So you already know how to play Texas Hold’em. It doesn’t take very long to learn the rules of the game, the rank of each hand, or what in the world the blinds are all about. You can pick up all of these ideas very quickly, but that will take you only so far. To really play the game well, you have to learn – and use – poker strategy. Don’t worry. You don’t have to do math (pot odds calculations) in your head. That comes later. For now, because you’re still new to the strategy of the game, you should start with a much more basic concept: folding before the flop. This basic concept is also the first thing that players should learn when playing poker games.
Some new players think that folding hands, especially preflop, is a poor way to play. “But if I don’t stay in the pot, I can’t win!” That’s true for that particular pot. You can’t win a pot when you don’t play the hand. Playing is exciting; folding and watching other people rake in those pots is boring. But when you realize that you’re better off sitting out when you know that you’re trying to work with a big pile of nothing, you become a better poker player: one who has more money or play chips or whatever it is that you collect when you win.
Before you sit down for your next poker session – whether it’s live or online – set your own standards for starting hands. You should have a very good idea of what is worth playing and what you will fold before you show up for your game. That way, you have one less decision to make at the table. This frees up more of your brainpower for other decisions, such as how much to bet or raise.
Good starting hands include everything from high pairs to A-K to high connecting cards (like Q-J). You should definitely play A-A, for example, considering that this is the best possible starting hand. What to do with other high pairs – like Q-Q – depends on what the players ahead of you have already done. If you’re in late position and three people ahead of you have all raised, you can be reasonably certain that somebody’s holding a higher pair (A-A or K-K). Somebody might have Big Slick (A-K), which is another starting hand that can beat yours if the cards fall in that player’s favor. Think about what other players have already done before you commit yourself to your own cards: this will save, or make, you a lot of chips over time.
Bad starting hands…well, there are quite a few of these. 7-2 off-suit is the worst starting hand in Hold’em, so you should fold this one every time. Of the tens of thousands of Hold ’em hands that I’ve played, I have regretted folding 7-2 off-suit once. And that was only because three deuces came on the flop (I would have had quads). This is not going to happen very often. The overwhelming majority of the time, I’ve been justified in folding those terrible cards. So I’ve lost one monster-sized pot by folding 7-2, but saved myself many, many losses by folding that hand. So far, I’ve saved myself a lot more money than I would have won in that pot. This is why preflop folding is a good idea in the long run.
Some starting hands are good or bad depending on the action before your turn. If you have A-4 off-suit in late position, for example, the hand could go either way. If one person raises, then another person re-raises, then a third guy shoves all-in, you have to think about your starting hand. You have a weak Ace (an Ace with a poor kicker): somebody in front of you probably has a better starting hand, which definitely puts the odds against you. There is no shame in folding a weak ace. None. Really.
A common question is, “How many hands should I fold preflop?” Actually, you will probably fold at least as many hands as you play. This doesn’t seem right to many new players. That’s mostly because the version of Hold’em that we see on ESPN and the Travel Channel is edited for content. It’s not exciting to watch everybody fold to the Big Blind, so the powers that be cut out most of that boring footage. We don’t see much folding, so we’re tempted to think that the top players don’t do it very often. That’s just not true.
Every now and then, you’ll fold a weak starting hand that turns out to be the best one. This is not going to happen very often, so don’t be tempted into thinking that you need to play that hand. More often than not, folding a bad starting hand turns out to be the best decision. Keep this in mind when you fold your 4-2 off-suit and see what would have been a full house come on the flop.