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Poker Tips that Pay: Expert Strategy Guide for Winning No Limit Texas Hold em

Poker Tips that Pay: Expert Strategy Guide for Winning No Limit Texas Hold em

Monday, May 25, 2020

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Hold em Poker Strategy, Tips & Advice Section

No Limit Hold em Starting Hand Selection Guide - No Charts Please!

by Jonathan Gelling

Some books on Texas Hold 'em include extensive charts on exactly which hands should be played from which positions. Occasionally these charts are made more complex by offering tighter or looser styles of play in response to table conditions.

You shouldn't follow this "starting hand requirements" conventional wisdom. There are three very good reasons not to: (1) there are many factors beyond showdown potential and seat position to account for in selecting starting hands; (2) the mathematical models they rely on are based on a limit betting structure that fails to account for the much greater upside potential in no limit hold 'em (i.e. you can earn the entire stack of one or more opponents in every no limit hand); and (3) a table-based mechanical approach makes one too easy to read.

Instead hands should be judged by their profit potential. In theory the tables are supposed to take profit potential into account, but they overestimate big starting hands and underestimate the profitability of draws in a no limit betting environment. When you're playing for all the marbles each and every hand, you can afford to make some speculative gambles if the price is right. At low stakes, do not assume a standard raise will clear out all the trashy hands.

Here are some general guidelines to consider in starting hand selection:

1. Big cards (AK, AQ, AJ, KQ) have big showdown equity but little potential to profit from the flop.

Too many people go broke with AK and AQ because it is such a treacherous hand. When it wins, you've usually made a small raise at the pot, hit your ace, king, or queen, gotten respect for exactly the hand you represented, and made a small profit. Occasionally a continuation bet bluff will also lead to a small win. Or you might play a small pot down to the river and win with ace-high or one pair.

When it loses, however, you can either get raised off a continuation bet bluff (which will cost you both a pre-flop raise and a post-flop bet) or, in the worst-case scenario, lose much of your stack if you flop big but your opponent flops bigger. These hands win a lot of small pots fairly often, but lose disastrously, and miss the flop more than twice as often as they hit.

What differentiates big cards from other unpaired hands, like QJ, JT, or even a lowly 32 or 43? While they lack much of the straight or flush draw potential (unless suited), they do have showdown equity. That's the key to these hands: the mechanical charts rank them so highly because they are 60-40 favorites over most hands (or roughly 50-50 vs. most pairs) if they see the showdown.

In limit hold 'em, you only need to call a few small, fixed bets to guarantee you see the river. In no limit hold 'em, in contrast, it could cost you everything. At any moment, your opponent could put you to the ultimate test for all your chips. With this in mind, unpaired high cards can be very tricky to play. Unless we hit our hand right on the flop or guarantee a showdown with an all-in pre-flop move, their potential is more theoretical than practical.

So how do we play them? The answer is a bit contradictory: both very cautiously and very aggressively. We need to play these hands very cautiously if we're in a ring game or the low-blind phase of a tournament where it's too risky to get married to them. And if these hands see a flop, we should play them softly, not looking to build a huge pot without good reason to think we're ahead.

On the other hand, where possible, we should jam the pot with these hands pre-flop to force out cards that have superior profit potential if they can see a cheap flop. When the blinds rise to 7-10% of average stack size or more, or we're short-stacked in a cash game, err on the side of pre-flop pot commitment. Don't fool around with small raises and let a drawing hand stick around. Go for the jugular and flush out drawing hands that can bluff or semi-bluff us after the flop.

2. Pocket pairs are your strong suit, and should be folded only in the face of a big re-raise.

Perhaps misled by the mechanical tables of starting hand requirements set out in much of the poker literature (largely parroting Sklansky and Malmuth, who designed them for limit hold 'em), many players undervalue "small" or "medium" pairs. I can't think of the number of times I've heard the inane commentary that "medium pairs are the toughest hands to play in no limit hold 'em." Malarkey!

Yes, they can face tough decisions, but high cards are often forced to fold when they're still the best hand, earn little when they connect, and lose a lot to sets or drawing hands that get there. In contrast, pairs are a favorite over all high cards and possess overwhelming profit potential. You have a made hand before the flop, and while you're unlikely to improve your hand, you don't necessarily need to.

