Allen "Chainsaw" Kessler: Strong proponent of a squeaky-tight pre-flop game.
Hold'em is a very difficult game. As everyone's favorite WPT announcer Mike Sexton always says, it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.
Truer words were never spoken.
Most people play far too many hands and take them too far when they start to play Hold'em.
One of the first things you learn when you decide to become a winning player is to play tight - that is, to play fewer hands.
You do this because when you play only quality starting hands, it makes your play on later streets much easier.
Essential When Learning to Play Winning Poker
Playing tight is absolutely fundamental when learning to play winning poker.
I say winning poker because everyone knows how to play poker but few know how to play winning poker.
Your initial decision whether to continue with a hand or not will be made before the flop.
Unlike on the flop and turn, which you might only find yourself playing once or twice an orbit, you're making pre-flop decisions every single hand you play.
If you play too loose pre-flop, you're costing yourself money every time you play a hand you shouldn't.
Thus it's imperative the first strategy you master is playing tight before the flop.
Only the Very Best
Before the flop you should be playing only the very best of starting hands.
You should look for hands that are already monsters - AA, KK, QQ, etc. Play top-pair hands - i.e. ones that make top pair and when they do, do so with a good kicker.
For example: A-K, A-Q, K-Q, etc. You can also play quality speculative hands, hands that flop big and take down big pots - e.g. T-9s, 8-9s, small pocket pairs, etc.
All other hands should be avoided like the plague.
Not only do they show a negative expectation (see "EV explained"), they're also very difficult to play after the flop.
A hand like K-5s may look good, being a king and suited, but appearances are deceiving here. This is in fact a very weak hand.
When it pairs its five, the five is seldom the top pair on the flop. When it pairs its king, it only has a five kicker and will often find itself outkicked at showdown.
That's the nature of this hand and similar ones: they make poker a guessing game. You can never be sure of where you stand.
They also leave you no possibility of making a straight.
Don't Be Fooled by the Flush
You may think that all of this is overcome by the hand's ability to make a flush. No such luck. Being suited only adds 2% to its overall likelihood of winning.
Generally speaking, if you would fold a hand offsuit, you should probably fold it suited.
Flushes don't come around nearly often enough to make up for the downfalls of a poor starting hand. So stop limping weak hands just because they're suited.
Contrast that with a hand like A-K.
When A-K hits the flop you make top pair with the best kicker. You're never going to be outkicked at showdown.
You can play this hand confidently - you know where you stand in the hand. "Guessing" is minimized.
Know Shere You Stand
This is why playing excellent starting hands make the later streets easier.
When you hit you know where you stand. You have a quality hand that can see a showdown.
You're rarely going to find yourself outkicked.
If you only play hands that show a positive expectation pre-flop, the rest of your game will fall into place.
Your good pre-flop hands are going to make good post-flop hands, and you'll find your decisions on later streets getting easier and easier the more trash hands you eliminate from your pre-flop holdings.
Don't Take it Too Far
An extreme example of tight play would be if you decided to only play aces, kings and queens and you would fold everything else.
This would make your play at the flop and after it very easy. There would be literally no guessing game.
If you held an overpair you would bet; if not, you'd slow down. Marginal decisions would be eliminated. Everything would be black and white.
This style, of course, is highly exploitable and would never be profitable; it's merely an example of how playing tight makes things easier on the later streets.
I would never advise only playing aces and kings, but that would be a better strategy than playing every hand that comes your way.
The Best Strategy is Somewhere in the Middle
Obviously the best strategy is somewhere in the middle. Fold your weak hands but play your strong hands aggressively.
In closing I'll leave you with this thought: Every time you make a mistake at a No-Limit Hold'em table you run the risk of going broke.
As an amateur and a student of the game you are guaranteed to make multiple mistakes in every session.
The more marginal hands you play, the more difficult your decisions will be, meaning the more mistakes you will make. So the more mistakes you make the more often you're going to find yourself getting stacked.
Start out only with quality holdings and make the rest of your decisions easier.
More strategy articles by Dan Skolovy:
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