Starting Hands For No Limit Holdem (Part Two)
In the last NL holdem I wrote about basic starting hand selection for deepstack play. The key concept was to play hands that are likely to make the nuts, in position, for a raise. Now I’m going to discuss some associated topics and some exceptions to the rule.
Keeping Your Hand Secret
There’s a key concept that was implicit in what I said last column, but that I didn’t mention specifically. The concept is this:
Don’t reveal the contents of your hand by your preflop play if there will be substantial money behind. Make decisions on whether to call or raise, and how much, based on position, stack size, or opponents but NOT your hole cards. The hole cards only only factor into the decision to play or not.
The reason for this is simple - it’s very dangerous to play a NL hand with substantial money behind when your opponent has a good idea of what your hand is. It can easily cost you your whole stack. So keep them guessing by playing your hands the same when there’s money behind. And the money behind thing is key. It’s perfectly OK to reveal you have a big hand in the process of betting most or all of the money (assuming the bet is otherwise sensible), because your opponents can’t really exploit that knowledge.
Having A Little Bit Extra
The primary thing you can do to insure success in the small game is to ensure you have position. But a secondary concern is to maximize the number of times you make a medium strength hand that you might want to show down in a small pot. Playing hands that can do this gives you an extra way to win. While it’s only useful infrequently, these small pot wins add up over time.
Fortunately, the strategy I suggested last article does a fairly good job of producing medium strength hands for use in the small game as well. Pairs of course give you an automatic made hand and Ax suited gives you a chance to make top pair. The only hands that really fair poorly on this front are connected and gapped cards. That’s the reason it’s so important to play those cards suited - the possibility of a flush draw gives you more opportunities to semi-bluff, which makes up for the lack of made hands on the flop.
AK offsuit presents substantial difficulties to play. While the suited variation is a very strong NL hand (the best of the suited aces) the unsuited flavor does not play nearly as well in deepstack NL because it rarely makes a very large hand. What it does frequently make is top pair, top kicker. This is very useful for the small game, but not strong enough to play for stacks against most solid opponents. What this means is that AKo is not nearly as strong as it appears in most circumstances, and thus has to be played carefully and differently from most hand. Here are some options:
- Play only for the small game. This essentially means playing in position for a raise, and figuring you’ll fold even if you make top pair if your opponent tries to play for stacks. Because AK is so strong in the small game, you can often make up for the money you’ll lose giving up when in those circumstances by winning additional small pots when you show down top pair top kicker. The key is to remember to give the hand up if you’re beat though. This is the standard use for AK.
- Move in. If you look at the hot and cold hand comparisons for holdem hands, you’ll notice something about AK - it’s roughly even money or better against every hand except AA and KK. It’s a moderate dog to KK and a huge dog to AA. However, if you hold an AK, it’s less likely someone else holds an AA or KK because you’ve got some of the cards they need. In fact it’s more than 400:1 against any single opponent with random cards holding one or the other. What this means is that it’s usually ’safe’ to push with AK. If you find yourself in a situation where there’s some money in the pot and you have AKo, pushing is often correct to chop up or claim that money outright. It becomes far more correct if some of your opponents tend to call down with weaker aces, which is common at the lowest limits but much rarer higher up. This play is especially good if you find yourself out of position (usually in the blinds) and thus at a big disadvantage in the small game if you call or make a small raise. In any case, just pushing to get the money already in the pot is often times the best use for AKo. If you’re in early position and there’s not enough money in the pot to make it worth pushing, it’s often times a good idea to limp with the intention of re-raising all in.
- Fold. If you have indications that one of your opponents is likely on AA or KK from the previous betting, it’s perfectly OK to fold AK. You may feel like you’re giving up a lot, but in reality you’re avoiding a bad spot.
Entering Raised Pots
Most of the discussion thus far has been about entering pots when you are the first in or there are just limps in front of you. Entering raised pots require that you consider how much money is left behind before you decide on your play. The 5/10 Rule describes how you should play with speculative hands when behind a raise ie. calling or folding depending on stack depth.
One thing not discussed in the 5/10 rule article is that if stacks are very deep and you could re-raise roughly the pot without it being more than 5% or so of your stack, you should sometimes do so even with speculative hands you would usually call behind with. You should be more inclined to do this against passive opponents who are unlikely to re-re-raise or push all in on you even if they have a premium hand.
With stronger hands (AA,KK, AK, and against looser opponents QQ) you have an additional option of pushing all in here which is usually best if you think your opponent will usually call.
When The Implied Odds Narrow
If the raise(s) before you are sufficiently large that you would be playing for more than 5-10% of your stack, you’re essentially restricted to playing premium hands or folding because you don’t have the implied odds to play speculative hands.
Dealing Against a Re-Raise Behind
Sometimes you’ll enter the pot for a raise, and someone behind you will re-raise. This is not the same as playing with a raise in front of you because you won’t have position for the rest of the hand (unless the reraise came from the blinds). If you’re playing a speculative hand, you should usually consider folding here unless it’s a pair and the raise is for less than 10% of the effective stacks. That means suited connectors and aces go in the muck. If you’re playing a premium hand that figures to be best, you can put in the third raise or push all-in instead.
If re-raises behind are happening to you too frequently and you’re continually having to abandon speculative hands, you need to adjust your hand mix to have more premium hands and fewer speculative ones, and then put in the third raise with the premium hands.
Intentionally Playing Out Of Position
While the general principle in NL holdem is to play in position as much as possible, sometimes you get a hand so strong that you have to play it even out of position. Usually this will be AA, KK, AK, or sometimes QQ. In these situations, you want to get as much of the stacks in preflop as possible so that position and implied odds don’t hurt you later in the hand. The best way to acomplish this depends on your opponents, but usually it involves either limiping with the intention of re-raising (often times all-in) or making an oversized bet preflop. You should prefer the limp-re-raise against tight and agressive opponents, and the big bet against loose or passive opponents who will likely call it.
In order to disguise your limp-re-raises, you need to play some speculative hands out of position too. Generally speaking the best choices are pairs since they either hit or miss the flop entirely, and being out of position on a draw on later streets is a bad idea which rules out the suited aces and connectors. In fact, because they play well out of position (at least as far as speculative hands go) you can play most pairs for a limp in early position as long as the table isn’t too likely to stack up big raises behind you and force you to fold.
What’s Not There…
Correct deepstack opening strategy is as notable for what hands are not played as for what hands are. In particular, unsuited high cards like AQo and KJo don’t play particularly well. They can be strong in limit game and shortstack/tournament NL, but they’re fairly useless in deepstack play. Doyle called them “trouble hands” in Supersystem and famously refused to play AQo in ring games. This is not merely a personal quirk of his, but rather correct strategy. AQ and similar rarely makes the nuts, thus sucking for the big game, and tend to make second best hands to AK in the small game as well. Since they play poorly in both games, there’s really no reason to enter the pot with them. You’re just buying trouble. But if you feel you must play a trouble hand, play it like AK in option 1) above - in position and small game only. Be aware that AQo and lesser unpaired highcard hands cannot be used effectivly as a preflop push in deepstack games like AK can - you should expect to lose your shirt if you make a habit of it. If you simply kick these hands out of your deepstack game, you will find your results improve.
This article is part of Project Cash Game No Limit Holdem - You can find more great strategy articles there.
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