Starting Hand Requirements
Eventually I will introduce category F hands that will be played in a very different manner than these hands. F category hands are drawing hands that will need a lot of help on the flop to be playable, but that can be profitable in certain situations. You shouldn't be too eager to play these hands until you have at least a basic understanding of pot odds, counting outs and poker statistics. I will list the starting hands in order of relative strength, in my opinion. There is some controversy over the strength of certain starting hands, and as with most things in poker, it depends. This will be a pretty general list.
You should really be folding more than you raise, and you should raise more than you call. In Lesson #8 I'm going to give a fairly general idea of how to play the starting hands by category. I suggest a tight-aggressive playing style, which means you won't be involved with many hands but you will be aggressively attacking the pots you enter. Your tight table image should allow you to win more than your fair share of uncontested pots. Once you've established a tight table image, it may be profitable to "change gears" and raise with more hands depending on the skill level of your opponents. Table image considerations are much less important against poor players who are unlikely to pay much attention to what you're doing anyway.
Before I give you the companion list of how to bet these hands pre-flop, I want to give a little more poker theory as to why we bet in the first place. The first reason to bet is because we are after the blinds and antes. All poker games start as a battle for the antes and/or blinds. The blinds drive the action. The bigger the blinds, the more incentive there is to come into a pot. In fact, if there were no blinds or antes to compete for, there would really be no reason to bet into a pot. Everyone with half a clue would just wait for AA and the game would be pointless.
Another reason to bet is to limit the field, giving your good hand a better chance of not getting drawn out on. Betting your good hands hard also has the advantage of cutting down on the variance or money swings that would occur as a result of more players staying in the hand trying to draw against you. The reduction of variance should only really be a secondary concern in cash games, but it is of some significant importance in tournament play. We'll discuss that in more detail later on. You should think of the first or opening bet as a declaration of war. "These are my conditions, either surrender the blinds to me or we will be engaging in battle." You'll usually want to bring big guns to war only at a full table (ring game). Remember that the fewer players there are at a table, the faster the blinds will be coming around. That will limit the amount of hands you will be able to see before your chip stack is dwindled down (blinded out). Remember also that the fewer players there are at a table the less chance there is of running into multiple strong hands. These are both good reasons to open up your starting hand requirements, especially in late position.
My hand listings assume relatively small blinds, like $1 -$2 with 200 dollars in starting chips, and we will assume at least 7 players at the table. Again, the fewer players and/or the bigger the blinds, the more hands you'll have to play (the more you'll have to gamble). The smaller handed the table is, the more aggression and position come into play. This is due to the relative infrequency of players having hands that can call raises and the increased relative value of the blinds. For instance, while KQ is not an especially powerful hand at a full table (you would fold it in early position), it becomes a monster of a hand with only 4 players. When you get to one-on-one (heads up) play, anything better than Q7 is a reasonable hand, and A3o is a monster despite being a hand you would rarely ever play at a table of nine or ten players. Before I give you the pre-flop strategy that I use, I'm going to give you a list of definitions and information that will be necessary to put the strategy into effect.
When I refer to opening a pot, I mean you'll be the first one to raise the BB (Big Blind). A raise will imply there has already been an opening bet. A re-raise will mean that there has been an opener, a raise, and now you are re-raising. Often, but not always the re-raise will be an all-in bet, depending on the amount of the raises and the stack sizes in play.
When we are the first to open a pot we should usually raise 3-4 BB's, slightly more if we are coming into a pot with limpers already in. For instance, if three players already called the BB and now you make it 3BB's to go, your opponents are still getting a good price on their money to make the call. When you bet, you want to deny callers the proper pot odds they need to make a correct call. With the small and big blind, say $3, + three BB limpers or $6, there is $9 in the pot already. Your $6 do raise would make $15, and the next player to call would only need to pay $6 with a chance to win an additional $15, almost 3 to 1 on a call. That would be a fair price with even a speculative hand like AXs (an ace with any other card both of the same suite.) or 9h8h.
However, if no one has limped in before you there is much less money in the pot, making your raise much more relevant. You see, if you are the first to enter the pot and you enter for a raise of 3 BB's, now there is only a total of $9 in the pot and your opponent still has to put in $6 of his own to play for it. Now he's only getting 3 to 2 on his call. That's not a fair price for a mediocre hand to pay considering the small amount of money in the pot, but bad players will pay it anyway. It's important to keep in mind that you want them to. Most of the profit we make playing poker comes from players paying unfair prices to play too many hands. The first reason we raise the pot then is to make an attempt at the blinds. The second reason is to allow your opponent to make a mistake that will inevitably become positive EV, or profit in the long term. The third, less obvious, reason we bet is so we can begin to define the hands of our opponents.
♣ Continued at: Pre & Post-Flop Considerations
♣ Related pages: Dead Money's detailed starting poker hand analysis.
♣ Back to the index of Dead Money's guide to hold'em strategy.
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