Due to the effect of community cards, hold’em is a game of “domination,” a term coined by Roy Hashimoto. A hand is dominated if it has 3 or fewer outs against another, like AJ against AQ. Second best offsuit hands are what make you money in hold’em – when other players play them. With the flip of a card, pairs and suited hands can transform from dominated to dominating. Lure your opponents into playing dominated hands while avoiding dominated situations yourself.
Big and small pairs, suited hands, and offsuit hands play differently.
Small pairs, suited cards, and zero and one gap hands (examples: 22-66, A6s, and JTs and QTs respectively) thrive on “implied
odds”, a term coined by David Sklansky, meaning they will frequently be folding after the flop unless they flop big, and so they normally want to see the flop cheaply.
Offsuit hands have “reverse implied odds”, since they cannot usually bet and raise with confidence towards the end of the hand. Normally, an offsuit hand likely to be best should make it expensive to see the flop, in order to harm the hands that would have good implied odds to see the flop cheaply. A strong offsuit hand is still strong when facing several opponents, between its chance of making a AKQJT straight, two pair (usually using a low pair on the board) or a top pair that holds up.
Big pairs have reverse implied odds as well, but they are much more robust, since they can win unimproved, or by making two pair with a low pair on the board, or by making a set or full house.
The flop is the nexus of the hand; limiting raises preflop goes far towards disguising your hand.
The next sections detail strategy for opening, playing against limpers, playing against raisers, and defending the blinds. Six representative hands, namely QQ, 55, ATs, 76s, AQ, and JT, will illustrate preflop strategy for each of these situations. However, if you think you know better for your particular situation, you probably do, as “it depends.” In any case, this simple
desert nomad does not claim to be always correct, only always thought provoking.
The following table ranks the opening hands. The higher in the table, the stronger the hand is and the farther to the right of the button it can open. The bottom part of the table is geared towards late position.
|Opening hand rankings and minimum openers|
|#off button||Pairs||Suited Hands||Offsuite Hands||#off button|
Obviously if you can open with hands on one line in the table you
can open with all the hands above as well. For example, 5 off the
button, you can open with the following hands clipped from the table
To facilitate finding particular hands, the columns for suited and offsuit hands sort the hands into the following categories: aces, kings, queens, zero gappers, one gappers, two gappers, “other”. When a hand is “missing”, it belongs to the lower position. For instance, in the table there is A9 and then there is A7; the missing hand, A8, belongs with A7. Xxs denotes all the rest of the suited hands. Jx denotes J2 through J7.
SB stands for the small blind position, while 0 off the button means on the button, of course. 6 off the button corresponds to being under the gun (first to act) at a 9-handed table. For 7 off the button, use the 6 off the button hands.
An easy way to refer to a whole group of hands is by listing the minimum pair, suited, and offsuit hands. The hands that are in bold face in the table can be used as an index. So the minimum hands 5 off the button are 77/QJs/AJ caliber hands.
The minimum openers table assumes your opponents are a tad on the loose side, which forces you to open with less hands than normal. You can open with more hands if your opponents are either very loose or too tight or even properly tight. In early position you can usually open one caliber looser (e.g., 88/KQs/AQ becomes 77/QJs/AJ), and if your opponents are extremely tight or loose you can go two calibers looser. In late position, open with fewer hands against very loose opponents, due to your inability to steal the blinds. However, against overly tight players in the blinds, you can open with any hand listed in the ranking table.
In early position you have to play fairly tightly, even in loose games, since you don’t know how many raises there will be, and you will be out of position for the whole hand. Consider how likely you are to be raised by weaker (or stronger) hands if you limp, how likely you are to be called by weaker (or stronger) hands if you raise, and how likely you are to steal the blinds if you raise.
