So you want to be a card shark. You've seen "Rounders" several dozen times, recorded every episode of FX's new show "Lucky" and look dapper in your uncle's green visor. One problem: You're a fish. You wake up after all-night sessions with nothing but a hangover, an empty wallet and a dazed expression. Poker may be fun, but your hobby is gobbling up your lunch money.

There is another way. Although luck factors heavily into poker -- especially the freewheeling, low-stakes games that most people play at home -- playing smarter can make you an odds-on favorite to bankrupt your besotted buddies every time you belly up to a card table. Some basic tips from the experts:

Fold. This may sound counterintuitive. But according to Lee Jones, author of the widely respected guide "Winning Low-Limit Hold 'Em," playing too many hands is the biggest mistake most novices make. Don't worry about losing your ante. Play monster hands and happily toss everything else.

Go on the offensive. Once you're throwing away your rags, the next step is to be much more aggressive with the hands you do keep. Experienced players feast on "calling stations," slang for competitors who play lots of hands but rarely initiate a bet and almost never raise, allowing their opponents to dictate the flow of the game. If you think you have the best hand, you should bet and raise, forcing your victi . . . er . . . friends to pay for the mistake of playing against you.

Laser in. Folding those rotten cards again and again over the course of the night will give you time to study everyone else. Observe one person at a time to get a feel for how they play in certain situations. Note the cards they show at the ends of games. Try to match their decisions to the cards that showed up so you can predict their moves. When you're in a hand, keep track of the cards that have come out so you know whether those you need are still in the deck or have fallen on somebody else. Adjust your strategy accordingly.

Practice. Several pay-to-play poker Web sites also allow people to play for fun. Try out your new poker chops in a no-risk environment -- then start fleecing your pals.

David McGuire

Read Up and Sharpen Those Skills

Books

"Poker for Dummies," by Richard Harroch and Lou Krieger. A great guide for true novices.

"Super System," by Doyle Brunson. A classic book on poker by the Hall of Fame player. Published in 1979, it's a bit dated but still provides interesting insight into high-stakes poker.

"The Theory of Poker," by David Sklansky. Advanced poker strategy -- not for newbies.

"Winning Low-Limit Hold 'Em," by Lee Jones. Walks novices through the mechanics of the world's most popular poker game, giving tips for low-stakes tables.

On the Web

www.cardplayer.com. Articles, tournament info and great links at Card Player magazine's site.

www.conjelco.com. ConJelCo sells gambling books and software, including those mentioned above.

www.paradisepoker.com. The biggest and best-known online poker room. Playing for money isn't advised for inexperienced players, but Paradise offers free alternatives.

www.pokerschoolonline.com. Lessons from pros for $15 a month. Also provides free poker software.

www.twoplustwo.com. Extensive poker forums, frequented by pros and experts.

www.wilsonsw.com. Sells Turbo Texas Hold 'Em, a popular poker simulation program.

Want to know how to do something? Send your questions to howto@washpost.com.

It doesn't take a straight flush to wipe out your poker opponents -- just some savvy.