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StrategyWeekly No Limit

Crushing NL 50 (1) - The Preflop Play


Crushing NL 50 (1)
The Preflop Play

by Hasenbraten

This series deals with extended preflop play for No Limit Hold'em full ring. You should already be familiar with the introductory article on the basics, the starting hands chart and have gained some experience at the tables. Learn now how you can make profitable adjustments to your preflop play.

The Principle of Expected Value Maximisation

To understand the basics of the game itself, it is essential to remember what your goal at the tables is:

You want to win money.

This seems all too obvious, but is in fact more subtle than you may think. Always keep this goal in mind during your game because it must be the motivation behind each of your actions. Basing your decisions on the starting hands chart (SHC), for example, allows you to maximise your expected value (EV) in many situations; but the reason why you act a certain way is not because the SHC tells you to, but because the action will have maximum EV.

In this article you will also be introduced to several specific concepts designed to help you reach the highest EV in a certain situation. It is important to note that none of them should be seen as universal rules that will always lead to a maximised EV when applied. Don't base your choice on any of these concepts if you have reason to believe that a different decision will lead to a higher EV.

Another important aspect that sounds very simple at first deals with how you make estimates about the EV of your action. You should always make sure to use all the data available when you analyse a situation in relation to the EV. The more information you take into account, the more precise your estimate will be.

The Starting Hands Chart

This is the starting hands chart that you are already familiar with. It considers certain information before the flop and tells you how to act based on this. Using the SHC has several benefits:

  • It prevents mistakes of the player
  • It is easy to use
  • It is unambiguous

However, as already pointed out in the previous section, the analysis offered by the SHC is incomplete:

  • Different hands are grouped into categories
  • Only a small fraction of the data available is used

This means that you will come across many situations in which your SHC recommends to you an action that differs from what you would do according to the EV maximising principle. This also has to do with the nature of the SHC itself. To compare an EV, you always have two options:

On the one hand, you can compare it to the highest absolute EV possible. The EV of any other decision is smaller than or equivalent to it.

On the other hand, you can compare it to the neutral EV. This will usually lead to good decisions (although there might be better ones), which are considered +EV with respect to your absolute profit and are not a bad choice because they win you money. However, the money you win like this is not the maximum amount you could win.

It is crucial for the beginner not to make any decisions that have an absolute negative EV because he would soon lose his bankroll and not get any further opportunity to learn. If he manages to keep the EV of his actions neutral or slightly positive overall, he will in turn get the chance to focus on reaching the maximum EV possible.

The chief aim of the SHC is to prevent your ruin. This is why many marginal situations or those that require the player to make another decision are not considered. If an action A has a negative EV in 80% of all cases, the SHC will not recommend A. You should now make it your goal to identify those 20% of cases in which A has a positive EV.

You can achieve this by analysing not only a part of but all information available before the flop. Take into account the exact position, the exact hand, your opponents' stack sizes and tendencies, and their precise preflop actions (how many players entered the pot out of which position, how much did your opponent raise, etc.)

Before we look at some specific examples, let us look at some general examples to illustrate the principle. Consider here the incomplete information used by the chart about the number of limpers.


100BB stacks

Preflop: Hero is SB with 46s
UTG+1 limps, MP+1 limps, MP+3 limps, CO limps, BU limps, Hero ???

In this scenario the SHC tells you to fold. In a majority of situations (the aforementioned 80%) this will indeed turn out to be the right decision. However, you will come across multiway situations, in which you will get a positive EV by completing the big blind, whereas folding would only result in a neutral EV.


100BB stacks

Preflop: Hero is SB with 58s
UTG+1 limps, MP+1 limps, Hero ???

Again, the chart recommends a fold here. And again, this will be the right choice in situations in which you don't have any additional information available, as is the case here - you are playing against two unknowns. Assume, though, that one of the two limpers is a fish, who is strongly tilting. He is sitting at the table with a little more than 100BB, just like you. Suddenly you realise that you are much better off calling instead of folding because you are very likely to win if you hit.


100BB stacks

Preflop: Hero is BU with T9s
UTG+1 raises 2BB (min), UTG+2 calls, CO calls, Hero???

According to the chart you should fold once again, when in fact it would be better for you to call. The chart simply ignores the size of the raise and the number of callers.