When opening in tight games in any position or loose games in late position, your attention should be on getting heads up with a blind or outright stealing the blinds. Most hands are worth less than the blinds and so for most hands stealing the blinds is a coup; hence, raising is correct for most hands. AA is worth about four times the blinds if it gets some action, so stealing the blinds with it and your other very strong hands is a major disaster. Without other concerns, in a tight game you should raise with marginal hands, and limp (and usually reraise if raised) with your strongest hands. Balance your hands that you could have in various preflop scenarios, mixing strong with weak and weak with strong, so that you do not give too much information away by your actions, yet strive to still play most hands appropriately.
Here is one way to balance your opening strategy for a tight game where you are fairly likely to steal the blinds if you open-raise:
|Tight Game Opening Strategy|
Note: “Call 1” means call one raise back, fold for two, and similarly for “Call 2.” When two ways to play are listed, separated by a slash (/), do them each 50% of the time or adjust depending on the texture of the game. In general, you should mix up your play a bit on all hands. Because players tend to put you on AA or KK when you limp-reraise, often refrain from carrying through with the reraise when you wind up heads-up. Some plays are “sacrifice plays” for the sake of balance, such as limping with KQ in early position when in isolation raising would be better and folding would be best. Other plays are profitable only in context, such as being able to play 55 early under the cover of the limp-reraising hands. Beware reraising when the raise comes from the blinds, as few players will raise from the blinds without holding QQ-AA or AKs.
Example: You are in early position, 6 off the button, in a game that’s so tight that an early raise often wins the blinds. The pot is not yet opened. How do you play your hand?
|Raise to add support, but limp-reraise is more immediately
|55||Limp if (and only if) you limp-reraise often with other hands.|
|ATs||Limp-reraise, scaring AQ and AJ in the process.|
|76s||Fold. A raise would be better than a call, though, to steal
|AQ||Raise, for win share and to get heads up.|
|JT||Fold. Dominated. Even KQ is debatable.|
In games where a raise generally gets 1 or 2 callers, but rarely steals the blinds, open-raising with any playable hand is very reasonable and helps avoid leaking information.
In a loose game, where you will gets lots of callers if you limp and almost as many callers if you raise, proper play is more straightforward and includes playing more suited aces. Here is one way to balance the hands for loose-aggressive games:
|Loose-Aggressive Game Opening Strategy|
|Limp-call 2 / raise & reraise||99 88|
|Limp-reraise / raise & reraise||AK AKs|
|Raise & reraise||AA KK|
|Raise & call 2||A5s A4s A3s KQs AQ|
|Raise & call 1||AJ KQ|
|Limp & call 1||QJs JTs QTs 66|
|Limp & call 2||ATs A9s A8s A7s A6s KJs KTs 77|
|Limp-reraise||QQ JJ TT AQs AJs|
Note: For loose-passive games and extremely loose games, replace all limp-reraises with “raise & reraise.”
Example: You are in early position, 6 off the button, in a game that’s so loose that you always see a flop, usually 5-8 way for 1 bet or 4-6 way for 2-4 bets. The pot is not yet opened. How do you play your hand?
|Limp-reraise, except raise in very loose/passive games.|
|55||Borderline call/fold. Play if you can see flop cheaply.|
|ATs||Limp and call all raises, fearing that raises indicate AK, AQ, or AJ.|
|76s||Fold, but it’s close for very loose-passive games.|
|AQ||Raise to destroy the implied odds of the fish and narrow the field.|
|JT||Fold. Dominated. KJ & QJ suffice in very passive games with no rake.|
In middle position, you will be raising with more weak hands to steal the blinds, so you can raise with most of your strong hands too, especially since limping is unlikely to induce a raise.
Example: You’re opening in (late) middle position, 3 off the button. How do you play your hand?
|Raise. No one is likely to raise for you. Provide cover to steals.|
|55||Raise if you can get heads up, call if you can get 4 callers, else fold.|
|ATs||Limp-reraise if you are limp-reraising with AA and KK, else raise.|
|76s||Fold. Likely dominated downstream. Cannot count on enough callers.|
|AQ||Raise, for the same reason as early position.|
|JT||Fold. You’d need a minimum offsuit of about KJ or QJ to open here.|
On the button, you should be open-raising with a lot of hands if your opponents defend the blinds properly, and if they are too tight you can raise with any two cards at least until they start adapting.
