Pre-Flop Holdem Strategy: Your First Chance to Get a Read
When all the players get dealt hole cards, the first thing everybody wants to do is look at their cards. But here's the Catch-22. If you're looking at your hole cards, you're not watching the other players while they look at theirs. This is your first chance to get 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.
Pick the Most Important Player to Watch
You can't watch everyone obviously so you'll have to pick 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!
As a good rule of thumb, 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 don't look at their cards until it is their turn to act.
The other thing to watch at this point:
- What players 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.
How to Play Pre-Flop: What Happened Before?
How you play your cards pre-flop depends on many factors. The most important are:
- Your two cards
- Your position
- What's happened before you
How you then go on and 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? There are three reasons to raise in a cash game:
- Isolating the field: Your raise will force only the players willing to play in a raised pot with you to call. 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)
- 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.
- 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'll then want to keep the pot small and put in as little money as you can until you can acquire more equity than your opponents in the hand. For more on your pre-flop equity with certain hands, check this article here:
Common Guidelines for Pre-Flop Hands
There's 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.
The only time 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're 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.
For more on which Texas Holdem Starting Hands to play, see:
How to Play Pre-Flop: Playing Behind a Raiser
This is one of the most important and difficult strategies to master in pre-flop play and it's where the Gap Concept comes into play.
The gap concept is simple: it takes a much stronger hand to call a raise than it would to make a raise.
Poker can get a little counterintuitive when there are pre-flop raises. Unless you have reason to believe otherwise, when someone raises you have to assume they have a premium hand.
This means that calling with marginal hands containing high cards can be a very big mistake. For a beginner, it can be less disastrous to call a raise with a rag hand than to call with a high marginal hand.
How to Play Pre-Flop: Calling with a Marginal Hand
If we assume the original raiser has a premium hand then you would make a call against them strictly to try and "crack" the hand they have.
It's better to call the raise with 8-9 suited than A-Q suited or offsuit.
A-Q is completely dominated by A-K, AA and QQ. So three of the five most probable hands the raiser holds have you absolutely dominated.
If you're against KK you're in better shape than against any of the last three hands, but you're still a major dog. The only hand you have a chance with is JJ. Even against that you are approximately 45% to win.
Now, on paper 8-9 suited against all five of the premium hands is a serious dog. The difference is it's cheap.
If you call with A♦ Q♠, on a flop of A♥ 2♦ 3♠ you'll lose significant money against AA and A-K. If you flop Q♦ 2♥ 3♠ you lose your stack to AA and KK.
If you make the call with 8-9 suited and you flop 9♦ 2♥ 3♠, you're only ahead of one of the five hands your opponent might have.
It's an easy fold; you lose nothing. But if you flop 8♦ 9♠ 3♥ you double up.
On paper you win more hands with A-Q than with 8-9 suited. The difference is that you win smaller pots with A-Q and lose your entire stack when it goes bad.
With 8-9 suited you win very large pots or lose almost nothing. At a full-table cash game with a tight table image, in the long run you can make more money with the 8-9 suited hands than with A-Q.
How to Play Pre-Flop: The Premium Hand
What if you have a premium hand? This is where serious money is lost and won at poker tables.
It's possible but very difficult to fold KK pre-flop. When KK runs into AA, one person usually ends up very upset.
The calls or folds you make in these situations are what separate a good poker player from a great one. It's different every time; every hand is up for debate. But, as a general rule:
- It's better to let yourself get bluffed and lose one bet than to make a bad call and lose your entire stack
With KK behind a raise, most of the time you will come over the top. The rationale for doing so is the same as that for making the original raise: to increase the pot size (because you're assuming you have the best hand at this point) and to isolate.
You don't want any players behind you to call. If you're the last player to act pre-flop, and you're already isolated, it's not a bad idea to smooth-call and hide the strength of your hand.
