Poker is an American game with Old West panache. It may be a game of chance, but poker takes skill—and skill can change your luck. As the saying goes: Play your cards right, and you just might win.

“Playing poker is a lot like going into a fight,” says Adam Slutsky, author of Pick Up Your Poker Game (Turner Publishing Co., 2011). “I don’t mean you need to be adversarial against your opponents, but you have to keep your eyes and mind open, expecting your opponent to try all sorts of tactics in any situation.”

Texas Hold’em, which dates to at least the early 1900s, is immensely popular today and proliferates online. Forced bets called “blinds” rotate around the table and up the action. Players are dealt two cards for each hand (then bet) and share three communal cards (called the Flop), which are dealt face-up on the table. Players bet again, receive another community card (the Turn), bet, and then receive the final community card (the River). Players then formulate their best possible five-card hand from the seven total cards and bet again; the player with the best five-card hand wins the pot.

Texas Hold’em is often played with fixed-limit betting, but the no-limit version of the game has captured America’s imagination. As Jack Strauss, winner of the 1982 World Series of Poker, says: “In limit poker, you are shooting at a target. In no-limit, the target comes alive and shoots back at you.”

With this in mind, don’t expect your opponent to make machine-like moves at the table. They’re human, often emotional, and will adjust their game and attempt a variety of tricks and tactics in order to win. And you should, too.

“Like a fight, if you go in swinging wildly with no plan of attack, you may get lucky and land a punch or two,” says Slutsky. “But, sooner or later, you’re going to get tagged, and go down for the count.”

In other words, it’s helpful to have a realistic expectation of what cards you’re hoping to see during the Flop, Turn, and River cards and react accordingly, rather than hope for slim odds to pay off. Additionally, if you have an idea what your opponent may be holding and cards hit the table that don’t help him, you can apply pressure with a nice-sized bet that might make your adversary decide it’s time to fold and allow you to rake the pot.

Adaptability and quick, situational thinking are also key to deciding whether to raise, call, or fold. Large pot size? If the bet is small, it might be worth staying in to see what develops. Is your opponent likely holding a strong hand? Then like Kenny Rogers sings: “You gotta know when to fold ’em.” Are you hoping to draw to a straight or a flush? Be patient. Trust your instincts and monitor your emotional state. Too much alcohol, for example, never seems to help.

“A less-than-stellar mindset will have a negative effect on your game,” advises Slutsky.

Catching cards

Adam Slutsky’s Pick Up Your Poker Game offers informative and entertaining ideas on how to improve your poker skills. The author argues that success at the game requires qualities of the Wild West gunslinger. It takes a special sense of daring to walk into a casino (or saloon) and sit down to play for cash.

Looking for something a bit more extensive? Doyle Brunson, the “Godfather of Poker,” shares his secrets in Super System (first published in 1979)—the definitive book on several poker games.

For poker history and background on the interesting characters who play it, check out Jim McManus’s Positively Fifth Street. It’s about the author’s deep run in the 2000 WSOP and his coverage of the infamous murder of Ted Binion.

I’ll Do My Own Damn Killin’ by Gary Sleeper is a fascinating look at the 1940s underground casino scene in Dallas-Fort Worth run by mobsters Benny Binion (founder of the World Series of Poker) and Herbert Noble.

For more on poker history, visit

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