Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, you know by now that Texas holdem is the poker game of choice in the United States these days. You’ve probably also heard something about how it’s a game of skill, and that’s true. Like any gambling or poker game, there’s a significant chance element in Texas holdem, but in the long run, the money flows toward the most skilled players.
You can find plenty of books and articles about how to play in general, but starting Texas holdem players should start by mastering preflop play. How you play your hole cards in Texas holdem is so important that you can probably become a break-even player just by mastering that aspect of the game alone. A little common sense will get you through the later stages of the game well enough to break even.
Of course, I don’t recommend that, either. Your goal should be to be in the top 10% of players—the ones who make a consistent profit over time. To do that, you’ll need to master preflop play and play on the flop, turn, and river.
But Texas holdem strategy is a big enough subject that I can’t cover all that in just one post. Instead, I’m just going to focus on preflop strategy. I’ll cover strategy in the later stages in future blog posts.
1- Don’t Play Out of Position
Position is the most important aspect of preflop play. “Position” refers to when you act compared to the other players at the table. If you must decide what to do before most of your opponents, you’re in “early position.” If most of the other players act before you, then you’re in “late position.”
You need a stronger hand to play in early position than you need in later position. If the reason for this isn’t already obvious, here it is in a nutshell:
When you act later in the betting round, you have more information about what your opponents are planning to do.
If you have 89 suited in early position, you should usually fold. After all, if you get a raise and a re-raise from a couple of players who act after you do, you’ll need to fold. Also, if everyone else folds, you won’t get enough pot odds to make it worthwhile to have stayed in the pot.
If you’re in early position, you’re looking at playing premium hands—pairs of aces, kings, queens, or jacks, or maybe AK or AQ suited. Middle suited connectors are better folded. Smaller pairs are often best folded, too. In fact, anything you play from early position should be good enough that you’re comfortable raising with it.
If you’re in late position, pay attention to the pot odds and the passivity or aggression with which your opponents are playing. Drawing hands are okay if people haven’t raised, but raises from early position often mean strength. Only play speculative preflop hands if you can get in cheap with multiple players. Or if you have an opportunity to bluff or semi-bluff the blinds, you might raise with something less than a premium hand.
2- Raise or Fold if You’re the First Player to Enter the Pot
Most poker experts agree that tight-aggressive play is the key to winning at all kinds of poker. “Tight” poker is a playing style where you fold most hands. The only hands you even play are the strong ones. “Aggressive” poker is a playing style where you bet or raise when you’re in a pot, rather than calling.
You also want to be putting constant pressure on the players in the blinds.
3- You Can’t Steal the Blinds if Someone Before You Has Demonstrated They’re Willing to Compete for the Pot
If someone who acts before you bets or raises preflop, you need a much stronger hand to raise than if you’re opening the pot. That’s because when you’re opening the pot, you’re getting a certain amount of equity from the possibility that everyone will fold, including the blinds. A certain percentage of the time, you’ll win money without having to show down a hand.
But you should only raise with a premium hand—the same kinds of hands that you’d open with if you’re the 1st player to act.
All that being said, you want to keep in mind your opponents’ playing tendencies, too. Not long ago I played with a gentleman who raised preflop every hand. I don’t mean 70% of the hands or 80% of the hands. I mean every hand.
In that case, you might well raise with any decent holding, especially if you can get heads up with him.
Most players aren’t that extreme in their tendencies, though.
But pay attention, because these tips are like training wheels. You only need them until you’ve learned how to actually ride the bike.
4- Focus on Every Hand
One of the biggest leaks in my game when I first started was not paying attention to what was going on at the table. You should focus on the action in every hand. That’s because you’ll pick up on how your opponents play, and this will inform your decisions throughout the game.
You can get an idea of how tight or loose a player is based on his tendencies, but only if you’re paying attention. If you’re watching television or daydreaming, you’re doing it wrong.
I used to think that a solid set of starting hand requirements was enough to ensure my success at the table. That’s important. But it’s not the whole game. In fact, poker is a game of situations—it’s not blackjack, where the correct play is always the same in every situation.
In poker, every situation is subtly different. Here’s an example:
That’s not how the game went down, though. I got callers and had a showdown on every hand I played, even after folding God knows how many hands. I left that session a big winner.
I already mentioned the guy who raised preflop with every hand, too. If you have any kind of decent cards, you’d do well to re-raise someone like that. Your goal should be to get heads up with him preflop with a hand that dominates him.
Since he’s raising every time, he could have anything in the hole. About half the time, he has absolutely nothing but trash. Even a small pair makes sense to raise with here if you think you can get him heads up. And those are just 2 examples of player types—extremely tight and extremely loose and aggressive.
You should also know how to play with someone who plays really tight but calls. I think you need to be more careful about raising the super-tight player in this situation, because he might be calling with a premium hand. You don’t necessarily need a premium hand to call here, but it wouldn’t hurt. You do need cards that are better than average.
