Do I call, raise or fold?
That's probably the first thought you'll have when playing poker for the first time.
It's such a paradoxical question because at the heart of it lies simplicity - yet we often fool ourselves into believing it's so complicated.
If you want to learn to become a better poker player you must make sure that your foundation is strong. Hand selection is part of that foundation.
It's the springboard from which all your moves will leap, so I enlisted the help of one of the world’s best tournament players, Anton Wigg, to help you build that foundation.
Don't Play Weak Hands in Early Position
The biggest mistake beginners make when playing poker for the first time is playing too many hands.
It’s a game and you want to be in the thick of the action. A thought that's compounded by the fact you keep seeing flop combinations you would have smashed and you've now convinced yourself there's always value in those three ever-changing cards.
“The main mistake that beginners make," Wigg says, "is to play weak hands in early position. The net result is a post-flop experience where you are out of position with a weaker holding than a player who is better than you.
"This is especially true before the antes kick in because there isn’t really that much to play for in the middle.”
Hand selection really does depend on a lot of factors and it’s important to remember that poker is fluid and not fixed. There is no "one size fits all" answer in poker.
But when building your foundation as a beginner it does make sense to take this approach until you gain experience.
Build and Use Hand Selection Charts
With this in mind it makes sense to construct some simple hand-selection charts you can refer to when playing. Charts that show you what hands to play and from what position.
Your decisions will vary based on stack sizes and player’s abilities and tendencies, but the hand selection chart is as good a starting point as any.
“Hand selection charts are a great way of learning the pre-flop basics," Wigg says. "At this point it’s all about getting the foundation of your game solid.
"Being smart about how you get your money into the middle is vital and people are getting very good at this part of their game. The more the game evolves the better people are getting at taking the very minutiae of edges.
“Yet despite using a hand selection chart as a starting point, it’s important to remember that it will only teach you so much," Wigg adds. "Experience is always the master in these situations, so get involved, have fun and learn from your mistakes.”
So how do we create a hand selection chart? To simplify things it’s best to break hand selection down into table positions: early position, middle position and late position.
Don't Get Caught in Calling-Station Mode
“Opening hands from early position creates vulnerability because you're going to be making most of your post flop decisions from out of position," says Wigg. "Given your lack of experience it’s important that you enter post-flop situations with a much stronger hand range than your opponent.
“Make sure your game is pretty tight from this position unless your table gives you reason to deviate away from this strategy. You want to make your post-flop decisions as simple as possible so play hands like:
- KJs and QJs
“The basic rules are to only open strong hands so you can get to the flop with a better hand than your opponent, therefore making your decisions nice and simple.
"We have more suited cards in our range because we will have around 5% more equity when we go to the flop, but more importantly we will flop draws much more often and this allows us to play our hands far more aggressively and that turns a higher profit.
“We don’t open all of our pocket pairs because they have very little equity post flop. A beginner will start out with a strategy to just set mine and then get caught in a "calling station" mentality when they miss the board but start believing their hand is good.
“Very often you are proceeding with only two outs and this is not a great strategy. There is also a tendency to try and bluff your way through the hand and this is not the way to keep your approach simple.”
Middle Position - Keep Your Hand Range Tight
“Once again keep your hand range nice and tight," Wigg says, "to compensate for your lack of experience.
"You can now start to open KTs & QTs if you feel comfortable at this table and your opponents aren’t playing very aggressively, pocket pairs down to fives, KQo and AJo -- but the same premise remains as discussed with early position ranges.”
Late Position - Adapt to Your Table, Focus on Range
“When opening from late position you have to consider the tendencies of the players in the blinds but this is not as important as focusing on the strength of your range.
"If they are very aggressive then just react by tightening your range a little. Poker is all about adapting to your table and making the best decision possible with the information you have.
“You can now open up all value hands -- pocket pairs all the way down to deuces and a lot more suited connectors, things like that. You don’t have that many people to get through from late position so it is less likely that you will run into a big hand.
“If the players in the blinds are very passive and are folding with impunity then just open a wider range. Keep playing with your boundaries until you have a reason to hem them back in again.
“Just remember that poker is not a game where you get points for winning every pot you play in. Focus on playing strong hands and winning the bloated pots,” says Wigg.
Small Blind - Open With Middle Position Range
“The small blind is a very interesting spot to play because if you are just calling you don’t usually have a very good hand and a decent player in the big blind will recognize this. If the opener has a wide range and your big blind is switched on then they can take advantage by squeezing a lot and this gives you a difficult decision.
“A lot of players have started to three-bet most of their range from the small blind because if they call they will be out of position for the rest of the hand. It’s important to remember that you will be three-betting for value, so for a beginner there's nothing wrong with just folding the lower part of your value range in this spot.
“You can also mix up your play by flatting (calling) with some stronger hands if you notice the big blind does have a tendency to squeeze much lighter. Most of all do not get attached to the money you have put into the pot.
"It’s not your money. Consider it as money you have to forfeit each orbit.
“If the action folds around to you in the small blind, and you only have the big blind to get through, then understand how he or she is playing.
It’s very tough to give advice in this spot because the game is so dynamic, but a good rule of thumb for the beginner is to open with a middle position type of range until you're given a reason to do otherwise.”
Defending From Big Blind - Beware the Raggedy Ace
“When you're playing pre-ante poker there is very little to defend," Wigg says. "Once again remember that your job as a beginner is to make your decision as simple as possible and you do this by trying to play in position and getting your opponent to get it in with a weaker hand.
“You don’t achieve these goals by defending with a raggedy ace from the big blind. If, for example, you defend with A2o and hit an ace … what are you going to do next?”
Bluffing - Keep Things Simple
“When attempting to bluff, the beginner player should have good reason for it and be able to tell a convincing story," Wigg says. "Just keep things simple.”
3-Betting - Build the Pot with Your Strongest Hands
“Your only focus when three betting is to bloat the pot with your strongest hands. Keep things simple. If someone is opening super wide, however, you do have to open your three-betting range but pay particular attention to the position of the opener.
"Remember that if the raise comes from early position and you three-bet from middle position you could still have 5-6 players to get through.
“If you're three-betting as a bluff a good stack to focus on is between 22-26BB because your move handicaps the opener. Say he opens to 2BBs and you three bet to 5BBs he really can’t do anything other than shove or fold.
"He has to risk 25BB to win 8BB and he has to be successful a high percentage of the time to make a profit,” says Wigg.
Blind Stealing & Antes - It's Basic Math
“Always keep a lookout for stack sizes between 5 and 18BB. If there are a lot of these stack sizes behind you then tighten your range as they will be looking for spots to move all-in.
"You can’t bleed by open/folding, you need to raise and call it off and make a profit like that.
“When the antes have kicked in it’s important to be more aggressive from late position so open a wider range to keep afloat. It’s basic math.
"You only have to steal the blinds and antes once an orbit to keep the same stack size. So look for that spot and exploit it. It’s all about surviving whilst increasing your stack.”
Limpers - Learn to Become the Aggressor
“One of the important lessons in poker is to learn to become the aggressor. If someone is limping in front of you, then raise," Wigg says.
"You need a very good reason to limp behind, so always be thinking 'why am I limping in this spot?’ Your opponent should be making all of the tough decisions - not you.”