When considering starting hands, it’s important to address each particular situation. It’s not possible to make sweeping generalizations. However, a few questions can be asked every time. Some of these are:
What stage of the tournament are you in? What actions have occurred in front of you?
What position are you in? Remember to think of position as the number of players behind you, not the number who have already folded.
What type of players are the opponents on your left who have yet to act? How many chips do you have?
How many chips do the opponents to your left have?
When deciding on your course of action before the flop, think about the answers to these questions.
The hand categories for MTTs are identical to those used in SNGs and listed on page 30. For convenience, I’ll reiterate them here. A word of caution—if you start playing no-limit, don’t mix it with limit play until you’re very proficient. Hand selection and approach in limit is different. Combining the two, especially initially, is likely to lead to confusion.
Hands that aren’t on this list should generally be avoided, unless you’re either in the big blind and
get to see the flop without calling any more bets or you’re in the small blind with multiple limpers and can’t resist the odds you’re getting to put in an extra half-bet to see the flop. Another time you might play hands lower than Category 8 is when your stack equals four times the cost per round or less, everyone’s folded around to you, and you’re within two seats of the button. At such times, you should strongly consider moving all-in with any two cards. No-limit hold ’em is not for the faint-hearted!
Early in the Tournament
Up until the time when antes are required, there’s not much point in trying to steal a lot of blinds. Generally, you’ll have sufficient chips to play and the amount that you might steal is inconsequential. your objective at these early stages should be to flop a big hand that wins a big pot. To accomplish this mission, it pays to see flops as cheaply as possible with medium-strength hands, but I don’t recommend slow playing big pairs. The only premium hands in hold ’em are AA and KK. The reason I call them premium is because not only are they rare, but they also stand a good chance of winning the pot without improving. you only rate to get so many premium hands in each event and when you do, the challenge is to get as many chips as possible into the pot before the flop. Even hands as strong as these don’t do well against multiple opponents in no-limit hold ‘em, so limiting the number of players is beneficial. Raising aggressively fulfills both of these goals.
The three other highly valued dominant hands are QQ, JJ, and AK. They’re called dominant because they’re favorites against 97% of all starting hold ’em hands. QQ and JJ are the third and fourth best starting hands, respectively. They’re greater than 4-to-1 favorites over any smaller pair. Even against AK, they’re 13-to-10 favorites. Ace-king dominates hands such as AQ, AJ, and KQ, making it a 3-to-1 favorite against those hands. you can raise or re-raise with any of these hands. However, if another player gets frisky and puts in a third raise, the only hands with which I’d feel comfortable continuing are AA and KK, and all my chips are going in right then with either hand. Unless you really know your opponent is a certifiable maniac, fold these Category 2 hands to a third raise early in the tournament. However, with hands as strong as TT or AQ-suited, I’d just call a raise, attempting to flop a well- disguised monster that might bust somebody. It also makes sense to play any pair or suited connectors, if you can play them for a small percentage of your stack. Here, you’re looking to flop a set with the pairs (3-of-a-kind with a pair in your hand) and a straight, a flush, 2-pair, or a monster draw with the suited connectors.
If you’re just beginning, I recommend following the Rule of 2 through 10 I described in the SNG section in Chapter 7. once you have more experience, I recommend the rules of 5 and 10 plus the Rule of 3 and 6 I described in Chapter 8. Go back and review these rules if you need to.
With this overall scheme in mind, let’s look at each category:
Category 1 (AA, KK)
With these hands you can raise or re-raise from any position. Some players may tell you how smart they are by having folded KK pre-flop in some arcane situation. Fuhgedaboutit! If you can get all your money in pre-flop with this hand, go for it. Conversely, some players will tell you to milk AA for all its worth by making pissy little bets on each street. This is a recipe for disaster. Play them this way and you’ll frequently have a bad-beat story to tell your friends. Giving players proper odds to make a draw, then calling for all your chips when they finally do make their hand, is bad poker and bad thinking. If possible, try to get at least 30%-50% of your chips in pre-flop, then bet the rest on the flop regardless of what comes.
If you get involved in a multi-way pot with AA early in the tournament, I advise caution post-flop. Bet the size of the pot, but if you get called, and it’s checked to you on the turn, check it right back! If you’re first to act, just check and call. If your opponent bets on the river, simply call, don’t raise. Aces are a hard hand to fold, so try not to get in a situation with them early in the tournament where you’re put to a tough decision for all your chips. Keep the pot small!
Later on, once the antes have started and your CSI is lower, aces can be played much more aggressively post-flop. you’ll rarely be up against more than 1 opponent and your aces are probably the best hand after the flop. Fire away!