The disadvantage to this play is that you get no more information from the opponent. If he holds AA, you are in a world of pain. If he has QQ, you're one happy sunnuvagun.
By re-raising the original raiser pre-flop you will learn a lot about his hand. Against weaker players, AA will push all-in or immediately call.
Anything else will usually fold or have to take a long think before they make any play. (Note: Every hand, table and player is unique. These are guidelines, not rules).
How to Play Pre-Flop: Overcalling
The gap concept applies even more strongly to overcalling then to calling an original raiser. Once there is a raise and a re-raise, as a tight-aggressive player it becomes very difficult to do anything but fold.
All poker professionals (in the past) have said the same thing:
- After a raise and a re-raise, you usually should fold QQ pre-flop
Calling a raise and a re-raise pre-flop with a hand such as 8-9 suited is also usually a mistake. A raise and a re-raise usually mean you'd be cold-calling six big bets. It also means that the betting has been reopened.
The original raiser is going to call, fold or push all-in. Unless it was a strict bluff the original raiser will almost never fold in this situation.
If you call, the odds he is being given makes it an easy call with almost any decent hand.
If he does have AA he will most likely move all-in. Players can make that move with all five of the premium hands as well as with some marginal ones.
This means you're running a very large risk that you're throwing away the call. (If the original raiser moves all-in you're forced to muck your hand, losing the chips invested in the original call.)
How to Play Pre-Flop: The Limp Re-Raise
Another powerful move you can make pre-flop is the limp re-raise. Having a premium hand in early position it can pay well to limp with the intention of coming over the top of anyone who makes a raise.
This works best at a very active and aggressive table. If there have been no raises on the table for the last hour, such a move is simply reckless. Limp re-raising does one of three things:
- The original raiser will fold and you make a quick three-bet.
- The player calls or raises, putting you into a very large pot with (hopefully) the most equity.
- It helps to neutralize your lack of position. A limp re-raise shows significant strength. It's rarely done with a hand other than the five premiums. Out of those, it's most common for it to be AA or KK.
For this reason alone it's almost always a mistake to play into or against a limp re-raise by a weak-to-average player.
The disadvantage to this maneuver comes when no one raises. In this scenario you'll find yourself in a multi-way pot, out of position.
If you're playing AA and don't hit a set on the flop then you have to remember that all you have is one pair. Anyone willing to call any large bets at this point has a decent chance at having a random two pair or made hand.
If you play the hand hard and fast you will lose a big pot against anything other than an overplayed top pair.
How to Play Pre-Flop: Pay Attention After You Fold
When you fold a hand, pre-flop or post-flop, it doesn't mean you're finished playing the hand. Every hand that plays out at the table is laden with valuable information.
It's usually easier to pick up information on how a person is playing when you're not in the hand. You don't have to worry about how to play your hand; this in turn allows you to concentrate on how they're playing theirs.
The more information you can gather on someone the further in advance of having to face a difficult situation against them, the more likely you are to make the right decision.
How to Play Pre-Flop in Poker Tournaments
The story is very different if you're playing in a tournament as opposed to in a cash game. All of the previous advice becomes completely obsolete in certain tourney situations.
Tournament poker is more dynamic than cash games. Cash games stay rather constant; in a tournament, the pressure of mounting blinds adds different elements to the game that are not present in a cash game.
A significant amount of the bluffs and high-level moves made in cash games are very subtle. When you are perpetually deep-stacked you can play a constant long-ball game.
The shrinking stack sizes due to climbing blinds mean that the majority of tourney play remains exclusively small-ball. For more on Strategy in Poker Tournaments, check our detailed section here.
Every Hand Should Have a Game Plan
Making strong decisions pre-flop will make your choices on the subsequent streets easier, greatly improving your chance of taking down the pot. Remember: every play you make at a poker table should be done for a specific reason.
Every hand you play should have its own game plan. Using what you read in this article will provide you with the tools you need to create and execute strong, winning game plans!