HOW TO PLAY BEFORE THE FLOP


Choosing the right starting hand is half the battle in poker. If you enter the game with the right cards, you will not only avoid difficult situations in the later betting rounds, you can also be reasonably sure that you are indeed holding the best hand. 

And that's exactly what this article is all about. You will learn when certain hands are playable and why, as well as how to extract maximum profit from them. 

You will be provided with an overview of this in the Starting Hands Chart, which gives you a simple strategy for the first betting round in an easy to understand table format. Just as with all other strategies on PokerStrategy.com, you can download this chart to print out and use while you play. 

The next section gives a quick overview of the table positions, after which we will look at the actual strategy.

Free poker money tip: Before you start playing with your free poker money, click here to download the chart!

What is your position at the table?

The order in which players act, depends on how they are seated in relation to the dealer (D). The more players between the dealer and you during the betting round (counter clockwise), the sooner you have to act and the earlier your position. 

Your position tells you when it will be your turn to act. 

If you are one of the first to act, you are in early position. When you are in late position, your turn to act will come later in the round. This is important - the earlier you have to act, the stronger your hand must be, since the more players there are after you, the greater the chance that one of them has stronger cards than you. 

The earlier your position, the stronger your hand must be. 

There are 10 positions at a 10-handed table. These positions are divided into four groups: the early, middle, and late positions, and the blinds. 

 

 Dealer
2 Late positions
3 Middle Positions
3 Early positions
2 Blind positions
Move the cursor over each group to see the corresponding seats.

The two late positions BU and CO 
The dealer and the player to his right are in the late positions. The dealer is also referred to as the BU (Button) and the player to his right as the CO (Cutoff).

The three middle positions MP1, MP2 and MP3
The three players to the right of the late positions are in the middle positions. They are referred to as MP1, MP2 and MP3.

The three early positions UTG1, UTG2 and UTG3
The three players to the right of the middle positions are in the early positions. They are referred to as UTG1, UTG2 and UTG3.

The two blind positions SB and BB
The two players who have to post the blinds are in the blind positions. The player to the left of the dealer must post the Small Blind (SB); the player to his left must post the Big Blind (BB).


WHAT IF THERE ARE LESS THAN 10 PLAYERS AT THE TABLE?

So far we assumed there were 10 players at the table, but this isn't always the case. 

If there are only 9 players at the table, you drop one early position. If there are only 8 players at the table, there is only one early position. With 7 players or less at the table, there are no early positions at all. 

For every empty seat you eliminate one position, starting with the early positions, then the middle, and so on. 


Starting Hands Chart: Which Hands Should You Play?

THE NO LIMIT STARTING HANDS CHART

The Starting Hands Chart for No Limit Texas Hold'em shows you which hands you should play and how you should play them. Simply print it out and you will always know what to do throughout the entire game.

Further reading: Check out the poker hands overview for a general explanation on hand ranking for all game types.

The chart contains four categories of information:

  • Your starting hand
  • The actions of your opponents before you
  • Your position
  • How you should play your starting hand considering your current position and the actions of your opponents before you.


Your Hand
Actions Before You
Early Pos. Middle Pos. Late Pos. Blinds
High Pairs
  All players folded
Raise
AA, KK, QQ Players called
Raise
  1 player raised Raise
Middle Pairs
  All players folded
Raise
JJ, TT
Players called
Raise
  1 player raised
Call20
Low Pairs
99, 88, 77, All players folded
Fold Call
Raise Call
66, 55, 44,
Players called
Fold
Call
33, 22 1 player raised
Call20
Your Hand
Actions Before You
Early Pos. Middle Pos. Late Pos. Blinds
High Aces (s stands for suited, o stands for offsuit)
  All players folded
Raise
AKo, AKs
Players called
Raise
  1 player raised
Raise
Middle Aces (s stands for suited, o stands for offsuit)
AQo, AQs
All players folded
Fold
Raise
AJs, AJo
Players called
Fold Raise Call
ATs, ATo
1 player raised
Fold
Low Suited Aces (s stands for suited)
A9s, A8s, A7s,
All players folded
Fold Raise
A6s, A5s, A4s,
Players called
Fold Call
A3s, A2s
1 player raised Fold
Your Hand
Actions Before You
Early Pos. Middle Pos. Late Pos. Blinds
Suited Face Cards (s stands for suited)
KQs, KJs, KTs, All players folded
Fold Raise
QJs, QTs, Players called
Fold
Call
JTs 1 player raised
Fold
Offsuit Face Cards (o stands for offsuit)
KQo, KJo, KTo, All players folded
Fold Raise
QJo, QTo,
Players called
Fold Call
JTo 1 player raised
Fold
Suited Connectors
T9s, 98s,
All players folded
Fold Raise Fold
87s, 76s, Players called
Fold Call
65s, 54s 1 player raised
Fold
Your Hand
Actions Before You
Early Pos. Middle Pos. Late Pos. Blinds
All other hands not considered above
  All players folded
Fold
The rest
Players called
Fold
  1 player raised
Fold