Another example shall be mentioned here briefly; it deals with the reaction with AK to a raise. In this situation the chart simply recommends to raise against a single raise, but it doesn't consider the size of the stack nor the position of the raiser. It can be rewarding, though, to only call the raise of a tight player in early position, particularly if you yourself are in good position and if there are no other players.

Think about it. Ask yourself which hands you would play against a reraise after you raised UTG. Ask yourself further if you really want to play against a similar range with AK, or if you could be better off by just calling the raise.

Please remember that this does not mean that it is always the right choice to only call in a situation like this. The example was just supposed to show that it can be problematic to stick to the SHC too strictly.

If you are interested in further theory articles related to this, please visit the hand rating and strategy sections.

Blind stealing

If you want to move away from the rigid scheme of the SHC a little, you should first try this in blindsteal situations in which you are the aggressor. Analysing extra information here can lead to decisions that are considerably different from the ones the SHC suggests. On top of that, you will have the initiative after the flop and often be heads-up. This will present you with fewer difficulties than playing without the initiative or out of position.

The SHC ignores the following pieces of information that play a role here:

  • The player type
  • The stack size
  • The history

The most important bit of these is the player type. Being first-in on the CO or the BU, you can often profit very strongly from expanding the range the SHC suggests. You should consider this against very tight players, who fold a great number of hands before or after the flop, and against very bad players, who are very likely to make huge mistakes that you will profit from by playing hands after the flop.

Just look at your own play in the SB and BB for a specific example: Against a raise you would fold almost all hands here. This in turn means that with players in the SB and BB that play like you, raising more hands is a profitable move. How you should act against better players is a more advanced topic, which we will come back to later.

Generally speaking, if you have tight or bad players in the blinds against whom you can still play a continuation bet after the flop (keyword: stack sizes), you can raise more hands than the SHC says. More specifically, you can expand your range by suited connectors and one-gappers, as well as offsuit connectors or offsuit ace-high hands, and suited king-high hands. With the right constellation, it is very well possible to reach an open raise value of more than 40% out of late position. As already mentioned, the more your opponents fold, the more you can raise.

Let's look at the following constellation: Hero is BU, SB and BB are tight (PokerStrategy.com-) big stacks. You could very well raise with each ace, each connector 45+, each one-gapper 46+, each suited king, and so on, as long as you don't encounter any uncharacteristic defence from another player. This behaviour would be called adaptation. It means that your opponent is changing his play in reaction to yours, just like you have adjusted your game to your opponents' by taking advantage of their frequent preflop folds.

If you are CO and have a very tight (SSS or BSS) player sitting on the BU, you don't have to adjust your open raising range too much between the BU and CO. With a loose or aggressive player on the BU, however, you should raise considerably fewer hands first-in out of the CO. Depending on the player, the (tight) SHC guideline can indeed be followed rather strictly here.

Overall, it is particularly the loose players, especially those with a small stack, who you should only rarely raise against. You wouldn't consider the strategic use of a postflop continuation bet against them because of their small stack size in relation to the pot. Moreover, these players can only make relatively few big mistakes against you.

You can raise some hands against loose players with big stacks, but you have to be sure to have a higher potential for medium-strong hands. This is because you will often enter into the showdown and your opponents will fold a smaller number of similar hands. You will get a positive EV after the flop not so much because your opponents are folding but rather by winning the showdown itself.

Against tight opponents, however, you have to pay attention to the potential for hands that are hard to recognise and very strong (sets, flushes, straights), not so much to pairs. These very rarely make it into the showdown in the first place, because you or your opponent would be very likely to fold beforehand.


You can also optimise your game by improving your isolation play, a kind of extended blindstealing. The previous section already showed us which information the SHC does not take into account in blindsteal situations. In addition to that, the number and position of limpers are two more factors ignored here.

There are many situations in which it is profitable to raise after a limper with a wider range than suggested by the SHC. This is usually also supposed to generate a heads-up situation with position and initiative. Think of a limping big stack, for example. If you look at the SHC, you will see that his hand will most likely consist of a small pair like 22-99, or, less frequently, suited connectors like 45s-T9s. Now try to evaluate your options on the BU:

You could limp and get to see the flop at a low price. If you are holding a hand with enough potential, for example a suited connector, you will profit from this move.

