Hold'em Pre-Flop Play Part 1: The First Bet

Ted Forrest, Eli Elezra

Some of the most important decisions you will make in a hand happen before the flop.

This means that one of the most important aspects of Hold'em poker occurs when you have the least amount of information about the hand.

How you play your hand pre-flop will change the speed and set the tone for how the final three streets will play.

Before You Look at Your Cards

When the dealer deals out all 20 cards, the first thing every person wants to do is look at their hole cards.

If you're looking at your hole cards as soon as they are dealt to you, then you're not watching the other players while they look at their own hole cards.

This is your first chance at getting a read on an opponent's hand. Don't miss it. Your cards are not going to change. You have no need to look at them until it's your turn to act.

You're going to have to choose whom to watch while the whole table is looking at their cards. It's up to you to decide who's most important to scrutinize.

Unless I have specific reasons not to, I feel it's a good rule of thumb to watch the players who are to act after you pre-flop.

If you know (or strongly suspect) what the players behind you are about to do, you may want to rethink the pre-flop actions you had in mind.

Some players are not worth watching. These are, first, the players who are so transparent that if you miss anything pre-flop, it won't matter because you'll get all the info you need on the subsequent streets.

Secondly, there are other players who simply do not give off any tells while looking at their cards, or do not look at their cards until it is their turn to act.

The other thing to watch at this point is what they do after they look at their cards. If a player looks and sees a hand he's going to want to raise, it's common for lots of amateur players to get the raise ready and hold it in their hand, ready to go.

Alessandro Pastura thinking
Alessandro Pastura checking his holdings.

Limp vs. Raise

How you play your cards pre-flop depends on many factors. The most important are your two cards, your position and what's happened before you.

How you play your hands depends on countless factors - your aggression level, playing style, table image, opponents... the list goes on. Here is where it gets tricky to teach.

No matter what style of poker you're playing, you almost always want to be heads-up going to the flop with a premium hand.

Why do we raise? I constantly encounter poker players who know what a raise is, and make them constantly, without knowing exactly what the end purpose of a raise is.

There are three reasons to raise in a cash game:

  1. Isolating the field: Your raise will force only the players willing to play in a raised pot with you to call. As I said previously, you almost always want to be heads-up with a premium hand. The reason for this is mostly math. Pocket aces will almost always beat any other pocket pair. Add a second player with another pocket pair to the hand and your chance at losing the pot doubles. You go from having two outs against you to having four (not including straights and flushes).
  2. Pot equity: Since you almost certainly have the best hand, this means you have the most equity in the pot. Therefore you want to have as much money in this pot as possible.
  3. Fold equity: Fold equity is simple; your raise tells the other players that you have a strong hand. No matter if your hand improves on the flop or not, fold equity gives you the credit you need for your opponents' to lay-down to you.

If you don't have the legitimate best hand, then you don't have the most equity in the pot. You're going to want to keep the pot small, putting in as little money as you can until you can acquire more equity than your opponents in the hand.

There is no set way to play each type of hand pre-flop. But there are some common guidelines. With premium hands in middle to late position in an unopened pot (meaning there is no raise ahead of you), you almost always want to come in for a raise.

Hasan Habib
Hasan Habib makes his play.

The only times you won't raise in this situation is if you're mixing it up, or have a good reason to try a limp re-raise.

In the same situation with a marginal hand, you should be both raising and limping. What you choose depends on the table, the hand and your table image. If you are trying to make your table image more aggressive and active, then these are the types of hands you want to be raising.

Otherwise you want to be limping. With low pocket pairs, it's common to limp, and live by the maxim "no set = no bet" post-flop.

Until you are able to consistently outplay the other players on a table, there is no reason to play rags. Rags have almost no equity; therefore they are a losing proposition, unless you have reasons for wanting to play them that trump winning the current pot.

So far we've only covered a small number of pre-flop situations. Part two of this article will look at more pre-flop situations including how to play behind a raiser.

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