Example: You’re on the button in an unopened pot. How do you play your hand?
|Raise. It is too conspicuous to limp here.|
|55||Raise. Your pair is quite strong here, if you get heads up.|
|76s||Borderline raise/fold. Laying odds. Fold versus loose small blind.|
|AQ||Raise. This is a monster. A3 would suffice.|
|JT||Raise. On the button or one off it is likely best, barely.|
A rake seriously reduces the number of hands with which you can steal, as you will be paying a lot for a crapshoot against the big blind. With a Draconian rake, like where the big blind gets dropped once the flop comes, you would need about JJ or better to open on the button! Even with a modest rake, JT and 76s should be folded.
You should raise an opened pot when you will win the pot more than your fair share of the time or your hand would play better without additional players in the pot. Consider whether calling would lure dominated hands to call after you (or additional hands period to give you odds for your draw), or whether raising would drive out dominating hands after you or allow you to get heads up (or almost so) versus a hand you dominate.
Most people think that you should play looser after limpers compared to opening. If a tight player limps, you have to be careful. Even if the limper raises with his best hands, versus his weak limp you have to play about as tight as if you were opening in his position, as you have no chance to steal the blinds, though you should still raise if you suspect you might dominate his hand. On the other hand, if the limper would limp with his best hands, then you must play much tighter. After several tight players limp, you can play hands that do well multiway (any pair, any suited ace, big suited kings and queens, and medium to big suited zero and one gappers), but the only offsuit hands you can play are AQ and AK, partially for fear of domination, partially for fear of the big cards being “dead.” (AJ and KQ are okay after just one tight limper.)
Example: You are facing one tight limper and you are on the button. How do you play your hand?
|Raise. No need to worry about stealing blinds. Calling is a mistake.|
|55||Borderline fold. Unlikely to get heads-up and cannot get 4 callers.|
|ATs||Call. Proceed with caution if you flop an ace for fear of limping AJ.|
|76s||Fold. Similar to 55 case. Borderline fold/call versus 3 tight limpers.|
|AQ||Raise. Same with AJ and KQ. Your hand is likely best. Get heads up.|
|JT||Fold. Dominated. Fold QJ/KJ too. Calling here is a huge mistake.|
With loose players coming in with hopeless hands like T7 and J6, then it’s true that you can play looser after limpers, with “trashy” suited hands like T8s and K4s, and any pocket pair. You should raise liberally to punish them, since weak offsuit hands really get hurt by preflop raises, as they have only a tiny chance of winning the pot. After many limpers, even Q6s and 65s can play best with a raise on the button; suited aces, kings, and queens and suited zero gappers win more than their fair share of pots versus many loose limpers. After loose limpers who would have raised with their best hands, offsuit hands likely to be best (like A9, QJ, KJ, and even KT) will also win more than their fair share of pots and should raise. Don’t get carried away with calling with offsuit aces here; for fear of domination, A8 is about the lowest calling hand.
Example: You are facing five loose limpers and you are on the button. How do you play your hand?
