Supertight Is Better Than Tight

“To begin with, I recommend playing only the top ten hands and folding all others.”– Phil Hellmuth, Play Poker Like the Pros

The above book, written by a World Series of Poker Champion, suggests that a beginning Holdem player should play only “The Top Ten” hands before the flop. By his account, those hands would be pocket sevens and better, ace-king, and ace-queen. This advice would have you playing only six percent of your hands. That’s absurd.

There’s a lot to be said for playing tight, particularly for a beginning player. This holds true for the experienced player sitting at many tables as well. But six percent is about the range you should play in an 18-handed game. That’s twice the number of players at a typical table. Paul used to play 11-handed in some New York clubs, but it’s hard to find a poker table to sit more players than Jesus sat apostles. Many people will say that the preflop advice in this book errs on the tight side, but it’s clearly not the tightest advice in print.

In fairness to Phil, this advice is intended for Limit Holdem. In No Limit, he suggests boosting it up to fifteen hands by adding all of the pocket pairs. That’s still too tight. (Ignore for a moment the fact that good Limit players play approximately 50% looser than good No Limit players.)

Aside from being ridiculously tight, this advice is a gross oversimplification of a complex game. Yes, beginners can often benefit from simplifying things. But there’s a line between generalizing and over generalizing. And playing only the top ten hands is over that line.

A brief confession: In 2007, Paul played over 100,000 hands of small-stakes No Limit with a VPIP1 of 7, while Dusty had to have the nit beaten out of him a couple years before that. There is an allure to playing an extremely simple style of poker and firing up as many tables as possible. Less thinking. More rakeback and bonus money.

We’ve included some simplified solutions for both beginners and players wanting to maximize their earnings. But again, there’s a line. We can’t oversimplify.

Holdem is dynamic. You should have different default ranges for each position, and you should adjust those ranges for each opponent. Against a raise and a re-raise, it may be correct to play only 3 percent of your hands. When it’s folded to you on the button, it may be correct to play 70 percent or more. There is no one-size-fits-all hand range.

Always beware of sweeping generalizations.

Also be aware of where your advice comes from. Does the author have a successful track record in the games you’re trying to learn? Does he have experience teaching and coaching poker? Or is he just cashing in on some television coverage by running off a quick book. Be sure the advice you adopt is backed up by logic and a track record of success.

What constitutes a track record of success? Winning a major live tournament is a big deal, and it can be great

publicity. But not only is a single tournament a tiny sample size (anyone can get lucky one time – just ask Jerry Yang or Jamie Gold), it’s fundamentally different from cash games. So if you’re looking to improve at cash games, then you should look for someone with a track record of success over millions of hands in the same game format that you play.

And don’t listen to Phil Hellmuth.

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