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StrategyFixed Limit

Pre-flop: Fundamental Concepts

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Introduction

In this article
  • Tight is right
  • When is a hand strong
  • Powerhouse hands are your friends

Even before the first three community cards are dealt (the flop), you need to decide whether your hand can be played or not.

During pre-flop play, most of your opponents will already make some big mistakes, such as playing too many weak starting hands. Because of this, it is important for you as a prospective poker player, to select your starting hands carefully in order to play profitably.

This article will explain some basic concepts of pre-flop play, needed to have an advantage over your opponents and make a profit.

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Extended charts for playing before the flop

An overview on the mathematics of poker - Odds and Outs

Video: Pre-flop fundamentals
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Tight is right!

There are no silver and bronze medals in poker. The best hand simply wins the pot and the money. The most important criteria for profitable play in Fixed Limit Hold'em is to only play the occasional, strong starting hands. This is called tightness and requires a certain amount of patience and discipline.

As stated previously, many opponents will make mistakes before the flop by playing weak starting hands. These hands don't have a positive expected outcome, but players play just because they like to see the flop and hope to hit something.

You can exploit these mistakes by being disciplined and patient. By only playing strong starting hands, you have an advantage over your opponents' holdings, and this will be very profitable for you long term.

Expected Value

The expected value, or EV, of a hand is it's average profit or loss when you play it.

You can find the results of over 122 million real money played hands on the internet. With such a big sample, we can get a very close approximation of the value of every starting hand.

Unsurprisingly, the best starting hand is AA with an expected value of 2.32 big bets (for the average player). If we continue checking the list, we can find the expected value of every single starting hand very quickly.

The best unpaired starting hand is AKs with an EV of 0.77 (5th place overall). From 6th place on, the expected value is less than the value of the blinds. A strong hand like AJo only has an expected value of 0.19BB. T9s is 0.05 and A2s is a break even value of 0 (no win, no loss). It is in 40th/169 place)

Attributes of unpaired starting hands

Most starting hands are unpaired hands (94.1%). Only 5.9% of all hands are pocket pairs. The strength of unpaired hands can be evaluated by categorising them according to three different criteria.

In multiway pots, the winning hand is in most cases somewhere between a one pair and a full house. All non-pair hands have the same probability of improving to a 2 pair, trips or a full house. The main difference is the probability of making a top pair, straights and flushes.

DIFFERENT ATTRIBUTES OF STARTING HANDS
The 3 important attributes for hand evaluation of non-pair hands are (in order of importance):
  • High card strength
    The higher the starting hand, the bigger the chance of making top pair
  • Being suited
    If both starting hands are of the same suit, then the chance of making a flush is naturally higher.
  • Being connected
    The closer the two pocket cards are, the bigger the chance of making a straight.
EXAMPLES

A J has good high card strength. It is suited, but not very connected (there is only one possible straight with both hole cards).

65 is connected (maximum number of straights possible), yet it has no high card strength and is unsuited.

A8 has high card strength with the ace, but is neither connected nor suited.

WHEN IS A STARTING HAND STRONG?

For a hand to be playable out of the blinds, it should be strong in at least two of the above three categories. Hands like J2 and 65 are not above average. They have value in terms of suitedness and connectivity respectively, but lack any other strong characteristics that would make them worthy of investing money in the pot.

The most important attribute is high card strength. High aces like AKo and AQo are strong hands, even if they are unsuited and will only contribute to one single straight with both hole cards. The other unsuited broadway combinations ("broadway" means two cards T and higher) are playable only from late position when the pot is unraised. Weaker offsuit hands should not be played.

Because of following reasons, hands with 2 high cards are much more profitable than hands with one high card:

  • It is possible to make top pair with both hole cards
  • You have a good kicker for your potential top pair

Domination

Through the use of the community cards in Texas Hold'em a special situation arises: domination.

If for example, you have AK against another player's A8, the player with the smaller kicker (in this case the player with A8) is dominated. If an ace appears on the board, the dominated player will have an expensive second best hand and will very often pay the other off until the river.

An even bigger form of domination is when one player has a pocket pair, versus another player with one card of the same rank and a lower card, e.g. QQ vs QT. In this case it is impossible for the player with QT to win at the showdown with only a top pair.

Dominated hands have a lower chance of making a top pair. This gets especially expensive when there are few players involved in the hand. Indeed, if the pot is only 2 or 3 handed, the player with the highest pair tends to win the pot.

Domination isn't such a problem in multi-way pots, since the more players there are, the bigger the chance of straights and flushes. This means that you won't make the showdown that easily with a hand like top pair.

To illustrate this issue, you will find some examples of pre-flop all-in situations. The probabilities are calculated with a simulation tool, whose use will be explained later in the Gold strategy section.

EXAMPLES
  • AA vs. 77 - 79.7 : 20,3
    Starting hand 77 loses against AA 79.7% of the time. In 20.3% of all cases, 77 wins
  • AKo vs. AQo - 74.4% : 25.6%
  • AA vs. KJo - 86.7% : 13.3%
  • KK vs. KJo - 90.9% : 9.1%
  • AKo vs. JTo - 62.6% : 37.4%
  • AQo vs. KJs - 59.2% : 40.8%

The importance of the late position

An important factor in determining the playability of a starting hand is your position at the table. The more players acting before you, the more information you have on the relative strength of your hand. And when the pot hasn't been raised yet, the smaller the probability that someone has a premium hand like a high pair.

