Five steps to preflop success

If you want to be a good poker player it’s crucial that you make the right decisions preflop. Ross Jarvis enters the classroom to teach you five essential factors that will help you become a preflop expert

Every time you get dealt into a no-limit hold’em hand, anything can happen. There are literally countless variations of flops, turns and rivers that will come down and influence how you decide to play the hand. No two hands in NLHE are ever the same. However, there is one constant that links them – every hand starts with a preflop decision. Mess this first decision up and it’s likely to go downhill from there.
To be an A* preflop student you have to be skilled at a number of different disciplines – from choosing whether to actually play the hand in the first place, to making sure that you are aggressive enough to keep your opponents guessing at what you’ve got. Here are five vital tips to ensure that you will pass your preflop exams with flying colours…

1. Choose carefully

After sitting down at a poker table – whether it’s a cash game, tournament or sit-and-go – the very first decision you will face is whether to play the hand you are dealt. It’s often the most important decision you’ll make in the hand too.

It’s obvious that you want to play all of your monster hands 100% of the time, including 7-7 and all higher pairs, plus A-Q and A-K. If you’re a new player it’s a good idea to stick to this rigid, tight hand selection for the time being. If you always have a better hand than your opponents preflop, it’s likely to make your decisions easier and be profitable too! However, as you move up past beginner-level games you will have to open up the hands you decide to play, or it will be too obvious to your opponents what you are holding.

The next best hands you want to start playing are ones like K-Q and K-J, the other small pocket pairs and Aces with a decent kicker. All of these hands are still likely to be ahead of your opponent’s random holdings, and if you hit something on the flop you may be able to get some value by betting and being called with worse.

Another factor that is very important is position. The later you are to act, the weaker your hand can be. Say you’re playing on a table with ten opponents and you are the very first player to act. You get dealt A-T. It’s a good hand, but there are nine players left to act after you meaning that the chances it is the best hand are small. You will often be up against dominating Aces or an overpair.

Now, consider that same ten-handed table but  now it is folded to you on the button. This time you have K-7 offsuit, a much weaker hand than A-T. However, now you should play it as you only have two players to get through, making King-high look like a monster. Bear position in mind whenever you are unsure whether to enter a pot or not – it really can make all the difference between a hand being a raise or a fold.

2. Don’t limp

Now that we have established what hands to play and why, we need to work out how to play them preflop. The simple advice is this: never limp in, always raise instead. A very common weakness of new players is that they will limp in with all of their hands and only raise ones like A-A and K-K. It’s easy to see why players do this – after all, seeing a ton of flops is really fun. The problem is that limping is generally a losing play.

When you limp you lose the initiative in the hand straight away, and are at the mercy of more aggressive opponents who will raise you, often forcing you to fold preflop or to a bet on the flop. If you raise instead plenty of positives can result. First, you build the pot up if you have a genuine hand, making it easier to win big pots on the later streets. You also gain the initiative yourself, meaning that you can bluff a lot more and it will have a better chance of working. And finally, by raising you can just take down the blinds and/or antes straight away. While this is a good thing in cash games (you’d be surprised at how quickly raking in the blinds over and over adds up) it’s a fantastic way to gain chips in both tournaments and sit-and-gos.

Blind stealing is a crucial skill that all good tourney players have. Any time it is folded to you in late position try to take down the blinds with a raise (supposing your hand is even halfway playable). Pay attention to who the players in the blinds are though – if one of them has an addiction to seeing flops you may want to only steal with decent hands. If the blinds are folding too much you can raise with pretty much any two cards you are dealt.

3. Be aggressive with your big hands

You don’t get dealt premium hands very often so it is important to make the most of them. The aim when we get A-A, K-K, Q-Q and A-K – the best hands possible – should almost always be to get as much money into the middle preflop as we can. In a perfect world, we will get them all-in.

