The main goal of a simple and effective pre-flop strategy is to avoid getting caught playing too many hands. Overall, we want to play hands that help us win money opponents are willing to give us. We’ll avoid playing all other hands.
When making hand selections pre-flop, the first mistake most players make is to think about all the ways the flop can give them a monster. So they’ll play K♥7♥ because they can make a heart flush, or they can flop a king and a seven, or two sevens. They’ll play T♥9♠ because they can make a straight, or because they can make two pair or trips.
Then, when the flop disappoints them (which it usually does), they basically give up.
There are two big problems with the “let’s try to hit a flop,” mindset. First, it typically leads people to play too many hands pre-flop, since lots of two-card combos can foreseeably make a big hand. Second, and most importantly, hitting flops is not where the money comes from.
This point is so important I will say it again.
Hitting flops is not where the money comes from.
“Ed, how you can you say that?” you ask. Well obviously, if you flop a full house, the money is probably coming your way.
There is, however, no such thing as “flop-hitting skill.” Of course, some hands naturally hit more flops than others. But no player is any better at hitting flops than another. When you’re playing a 1-2 game, guess what your opponents are trying to do?
They’re playing specific hands pre-flop trying to hit the flop hard.
You can’t play the same way your opponents play and expect to win. Instead, you’ll lose your $10 an hour rake. Every time you think, “Gee, I hope I hit this flop,” you’re playing negative $10- an-hour poker.
Let’s go back to the last chapter.
Where does the money come from? It comes from betting and raising when your opponents play too many hands. And it comes from getting out of their way when—after a round or two of betting—they are left with only strong hands.
You want to play hands pre-flop that are likely to be the best to bet and raise with on a wide range of boards. Flopping trips a
lot is not required to be profitable, or win more long-term, or grow your stack. In fact, it’s completely beside the point.
You’ll want to bet and raise when the situation calls for it. That’s where the money comes from. Identifying situations that call for a bet or raise, and then executing.
You can, of course, bet or raise with any two cards. But you’ll tend to have better equity-when-called, when you bet with T♠9♠, than with 7♣2♥. Thus, T♠9♠ is a strictly better hand pre-flop than 7♣2♥. And you’ll tend to play T♠9♠, and fold 7♣2♥.
Equity, by the way, is a ubiquitous poker concept that’s poorly understood. Showdown equity refers to the chance your hand will win at showdown if all the players turn their hands over and the rest of the board runs out. It’s those tiny percentages you see on ESPN next to a player’s hand. It’s useful to be able to estimate your showdown equity during a hand. But more important is your total equity.
Equity, in general, refers to your hand’s total value. As a board runs out, your hand gains value in two ways. One, it can have showdown equity—the chance it will win at showdown. Two, your hand carries folding equity—the chance you get an opponent to fold when you run a successful bluff and win the pot.
In a general sense, any time you’re in a hand and there are still cards to come, your hand has equity. Meaning it has value. Even if you’re holding 7-2 off, and the board has no sevens or deuces, your hand still has equity. This inherent value comes from the chance you can bet and opponents will fold.
Say you hold 6-5 and you’ve got one opponent on the turn. There are no sixes or fives on board, and you don’t have a chance to make a straight. You’ve got six-high.
Your hand still has equity. You’re extremely unlikely to win at showdown if you check it down. But you can bet. The chance your opponent folds to a bet is your folding equity. The equity that remains after your bluff fails is referred to as your equity- when-called.
If this example took place on the river, then your equity-when- called would be zero, since the chance someone would call you with worse than six-high is effectively zero. But since we’re still on the turn, your equity-when-called is small, but still greater than zero. It’s possible you could catch a six on the river and win with a pair of sixes. Or it’s possible you could win with a river bluff. The sum of these possibilities gives you some equity-when-called on the turn. Not a lot, but some. (If you bluffed with a king-high hand instead of a six-high hand, your equity-when-called would certainly be higher.)
The concept of equity-when-called is key when determining hand selection pre-flop. A tiny handful of pre-flop hands are so strong you’ll rarely want to bluff with them after the flop. That list is short—pocket aces, kings, maybe queens—and that’s about it. With every other hand, you’ll sometimes want to bluff after the flop. Whenever you think about bluffing, you must consider your potential equity-when-called. When you’re bluffing, you want as much equity-when-called as possible.
The last chapter got us thinking about where the money comes from. We started this chapter looking at simple, effective pre-flop strategy. Money in part comes from superior pre-flop hand selection, which in turn should always be guided by the working principle of equity. And there’s more.