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Hold'em Before the Flop: A Beginners Guide
In full-ring No-Limit Hold'em, deciding which hands to play and which hands to fold is the single most important factor when you first learn to play winning poker.
You may only be making flop, turn and river decisions once or twice an orbit but you will be making pre-flop decisions every single hand. It is here where you make - or should I say "save"? - valuable bets.
Money saved in the long run is as good as money earned. So start saving those bets and stop playing those marginal hands.
Coming up with a pre-flop hand guide is very difficult. There are so many determining factors when choosing which hands to play that many will argue it's impossible to come up with a true "guide" to pre-flop play.
Hence, I'm going to try and stay away from telling you to play x hand and fold y hand. But I will try and give you the information you need to make informed decisions while you are at the table.
Position Is Critical
What you can do is evaluate the strength of your hand using a sliding scale that involves position. Simply put, position is almost as important as hand quality. What may be an average to weak hand from early position can become a good to great hand in late position.
That is because playing in position is the biggest advantage one can have in Hold'em.
Early position consists of the first three spots to the left of the blinds. In general you should be playing very tight from early position, only playing your best hands.
Ideally, you want to limit the amount of time you play out of position. When you play out of position you will find it difficult to know where you stand in the hand. You will be playing a guessing game, and this will only be magnified if you are playing marginal hands.
So I can't emphasize enough: you should be playing your very tightest from early position. Hands like A-K - A-Q, A-Js, K-Qs, good pocket pairs, etc., are obviously good. However, hands like A-Jo, A-To, small suited connectors and random suited garbage should be avoided by new players.
In middle position (the spaces three to the left of early position) you face many of the same challenges you face in early position. You will often be playing hands out of position.
You will, however, have position on players in early position. So it is not as completely hopeless. In middle position you can start to add more hands to your playing range. You can't do anything crazy like limp K♠ J♦ or raise T♠ 9♠, but you can start limping hands like A♥ T♣.
Late position is where you make your money in No-Limit Hold'em. It is a veritable gold mine. Most players make the majority of their money playing from late position.
It is here where you want to seize control of the hand. You want to raise your good hands and punish the out-of-position limpers.
You will be acting after them and will gain a truckload of information from how they play their hands, information you wouldn't get out of position. In late position average hands become good hands and good hands become great hands.
Worthwhile Hands for the Neophyte
For a hand to be worth playing, it should fall into at least one of the following categories:
Big pocket pairs: AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT
These are quality already made hands. These hands expect to win at showdown a good percentage of the time without improving! You should always come in raising with these hands as they are premium holdings.
They make good pots with overpairs and make monsters when they flop a set. You should be elated every time you are dealt one.
Top-pair hands: A-K, A-Q, A-J, K-Q
These hands are good hands and should be brought in for a raise. They are excellent top pair hands. When they hit the flop they usually make top pair and they do so with a good kicker.
These are bread-and-butter type hands. Top pair is usually good enough to win the pot at showdown.
Quality speculative hands: A-xs, Q-Js, T-9s, 8-9s, 99-22
These types of hands make huge hands. They make straights and sets and flushes. These are the types of hands that make large pots when they hit. They are good to see a cheap flop with.
You can begin to limp these from middle position and onward. In general these hands play well against multiple opponents. They should typically be avoided from up front.
Weak speculative hands: 5-6s, 6-7s, T-9o, K-xs, Q-Jo, etc.
These hands are speculative but they are generally too weak to play. They are difficult to play after the flop and will sometimes make a big but still second-best hand.
You can limp this type of hand from the cut-off and from the button after a few limpers. Do not try and limp these hands from early or mid position.
If your hand doesn't fit into one of these categories, it's probably too weak to be played. In a full-ring No-Limit game you should really only be playing 19% of your hands or less. That means 80% of the time you will be out of action.
No-Limit Hold'em is already a difficult game, so don't make it any more difficult by playing too many hands.
Raising and Playing Against a Raise
Which hands to raise before the flop is a question many beginners struggle with. You should obviously be raising your premium hands.
When starting out do not slow-play your big pocket pairs. It will put you in tricky spots post-flop, so just raise before the flop and build up the pot.
You should also raise your good top pair hands - A-K, A-Q, A-J, K-Q, etc. That's because these hands are better than the average hands others will be playing. You want to build the pot when you have an edge.
Since you're going to be playing better hands than your competition (that's where your money comes from), you should be inclined to raise when you believe yourself to be a favorite before the flop.
This means you can raise more hands from late position and the button - you're a favorite not only based on your hand, but also because you're in position (remember the advantage that accrues to you from being in position).
When a player has already raised in front of you, you should tighten up substantially. When a player raises he is telling you he has a good hand... which means you need an even better hand to call him.
If, for example, you're in middle position and you would normally raise AA-99, A-K to A-J and K-Q and fold everything else, you should really only be calling your opponent's raise with the top of that range.
You don't want to play dominated hands against a raise. That will get you into trouble. If you are calling raises with A-J and the board comes ace-high, you're going to lose a lot of money trying to see if your pair of aces is good.
You want to avoid playing your dominated hands, but you can add some speculative hands in there if you are in position and there are a few callers between you.
Hands like J-Ts - 7-8s and pocket pairs all make huge hands when they hit the flop and are easy to fold when you miss. Thus you can more reliably play these hands profitably to a raise than hands like A-To and K-J.
General Guidelines: Tighter Is Better
When it comes right down to it you are on your own out there. A starting-hand chart may help you but if anything it will be too broad. You can't paint poker with some sweeping brush. Everything that goes down is situation-dependent.
It's not a game you can count on playing the exact same way all the time. There will always be many contributing factors as to which hands you can play profitably and which hands you can't.
What that means is you have to look at each situation independently. How are your opponents playing? How is your position? How many players are in the pot? How is your table image? How is your hand strength? Do you have a top pair hand or a speculative hand? Should you raise or just call?
You must constantly be asking yourself questions. Ask yourself where your profit is going to come from in the hand.
When you first start out you should begin by playing very tight; this will make your decisions on later streets easier. If you play random marginal hands you're going to be put into difficult spots. So avoid those. By playing only premium holdings you will not get into trouble after the flop.
As you improve post-flop you can add more hands to your pre-flop starting range, because as you gain more experience you will learn how to react in those difficult spots.
Until then, keep your hands premium and your decisions easy.
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