Be wary of beginners

Playing in a game with people who don’t know what they’re doing can be utterly infuriating

Play your real poker against the players and play against the novices with caution

‘That’s what you get for playing with novices!’ It’s a phrase one of our freelancers – and I won’t say who as it might offend her – used to trot out every time she lost, whether she was playing with novices or not. Without her knowing, it became her catchphrase, and it was quickly adopted by everyone in the office who thought it was hilarious.

Beyond the comedy though, there is a very good point to be made here. Close your eyes and think of another game you play. Now imagine yourself playing someone who hasn’t got a clue what they’re doing. Football, darts, backgammon, Scrabble, Unreal Tournament… If you play a ‘novice’ at any of these, you simply can’t lose, as long as you’re trying to win.

With poker, the opposite is true. If you’ve never played before you can beat anyone! Generally the dealer will help you out, telling you what your options are and how much you can bet. And if you pick up a pair and don’t fold, and it turns into a set, and you don’t fold, you can bust anyone in the world. You don’t even need to have a big starting hand. You can play along with any two cards, hit a miracle board, end up with a big stack and not have the faintest idea how, why or what you’re supposed to do with it.

What’s more, there’s a myth that you want people like this in your game. This is a big mistake. Playing with complete novices is actually one of the hardest games of poker you’ll ever play, as you’ll appreciate if you watched poor Norman Pace trying to deal with his clueless opponents on Showbiz Poker last year. His only relatively successful tactic? Burying his head in his hands in frustration and saying, ‘It’s impossible. Absolutely impossible.’


This horrible scenario has happened to me on a number of occasions. I sat down in a media tournament recently and the lady next to me turned, smiled, and said, ‘I’ve never played before in my life.’ I got that sinking feeling and thought I was in for a long night. I was actually in for one hand. I got pocket Queens, raised, and got a very tentative ‘I’m not sure if I should be doing this’ kind of call from the novice. The flop was Eight high so I bet and got a call. The turn was another rag so I bet – very big this time. And got a call. And so on, until all our chips were in the middle and she turned over her cards to reveal trip Eights asking, ‘Is that any good?’ If the dealer wasn’t there I’d have lied and scooped the chips in.

I made the mistake of thinking she’d be doing the same with any two cards. And she probably would have. But there is a way round this most awful of predicaments. If you’re in control of your surroundings, adhere to the following rules:

1. Don’t invite them to your home games. You don’t want people who can’t play in your home games – you just want people who can play, but play badly.

2. If they insist on coming (or if they’re your partner or flatmate), print out the rules and make sure they know them inside-out before you let them play. In an ideal world, let them loose on the internet for a few hours first as well.

If that’s impossible, don’t despair, because it’s still possible to prevail. You just need to play a different game. You need to play tight. You need to forget about bluffing. You need to get your chips in when you’re sure you’ve got a big edge pre-flop, without giving them a chance to draw to anything that might commit them to their hand (and remember that could be something as ridiculous as a number that’s close to theirs).

You need to keep in mind at all times that your opponent could have absolutely anything. That a call could signify a good or a bad hand. And that they’re as likely to blunder into a monster holding as anyone else, but that they’re likely to underplay it because they don’t know its significance. Play your real poker against the players and play against the novices with caution and you should – for the most part – end up on top.

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