Hard poker decisions made before pre-flop

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Playing low/middle-limit hold’em, you peek at your hole cards and ponder: Should I call to see the flop, fold or raise? 

Using the Hold’em Algorithm helps. Always play made hands (A-A, K-K, Q-Q) and premium drawing hands pre-flop. Consider raising with these, depending on the situation. 

But marginal or borderline hands are more likely. Before acting, look to your left for tells; if an opponent is picking up chips to raise, a borderline hand is not worth a double-bet investment; muck your cards. However, an exception is if that player is overly aggressive, your hand may still merit a call. 

Let’s say after considering the strength of your hole cards, your betting position, the game/table texture, what bets or raises have occurred before you must act, how many “Limpers,” you decide to call to see the flop. That’s your most important decision.

Neither you nor the dealer has any control over the cards dealt. One thing is certain: The stronger your starting hand, the more likely the flop will be favorable. 

• Non-pairs – Most often, your starting hand is a non-pair. The most likely improvement on the flop would be pairing one of your hole cards. On average, that will happen one out of three times. But other players have the same opportunity. That’s why high cards as your starting hand is so important.

With a premium drawing hand (A-K, A-Q, A-J, K-Q) and three or more Limpers to see the flop, consider raising to build the pot – in case you connect on the flop. The pot odds vs. the card odds favor you. Otherwise, just limp along to see the flop.

• A pair in the hole – With a pocket pair, expect to catch a set on the flop about one out of nine times. Sure, that’s a long shot; but when it happens it’s probably the best hand at the table. If so, proceed to build “your” pot.

Even if you do not connect for a set on the flop, your pocket pair – the higher, the better – could take the pot at the showdown if it’s higher than any card on the board. The fewer the number of opponents staying in the hand, the more likely your top pair will keep the lead. Raise to thin the field. Likewise, starting with a made hand (A-A, K-K, Q-Q) that does not improve on the flop, consider raising to protect your hand.

If you hold a middle pair (J-J down to 8-8), there is a problem: In low/middle-limit games, most opponents will call a pre-flop raise with any Ace, King or possibly even a Queen in the hole. If you don’t improve on the flop, should an Ace, King or Queen flop, your middle pair could be practically “dead in the water.”

If the flop has any cards higher than your unimproved pair, it’s wise to play cautiously. Small pairs (sevens down to deuces) should be played only from late position and if there are no raises. Save your chips for a better hand. 

• Suited Hole Cards – Starting with hole cards of the same suit, the higher they are, the better. It would be great to flop a flush, but that’s so rare. More likely (one out of 9 times), you will catch two more of your suit. Then the odds are only 1.86-to-1 against making the flush on the turn or the river; and the pot odds are bound to be considerably higher than the card odds. So you stay the rest of the way. Consider a semi-bluff if you miss on the turn.

• Connectors – Two cards in sequence offer a chance to catch a straight. The odds are heavily against it. If you improve at all, more likely you will pair up on the flop – if your hand improves at all.

Consider connectors just another small value (1 or 2 points) added in deciding whether to pay to see the flop in accordance with the Hold’em Algorithm. 

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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