|Raise. You will win the pot more than your fair share, though < 50%.|
|55||Call. About 8-way to flop, but it will win less than 1 in 8 times.|
|ATs||Raise. Big suited’s win more than their fair share in multiway pots.|
|76s||Raise. Even suited zero gappers win more than their fair share here.|
|AQ||Raise. Your hand is likely best, by far.|
|JT||Fold. If you want to play offsuit cards, you must have the best.|
It is a myth that hands like AQ are in trouble here. You are in trouble if you don’t raise, but if you raise you wreck the implied odds of the suited garbage your opponents hold. AQ frequently wins even in family pots by making aces up with queen kicker or an AKQJT straight. Also, your cards have a better chance of being live if no one raised, so you will win the pot considerably more than your fair share of the time. Similarly, if you were likely to have the highest hand with something like KJ or even KT, you should raise here, again partially for win share, partially to wreck the implied odds of your opponents. However, if you make a mistake by usually laying down AQ on flop that misses even though you believed you had the best hand preflop then perhaps you would be better off playing incorrectly preflop by not raising. Another exception could be made if your opponents will “check to the raiser” if
and only if the flop contains an ace, king, or queen.
The key concept when facing a tight raiser is: “run away and live to fight another hand.” Most players raise with their best hands, limp with their worst hands, and you can exploit this by deftly sidestepping their raises and punishing their weak limps with raises of your own. You need a hand a couple levels higher than the raiser’s minimums to consider playing. Offsuit aces are especially vulnerable to being dominated by a tight raiser. The implied odds of suited zero or one gappers are trashed by raises. Medium pairs can easily be dominated by bigger pairs, and otherwise it’s usually a crapshoot against two overcards. Versus a tight raise, you can only three-bet profitably with AA, KK, and AK. Therefore, to avoid giving away information, flat call with these hands preflop and go for a raise on the flop.
Example: You are facing a raise from 77/QJs/AJ or better. What do you do?
|Call, for fear of AA, KK, or losing to something like AK.|
|55||Fold. You need about 99 to call, two levels higher than his 77.|
|ATs||Fold. Dominated. You could call with AQs, barely.|
|76s||Fold. Implied odds are shot to hell. JTs/QJs/KQs should fold too.|
|AQ||Fold. Against looser raises you could call. See AQs note under ATs.|
|JT||Fold, unless you are a fish.|
Versus a loose raise, such as a steal raise from one off the button when you are on the button or small blind, you should reraise liberally to isolate, unless you fear your hand could be beat by the raiser but could be called by some weaker hands behind if you flat call.
Example: You are on the button facing a raise from one off the button from a good player with competent opponents in the blinds.
|Reraise. You do not fear AA or KK here.|
|55||Reraise. Your hand plays much better heads up than 3-way.|
|ATs||Borderline call/reraise. For fear of AJ, AJs is the first safe reraise.|
|76s||Borderline reraise/fold. Your hand plays better heads up than 3-way.|
|AQ||Reraise. Keep it heads-up for best chance of winning unimproved.|
|JT||Borderline fold. Could call versus an even looser raise.|
Versus a raiser plus cold callers, you have to play a bit differently than versus just a raiser. Tight cold callers are bad news; each one increases your calling requirements. Loose callers relax the calling requirements for suited cards, and for pairs if you will have many opponents for the flop.
Given how tight you have to play versus a single raise, you can imagine how tight you have to play if there is a raise and reraise from tight players in early position. You can still play with TT and JJ, unless the reraiser is extremely tight. This is a reraise or fold situation. Make it four bets with TT-AA, AK, AKs, and fold everything else, normally. Now if it’s a steal raise and a resteal reraise, then that’s another story, and you could wade in with 88/QJs/AQ and up, certainly, and probably a bit weaker hands as well.
When you are in a crazy game that is constantly having capped family pots preflop, you can call with a minimum of 22/JTs/AQ. If the game is crazy but tighter, only getting capped once or twice per lap three to five way, you must play very tight, playing not much more than JJ/QJs/AK and up.
After limpers, raising in the big blind gives away information, but a raise often can buy you the pot by the turn if the game is not too loose, as your opponents will often put you on AA or KK. You can raise fairly liberally in the big blind versus loose limpers, with 88/JTs/KQ and up, possibly a bit weaker. Versus tight limpers, you have to be sure your hand is best.