You hold Ac Ad in middle position, the blinds are 100/200, and you have 4,900. You raise to 600 and the button makes it 1,800 off a stack of 6,100. what should you do?
Count to 20 and move all-in. You’ll see “clever” plays, such as just calling the re-raise, in spots such as this, but with only 3,700 left over from calling the 1,200 raise, not to mention a sorely needed 3,900 already in the pot and ripe for picking, don’t get cute. Move all-in! You may have been re-raised by QQ and the turn may bring an ace or a king, killing your action. Remember, the idea is to get as much money as possible into the center of the pot pre-flop. Push! You’ll usually get called and be looking at KK, QQ, JJ, or AK.
You hold Kc Kd in the cutoff with blinds of 100/200 and a stack of 4,900. A player in early position makes it 600 off a stack of 5,300 and a tight player calls from middle position.
Move all-in. A pot-sized raise is 2,700, which is 51% of your stack, so clearly you’re never folding in this hand and should get your chips in now while you strongly suspect you have an advantage. If you “only” win the 1,500 that’s already in the pot, you’ll increase your stack by more than 30%. Often, one of the players will call and usually you’ll have a big edge.
In the $215 weekly Sunday Million MTT at PokerStars.com that concluded just prior to my writing
this, a player (our hero) seated 3 seats to the right of the button raised to 1,800 off a stack of 23,000 with blinds of 300/600. The button with 12,000 chips called and the big blind now raised to 4,600. The original raiser thought until his time clock started ticking (a count to about 20—sound familiar?), then pushed all-in. The button thought for ages, then called, and the big stack in the big blind insta-called! The hands: big blind-AK; hero AA; button 77. When the smoke cleared, our hero had 60,000 and was the table leader. Sweet! That’s the way to play aces.
Category 2 (QQ, AKs, AK, JJ)
These hands can be played in almost any pot. If you’re the first to enter the pot, you can raise. Early
on in tournaments, it’s oK to just call normal raises with these hands, hoping to flop a well-disguised monster. Alternatively, you can also re-raise. If you raise and get re-raised, call. If you have QQ and someone has raised, re-raise. otherwise, mix it up between these two alternatives (re-raise 50% of the time or any time that an aggressive opponent is playing 40% of the hands or more) and it’ll be difficult for competitors to read you.
If you have AK and flop either an ace or a king, make a bet of about 70% of the pot on the flop. If another player bets before the action comes to you, raise the size of the pot, remembering to include the amount required to call before calculating the correct amount to raise. If this raise requires more than 1/3 of your stack, just move-in. If you miss the flop entirely, bet about 70% of the pot if you have only one opponent or if the cards are uncoordinated, such as J73 or 862, and you have two or fewer opponents. otherwise, check and give up without a fight. If you have AK and make a continuation bet on the flop and get raised, you also need to give up the hand if you failed to make a pair. After all, you can’t kiss all the girls. Every now and then, you’ll have to relinquish a pot.
If you have a hand such as QQ or JJ and the flop comes with three uncoordinated cards below that, play it the same as with AK above. If a king comes on the flop, make a bet of about 70% of the pot, but fold if raised. If an ace appears, bet into 1 opponent but check into 2 foes. If another player bets first, simply fold.
A player in early position raises to 600 off a stack of 9,000 with blinds of 100/200. You have QQ, both black, and 10,000 chips. Raise to 2,100. After you match the initial 600 raise, there would be 1,500 in the pot; raise the pot or 2,100 total.
Your opponent calls. The flop is Jh 9h 5c. He checks. what do you do?
All-in! Any reasonable bet will commit more than 1/3 of your chips. Move all-in and put maximum pressure on him if he’s drawing to a straight or a flush. A big bet like this will give him much
the worst of it if he’s on a draw. Note that your only two realistic choices with this stack and
this pre-flop action are all-in or check and fold, so pick one or the other in this type of situation, depending on the flop. If you’re in doubt, stick the chips in when you’re the bettor, and keep them for later when you’re the caller. There’s no doubt in this example. All the chips are going in.
Same situation as the last example and once again you have QQ. The pre-flop betting is the same. The flop is Ah 9h 5c. Your opponent bets 3000 into a pot of 4500. Fold! That 3,000 bet clearly commits your opponent to the pot. He’s going all the way with his hand and most probably has you beat.
Category 3 (AQs, AQ, TT, 99)
These hands play best against only one opponent, so you should enter every pot where you’re first in with a raise. If someone else has raised, call. If there’s a raise and a re-raise before the action gets to you, muck any of these hands.
