Texas Holdem Pre Flop Play
Every part of a Texas holdem hand is important, but your pre flop play sets the stage for the entire hand.
When you make the correct decisions pre flop you show a long term profit, but when you make poor decisions before the flop you lose money in the long run.
The first thing most players think about when they hear pre flop play is their starting hand. While your starting hand selection is one of the most important decisions in every hand, it's not the only thing that happens before the flop.
Everything you do, including folding, calling, or raising, are either profitable or not profitable in the long run.
It starts before you receive your first card.
Plan the Hand
Planning a hand starts with what you know about the other players at the table, the limits of the current game, how deep everyone's stack is, your playing image with the other players, who's been on a streak, your position in relation to the blinds and button, and anything else that can change the course of a hand.
You need to know every possibility of how you're going to handle every possible hand before the flop before you get your cards.
At first you'll have to think about how to handle certain situations when they happen but the more you practice visualizing and planning for every possibility the better your skills will get.
Most decisions are fairly easy. You're going to fold your worst hands and raise with your best hands, but it's not always that simple.
- What happens with the decent but not great hands?
- How will you handle a raise if you have a medium pair?
- What about facing three limpers with A Q suited?
- What about 10 9 suited from late position with no one else in the pot?
The point is the more you prepare the better your chances to make the most profitable decision.
You can find an entire page dedicated to Texas holdem starting hands elsewhere in this section so this is an overview. We recommend reading the starting hand page for more specific information.
It's impossible to make the best starting hand decisions without understanding your position. The profitability potential of any hand is directly tied to your position and your starting hand selection.
Controlling the Pot Size
It doesn't matter if you're playing limit, pot limit, or no limit Texas holdem, you need to learn how to control the size of the pot.
When you have a strong hand you want to build the pot as much as possible because the more money you get in when you're a favorite the more you'll win in the long run.
Building the pot with a strong hand is like walking a fine line. In no limit the way to get the greatest amount of your money in the pot is moving all in, but the real goal is to get as much of your opponent's money in the pot as possible when you're a favorite to win.
When you move all in or make a bet that's too large you often force your opponent to fold. One of the keys when you have a strong hand is figuring out how to bet as much as possible while keeping your opponent in the hand.
This is an advanced skill and you still see professional Texas holdem players make mistakes in this area from time to time.
You need to learn how to put your opponents on a certain range of hands and try to figure out what they think you have. When you combine these two things you can usually determine what size bet to make that maximizes the chances they'll call while not leaving any money on the table.
If the player will call a bet of $200 but fold to a bet of $205 your goal is to figure it out and make the $200 wager.
Of course you'll also be involved in hands where you want to keep the pot as small as possible until you improve. Once you complete your hand you instantly switch to building the pot.
Drawing hands like flush and straight draws when the pot is giving you the correct odds to call and trap hands like medium pairs or suited connectors are examples of hands where you want to keep the pot small.
One of the big problems with these types of hands is if your opponent can figure out when you complete your hand they might stop giving you action. So you can't always count on additional bets going into the pot after you hit your hand.
Flushes are usually the easiest for your opponents to see and many straights are more camouflaged.
Thinning the Field
If you've studied any of the popular poker books about Texas holdem you've read that you need to raise before the flop with the best hands like a pair of aces and a pair of kings.
Do you know why raising is the correct play?
One of the key reasons was discussed in the last section. You need to build a bigger pot when you have a good hand.
But an equally important reason you need to raise before the flop is to thin the field. You're a big favorite against one or two opponents with high pairs, but as more people see the flop your chances of winning go down.
Even with pocket aces if five other players enter the pot you aren't a favorite to win.
Every time we read a statement like the one I just made written by other authors we cringe. While true, it leaves a few things out.
So here are a few other things you need to know.
Even though you aren't a favorite to win the hand if five or more other players are in the pot, it's still wildly profitable to play the hand.
You're playing no limit Texas holdem and are on the button. The under the gun player moves all in and four other players call before it's your turn to act. To simplify the example everyone at the table started the hand with $1,000 and we'll ignore the blinds.
It costs you $1,000 to call and there's $5,000 in the pot. This means when you win the pot you win $6,000 total including your call and when you lose you lose $1,000. Your chances of winning the hand against five random starting hands are 49%.