The rankings of hands when defending the big blind versus a raise is quite a bit different than the rankings for opening. You are getting over 3:1 odds to flop something good, or at least a pair. Proper big blind defense strategy varies dramatically depending on the raiser’s minimums. Against typical raises, call liberally with hands that have straight or flush potential, as well as pairs. Get away from big offsuit hands that are likely dominated. 65s is usually on par with KQ here. If flopping a pair won’t do you any good,
because the raiser is so tight that he is likely to have a big pair, then fold liberally, especially offsuit hands. More specific recommendations are in the table below. The minimum hands are listed, and you can defend with any hands “between” the ones listed and the column headers.
|Big Blind Defense vs. a Raise|
|If Raiser||Then Defend with Minimum…|
|Steal||22/54s/76||(all but Q3 J4 T5 94 84 73 62 32 or worse)|
Notes: Versus a tight raiser heads up, do not reraise – you are either beaten, or you’d like to check-raise on the flop. Versus multiple loose players, you can reraise fairly liberally, e.g., with 88, ATs, K9s, QJs, AQ, KQ or better. Versus steal raises, reraise heads up almost any time you are likely to have the best hand, as your opponent is sure to call one more bet before the flop,
but not necessarily on the flop. Bet into a steal-raiser liberally on the flop. Versus one or more callers in addition to the raiser, get away from offsuit aces below about A9 and your weakest offsuit hands like 42, but you can call with any two suited.
Example: You are in the big blind, a sane player raises in middle position, and there is no rake. (Assume he has 66/JTs/KQ or better.) What is your best play?
|Call. Go for check-raise on the flop.|
|55||Call. Do not necessarily give up if you do not flop a set.|
|ATs||Call. On flop play hard except check-call when ace flops.|
|76s||Call. Check-raise the flop if you have a draw or flop a pair.|
|AQ||Call. Consider a check-raise on the flop even if you miss.|
|JT||Call. Proceed with caution if you flop a pair.|
A rake will severely reduce the number of hands with which you can defend heads-up. In the above scenario, JT should be mucked when there is a rake. If the rake is harsh, like 10% with a cap, you should defend with very few hands indeed.
In games where you are facing a preflop raise that is bigger than the big blind (like a $4 raise to $6 against the $2 big blind in 1-4-8-8), obviously you are not getting much odds and must play much tighter than normal.
When opening in the small blind, do not raise with all playable hands, as you would like to call with your weakest hands and you need to provide them some cover by calling with stronger hands. Also, there is no small blind to knock out and you are out of position.
When the pot is not raised and you only have a fraction of a bet to call, the situation is similar to calling a raise in the big blind, as you are getting big odds. You still need to get away from hopelessly dominated hands like Q5 except versus many loose limpers. Getting big odds to see the flop is no good if you are dominated.
The small blind’s size relative to the preflop call amount of course makes a big difference. There are 3 common blind sizes:
|1/3||$2 blind in $6-$12 with $2 and $6 blinds|
|1/2||$5 blind in $10-$20 with $5 and $10 blinds|
|2/3||$10 blind in $15-$30 with $10 and $15 blinds|
The $1 small blind with $1 and $2 blinds, $2 to go, in a 1-4-8-8 type game, is more like a 2/3 type blind, than a 1/2 blind, due to the implied odds of flopping something.
It also matters how many opponents you face and how tight they are. The more opponents, the looser you can be on the suited hands. If the limpers are tight, you still have to be extremely conservative with a 1/3 blind, especially with your offsuit hands, as shown in the table below. Again, you can play any hand “between” the listed hand and the column header.
|Small Blind Defense vs. 1 TightLimper|
Note: Play tighter if the big blind is likely to raise.
