Although many players tend to lump small pairs and suited connectors together as “speculative” hands, I tend to think of them as opposites. Suited connectors rarely flop big hands, but have strong equity-when-called on a wide range of boards. More often, small pairs flop big hands. But they generally have terrible equity-when-called should you miss the flop entirely.
This makes small pairs okay hands with which to bluff pre-flop (i.e., bluff 3-betting or 4-betting). But overall, small pairs are last- resort choices with which to bluff post-flop.
The silver lining? Sets are so valuable you naturally want to play your small pairs if you can see a flop for reasonably cheap. Sets are also useful because they help you win huge pots. Finally, on many boards, the threat you could be holding a set is what gives your aggressive betting much of its power. If you decided to stop playing small pairs and told your opponents so, you’d be unable to play aggressively with any real effect on those boards with two or three small cards. (Of course you would never directly tell your opponents your strategy, but it’s dangerous to assume in this game that your opponents can’t figure out on their own key parts of how you play.)
Okay. So aside from pocket pairs (big and small) which play by their own rules, pre-flop you’re looking for hands that might give you equity-when-called if you choose to bluff. These hands are nearly exclusively suited hands (except the strongest offsuit hands like A♥K♦ or A♠Q♣) that have either big-card value, connected value, or both.
Now let’s talk some more about pre-flop strategy.
What’s the goal of pre-flop play? Most think the goal is to see the flop with hands with which they can win a big pot. Again, I believe if you think like most people, you’ll be playing negative- $10-an-hour poker for years to come.
From my perspective, the goal of pre-flop play is to get yourself into situations where you can take advantage of the errors your opponents make. For the vast majority of live no-limit hold ’em players, they make the mistake time and again of giving too much action with too many hands. Pre-flop, this means most players play too-high a percentage of hands they’re dealt. After the flop, things get a little more complicated. But pre-flop it’s pretty straightforward. Your opponents simply play too many hands.
How should you respond? You should play fewer hands than they do. And raise with the hands you do play.
Raise every hand you play pre-flop.
“But Ed,” you say, “what if I have very good reasons for a given hand to keep the pot small? What if, say, I’m on the button with J♥8♥? Why raise? Why not just call a limp and see if I improve?”
I recommend raising every hand you play for several reasons:
1. The biggest error your opponents consistently make pre- flop is they play too many hands. After the flop, your
opponents will differentiate themselves. Some will fold too many hands. Some will call down too much. Some will be too aggressive. But much of your profit long term will come from exploiting those who play too many hands pre-flop. And the best way to make money from opponents when they play too many hands is to bet and raise, especially pre-flop.
- When you bet and raise pre-flop, you build pots early. And you’re naturally increasing the size of bets on all future streets. This magnifies every error your opponent can make. In a $10 limped pot, your opponents are making mistakes proportional to $10. In a $50 raised pot, your opponents are making mistakes proportional to $50. The bigger the pot, the bigger the error (in real dollar terms). And the more you can win. So, all things being equal, you should want to play bigger pots.
- Raising every hand hides information from your opponents. When you limp some hands and raise others, you’re splitting your range in two. Maybe you always raise A-A and always limp 3-3. If you limp, your opponents know you can’t have A-A. And if you raise, your opponents know you can’t have a set or straight if the board comes 5-3-2. You may assume your opponents are not observant enough to pick up on this. But I think in many cases that underestimates your competition.
I concede the rare situation arises where you could argue limping is the best possible pre-flop play. But these situations are absolutely not the norm in live no-limit hold ’em. Most people limp too frequently. And it’s your job to exploit them.
There’s another benefit to teaching yourself the discipline of raising every hand. It makes you less likely to play junk hands just because you’re bored or tilted or otherwise not thinking clearly. It’s one thing to burn $2 on a lark. It’s another if you have to commit $10 and you have to draw attention to yourself by being the raiser.
If no one else has raised, and if you’re not in a blind, and if you feel like your hand is playable, you should raise. This is true regardless of the number of limpers in front of you. (While theoretical exceptions to this rule exist, I see no reason to try to think up exceptions while you’re still working through the ideas in this book.)
If someone has raised in front of you, it’s a different story. You’re not compelled to reraise, though you should reraise more often than the typical live player.
