Whether to Play or Pass

Professor Leighton Vaughan Williams explains his own
innovative ‘calendar’ hand-grouping strategy to help you know when to hold and when to fold

Poker possesses the same sort of mystical attraction that draws so many to tank driving – the idea of going to war sitting down

Playing poker is fun, but so are a lot of other things in life. What makes poker special is that you can win money at the same time.

Poker also possesses the same sort of mystical attraction that draws so many to tank driving – the idea of going to war sitting down!

Well, that’s the theory. In reality, of course, it’s just not that easy. As any tank driver can tell you, the best laid plans can easily go awry in the fog of battle. Similarly, you can know all you like about the odds and sods of poker statistics, but any seasoned player can tell you that theory can take you only so far in the real hurly-burly of live competition.

What’s just as critical is an understanding of what’s important, being able to utilise that understanding, and being able to make the right decisions even when under pressure, time and time again.

I’m not saying that an understanding of the finer details of poker probability theory isn’t a real advantage when it undeniably is. But what I am saying is that a long-term winning strategy requires more than a little of ‘something else’. Indeed, I have come to believe that this particularelement is actually a lot more important than either a ready acquaintance with almanacs of poker probabilities or access to streams of statistical software. In this article, I’ll introduce you to one such ‘something else’ – a certain something which I’ve named ‘calendar’ strategy. You’ll soon see why.

The heat of the moment

The first key idea is to determine what’s really important to a winning poker strategy, and the second is to formulate this in a way which can actually be turned into a practical strategy. The method I will outline below is in fact based on a lot of statistical analysis, only it’s presented in a way which can be of best use to those without the slightest interest in statistics or probabilities but who do have a significant interest in playing winning poker.

It’s meant to serve as an alternative to the conventional approaches to pre-flop strategy available in most books on this subject, which, in general, make what should be a relatively simple decision seem very complicated indeed, with advice that’s extremely difficult to retain or recall, let alone understand in the first place. My system is simpler and more accessible.

As you know, in Texas hold’em each player is dealt two cards and must make a decision whether to fold the cards without playing, to call someone else’s bet or to raise the bet. Because this decision has to be made before any other cards are dealt, the key issue is gauging the likely strength of your hand compared to your opponents’ hands.

The problem, of course, is that you have no idea what cards your opponents are holding, other than the fact that they can’t be holding exactly the same cards as you. What you can know, however, is that a particular hand is generally worth playing more strongly than another. For example, if experience suggests that raising with an Ace and a Queen of the same suit (A-Q suited) is a good strategy, what should you do if you’re handed a pair of tens? If calling with a pair of sixes late in the betting round is a good strategy, what does that tell you if you’re last to play and are looking down at a J-10 off-suit?

Strength in numbers

Indeed, an understanding of the pecking order of possible hands is the foundation of basic strategy. With the benefit of this understanding and based also on your table position and previous calls and/or raises, it’s possible to devise a ground-plan for playing the game.

First, however, you need to be confident in the order of strength of pre-flop hands, and second, you have to be able to access this information and the core strategy derived from it under pressure in real time. Which is where my calendar strategy comes in – it’s designed so you can apply it before the flop whatever your hand is.

It works like this. The system ranks each possible pre-flop hand, and selects 52 as playable in normal circumstances, depending on where you are seated relative to the dealer and who has played what before your turn comes. The best hands are called January hands, the worst playable hands are called December hands. The first week of January corresponds to the strongest hand possible – a pair of Aces, the second week to the second strongest hand – a pair of Kings, and so on.

An unorthodox approach

Any hands not on the calendar at all should probably be folded. There may be exceptions, if you’re a particularly adventurous or experienced player, where there may be a case for occasionally playing off-calendar, as I term it. Really, though, this is the poker equivalent of skiing off-piste – only for the bold, the ultra confident and those who really know what they’re doing.

Because there are 12 months in a year, but 52 weeks, some months are allocated five weeks for these purposes and some four. Months of cards are then grouped into seasons – January, February, March and April cards are known (somewhat optimistically) as spring cards, and should be considered in early position and later. May, June, July and August cards are known as summer cards, and should be considered in middle position and later, while September, October, November and December cards are autumn cards, and should be considered in late position only.

A guide to position in a ten-handed game is to consider late position as the dealer button and one seat to the right of that, the next three seats to the right as middle position, and the next three to the right as early position. This can, of course, quite easily be adapted for games with fewer players.

Let me check my diary…

To summarise the general principle, the best hand, a pair of Aces (A-A), is the first week of January while, conversely, the weakest playable hand, a three and a two of the same suit (3-2 suited), represents the last week of December. January’s cards are: A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J, A-K (suited) while December’s are: 6-5 (suited), 5-4 (suited), 4-3 (suited), 3-2 (suited). Whether you call or raise or re-raise depends also on how early/late in the season your cards fall.

The big advantage of this calendar system is that most people should fi nd it a fairly easy way to memorise the relative strength of hands, and how to play them. Just as importantly, though, it uses what is, in my view, the best available analysis to work out which hands are superior to which. Utilising this analysis can be a great help when it comes to honing your skills at the table. You should start by familiarising yourself with the complete calendar, shown in the next column.

Once you have mastered the calendar, the next step is to learn the optimal plays for hands associated with the different times of year, ie whether to raise, call or fold when your turn comes to play. As a guide, I suggest the following, but you can, of course, revise and adapt based on your own playing experience and your knowledge and intuition about your opponents as you become more familiar with the system. You should always err more on the side of caution the later in the month or the season the hand falls.


JANUARY Raise (even if raised) in all positions
FEBRUARY Raise (call if already raised) in all positions
MARCH Call in early position, raise (call if already raised) in middle or late position
APRIL Call in early or middle position, raise (call if already raised) in late position


MAY, JUNE, JULY, AUGUST Call in middle or late position (fold if already raised)


SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER, NOVEMBER, DECEMBER Call in late position (Fold if already raised)

More generally, the looser you consider the game (ie the weaker the hands you think your opponents are playing), the later in the calendar you might consider playing instead of folding. Beware, however, of players preceding you who have indicated strength by raising.

Ultimately, of course, there’s no definitive system for playing your hand in a game of Texas hold’em poker. If there was, we’d all be winning millions in the World Series of Poker, and there’d be no call for books like this one. There are, however, better and worse strategies, and a convenient way to access the relative strength of hands is important in determining which is which. Poker should be fun. If the ‘calendar’ system adds to the fun, I’ll be pleased. If it helps you win – and it’s not off me – I’ll be delighted!

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