Many players are absolutely giddy when they stare down and see AK or AQ, suited or otherwise, and fairly nonplussed about looking down and finding a pair of 2s. My reaction is precisely the opposite: I almost dislike being dealt a hand like AK or AQ, particularly in a position where I have to open-raise and all but announce the strength of my hand.

Big cards are usually "must-play" hands, but they have by far the least profit potential of all playable hands -- in fact, unplayable oddball hands are often worth more if you get in free and make a hand.

The pair of deuces are more likely to be the best hand at the table pre-flop, don't need to connect with the flop to still be best, can be played aggressively pre-flop (or not), and can garner an opponent's entire stack with a well-concealed set. I would take one pocket pair over three ace-kings. Make no mistake: pairs of any rank are the strongest, most profitable starting hands in no limit Texas Hold 'em, period.

How to play them? I generally hate limping from an early position with small pairs, since that just screams "weak hand." Instead, if I'm first to open, I'll raise just as though I had AK. This provides multiple ways to win: (1) your opponents can fold to the early position raise (usually thought to represent great strength by textbook players) and scoop a small pot; (2) you can get called and represent top pair if an ace or face card hits; (3) you can hit a set and win big money if an opponent makes a hand; (4) you can bet at a ragged board and represent an over-pair; or (5) you can value bet a really ragged board and win a fair bit of money against a tight, aggressive opponent who gets out of line with ace-high. That's a lot of ways to win -- and a lot of pure profit potential.

If someone has raised before you, call a standard (or even somewhat oversized) raise if it's less than 10% of your stack, but never flat call a strong re-raise. A re-raise is a sign of great strength, and you don't want to risk getting involved in a situation where you could be dominated. Domination (pair over pair) is the pocket pair's greatest fear.

The rule of thumb is that a raise may be a bluff, but a re-raise seldom is. Even if you suspect theft it's not worth it to find out, and you don't want to get caught in the middle of a bidding war with two players without a premium pocket pair (AAs, KKs, or QQs, and even queens may be folded).

If you have a small or medium pair and your opponent's raise is more than 10% of your stack, I wouldn't favor just calling too often unless it's part of a move to take the hand away on the flop (which you'll remember is more than twice as likely to miss your opponent if he has two unpaired hole cards). If you're short-stacked, or this is a short-handed situation, don't hesitate to take your pocket pair to war. It's unlikely there's a bigger pair out against you, and if you get action from a couple of overcards at least you're a slight favorite.

3. Don't fall into the trap of playing unsuited connectors, one or two-gappers suited or otherwise, or suited cards (even weak suited aces) unless you're playing in position, in a big pot with several other players, or at a discount out of the blinds.

Drawing hands do best in multi-way, unraised pots, played in position so you know how much it will cost to draw. Unlike with high cards, drawing hands want to see more players in the pot, to make drawing cheaper and to maximize the chances of getting paid off.

Not all drawing hands are created equal. Realize that you're speculating with these hands. As with any speculative investment, you want to be sure your winners occur with enough frequency, and provide sufficient yield, to compensate for all the losers (which will be the vast majority of such bets).

There's a well-known curve that occurs with Texas Hold 'em players. When we first start playing the game, we're much too loose, overvaluing weak aces and a variety of suited cards with little real profit potential. We usually lose a lot of money with this approach, and this causes us to study the game, read about starting hand requirements, and tighten up substantially.

This style of play is usually good enough to win at the lower levels, and our winning streak encourages us to play more and more hands, based on our supposed superiority over our opponents.

At the same time, we may begin to move up in stakes or play multiple tables. Gradually, our winning edge declines, we become too loose, too aggressive at the wrong times, allow our attention to become distracted by the multiple tables, or generally become complacent and thus play losing poker again. Hopefully we learn to tighten up before the downward spiral leaves us blaming online poker sites, "cheaters", or the cruel, foul poker gods themselves.

Here's an important point: no matter how great your hand-reading skills, no matter how aggressive your playing style, no matter how perfect your post-flop judgments and decisions, if you start with inferior cards you are giving your opponents an edge. The worse the hand, the lower the return on your investment (equity) will be. If your opponents are sufficiently competent, you don't have to give them much of an edge to end up with a negative return on equity.