You have Ac Qc in the cutoff and a stack of 5,400, with blinds of 100/200. UTG raises to 600 and the player 2 seats to his left re-raises to 1,800 off a stack of 7,800. Fold. Your hand is dubious in this situation and you have to commit 20% of your stack to see a flop. The UTG raise represents strength and the re-raise is even stronger. wait for a better spot.
You have Ac Qc in the cutoff and a stack of 5,400, with blinds of 100/200; it’s passed around to you. Raise to 600. You’re the first active player in the pot, have excellent position, and a powerful hand. Step on the gas!
You have Ac Qc in the cutoff and a stack of 5,400, with blinds of 100/200. The player in the 3-seat makes it 600 off a stack of 4800 and it’s passed to you. Call. You have a strong hand in good position, but not strong enough to re-raise.
Category 4 (AJs, KQs, 88, 77)
These hands are blind-stealing hands with some powerful potential. If no more than five players are acting behind you and you’re the first one in the pot, you should come in with a raise. With Category 4 hands, call if the pot’s been raised before it gets to you and see how play develops, following the rules for playing pocket pairs with your 7s and 8s. Although these are decent hands with which to call raises, be leery of them post-flop unless you flop a big hand or draw. Hands such as 88 and 77 play poorly if overcards come on the flop, unless you flop a set. What you’re looking for, and in fact what your early strategy for medium pocket pairs is underpinned by, is to flop a set. If you do so and another player has made top-pair/top kicker or perhaps 2-pair, you have a chance to double your chips early.
Another acceptable option with Category 4 hands is to limp behind one or more players and delay the decision of how to proceed until you see the flop. The point here is that these hands have great potential, but they generally need to improve to win, so if you can get in cheap against several opponents, why not seize the opportunity?
You’re in the cutoff with 8h 8c and a stack of 6,900, with blinds of 100/200. The 3rd player to act makes it 600 to go off a stack of 6,100 and everyone passes to you. This is close. If you’re a beginner using the Rule of 2 through 9, you should fold. That 600 raise is a bit more than 8% of your stack and is about 10% of your opponent’s. If you’re a touch more experienced and using the Rule of 5 and 10, call. You have excellent position and a good enough hand to call up to 10% of the lesser of the two stacks and see what develops.
You have Ah Jh in the hijack and a stack of 6,400, with the blinds of 100/200. It’s passed around to you. Raise to 600. You’re the first one into the pot with good position, and you’ve an excellent hand. Enough said.
Category 5 (AJ, ATs, AT, KQ, KJs, 66, 55)
These hands are far above average hands and it’s fine to raise with them if no more than four players are yet to act behind you. If you’re in one of the first four positions in an early stage of the tournament, just let most of these hands go, since they’ve cost you nothing and may get you into trouble. With 66 and 55, follow the applicable rule.
With the exception of the pairs, you don’t want to call raises with Category 5 hands; they’ll usually cause you headaches, get you broke, or both.
The big question is what do you do when you raise with 66 from the cutoff and the button makes a large re-raise? The truth is that there isn’t a clear answer and you’ll have to decide at that moment. you’ll usually be favored if they hold two overcards, but you’re greater than a 4-to-1 underdog, if they hold a higher pair. of course, if you call and they turn over a smaller pair, you’ll be thrilled! If you want a rigid guideline, fold early in the tournament. you’d certainly fold if the player appears to be conservative. Later on, you may have to make a stand with these hands.
You have As Tc in the 3-seat and a stack of 11,400, with blinds and antes of 100/200/25. It’s passed to you. Fold. Your position is poor and 6 players are yet to act. If you have the same hand in the hijack (2 seats to the right of the button). raise to 600.
You have 6s 6d in the 5-seat and a stack of 11,400, with blinds and antes of 100/200/25. It’s passed to you. Raise to 600. This is within the restrictions of the pocket-pair rules and the hand has potential if you get called.
Category 6 (A9s-A2s, KJ, KTs, QJs, QTs, JTs, 44, 33, 22)
Raise when entering the pot with these hands if you’re first in and no more than three players are behind you. If you get re-raised by a conservative player, you have to give these hands up.
You have As 5s on the button and a stack of 11,400, with blinds and antes of 100/200/25. It’s passed to you. Raise to 600.
You have 4s 4d in the cutoff with a stack of 11,400, with blinds and antes of 100/200/25. It’s passed to you. Raise to 600. You’ve got good position and the Rule of 5 and 10 applies.