Example: You are in the small blind versus one tight limper. Best play?
|Raise. Calling would give the big blind a free shot to beat you.|
|55||Call. A raise will be unlikely to get rid of the big blind.|
|ATs||Borderline raise/call. Call when you have to put in 2/3’s of a bet.|
|76s||Borderline call/fold. Fold for 2/3 bet, since 3-way is bad.|
|AQ||Raise. You want to be heads up so you can win unimproved.|
|JT||Call for 1/2 or 1/3 of a bet, fold for 2/3 of a bet. Be careful.|
When the players are looser, you can loosen way up when you are getting your discount in the small blind:
|Small Blind Defense vs. 5 Loose
Example: You are in the small blind after 5 loose limpers. Best play?
|Raise, for the same reason you would normally after limpers.|
|55||Call. See if you flop your set before investing more.|
|ATs||Raise, for the same reason as in late position after limpers.|
|76s||Call. Harder to win pot out of position so may not win fair share.|
|AQ||Raise, as you will win more than your fair share.|
|JT||Call. You certainly cannot raise. Enough of a discount to call.|
When defending the small blind versus a raise, your minimum requirements are about midway between your minimums for calling in the big blind versus calling a raise cold – a bit tighter for a 1/3 blind, and a bit looser for a 2/3 blind. Additionally, a 2/3 blind can call a raise with any suited ace. When defending versus a raise and reraise, defending the small blind is not significantly different from calling 3 cold.
Sklansky and Malmuth (S&M) authored the most popular poker book to date, Hold’em for Advanced Players. My preflop recommendations differ in many ways.
S&M advise raising with your strongest hands, limping with your weakest hands, but this a major mistake in tight games, since your strongest hands are worth much more than the blinds, while your weakest hands are worth much less than the blinds. S&M are less fond of limp-reraising, suggesting to do it sometimes with AKs and AQs, and if many people are in the pot then hands like JTs.
Also, S&M advise not raising with hands like KT after several loose limpers, and while I’ll admit it’s borderline, you should usually raise since your hand is likely to be best and will win more than your fair share of pots (though not much money on average). S&M’s argument is that the fish will call correctly with gutshots and pairs on the flop if you raise preflop, and you will tie more players into the pot. However, versus opponents who will be frequently folding on the flop, raising harms their implied odds and thus benefits you. Versus opponents who are calling stations, would you prefer they pay 3 small bets to see the turn or would you like to let them get off cheaply for just 2 small bets to see the turn? Raising will not greatly reduce your chance of your winning the pot, so if you will win more than your fair share of pots, you should generally raise.
Similarly, it is an S&M myth that you should raise with baby pairs like 33 after six (or fewer) limpers, even if you know the blinds will call. Although you will flop a set more then 1 in 9 times, you will win the pot less than 1 in 9 times. Since you will win the pot less than your fair share, you should not raise. A possible exception is when the raise has a decent chance of buying you a free card on the flop, as this now improves your chance of winning to better than 1 in 9, but it is normally rare that all 8 opponents would check to the raiser.
S&M advocate that “If you hold JJ and the pot has been raised and reraised before the action gets to you, you should fold.” While I suggest folding to an extremely tight reraise, usually you should reraise here with TT or JJ, I believe. In general, S&M value pairs less than I do and offsuit hands and suited connectors more than I do.
Most importantly, S&M do not emphasize having the biggest cards in a pot if you play offsuit cards. Here is the most striking example from their book: “If you are dead last – that is, if you are on the button – and there are already callers, you can play hands in Groups 1-7.” Group 7 includes J9, T9, and 98, which I recommend folding. Here I recommend raising with A9 and calling with A8, but S&M recommend folding them, as A9 is in group 8 and A8 is not in any S&M group. I agree with folding A9 and A8 after tight limpers, but not after loose limpers. Flopping a big pair with the best kicker gets you most of your profit in hold’em even in loose games (especially when the board pairs low on the turn or river.) This is why after a bunch of loose limpers A9 is more appealing than 98, as 98 can never flop top pair with a good kicker, and 98 is likely to succumb to overcards even if it flops top pair. A hold’em player cannot live by straight draws alone.