Don't be the guy who brings a knife to a gun fight.

Here are the four keys that will give your opponents an edge and cost you money: (1) you start with bad cards with little upside potential; (2) you play the hand out of position; (3) you telegraph information about your hand, allowing your opponent to make optimum decisions; and (4) you fail to earn money, or worse yet fold, when you have the best hand, or bet or call when you have the worst hand. Of these four mistakes that cost you money, by far the easiest mistake to avoid is playing bad cards with negative profit potential.

We saw in the odds section above how unsuited connectors, one or two-gappers, or suited cards without both straight and flush draw potential are "unlucky"; such hands are less than 12% to flop a draw and only 5% to make a big hand by the river. It's true you'll still make a pair or better 32.4% of the time as well, but then you're playing the hand not for its drawing potential but for its high card value.

Even if you flop a pair with these lower-ranked cards, how much will you then like your hand? You'll often be playing second or third pair without a very strong kicker. Playing these lesser hands is NOT justified based on their drawing strength alone, without one of the following:

  • You're in position - Never underestimate the power of that button! I would often play unsuited connectors and perhaps suited one-gappers on the button against one or more of the right opponents. I may be giving up some edge on my starting hand strength, but I'll make up for it by getting to act last after the flop, when I've seen how the betting goes relative to my own hand.
  • It's a huge, multi-way pot - Pot odds are always your friend! If you're getting paid 3:1 to see the flop, why not call along if there's a reasonable chance you won't get raised out of the pot? Calling with 3:1 odds, you'll only need to win 25% of the time to make a profit on the hand, and it's more likely you will win that often because your hand has at least some potential to make a monster by the river. It will also be cheaper to draw in a multi-way pot as there are several people who may be calling bets with you. Again, you're giving up edge on your starting hand requirements, but you're being paid by the pot (i.e. given odds) to do so.
  • You're in the blinds - Any hand is worth a free check, and a hand with any drawing potential is worth a half-bet from the small blind. A hand with significant drawing potential is worth calling another big blind if the pot's been min-raised. And a one-gap suited connector or unsuited connector (or better) is worth a min-raise call out of the small blind. This is a case where the pot is laying you odds to see the flop, and you should use your best estimate of whether its profitable to play it out, given the particular drawing hand and number of opponents you're facing. Remember, with drawing hands, we want to see more players involved in the pot so we can draw more cheaply and get paid off if we eventually hit.
  • Suited aces close to position - Ace-high has great showdown potential and high card value. That is to say, it's not strictly a drawing hand. You don't want to fall in love with every ace, but it may be playable on or near the button, even in a raised pot. With this type of hand, you really don't mind if you play it heads-up or in a large multi-way pot, but adjust your expectations accordingly. The more players in the hand, the less your ace is worth (with your kicker problems) and the more you're looking to connect on your flush draw.

4. Most other cards are unplayable based on their hand strength alone.

Most hands other than those outlined above (i.e. big cards, pairs, suited connectors and the occasional suited ace) are generally unplayable based on their own potential strength. Of course, you will sometimes need to move at a pot with any two cards. Also, you might lower your standards and call a very loose, aggressive player with a weak, unsuited ace in position.

If you're playing short-handed you're much less interested in card strength. Short-handed play is like a game of chicken with a lot of head-on collisions. But at a full table, you don't want to invest too much with other types of hands, unless the circumstances are favorable for some kind of move.

When you consider how profitable it is to play a hand in a given situation, rather than playing hands based solely on their "strength", you'll improve your results at the table. There are many times when "strong" hands like AK and AQ are easily folded. And complete garbage is often much more profitable than a real hand. When you're playing with trash, it's easier to get away from real danger.

Some hands are simply more profitable than other hands overall. But the situation is more important than the absolute strength of your cards or how playable they are. Pick your cards according to the spots you find yourself in.

This article extracted from Poker Tips that Pay: Expert Strategy Guide for Winning No Limit Texas Hold em (author Jonathan Gelling, Play to Pay Publishing).
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