You have 4s 4d UTG with a stack of 11,400, with blinds and antes of 100/200/25. Muck. A standard raise is over 5% of your stack and your position is the worst. Give it a pass.
Category 7 (A9-A2, KT, QJ, QT, JT, T9s, 98s, 87s, 76s, 65s, 54s)
Raise with these hands when you’re first to enter the pot and are on the button. Fold to a re-raise from either blind, unless the Rule of 5 and 10 applies. Don’t play these hands in any other situations unless you’re employing the Rule of 5 and 10, which applies to the suited connectors.
You have 9s8s on the button and a stack of 12,400, with blinds and antes of 100/200/25. As first in, you raise to 600 on the button and the little blind passes, then the big blind re-raises to 1,800 off a stack of 11,800. what to do?
It depends on your read and your instinct. If the big blind is a tight-aggressive player, fold. But if he’s a loose-aggressive and you think he may be re-stealing, then all-in is the best play. Turn up the heat and be the maniac they fear! Even if he calls your all-in with a hand such as AK offsuit, you’ll only be about a 7-to-5 underdog. All those times that he’ll fold when you move all-in more than compensates for this.
Suited Connectors: With the suited connectors T9s, 98s, 87s, 65s, and 54s, I recommend limping from any position and calling a small raise, provided that it’s for 5 to 10% of your stack, according to the Rule of 5 and 10. This is a reasonable risk for the potential of flopping a hand that can win a big pot.
Category 8 (K9s, K9, K8s, Q9s, Q8s, J9s, T8s, T9, 97s, 98, 86s, 87, 75s, 76, 64s)
These are mostly hands that might get you into trouble. Nonetheless, they have some value and I recommend playing them under the following circumstances.
The Rule of 3 and 6 applies for the 1-gap suited connectors, such as J9s, T8s, 97s, 86s, etc., in the following instances:
From the button, if there’s been one or more limpers but no raise and it costs a tiny percentage of your stack.
From the small blind, if there’s been one or more limpers.
With these hands, you’re hoping to flop either 2-pair or better, or a big draw such as both a straight and a flush draw, a pair plus either a straight or flush draw, or a straight or flush draw with overcards.
You have 7c 5c in the cutoff with blinds of 100/200 and have 14,000 chips. An opponent in early position raises to 600 and everyone folds to you. Call. The Rule of 3 and 6 applies. The flop is Ah 7h 5d. Your opponent bets 1,500. what’s your play?
Move-in! If your opponent has a hand such as AK, it will be very hard for him to fold. Since 2 hearts are on the board, he may think you’re on a flush draw. If he has AK, you’re a 3-to-1 favorite. Push.
Blinds and antes are 100/200/25 at a 9-handed table. You’re on the button with 10,000 chips and 2 players have limped in, but no one has raised. You have 7h-6s. Call. You’re getting good odds (about 5-to-1) on the 200 it costs you to call, no one has showed any strength, and you’ll act last on all rounds. It’s costing you 2% of your chips. It’s worth the risk to try and flop a big hand or to take a stab at stealing the pot by betting, if everyone checks to you on an uncoordinated flop.
The flop comes 4c 5d 7h, giving you top pair and an open-ended straight draw. The first player bets 1,000 and the next player calls. what should you do?
This is a great flop for you. with about 3,000 already in the pot and a good chance that both players will fold if you move-in, it’s time to get aggressive. Any 3, 6, 7, or 8 are likely winners if you get called. If not, you’ll increase your stack by 30%. Push all-in!
Blinds and antes are 200/400/25, 8-handed. The UTG player and the button have limped in. You have 6h 4h in the small blind and a stack of 5,000. what’s your play?
Call the extra 200. You’re getting an irresistible 8-to-1 odds on your 200. This is an easy call, even though you’ll be first to act on each round from the flop onward.
- By playing, you gain experience that can’t be taught.
- Learn the eight hand categories or print them out for easy reference.
- Early in the tournament, try to flop a hand that can win a big pot.
- Go for potential over current status. For instance, early in the tournament call a raise with 77 (based on the Rules), but don’t call a raise with AJ.
- Early in the tournament consider just calling a raise, rather than re-raising, with hands as strong as TT or AQ-suited, in an attempt to flop a well-concealed monster. Later in the tournament you’ll usually be re-raising or moving in with these hands.
- Use the Rules of 2 through 10, 5 and 10, and 3 and 6.
- Play big hands and big draws aggressively. If you think a player is re-stealing, be prepared to fight the bully by moving all-in. You’ve got to have heart and be willing to go broke in order to succeed.