On the other hand, you could raise: You have position on the button at any rate, and, unless a 3bet is made, you also have the initiative. If the blinds are folding, the big stack will call with his pair if he has implied odds (Call-20 rule).

On the flop, however, he is most likely to check and fold when faced with a continuation bet – unless he hits a set. As this is not very likely, you would make direct profit in our example.

This does not mean that no matter what hand you have you should always raise when a big stack limps. Always keep in mind the inaccuracy of this information and the possibility of more players entering the hand.

It can still be said, though, that in many situations in which you get an absolute positive EV by limping after a limper, an even higher EV can be attained by making a raise. Be sure to pay special attention to your position and the possible postflop situations (who could enter the hand with what stack sizes, could you make a continuation bet, etc.)

Let's take a look at some simple examples:


100BB stacks
MP+2 (loose passive fish)

Preflop: Hero is CO with KJs
MP+2 limps, Hero???

The SHC says to limp. Although this will overall result in a positive EV here, a raise would lead to a higher EV. In a lot of cases you will be able to win the pot before or on the flop. If you don't, you'll still have quite a strong hand as well as position and the initiative.

If another two opponents limp in this situation, however, it is better for you to just limp as well. The argument of good playability and the heads-up argument are very weak here, which is why you should choose to wait and see what happens on the flop.


100BB stacks
UTG+1 (straightforward TAG)
SB + BB (tight SSS players)

Preflop: Hero is BU with 67s
UTG+1 limps, Hero???

In this example, which has been mentioned before, you can isolate as well. The TAG usually holds a pocket pair here, which he will only very rarely play OOP after the flop without a set. Also, the blinds are not very likely to enter, which is why the preflop raise and the continuation bet taken together will be +EV.

Their EV will also be higher than that of a limp. Important about your hand selection is, once again, the potential for very strong hands which could beat a set. The reason for this is simple: Your opponent will hardly ever enter into the showdown without a set, which is why you usually don't have to worry about the strength of any pairs you might hit.


The concept of domination does not give us guidelines as clear cut as the other concepts presented so far. What it does is to specify one possible type of relation between your hand and your opponent's hand. First off, a definition:

Your hand dominates another hand if you are holding XY, your opponent is holding YZ, and your X is of higher rank than your opponent's Z.

Of course, the same holds true vice versa. With AK, for example, your hand dominates any other ace and any other king, whereas 67 is dominated by 78, and so on.

This shows how the aspect of domination should influence your hand selection:

Compared to a dominating hand, the chances of a dominated hand to win are very small. That's why you should try to play (if all other conditions allow you to do so) when your hand dominates a big part of your opponent's range.

This will result in a very profitable situation for you: If the dominated card hits, your opponent has a pair (which might even be a top pair), but at the same time he only has 3 outs against you to win.

Generally, you should avoid situations in which your hand might be dominated. In a lot of cases it is better to play hands like 67s instead of A2s because a lot of players tend to play medium-strong AX hands that dominate your A2s.

Your 67s is generally a worse hand than A2s but, depending on the number of opponents you are up against, your chances of winning are bigger and you avoid the dangerous situation in which your pair is dominated.


This article introduced you to some basic concepts behind poker, as well as several simple preflop applications based on them. In the second part of this series, we will take a similar approach to the postflop play.


Comments (9)

#1 libra13, 05 Aug 10 13:38

keep up the good work !

#2 Strongsl, 03 Sep 11 13:25


#3 benaars, 07 Sep 11 12:53

where can i find a starting hand chart?

#4 delanonunes, 07 Sep 11 21:28

try the Big Stack Strategy section under the "strategy" tab : ) it should be downloadable as a PDF...

#5 David, 08 Sep 11 09:53

@3: You will find our Bigstack Strategy here:

#6 BreadWarden, 19 Jan 12 05:29

I really enjoyed this article, simple stuff yet at the same time an advanced view of holdem. The only article I have read so far to really make me think about changing my game.

#7 BreadWarden, 19 Jan 12 05:34

Not that I've read a huge amount of articles, just the bronze stuff.

#8 ellamcc, 18 Jan 13 00:51

Oh this is very very helpful!

#9 ellamcc, 18 Jan 13 00:52

PS - Video isn't coming up in the US. Is it perhaps past gold level?