The easiest way to do this is to re-raise (or three-bet) when there has been an open in front of you. It sounds straightforward, but there is always a temptation to slowplay your hand by just calling instead. That way you succeed in keeping your hand strength concealed but the problem is that the pot size doesn’t escalate and, more importantly, there’s a chance other players will come along too. The last thing you want when you hold Aces is to have five players in the pot because there’s a good chance you will lose. 

It’s much better to three-bet instead. Generally, you want to size your three-bets around three times the amount of the initial raise. So, if you’re in a tournament and someone raises to 550 a three-bet amount anywhere between 1500-1700 would be perfect. By three-betting your monster hands you also allow your opponents the opportunity to make major errors you can profit from. The first of these is that they may call you with much weaker hands that you can get value from later. The better scenario is that they fight fire with fire and make another raise preflop, perhaps an all-in shove.

It’s important not to let caution influence your decision making too much preflop. Of course, when you play Kings aggressively you will run into pocket Aces occasionally and wonder what might have happened if you’d just called instead. These things will happen – just as you will be sometimes be outdrawn even when you do have the best hand.

Just remember that in poker all you can do is make the best possible decisions, and you have to let the results take care of themselves. It’s very clear that pushing hard with all of your big hands preflop is the correct decision, so don’t sweat it if it doesn’t work out every single time!

4. It’s time to bluff

You can be a winner at low stakes by only playing aggressively with your big hands, but if you want to win some serious money you must be capable of bluffing preflop too. If you only ever have a monster when you three-bet your opponents will eventually catch onto you, and fail to give you value. For example, they may just fold pocket Jacks to one of your three-bets whereas, if you were an aggressive player who could have a wide range, they might four-bet raise that very same hand.

So what sort of hands should you three-bet as a bluff with? Ideally, our opponent will fold but in case we get called it’s important that our hand has some sort of playability. So bluffing with K-7 suited (one high card that could make top pair, plus a suited hand) is much better than bluffing J-3 off suit (one moderately high card but one that will often be dominated and has little chance of making a flush).

You must stick to the same bet sizing rules as when three-betting a monster hand too. If you vary your sizes for when you have a bluff – for example, raising more because you really want a fold! – it’s yet another tell that perceptive opponents will figure out. Keep your sizings the same across the board and you’ll be tough to beat.

One other thing to bear in mind is that it can really pay off to target opponents who are using this tactic against you. If you feel someone is three-betting light, try throwing in the odd four-bet bluff. You’ll find that they have to have a super strong hand to continue and it will work a high percentage of the time if your instincts are on point.

5. Pay close attention to stack sizes

Particularly in tournaments, your preflop decisions must be heavily influenced by the stack size of you and your opponents. As you get into the later stages of a tournament the stack sizes will be hugely varied. One single table could include a 100BB monster stack, a couple of 20-30BB medium sized stacks and three or four super short sub-10BB stacks. It makes preflop play much more complicated.

You can’t go raising with suited connectors into an opponent who has just 10BBs, because too often they will shove all-in and you won’t want to call, despite getting a great price. The same scenario applies for those 20BB stacks too, who should often be looking to reshove on you. It’s vital instead to make sure that you are raising into these guys with hands you are comfortable calling a shove with – it doesn’t have to be a monster, often a hand like A-6 or K-J will be strong enough to call off a 10-20BB shove.

Your own stack size is important too. If you are in the 10-15BB zone you should eliminate flat calling from your options altogether. All hands from this point should either be shoved preflop or just folded. Calling raises and check/folding flops will just be a recipe for disaster and your stack will quickly dwindle down to the point of no return. Similarly, if you have 20-30BBs look for opportunities to get your stack into the middle after someone has already raised. Let’s say it is folded to a 50BB stack on the button who raises to 3xBB. You’re in the BB with Q-9 suited and 22BBs. It’s not a great hand but you should shove because your opponent will just be looking to steal the blinds much of the time and will fold against you. Even if he calls you will probably have live cards that are doing okay, even against something like A-K.

Be aggressive preflop in the right spots and you’ll have a good chance of doing well in tournaments.

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