Before you worry about anything else in poker you have to have rock solid hand selection. Knowing which hands to open and which to fold has to be an automatic skill. This will allow you to think about other things like your opponents’ stats.
Even if you’ve been playing for a long time it’s always a good idea to look at the fundamentals of your game every once in a while and see if you can improve them in any way. And if you’re new to the game it’s absolutely essential to develop a strong foundation before thinking about any advanced concepts like 3-betting light. You have the chance to avoid developing bad habits that will be very hard to change further down the road.
Why is Hand Selection That Important?
What makes hand selection so important is that it probably influences your win-rate more than any other part of your strategy. This is where it all starts. When people work on improving their game they often look at the big money decisions like whether they made a mistake calling a turn bet or picked a bad spot to bluff the river. While it’s obviously important to think about these decisions carefully, spots like these only come up very infrequently and so they don’t influence your bottom line anywhere near as much as you might think. What’s more, these decisions are often very close from an EV point of view and people generally spend way too much energy obsessing about them.
The thing about hand selection is that you have to make a decision every single time you get dealt into hand. Not opening enough hands on the button might only cost you a fraction of a big blind every time you face that spot, but since that spot comes up all the time those fractions add up really quickly. There’s no other way to put it, good hand selection is the cornerstone of any successful strategy and you should make sure you have a good understanding of what to do in these spots before even thinking about learning anything else.
What Hands Should I Play From Where?
I’m generally not a big fan of any static guide of which hands to open from what position. Poker is a lot more situational than that and the types of opponents at your table should influence your decisions more than any other factor. That being said, when you’re just starting out it is vital to have a solid understanding of what hands you can open profitably in a vacuum (without any reads on your opponents) and what hands you can’t.
Please keep in mind that all of the following strategy is talking about unopened pots where everybody folded to you. Talking about how to react to raises or multiple limps is beyond the scope of this article and I will talk about these things in future posts.
Without any influencing factors you should only play premium starting hands from EP. The UTG seat in full ring especially is at such a disadvantage position-wise that it’s usually only profitable to open a range of AQo+ and 66+. You will just find yourself in too many spots where you have to play out of position against multiple opponents after the flop. Even with a strong hand like AK these are extremely difficult situations and you should make sure you avoid them whenever possible. Just fold your AJ and move on to the next hand.
In 6-max the UTG position can be opened a bit wider and I would say that without any reads on the other players you can profitably open a range of AJo+, KQo+ and 22+. I also open good suited connectors like JTs pretty much every time.
To be honest I don’t see too much of a difference between EP and MP. They’re both very tricky to navigate and in general you should only play very strong hands.
I would suggest sticking to a range of AJo+, KQo+ and 22+, with some good suited connectors mixed in (just like my range for UTG in 6-max games). Opening this range should usually be profitable against most opponents.
Finally we come to the seats where most of your profits come from. The advantage of seeing what your opponents do before you have to act is so huge that you should go out of your way to play more hands from these positions. Doyle Brunson is famous for saying that he would be happy to not look at his cards if he was allowed to play from the button every single hand (without his opponents knowing he played blind of course).
From the hijack or cutoff you can generally open a wide range of ATo+, KJo+ and 22+. I would also open suited connectors from 78s+ and small suited Aces from A2 to A5 as they can make strong combo draws. You can extend that range a bit for the cutoff but in general this should be a good starting point.
The button is where all the action is at (or at least should be at) in poker. You can and should play up to 40% of your total hands from the button. Obviously this includes a lot of really junky hands like A6o, K7o or Q8o. Don’t worry if they don’t look like profitable hands. If you’re alone with the blinds you will get so many folds or be in position post-flop against one opponent that you can easily turn a profit in these spots. Not playing enough from the button is probably one of the biggest leaks a lot of beginning poker players have (I know I did) and if there’s one thing you take away from this article it should be to focus more on playing most of your hands from LP.
Here are some hand charts that you can keep on your desk while you’re playing to check when you’re unsure of what to do:
All of the ranges above where examples of what you should do in a game where you don’t have any reads on the other players at the table. It is important to have a good starting point for your hand selection but in reality you will have reads or stats on your opponents almost every single time. The type of opponents you’re facing and their specific tendencies should alter your hand selection dramatically.
Fish in the Blinds
Besides playing more from position, playing more against weaker players is the number one way to increase your winrate. Having position on a fish is like the holy grail of profitable poker. That’s why the seat to the left of a big fish is commonly known as the “Jesus Seat”.
Whenever you see a fish in the blinds you know you have position on him. That’s why you should open a wider range to try and get the pot heads up (or just steal the blinds which is a good result as well). From EP you can mix in some suited Aces, broadways like KJ or QJ, suited connectors and all pairs. I’d open pretty much the same range from MP, maybe with slightly weaker suited connectors like 67s in there. If I find myself in LP with a fish in the blinds in an unopened pot, I usually raise around 50% of hands.
A couple things to look out for:
- Not all fish play the same. If you’re up against a maniac that likes to 3-bet light then obviously you can’t just attack him with weak hands. Wait for a premium hand and don’t be afraid to play a big pot when you face that re-raise.
- Good regs will know what you’re up to and will adjust by 3-betting you light in position. That’s not so much an issue at NL10 or lower, but once you move up in stakes this is definitely something to look out for. If you get re-raised a lot after attacking fish in the blinds you have to either tighten up or put in the occasional light 4-bet.
Aggressive Players Behind You
This is kind of a continuation of the last point. Good regs these days know how profitable it is to 3-bet light in position. When you have a tricky, aggressive player on your left he will make things very tough for you. They will re-raise every time they think you’re opening a wide range. Looking at the players on your left is especially important when thinking about stealing from the hijack or cutoff. Any decent player knows what you’re up to and many of them aren’t shy about keeping you in line.
When you find yourself with a tricky reg on your left I’d personally recommend just finding another table and saving yourself from all of those tough spots. Poker is hard enough as it is, looking for easy games is about more than just higher winrates. It’s also about peace of mind and avoiding tilting situations (which increases profitability as well). At the end of the day you should enjoy playing poker and getting 3-bet every time you open a hand definitely gets in the way of that.
With these points in mind you can see why it’s so important to keep up your focus while playing. Every time you get dealt a hand you should consider if you can profitably open with it. Look at the players in the blinds, then at the players behind you. If you can identify a good spot for raising then go ahead and open some hands that you usually wouldn’t play in that spot. If you’re just starting out though there is absolutely nothing wrong with sticking to a hand chart and just playing hands according to their positional strength. Once you feel comfortable with your hand selection you can push the envelop a bit and look for spots to increase your win-rate.