5- From the Small Blind, It’s Often Okay to Just Call
When you’re in the small blind, and other players have limped in, it’s only half a bet to call, too. If you have almost any hand at all in this situation, it’s probably worth calling. After all, if you hit a monster on the flop, you’re almost certain to get paid off on that half a bet that you had to put up.
I’d play any cards that have a possibility of making a flush here, especially if those suited cards are connected, and even if they’re really low in rank. I’d also play any hand with an ace in it. It goes without saying that any pair is good enough in this situation.
Just remember that you need to hit the flop hard to continue after that. If the flop doesn’t fit your hand, you can fold and get out cheap. After all, you only voluntarily put in half a bet.
6- Calling from the Big Blind Is Often More Correct than Raising
The big blind is one of the only positions where it can make sense to just cold-call a raise from your opponent. That’s because you already half that bet in action. You still need a strong hand here, but it’s often a mistake to raise because you’re out of position for the subsequent rounds.
Also, if there’s anyone else in the pot—especially if there are multiple people—the only reason you’ll want to raise from the big blind is to get more money into the pot. Most people who are willing to play for one bet are also willing to play for 2 bets—especially when the raise is going to be out of position for the rest of the hand.
If you want to raise from the big blind, you need a premium hand—AK or a pair of queens or better. Otherwise, you’re almost always better off calling from the big blind. The big blind is tough to play because the usually guidelines for what you should do don’t necessarily apply here.
7- But You Also Need to Defend Your Blinds
You’ll often run into a game where a player in late position attacks your big blind constantly and mercilessly. Folding every time he raises is bad strategy, because it’s almost certain that he’s bluffing at least part of the time. If you re-raise him once in a while, he’ll think twice about testing you again.
This applies, of course, to situations where he’s the only person to open the pot. If he has other limpers in front of him when he re-raises, then re-raising him is probably a mistake. When it’s just you and him, though, any playable hand will do for a re-raise.
A continuation bet on the flop is often a good move to follow this up with, too.
8- Re-Raising from the Small Blind Often Makes Sense, Too
Just because you’re not in the big blind doesn’t mean you should let your small blind get stolen. If one player late in position raises, re-raising is a good idea much of the time. It’ll often convince the big blind to fold, and if the original raiser is just stealing blinds, he’ll think twice about messing with you on future hands.
You see, the guy in the big blind will often get in on the action if there’s only a single raise beforehand. But he’ll be likely to fold in the face of 2 raises.
If the original bettor misses the flop, you’ve pretty much got him, because you looked really strong preflop. And he probably didn’t have much to begin with.
I know these are generalizations, but I’m assuming at this point you understand you need to pay attention to your opponents’ tendencies.
9- If Someone Raises from Early Position, Take Him Seriously
Many new players don’t understand position very well, but you can’t assume that someone in early position is new or inexperienced until you’ve seen them in action for a little while. The good cards are out there somewhere, especially if they’re not in your hand.
My thinking is that if someone in early position raises, I need a premium hand to re-raise here. Otherwise, I’m folding. I’m going to be even more careful if he gets a lot of action after raising in early position. Someone has those cards.
If I have a pair of aces or kings, I’m always re-raising here. I’m usually re-raising with AK or pocket queens, too, but not if there’s a lot of action beforehand.
A pair of 10s or a pair of jacks is a solid hand, but ONLY in the right situation. Remember what I said earlier about poker being a game of situations.
10- When the Flop Fits Your Hand, You Should Bet or Raise
I’m not including a lot of advice about how to play the flop, but I’m going to point out a couple of things about the flop here.
The first is that you’re a tight-aggressive player. This means that if you think you have a strong hand on the flop, you’re going to bet and raise with it. On the other hand, if you miss the flop, all you need to do is fold.
Sometimes you’ll make a continuation bet on the flop, just in hopes of winning the pot without a showdown. This works best if you showed strength preflop, and it also works best if you only have one or 2 opponents.
You can say a lot about reading the texture of a flop and making guesses about what cards your opponents might have. That’s beyond the scope of this post, though.
Just remember these 2 things, and you’ll probably be okay on the flop:
- A continuation bet on the flop can take down the pot when you’re facing just one or 2 opponents. (But it does depend on your opponents’ tendencies.)
- Other than that, fit or fold.
Good preflop play is essential to Texas holdem poker success. It’s not the only factor or even the most important factor, but it’s got to be in the top 3 or 4 factors. Luckily, if you understand position and the importance of tight-aggressive play, you’re way ahead of at least half the players at the table.
In fact, if you ignored all the tips on this list but the ones about understanding position and being aggressive when you open a pot, you’ll be ahead of the average player in the casino. A lot of these Texas holdem players are still new to the game. They’re taking a break from the slot machines.
Those are the opponents you want to face. Armed with the advice in this post, you might be able to dominate even if your game is slightly weaker on the flop or after.