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Poker Strategy

The game of texas hold'em poker is split into two definite strategic areas - pre-flop play and play after the flop. Pre-flop strategy is considered first below, but to skip straight to strategy after the flop, go to our page on post-flop strategy.

Pre-flop strategy

How you play pre-flop depends very much on your style of play but most tight-aggressive players will base their decisions on two main factors - the strength of their hole cards and their table position. Other factors are also important, all of which are explored below starting with those 2 main factors mentioned:

1) Strength of your hole cards - many players who are new to the game will lose pots (and money) by overvaluing their hole cards. If you can discipline yourself to not overvalue your hand, you will be well on the way to developing a solid style of play which will be profitable in the long run. The trap many players fall into is thinking "I'll just see a flop" with almost any two cards deciding that anything could happen and what appear to be junk hole cards could turn into a monster hand once the flop is dealt. Try not to fall into this trap as it has been proven time and again to be a very unprofitable strategy.

When you are fortunate enough to have been dealt a strong starting hand such as AA, KK, AKs or QQ you need to raise the action pre-flop. By raising with a strong hand, you are chasing out the weaker hands and limiting the number of players you will be up against going into the flop. This again seems foolhardy to the beginner but if you play a big hand 'softly' by not raising, you are opening the door for players with weak cards to see a cheap flop and perhaps hit a hand that is beating you. Remember - AA can be beaten by any two cards given the right flop and it often is when people fail to raise correctly pre-flop. The hallmark of a profitable player is knowing when to fold and knowing when to raise pre-flop.

2) Table position - position is vital to your decision making in Texas Holdem and it is just as important pre-flop as at any other time. For example, if you are one of the 2 blinds, you have the advantage pre-flop of seeing what everyone decides to do before the play reaches you. The later your position, the more people play before you and the more information you can collect before committing any of your chips. Rather than go into table position in detail here, it is such an important strategic point that we have explored it in great detail on our page on table position.

3) Your chip stack - the difference in the way you play as short-stack or big-stack varies drastically and can be the difference between first and last place in a tournament or the difference between taking down easy pots in cash games or having to have the nut hand to make any money. In a tournament, as the short-stack you will be looking for that one premium hand and wanting to get all your chips in pre-flop to maximise your potential winnings and get yourself back in the game. In a cash game, as the short-stack you will be looking to hit a big hand and getting it to pay off big against a big-stack who is perhaps playing loose due to his or her stack size. The advantage lies with the big-stack in almost every situation but sometimes being short-stacked and desperate leaves you fearless and you can exploit the loose play of big stacks. Make no mistake though - the more chips you have, the better off you are!

4) The number of players at the table - there can be any number of players at a table but it is usually limited to a maximum of 10. The more players there are, the more cards leave the deck and statistically, the more chance there is that someone will make a good hand pre-flop. At a full table, you should place extra emphasis on only playing strong starting hands pre-flop as a rule (as discussed above).

5) Other players' styles - You should spend a lot of time studying the other players at the table and spot the loose players against the tight players, especially in a cash game where you may sit with the same players for hours at a time. Adjust your style to suit each player by playing the opposite to them as a general rule. A table full of loose players can be combated by adopting a tight strategy as any premium hand you get dealt is likely to pay you off big even if you follow the strategy of raising pre-flop. You may not chase out weak hands if the players are especially loose but if you get a little luck and no-one flops a miracle hand, you will come out on top by playing the opposite to them. Conversely, at a table of tight players, it is often more profitable to loosen up as they are likely to fold all but the best hands pre-flop if you start raising. Of course, any time one of them raises over the top of you pre-flop when you have a weak hand, you know that you should fold given that you know they only play strong hands. Studying the other players at your table is vital to playing profitable poker.

6) The skill of the other players at the table - at any skill level you can gain 'table respect' by simply playing well pre-flop. If you can establish to the other players early that you know what you are doing and keep them guessing, you give yourself great scope later on for stealing and remaining unreadable. The very best players will win a lot of pots either pre-flop or with a bet on the flop by establishing a good regime of raising and folding when appropriate, especially against weak opposition. A very good pre-flop player will often dictate the play of a tournament table, especially in a no-limit game, without too much effort.

7) Your rank in a multi-table tournament - it is fine to play conservatively early on in a multi-table tournament (MTT) but as it goes on and the blinds keep rising, players will naturally loosen up a lot to try and build a good stack for the latter stages of the tournament. It is important not to be left behind even with a full table of 9 or 10 players by playing too conservatively. Late on in a tournament is one time that you need to relax your starting requirements even when faced with a high number of opponents because you will inevitably find yourself short-stacked in relation to the blinds in most MTT you enter. By 'relaxing', we refer to what hands you are prepared to see a flop with due to the need to win chips that you would not normally play if the blinds were less of an issue to you. You will find yourself making lots of moves late in a MTT that you would not dream of making early on when the blinds are a low percentage of your chip stack. This does not suggest that you are a loose player, it is merely an indication that you are moving up a few gears in order to not fall behind in relation to not only the blinds but also the other players' chip stacks.

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