But each spot is unique, and just because a coach suggests barreling off with Ace-high in a certain spot, does not mean that line is best in all situations.
Good poker coaches will explain the math and assumptions used when discussing lines. If you run into coaches or writers who do not list those things, I would suggest abandoning their body of work. You need to know why they are doing what they are doing – and without the why you’d be better off elsewhere (at least for the time being).
There are tons of good places to find tactical advice, here are some of the places I would start:
Poker Books Focused On Tactics
Dynamic Full Ring Poker
This is the first book I ever wrote, and while I felt it was a strategy book while writing it, I’ve come to realize it’s largely tactics. I lay out assumptions, ranges, adjustments every step of the way and show you my playbook when it comes to playing in 7-10 handed games.
Poker Plays You Can Use 2
Written by my friend and fellow co-founder of Red Chip, this book is a playbook in every sense of the word. Hull showcases his playbook and shares assumptions, math, and everything you need to properly run these plays in your own game.
Free Tactical Resources
SplitSuit YouTube Videos
Most of the videos I do for YouTube are tactics-first, since we are looking at single hands in a vacuum. I do my best to illuminate strategy where I can, but these videos delve into my assumptions, my line creation, and my bet sizing (yes, go larger!) at every inflection point in a hand.
Bookmark my free poker video page and check back regularly
Free Poker Playbook
This free email course sends you 8 plays that we run on a regular basis. See our thought process and how you can easily use these lines in your own game.
Sign up for the free poker playbook here
LEARNING POKER PSYCHOLOGY
There is an obvious mental element to poker. While it would be awesome if we could play like a stoic robot, each move calibrated perfectly with zero emotional influence – it’s just not how we are wired.
Tilt is the most basic mental issue that you see among poker players, but there are tons of other ailments that will hinder your success. Everything from happy-tilt, to self-sabotage, to not understanding your fatigue levels can impact your game.
The good news is that any improvement you make in your poker psychology will also positively influence your real life as well. So while psychology & mindset isn’t everyone’s favorite thing to study – know that it’s a HUGE benefit to you and your loved ones at the end of the day.
The Mental Advantage
In this complete course, Dr. Tricia Cardner and myself walk you through the 6 most important pieces of every poker player’s mindset. Flowing through tilt, on-table emotional control, off-table wargaming, and more – you’ll get a well-rounded look into a professional poker player’s brain.
This book, also written by Dr. Tricia Cardner, looks at the mental game from a very broad strokes point of view. A quick read, you’ll get legit psychologic advice that is field tested to help you fix issues you are aware of (and even ones you haven’t realized yet!)
Red Chip Poker PRO Membership
Rounding out the trifecta, Dr. Cardner also creates videos for the PRO Membership on Red Chip Poker. Just some of her 20+ videos include ‘setting poker goals’, ‘the science of learning’, ‘A-game’, and ‘managing your mental energy’.
Elliot Roe & Dr. Cardner tackle the mindset of poker by discussing it with high-performance athletes and poker players. Done in an interview style, these episodes look at daily routines, mental stumbling blocks, and practical advice so you can change your mindset for the better.
Back to the original question of ‘how would I learn poker from scratch?’ That is my outline. I would start with the math, work into strategy, expand with tactics, and close up mental leaks. Easier said than done – but better to have an outline than none at all!
If you are willing to spend money to learn poker quickly, here is what I would suggest:
- Buy The One Percent course and digest it in 2 weeks. Spend the next 2 weeks doing the included exercises and working through examples.
- Buy Easy Game Vol 3 and digest it within a month.
- Buy The Hand Reading Lab and digest it within a month.
- Buy the workbook for the game you play and do 5 exercises per week.
That’s less than $1k and about 5 hours/week of study. If you think you can reasonably recoup that within a few months of playing – it’s a slam dunk. If you are playing micro limits or very small games, just stick to The One Percent and fill up the rest of the study time with some of the cheaper (or even free) resources listed throughout this guide.
Remember, a strategy is everything.
Folding everything except for 2pair+ is NOT a strategy. Folding every time you face a raise is NOT a strategy. Hoping to flop sets and get paid off is NOT a strategy.
So keep working to build your strategy and then watch your playbook come to life with deviations and intelligent adjustments made with actual reasoning.
I know this was long, but great job sticking it out. I hope this gives you some food for thought on where to go next, and of course, good luck & happy grinding!