So if you played this situation 100 times you'd win 49 times and lose 51 times. A simple mathematical computation shows why it's so profitable that you have to call in this situation every time.
It costs a total of $100,000 to make the call 100 times and when you win the 49 times the total amount you get back is $294,000.
Even though you aren't the favorite to win the hand, your expected profit is so high that it doesn't matter.
So is raising really the correct play?
We realize that the previous example may make it seem like you want as many people as possible in the hand with you when you have pocket aces, but the truth is aces are so strong that it's almost impossible to lose money with them long term no matter how you play them.
But remember the example we used is not very realistic and there's hundreds of possible variables in every hand. The correct play with your best hands is still raising to thin the field in most games. Hands like Q Q, J J, and A K don't stand up well to multiple opponents but are quite strong against one other player.
The exception is when you play at the higher levels. Some games are played in a way that every pot seems to be played with no more than two or three players. You can limp with strong hands occasionally in a game like this, but when you do the level of competition is good enough that you still might not have a well concealed hand.
Players at the top levels are able to think through things quickly at the table and are wary of a player who limps from early position. Your best chance at a concealed hand is calling an early raise when you're in late position with aces or kings.
This reinforces how important position is at every level of Texas holdem.
You still need to raise with aces or kings most of the time, even in the situation just described.
What's the range of hands in a high limit game that players from early position will raise with?
In most games it's fairly limited. Here's the list of possibilities.
The last two on the list, ace queen suited and a pair of jacks, are not that strong and do get folded from early position in some games.
Here's why we showed you this list.
How many flops include at least one face card?
Over 55% of Texas holdem flops hold at least one face card.
The reason this is important is if you have a pair of aces and call from late position, how do you know where you are in the hand when a face card lands on the flop?
Any face card can make a set for the early raiser based on the list of possible hands.
Are you a good enough player to lay down pocket aces when your opponent hits a set?
When you re-raise the early raiser you have a chance to get all in before the flop. You're probably going to be forced to play the hand aggressively after the flop if you want to win, so why not play the hand aggressively before the flop?
We realize that this section may have wandered a bit, but the important point to take from the discussion is you must raise to thin the field with your top hands pre flop most of the time.
The only reason you don't do it all of the time is so you aren't predictable to your opponents. At the lower levels you should raise every time because your opponents don't pay enough attention to know if you have playing tendencies.
Call or Raise?
One other thing to consider and plan for is how what you do before the flop changes or sets up how you're going to play after the flop.
You see this in many hands when the person who raised before the flop fires a continuation bet after the flop.
If you raise before the flop are you going to make a continuation bet no matter what on the flop? Are you willing to make another bet on the turn if your hand doesn't improve?
What about if you call with a drawing hand and hit the flop? Are you going to let the other player lead or are you going to become aggressive?
You need to have the answers to these questions before you decide what to do pre flop.
Most of the discussion so far has been about no limit Texas holdem, but you can use all of the things you've learned in any set up including limit play.
Many players feel it's to difficult to control the pot size in limit play and complain that their raises don't thin the field enough.
These are just excuses used by players who aren't willing to learn how to be profitable at limit Texas holdem.
The way to build the pot is to bet and raise at every possible opportunity and the way to keep the pot low is check and call at every opportunity. It doesn't get much simpler than that.
When it comes to thinning the field, in limit play you raise with your best hands because you increase your overall profitability when you raise. You can't generate enough leverage in a limit game to force players to fold in many situations.
You have to show down the best hand more often in limit holdem than no limit because players tend to call a single bet on the river in most situations. This is something that covers post flop play, but the way you play pre flop directly affects what happens after the flop.
The root of the problem for most limit players is they don't do a good job of choosing which starting hands to play and how to use their position at the table. Almost everything else they have trouble with, assuming they understand and use pot odds, is directly related to poor starting hand selections and poor use of their position.
If you want to be the best Texas holdem player you can be it's important to work to improve every part of your game. It's easy to make an argument that your pre-flop play is the most important area of your game because the way you play before the flop determines a great deal of your potential profit for the entire hand.
Make sure you plan the hand from the beginning, control the pot, and thin the field with your best hands and you'll start seeing improved results right away in your pre flop Texas holdem play and your overall profitability.