The First Column: Your Hand
 

In the left column you see the possible starting hands. Each starting hand is abbreviated. AA, for example, stands for two aces, 99 for two nines. If your hand is not included in the chart, you should fold.


A Ace
Q
Queen
T
Ten
K King
J
Jack
9
Nine


Suited cards s: An s behind the hand, as in A9s, stands for suited and means that both of the cards you are holding are of the same suit (hearts, diamonds, spades or clubs). Which suit it is doesn't play any role in Texas hold'em.

  • A9s stands for ace nine of the same suit
  • A4s stands for ace four of the same suit
  • QJs stands for queen jack of the same suit
  • QTs stands for queen ten of the same suit

Offsuit cards o: An o behind the hand, as in KQo, stands for offsuit and means that the two cards are of two different suits, for example if you are holding a club and a heart.

  • KQo stands for king queen of different suits
  • QTo stands for queen ten of different suits
  • JTo stands for jack ten of different suits
THE SECOND COLUMN: WHAT ACTION TOOK PLACE BEFORE YOU?
 

The second column shows you the possible answers to this question. You obviously play differently when someone raised before you, since this is a sign that your opponent has a strong hand.



COLUMNS 3-6: WHAT TO DO DEPENDING ON YOUR POSITION
 

Your position tells you in what column to look next. If you are in early position, look at the third column, if you are in the Small Blind or Big Blind, look at the last column.

 


WHAT DOES 'CALL 20' MEAN?

When you play a small pair like 55 you are speculating on hitting three-of-a-kind on the flop. This only happens approx. 12% of the time, but when it does, you will have a very strong hand that can bring in a fair amount of money. This is why it's profitable to call a raise when holding a small pair, as long as your opponent has enough money to pay you off when you do hit. 

With a small pair, you should only call a raise, when your opponent has at least 20x the raise amount in his stack. By the way, this applies to you as well. You must also have 20x the raise amount. You can only win as much money as you have in your stack, so if your opponent has 20x the raise amount but you don't, it really doesn't help you. That is what the term 'Call 20' means. 

 

How much should you raise?

IF THERE WAS NO RAISE BEFORE YOU

If no one raised before you, you simply raise 4 big blinds + 1 big blind for every player that entered the hand before you. 

Your raise =
  • 4x big blind
  • plus 1 big blind for every player that entered the hand before you.

Assume you just got your starting capital and are playing NL2 (0.01/0.02). The big blind is $0.02.

When you raise, you raise at least 4 * $0.02 = $0.08. 

If someone joined the pot before you, you add an additional $0.02 to this amount for a total of $0.10. If two players entered the hand before you, you add two additional big blinds to this amount and raise to a total of $0.12.

IF THERE WAS EXACTLY ONE RAISE BEFORE YOU

If an opponent raised before you, you re-raise to 3x the size of the original raise. For every player that calls this raise before you, you increase the size of your re-raise by the size of the original raise.

Your re-raise =
  • 3x the size of the original raise
  • plus 1x the size of the original raise for each player that called.

Assume you are playing NL2 (0.01/0.02). A player before you raises to $0.08. You have two aces and want to re-raise to get money in the pot. Your raise should be 3 * $0.08 = $0.24. 

If another player called this raise before you, you add an additional $0.08 to this amount, for a total of $0.32. 

If two players before you called the raise, you re-raise to $0.40. 

IF THERE WAS MORE THAN ONE RAISE BEFORE YOU

If there was more than one raise before you, one thing is clear: You're not getting involved if you don't have a monster hand. You only play AA and KK, two aces and two kings. When you do have a monster, your line of play is simple in this scenario: you go all-in. 

If there was more than one raise before you, you only play AA and KK and you go all-in.

Two queens (QQ) or ace king (AK) should be folded, just like every other hand that isn't AA or KK. 

 

What if someone raises after you?

