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Poker Strategy:Starting Hands

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This column is a discussion on those first two cards that are dealt to you in Texas Hold 'Em. It makes no reference to how to play them anywhere except before the flop. What's critical to remember is that as soon as community cards fall, the status of your starting hand has either been strengthened or weakened. Your hand on the flop is not the same as your hand before the flop. What may seem like a giant hand at first could get smashed by uncooperative community cards. Playing at that stage is a whole other discussion (or series of discussions).

Loose and weak poker players play too many hands. They either acknowledge that they're gambling, don't know any better, or get bored of folding hand after hand. Whatever the reason, they play too many hands. Every now and then, one of these trash hands actually gets hit by the board (improves from the community cards) and wins a sizable pot. This may affect your thinking on what's playable and what's not. Don't let it. The key to starting hands is not to emulate what you see at the low-limit table, regardless if the results seem positive for the loose player in the short term. You don't play results, you play probability. Results are only a measure of the short term. You want to be able to play many hours of Hold 'Em, and only probability measures the long term.

Probability

One of the allures of Texas Hold 'Em is that theoretically, any two cards can win. Some are a bigger stretch than others, but any hand can win. This fact is not lost on the loose player, pleased to play more hands than is reasonable in the hopes that one of them get hit. In the long run, this thinking will bust a player.

Where poker is probability and psychology, it is more of the former before the flop than anything else. Since no community cards have fallen, you are only looking at 2/7 (or roughly, 29%) of your completed hand, one less card than even Stud players start with. For this reason, some starting hands have great potential while others are simply unplayable. You may fold from a hand, but see how you would've had a Full House had you stayed in with that Ten-Five, but it's a mistake to judge based purely on the results of one instance. A deck of cards, like a pair of dice, gives random results based on chance. Ten-Five might have given you the Full House this time, but to pay to play it everytime it's dealt to you will bust you over the long run.

You won't be pleased to hear that as a smart poker player, you'll be folding far more hands before the flop than you play. You'll feel like one of the tightest players at the table, folding more hands than anybody else. Don't let it bother you. As a smart player, you're only interested in playing hands with potential. Let everybody else gamble. It will give some of them gain in the short term, but as a collection of players, they will lose in the long run (even the overly loose player who walks away with $200 will go broke in the long run playing how he plays).

Hands to Play Per Previous Discussions

The range of hands that you play are at least partially dependent on two themes that we've discussed previously.


Where table climate is concerned, we're making reference to whether or not the table is passive or aggressive (we're assuming here that the table is loose over tight, as is typically the case in low-limit games). If the game is aggressive, then there is much betting and raising going on. At such a table, you're forced to play tighter since the cost to stay in is much higher. Therefore, your range of hands will decrease. If the game is passive, then there is much less betting and raising. At such a table, you're free to play a little looser (but still smart) since the cost to stay in is usually just one bet (since there's not as much raising). Therefore, your range of hands will increase.

Where position is concerned, we're making reference to where you're sitting in relation to the dealer. The betting round always begins to the left of the dealer and ends with the dealer, so you can assess your position from the outset. To be in early position, you want to play less marginal hands, since you don't know what kind of action there will be behind you. To be in late position if there hasn't been a raise yet, you want to play more hands, since there's less chance of a raise behind you. You tighten up in early position and loosen up a little in late position.

That said, there's no less than three types of hands that you will be dealt in Texas Hold 'Em that are playable: pairs, drawing hands, and big cards. If it doesn't fall into one of these categories, it's probably not playable.


Low-Limit Considerations

As you read through the different future columns on playing particular hands, bear in mind that this strategy is not in line with what you would find in a lot of the poker strategy books. The reason for this is because those books are tailored more for players in higher limits. In the higher limit games, you have less opponents going to the flop and it's not far-fetched for the hand to end before or on the flop. When playing against opponents this tight, strategy applies differently. Hands that have a lot of strength against a small number of opponents may not be as strong against a large number of opponents. And in low-limit poker, we typically get a lot of opponents on each hand. For that reason, strategy applies to low-limit games differently.

Hands like big pairs and big cards which play best against a small field lose value at a low-limit table. Hands like suited connectors which play best against a large field gain value at a low-limit table. Even though these strong drawing hands don't make good hands most of the time, they take in enough money when they do that it more than makes it worth your while.

Table Climate - Position - Starting Hands - Playing Pairs
- Drawing Hands - Psychology - Playing Big Cards

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