The importance of late position is noticeable in all betting rounds of Texas Hold'em. You will have more information about your opponents' hands and will therefore know how to act profitably.

Speculative hands like suited connectors (e.g. 98) should only be played for a small investment pre-flop. In a late position, it is easier to get in cheaply.

With a medium strength top pair hand like KTo, there is a real risk of domination. These hands should only be played in late position and with an unraised pot. If you enter in early or middle position, there is too much of a chance of a player after you having a premium starting hand and raising, making it a losing situation for you.

Advantages of suited starting hands

If you play with suited starting hands, you will improve your hand to a flush 6% of the time. Because of this rather rare occurance, some people think that suited and unsuited starting hands are pretty much equal. This is definitely wrong.

Even if you don’t improve to a flush that often, the profit that you make is enormous. A flush usually wins the showdown, even in multiway pots. These pots can be very big and winning them makes the difference between suited and unsuited hands huge.

Remember that a difference in win rate from 16% to 20% is not a 4% increase, but a 25% increase!

You should keep the following factors in mind: one pair on the flop is only medium strong, whereas one pair with a flush draw is always a strong hand.

The stronger your hand on the flop, the more aggressive you should be with it.

Sometimes you will start with a flush draw on the flop and will win the showdown with a completely different hand, for example with two pair or a three of a kind.

Additionally, when holding a draw and playing agressivley, it is possible to win before the showdown. Your opponents might have weak hands and fold to your aggression.

Three categories of profitable starting hands

TOP PAIR HANDS

Top pair hands consist of two high cards: T and higher (also called "broadway" hands). These hands will often win small and medium pots with a top pair, but they rarely become very strong hands after the flop. Players with a top pair therefore need to watch out for players with a possible draw.

You need to play top pair hands very aggressively before and after the flop, as long as you can speculate that you are ahead of another player's hand. In later rounds, opponents with draws will often give up when they miss their draw, or raise if they hit it.

Top pair hands win more often when there are less players on the flop rather than more. The slightly weaker hands (ATo, KJo and better) tend to make more profit when opponents make mistakes, than when they lose out in multiway pots.

You should therefore make the most of this initial phase of equality and raise before the flop against loose opponents. Weaker unsuited hands like K8o or A6o are hard to play against multiple opponents on the flop. These hands are better played when you are in late position and everyone before you has folded, giving you the opportunity to attack the blinds.

Good top pair hands win significantly more often than average hands, especially when no player has more than a top pair. This advantage should be exploited from the start by raising to the maximum at the pre-flop stage.

SPECULATIVE HANDS

Playable speculative hands are small pocket pairs like 55 and suited connectors like 98s. These hands will not improve that often, but when they do you will be able to win a large pot with them. A small pocket pair might improve to become a set on the flop; suited connectors can become a flush draw or an OESD.

You might often have your opponents drawing dead by the turn, which means that you will surely win every bet on the later streets.

As their chance to improve is rather small, these hands work best against multiple opponents. Weak speculative hands (such as low suited connectors) should only be bet on once, if played in a late position with many opponents in the pot, or played in a blind defense situation. Stronger speculative hands (like small pairs) can be played for two bets in multiway pots, which means that you can call a raise with them in certain circumstances.

However, it is very important to see the multiway flop so you get paid off should you hit your hand. To summarise, you should try and see the flop as cheaply as possible with speculative hands.

POWERHOUSE HANDS

The strongest hands are the ones that combine the advantages of top pair hands with those of speculative hands, meaning they are free from the disadvantages of each category. These powerhouse hands have the highest expected value of all starting hands.

This group includes high pairs like AA, KK, QQ and high suited broadways like AKs and AQs.

In contrast to unsuited top pair hands, you can continue to play these hands aggressively on the turn and the river. Powerhouse hands should always be raised at the pre-flop stage in order to best exploit their value.

Conclusion

The strength of a specific starting hand depends on the rank of its cards, on how connected they are and whether they are suited or not. Ideally, they should either satisfy all three criteria, or be high pairs.

You should always carefully judge the quality of your starting hand in order to avoid costly mistakes. Always think of the principle: "Tight is right". Even if you would love to play this or that hand every now and then, you should know that it is a wrong action. The PokerStrategy.com Starting Hand Charts should help you to train with discipline, which is essential to becoming a successful poker player.

 

Comments (6)

#1 mouse89, 06 Oct 08 14:13

ok

#2 storas1337, 22 Mar 10 20:21

I think good

#3 krumvirek, 15 Aug 10 22:33

I don´t understand it

#4 buzzinace, 03 Feb 11 20:57

Really great article. Makes it really clear on the three types of strategies to play. Patience and discipline is easier once you know what you're waiting for.

#5 lindawaty, 25 Feb 11 09:49

ok

#6 antonnotna1984, 30 Jan 12 06:24

ABC of poker.<br /> <br /> Nice article