Winning Poker Strategy Starts Before the Flop is Dealt
If you regularly find yourself in tricky spots in poker games – the root cause could be the way you are approaching the game before the flop. This guide focuses on the details of a solid, winning pre-flop poker strategy. Picking the right cards to play is essential, though there is a lot more to pre-flop poker to this. Players make mistakes with position, odds, putting opponents on ranges and stack sizes.
Here is what you will find in this detailed guide to pre-flop poker mistakes:
The single biggest mistake new players make in pre-flop poker is to play too many hands. At the lower buy-ins, you will often find multi-way flops, where 4 or 5 players are seeing the community cards each time. Not only does this waste money when you fail to connect, it creates situations where you are unsure of what hands your opponents might hold.
A better strategy is to select a range of hands which are ahead of the average holdings your opponent’s choose – and to be selectively aggressive when you play them. As you will see in the section below, your position at the table will have a big influence on the types of hands you should play.
While you gain experience, it is important not to play hands which can put you in tricky spots after the flop. The concept of domination is important. If you play hands like Ace-Eight for example, you can be up against a pair higher than the eight when you flop this card. You can also find opponents with an ace and higher side-card when you flop the ace. This leads to tough decisions. Unless you flop 2-pair or better, you will be left guessing – and when the pot gets big, you are more often than not going to be behind.
Here are some of the risky types of hand that you should cut out of your range:
A better selection of hands which will avoid major mistakes includes the hands listed below. Again, keep in mind that you need a stronger range of hands from early position. If you are on the button and everyone has folded, you can use some riskier hands to steal the blinds.
Once you have a solid starting hand range, you can start to factor in your position in the betting. When you are one of the first players to act, you have little information about what your opponents hold (and whether they will raise). You also act first in the betting on the flop, turn and river.
This makes a big difference to how many hands you can profitably play.
For example, small pairs rely on hitting a set to be profitable. If you are in later position (the dealer button is ideal), and see a raise and a call, you can play this type of hand profitably. If you are one of the first players to act. You need to bet – and might get raised in one or more spots. This means you don’t have the correct odds to try and hit your set – and the hand needs to be folded. The same logic applies to suited aces and suited connectors.
You can adjust for position by playing a narrow range of hands (higher pairs, ace-king and ace-queen suited) and then add in hands for each spot closer to the dealer button. If you are one of the last few players to act, a wide range of hands can be used as a steal.
Position in relation to the pre-flop aggressor also needs to be factored in. Say two loose players from early position limp, and someone in middle position raises. You are on the button with a good (though not premium hand). Here you can expect at least one of the limpers to call. When they check to the raiser on the flop, this player will likely bet. Now you need to act before you know what the early position players will do. While you are ‘last’ in the betting, your position relative to the raiser is bad. If you call, and then face a re-raise from another player – you have found yourself in a tricky spot. You can avoid this pre-flop poker mistake by playing a tighter hand range when you see this type of situation occurring.
How much someone bets is one of the best online poker tells. Many novice players vary their raise size depending on how strong their hands are. For example, someone might bet 3x the big blind with mid-strength hands, and 4x when they have a premium holding.
To avoid this error, I recommend you pick a raise size and stick with it – playing all of your opening range the same way.
Here are some other bet sizing pre-flop poker mistakes to look out for:
Bet sizing errors made before the flop can easily snowball after the community cards are dealt. This leads to situation where you find yourself facing a big bet on the river – with no real idea of where you stand!
A big mistake many players make before the flop is to focus only on their own cards. Even with a solid starting hand strategy, awareness of position and taking odds into account – you’ll need to think about what kind of hands different opponents are playing.
This can get complex, and as you move up the stakes you’ll need to construct ranges for specific opponents. At a basic level, you can decide whether an opponent is tight or loose, and how tricky they play – and use this to assess their likely holdings.
Tight Players: Tight players are waiting for premium hands. This type might call with small pairs or suited connectors (when it is cheap to do so), though when they raise you can put them on a narrow range of the best hands. When a tight player re-raises before the flop, they may well only have queens, kings, aces or ace-king. When you are deciding which hands to profitably play, ask yourself how you do against this range.
Loose Players: Now you will see a huge range of hands played, this can be as wide as 50% of all starting hands, including any suited cards or unsuited high cards. Many small stakes players divide their range pre-flop. They limp with a wide range, raise with a smaller one, and re-raise with the types of hands that you might only call with. Flop betting is more important here, though you can certainly widen your own re-raising range to ‘isolate’ the worst offenders. Some of the loosest players will fold to a big bet pre-flop, though most will not. When you do isolate them, make sure you have a hand that is likely to be the best by showdown.
Tricky Players: Some opponents will play ‘backwards’, mistaking this for being deceptive. If someone raises a lot, then limps in later position with aces or kings, they are making a huge mistake. You can call with a wide range of high implied odds hands here and hope to out-flop them. Remember when these tricky players do raise, they will likely have hands that can’t stand too much pressure.
So far, the discussion assumed we were in a cash game with relatively deep stacks. If you are playing in a high-stakes poker tournament, there are some other factors to keep in mind. The most important of these is to keep stack-depth in mind – and adjust how you play accordingly.
In the later stages of a tournament, stacks can vary in size. Some opponents will only have 10x the big blind, while others have more than 100x. This leads to spots where ‘restealing’ pre-flop becomes a profitable play.
For example, it is folded to player A in the small blind, who opens for a raise. Player B in the big blind only has 8x the size of the big blind in her stack. This player then shoves all-in, putting player A to a decision.
Let’s use round numbers to look at the math.
If the blinds are 500 / 1000 and player B has 7000 chips left after posting the big blind. The pot is now 1000 (bb) + 500 (sb) + 500 (antes) + 1500 (raise from player A) = 3500 chips. Player B raised for 7k more, putting 10,500 chips out there. Player A needs to call 5,500 chips to play (almost 2/1 odds).
Almost every legitimate raising hand has plenty good enough odds to make this call. However, player A will expect to lose the majority of the time.
The mistake was the initial raise. If player A had gone all-in instead, the player in the big blind would not have had the opportunity to re-steal, and those extra chips would have gone to the aggressor.
Poker tournaments stack sizes determine pre-flop play in other ways too. When the bubble approaches, mid-sized and small stacks will tighten up – looking to reach the money before taking any risks. If you have a big stack, failing to raise a wide range of hands to put pressure on these stacks would be a mistake – you are leaving money on the table. A similar situation occurs just before the final table.
Working on your pre-flop poker game will make a big difference to your profits. You will rarely win a big pot before the flop – though you can easily set up situations where you can lose them. A solid starting hand selection, which varies depending on your position at the table is the best place to get started. You need to take into account odds, plus your read on what the bet sizes of opponents mean.
Once you have mastered the basics, you’ll be able to adjust your pre-flop poker strategy for different situations. At this point, you’ll be ahead of most novice players, able to exploit their pre-flop poker mistakes to your advantage!