Reading the Board

A critical skill for the beginning Texas Hold'em player is the ability to read the board.  This means being able look at the community cards on the table and calculate the strongest possible hands.

Some Board Reading Tips

These tips will help you determine quickly the highest possible hand at the moment (the nuts).

A Sample Flop

Ace of Diamonds Five of Clubs Four of Diamonds

With this flop the highest possible hand (called "the nuts") is

Two of Hearts Three of Clubs
Hole Cards

The second, third and fourth highest hands would be

Ace of Hearts Ace of Clubs
Hole Cards
Five of Diamonds Five of Spades
Hole Cards
Four of Clubs Four of Spades
Hole Cards

After that, two pair and then aces with large kickers. 

Suppose the board after the turn looks like this:

Ace of Diamonds Five of Clubs Four of Diamonds   Five of Diamonds
Flop   Turn

Now the highest hand is a straight flush

Two of Diamonds Three of Diamonds
Hole Cards

and the second highest hand is four of a kind

Five of Spades Five of Hearts
Hole Cards

On the river

Ace of Diamonds Five of Clubs Four of Diamonds   Five of Diamonds   Eight of Diamonds
Flop   Turn   River

Now a higher straight flush is possible

Six of Diamonds Seven of Diamonds
Hole Cards

Of course it is often not necessary to have the absolute nuts to win a hand.  In the above example (depending on the betting) a hand that contained a single king of diamonds would give you the nut flush which could easily win this hand, and someone with pocket aces shouldn't hesitate to bet and raise (and re-raise!) with their hands on this board. The point is to know what hands are possible so you aren't trapped in a raising war thinking you have the nuts when you don't.

Trap: Single Card Straight Flushes

The most common example of this is a board like the following:

Jack of Diamonds King of Diamonds Four of Hearts   Nine of Diamonds   Queen of Diamonds
Flop   Turn   River

Someone holding a hand like

Ace of Diamonds King of Spades
Hole Cards

might raise indefinitely on every betting round only to find out that someone holding

King of Hearts Ten of Diamonds
Hole Cards

has beaten them on the end with a  straight flush.  Especially when there are four of a suit on the board, consciously look for a single card straight flush possibility when you hold an Ace of that suit!

Trap: The Beaten Boat

Suppose the following flop is dealt...

Jack of Hearts Jack of Spades Four of Clubs

when you hold...

Four of Hearts Four of Diamonds
Hole Cards

Chances are that right now you have the best hand.  If you bet on the flop and are raised or re-raised you are still probably safe for the moment as other people holding a jack or any overpair (correctly) raise you.  However if the final board looks like this:

Jack of Hearts Jack of Spades Four of Clubs   King of Hearts   Ace of Clubs
Flop   Turn   River

There is a much greater chance that you are beaten by a higher full house.  Although you should call a bet with your 44 you probably do not want to get into a raising war at this point (as many people at a low limit hold'em table will do).

Make Money!

The above scenario is the reason that you must play a hand like this fast early in the hand, even if that means that sometimes you'll only make a very small pot.  In the above example you'll definitely get big action from people holding a single jack (in fact they may even incorrectly try to slow play their hand).