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Holdem Lesson 1: Before the Flop

PLAY TIGHT

Perhaps the biggest mistake most below average players make is their insistence on playing lousy hands before the flop. There are 1326 possible starting hands in Texas Hold 'em, and only a fraction of those are profitable. Why? Because Hold 'em is a game with community cards, which means the best starting hand will, on the average, finish as the best hand more often than in other poker games.

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Consider the following example: Before the flop, I have ace-ten, and you have ace-jack. At this point, the only way I can win (except for a fluky flush or straight) is to catch one of the three remaining tens in the deck while you don't catch a jack. If the flop yields neither a ten nor a jack, you're still ahead, and I will have to catch a ten on either the turn or the river to win. Even if the flop brings an ace, I will still need to catch a ten since you have a pair of aces, too. If the flop brings a jack but no ten I'm in real trouble, since now I have to catch ‘running tens’—i.e., a ten on both the turn and the river card, which is about a 400-1 shot.

This isn't the case in a game like 7 card stud, where hand values can change dramatically as more upcards are revealed. If we’re playing stud, for example, your ace-jack is still a favorite to my ace-ten. But I have the chance to catch a small pair, or an ace, which will help my hand while not helping yours. In stud, our hands are independent. In Hold 'em, they are not. As all stud players will tell you, there are few things more aggravating than starting with a strong hand, like a pair of kings or aces, only to be ‘run down’on seventh street by a small two pair. But in hold 'em you don't have this problem (or at least it's not as pronounced), since if the board brings a pair, thereby giving your opponent two pair, you also have improved to two pair.

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This aspect of hold 'em makes it absolutely critical that you show great discretion when deciding with which starting hands you will enter a pot. Generally speaking, you should be folding before the flop about 80% of the time (Party Poker makes it easy to see how often you are playing the flop – right click on your seat and select ‘Show Statistics.’  On other sites there is typically a ‘statistics’button you can click on).  If you are seeing the flop a lot more than 25% of the time, YOU WILL NOT WIN LONG TERM.  You may get lucky, and have a great run, but there is no way you can be a consistent winner.  You will see other players playing the flop much more frequently, and sometimes you will see them winning.  Do not be fooled.  Those players are not winning long term.  The main concept here is this:  fold until you are dealt a strong starting hand.  When you have a strong starting hand, make as much money with it as possible or lose as little money with it as possible. 

So how do you know when you have a strong starting hand?  In 1976, David Sklansky, a very famous and well-respected poker strategist published a book entitled Hold'em Poker in which he ranked starting hands on a scale.  His system showed the relative value of playable starting hands.  Following you will find our system for classifying starting hands, which varies from Sklansky’s.  Starting hands that are not ranked are not considered playable hands, i.e. you should always fold those hands. The exception to this, of course, is if you are in the big blind and nobody has raised. Then, since you've already posted the requisite amount to see the flop, you should check and take advantage of the opportunity to see the flop for "free".

Classes 3-7, the suited hands and small pairs.

As a rule, these hands (e.g., the nine of clubs and the ten of clubs, or the ace of hearts and the six of hearts) do better in situations where many players are contesting the pot. This is because much of the equity from these hands comes from their ability to make straights, flushes, and sets (three-of-a-kind) which are strong hands and usually good enough to drag the pot. However, since these hands don’t happen all that often, you’d like as many players as possible in the pot, to insure that your ‘pay off’is as high as possible those times you do win the pot.

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A good rule of thumb is this: take the number of the class in which the hand has been listed and subtract two. If the number of players who have already called (not raised) is equal to or greater than the number you come up with, you can profitably play the hand.  For example, A9s (poker shorthand for an ace and a nine of the same suit) is a ‘class 5’hand. If you subtract two from five, you get three. Therefore, you need at least three players to have already called in order for you to play.

A9s = class 5, so: 5 - 2 = 3, therefore: you need at least 3 callers before you in order to call.

You may have noticed that if you happen to be in early position, you cannot call as often as you can if you are in late position.  Using the above example, you cannot correctly call A9s if you are in first, second, or third position because it would be impossible for there to have been three callers before it is your turn.  Your relative position is an important aspect of the game.  When you are in early position, you don’t have the advantage on seeing how well other players like their hands before it is your turn.  When you are in late position you are able to make more informed decisions about whether to bet, raise, or fold based on what the players before you have done. 