Whenever you’re facing a pre-flop raise, you have a key piece of information you didn’t have without the raise. In theory, your opponent has a raising hand. It’s important to think briefly about what a “raising hand” might mean for each opponent.
As I mentioned above, the first clue comes when your opponent is willing to limp. If he sometimes limps and sometimes raises, you can often divide his total pre-flop range into limping hands and raising hands.
Many players with this approach don’t raise that frequently pre-flop, and do so primarily with strong hands.
Again, how do you make money at this game? You bet and raise when you catch your opponents playing too many hands. And you get out of the way when your opponents are marked with strong hands.
If your opponent raises infrequently and mostly with strong hands, this is a “get out of the way” situation. When the same player limps in, you attack with bets and raises, because the limping hands are weak, and the ones they play too often. In other words, by separating raising hands from limping hands, your opponent is giving you reliable cues about when to attack and when to back off. Observing and heeding these cues is the bedrock principle to winning no-limit hold ’em.
Raises in other situations are less telling. Some players raise every time they enter a pot. While raising every time you enter a pot is good strategy, these players also usually play too many hands, so you should again feel free to attack with bets and raises (either by reraising pre-flop or by calling with the intention of being aggressive post-flop).
Other players vary their raising standards significantly by position. If they are one of the first few players to act, they will limp most hands and raise only the best ones. But when they’re on the button, they will tend to raise a wide range of hands. Again, it is fine to attack these raises either with pre-flop reraises or post- flop aggression.
In a 1-2 game, when tight opponents reraise (a.k.a., 3-bet) pre- flop, they tend to have a narrow range of very strong hands. This is a critical time to get out of the way.
A QUICK SUMMARY
We’ve covered some important ideas. So let’s review before we continue.
The money in live no-limit hold ’em games comes from catching your opponents putting money into the pot more frequently than recommended by a perfect strategy. Even better, the vast majority of players put more money into the pot than they should pre-flop.
After the flop, strategies diverge. Some players deal with all the extra hands they’re playing by folding them out early. These players are easy to bully on the flop and turn. But by the time the big money starts flying on the river, it may be time to cut your losses.
Some players deal with their extra hands by calling down too often on too many streets. You hope to make hands against these players and bet them at every opportunity.
Some players deal with their extra hands by trying to steal pots with aggressive bets and raises. These players are trickiest to beat. But you can win just as much money off them as the other two player types. Once your opponent has the habit of putting too much money into the pot with too many hands, you can win that money as long as you choose the correct post-flop strategy.
This is what it means to “play the course” in poker. Your opponents build a nice big green for you by playing too many hands pre-flop. But getting your ball from tee to green isn’t trivial. You will have to navigate the hazards, and the nature and
placement of the hazards is determined purely by your opponents’ strategies. You have to take the paths that your opponents leave open to you.
Each table you play—each hole, continuing the golf analogy— will be different. One table might demand that you make a lot of medium-sized flop and turn bets to get people to fold out bad hands. Another table might require you to plan your actions around inducing and calling large bluff bets from your opponents. The trick is to play the course as it comes to you, rather than try to impose your will upon it. This process begins pre-flop.
As I said, your pre-flop strategy has two parts. One, you don’t want to get caught playing too many hands. Two, you want to position yourself to best-leverage and exploit the money your opponents make available to you by playing too many hands.
You do this by choosing the right types of hands. Besides pocket pairs, you want hands that will have equity-when-called on a wide range of boards should you bluff. Suitedness is the most important feature to protect your equity-when-called. Suitedness is so important that the vast majority of valuable, playable non- pair hands are suited. Also important are big cards and connectedness. A suited hand with one of these two features (e.g., K♥T♥ or 8♦7♦) will often be playable. But one with neither of them (e.g., T♠4♠) will rarely be worth any money.
You also execute a sound pre-flop strategy by consistently raising if no one has raised ahead of you. Raising punishes your opponents for playing too many hands. And it bloats the pot, which increases the size of your opponents’ errors later. If someone else has raised in front of you, you’re under no obligation to reraise. Facing a raise should, in many cases, give you some warning that you’re facing an opponent who has a narrow range of fairly strong hands. This is a situation to avoid, not to attempt to attack.