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
Key Point: You need to plan every hand from the beginning to the end.
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
You need to know every possibility of how you’re going to
handle every possible hand before the flop before you get your
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Pair of aces
Pair of kings
Pair of queens
Ace king suited
Ace king off-suit
Ace queen suited
Pair of jacks
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
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
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
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.
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