The exception to the 'rule of thumb'  occurs with KQ and AJ, where the two cards are not of the same suit. With these hands you usually want to be in middle position before you consider entering the pot. If you are in middle position, call. If everyone has folded to you, and you have one of these two hands, strongly consider raising with them. You can still just call if you're only four or five players to the left of the big blind, but as you get closer to the button a raise become more necessary IF nobody else has yet entered the pot. This is because you’d like to limit the number of players that are going to enter the pot, which is an objective you can frequently accomplish by raising. These hands do better in situations where there are few players contesting the pot. If someone calls in between you and the blinds it's still not a disaster, since you'll flop ‘top pair’(example: you have KQ and the flop comes QT7, or KJ5) about 1/3 of the time, and usually this will be the best hand on the flop.

Class 8: The big, unsuited hands.

These are still OK hands, but most players lose way too much money with them. I don’t put a lot of stock in these hands (although I'll still play them when the conditions are right), since it's very easy to end up with a second-best hand (for a more detailed treatment on this subject, read ‘Hold em for Advanced Players). I only recommend playing these hands either on the button or one position to the right of the button. Also, you’d like to have few callers already in the pot when you play these hands, since it’s then more likely you'll win the pot when you only flop top pair. There will be times when you'll be sorely tempted to play these hands in early and middle position, since you'll usually see your opponents doing just that—and often dragging big pots with them in the process. When you feel this urge, fight it off! These hands are trouble. Remember earlier, when I discussed how AT plays against AJ? Well, the same considerations apply here.

Classes 1-2: Big pocket pairs, and big suited hands.

Ah, yes. Just like Vanessa Williams, I 'went and saved the best for last'. In general, these are your 'money makers' in hold 'em. With hands like pocket aces and pocket kings, along with ace-king suited, you'll typically want to raise and reraise before the flop in an effort to get as much money in the middle as possible. The other hands listed here are also premium hands, although there are spots with these when you’d just rather call before the flop as opposed to raising, or just call a raise as opposed to reraising.

These two classes often play the same pre-flop, in that you'll often be raising with hands from both classes IF nobody else has raised in front of you. But, there are some subtle differences in the way these hands are played pre-flop.

Situation 1) Two or fewer callers in front of you.
I raise with all the hands in both classes in this spot. You can consider just calling with pocket J's, T's and 9's if the game is quite ‘loose’, meaning you'd expect at least five players to see the flop if you raised.

Situation 2) Three or more callers in front of you.
Just call with pocket J’s and T's, and raise with the rest of the hands.

Situation 3) Someone has already raised.
This spot is tricky. IF I think I can get it down to less than four players seeing the flop, I’ll reraise with pocket Jacks through Aces and AK, and call with the rest of the hands. If I think there will be five players seeing the flop no matter what I do, I'll reraise with AA, KK, QQ, AKs and just call with the rest of the hands..

Situation 4) Someone has raised, and someone else has reraised. 
I fold with everything except AA, KK, AKs, QQ if the three-bettor is a reasonable player. If you hold AA or KK you need to four-bet. With AKs and QQ you can just call.. The exception to this is when someone has ‘open-raised’(i.e., a player has raised and nobody who acted before him had either raised or called) on the button, or one to the right of the button, and the player in the small blind has reraised. At this point I’ll call in the big blind with the J’s, the AK and the AQs. If I think that by reraising again (otherwise known as ‘four betting’) I can get the button to fold, I’ll four-bet.

In some spots, these rules may seem counterintuitive; for example, you may be wondering why I’d just call with pocket J’s in situation #2, and raise with AQs. After all, aren’t pocket J’s a stronger hand? Well, yes and no. If we were to play JJ vs. AQs heads-up, with no future betting, then the J’s are a slight favorite. However, you have to consider how these hands play. With J’s, T’s, and 9’s it’s very easy for a one or more cards to flop that are higher than your pair; when this happens, it becomes difficult to play your hand well. Notice that if you have TT, and the flop comes As 9s 6h, you only have two wins (one of the two remaining T’s) against someone holding an ace. If someone bets you’ll often have to fold, since you don’t have much of a chance of improving to the best hand AND you can’t be at all sure that you have the best hand now. With a hand like AQs, you’ll ‘flop good’about 40% of the time; roughly 10% of the time you’ll flop a flush draw (two cards on the flop that are the same suit as your hand), and about 30% of the time you’ll flop either an A or a Q. Hence, 40% of the time you’ll get a flop that allows you to profitably bet, raise and even reraise.

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