YOU HAVE A PAIR OF ACES OR A PAIR OF KINGS

If you have a pair of aces or kings, you should just keep on raising. The best thing you can do is try and go all-in before the flop and put all your money in the middle. Some beginners have trouble doing this, but keep in mind that you are well ahead against every other pair by approx. 80%. You can hardly find a more profitable opportunity to go all-in.

Fold all other hands, including AK and AQ, hard as it may be for you to do so. You can, however, make an exception to this rule when you have a pocket pair.

YOU HAVE A POCKET PAIR

There is, as we just said, one exception. When you have a pocket pair smaller than AA or KK, you can make an exception and call a raise, as long as both you and your opponent have stacks at least 20x the amount you're about to call. 
Just like when you follow the Call 20 rule from the Starting Hands Chart, you are speculating on hitting three-of-a-kind on the flop. If you do hit, chances are good that you'll be able to win your opponent's entire stack. 

YOUR OPPONENT ONLY MIN-RAISES

You will find players who only min-raise fairly often in the lower limits. Whatever they may think they are doing, it certainly doesn't make much sense. 

If you have already entered the hand and one opponent raises after you by the smallest amount allowed, a so-called min-raise, you should always call, unless, of course, you have AA or KK, in which case you re-raise. 




Examples

EXAMPLE 1- NO RAISES BEFORE YOU
Limit NL 2 $0.01/$0.02 (big blind = $0.02)
Your hand
Position UTG3 (early position)
Situation You have two players in front of you. Both call and pay the $0.02 big blind. Now it's your turn to make a decision.


You definitely want to raise with this hand. AK is, quite simply, a good hand. But how much should you raise to? 

The rule says: Raise 4 big blinds + 1 big blind for each player that has entered the hand. 

In this example 2 players have already called. You raise to a total of 6 big blinds. And since the big blind in this limit is $0.02, you raise to a total of 6 * $0.02 = $0.12. 

EXAMPLE 2 - CALL 20
Limit NL 2 $0.01/$0.02 (big blind = $0.02)
Your hand
Position MP3 (middle position)
Situation Everyone folds except for the player directly before you, who raises to $0.08. He then has $1.90 left in his stack.


Since you have a pocket pair and an opponent raised before you, you play according to the Call 20 rule. This rule says you can call a raise when you have a pocket pair and you and your opponent both have at least 20* the size of the raise left in your stacks. 

Your opponent's raise was $0.08. 20 * $0.08 = $1.60. This is the amount both, you, and your opponent must have in your stacks for you to be able to call his raise with your pocket pair. Your opponent has $1.90 remaining, and you always have a full buy-in ($2), since you are a good player. In this example you can call the raise and see if you hit three-of-a-kind on the flop. 

EXAMPLE 3 - A RAISE AFTER YOU
Limit NL 2 $0.01/$0.02 (big blind = $0.02)
Your hand
Position MP2 (middle position)
Situation Everyone before you folds. You obviously raise with AK; $0.08 is the right amount in this example. But then you encounter resistance, as an opponent after you raises, to $0.24. What should you do?


If your first thought is 'fold,' you have already learned quite a bit. Your hand may look nice, but you have to fold AK if there's a large raise after you. 

EXAMPLE 4 - A MIN-RAISE AFTER YOU
Limit NL 2 $0.01/$0.02 (big blind = $0.02)
Your hand
Position BU (Button, late position)
Situation You are on the Button, meaning you are the dealer. Everyone before you folds. The Starting Hands Chart says to raise. You raise to $0.08, but the player in the Big Blind doesn't want to play along and raises to $0.16.


In this example you are confronted with a min-raise. Normally you would just fold A8s when someone raises after you, but the rules say you should always call when an opponent min-raises after you. 

Take a look at the flop. You have position on your opponent, and your hand isn't all that bad. Just don't play for a big pot if all you hit is a pair of aces or eights. 

EXAMPLE 5 - TWO RAISES BEFORE YOU
Limit NL 2 $0.01/$0.02 (big blind = $0.02)
Your hand
Position BU (Button, late position)
Situation A player in early position raises to $0.08. Then a player in middle position re-raises to $0.24. Now it's your turn to act.


This is a very nice situation to be in. Of course, a pair of aces would be even better, but even with a pair of kings you don't have to think twice before going all-in. Instead of trying to figure out how high your raise should be, you simply go all-in and bet all your money.

If you had an ace and a king (AK) or two queens (QQ) you would have to fold. These hands are rarely good when two opponents raise before you.


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