Lessons in limit Texas hold’em

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Assuming your goal is to be a winning poker player, there are many lessons to be learned. Here is a good example applied to the game of limit Texas hold’em.

You can expect to frequently be dealt a medium pair, J-J down to 8-8. What is the best way to play this hand? What is your goal in deciding whether to limp – i.e., call the big blind – or raise before the flop? Ideally, you would like to thin the field – reduce the size of the playing field. Competing against fewer opponents, your pocket pair has a better chance of holding up and taking the pot at the showdown.

To a large extent, it depends on position and knowing your opponents.

Late position

Say you have 9-9 in the hole and several players already called to see the flop, your raise will not force those players to fold. They are willing to “invest” one more small bet. Their thinking: “I have already invested one bet and I do want to see the flop. The flop will let me see over 70% of my final hand.

Plus, the pot has already grown to make it more attractive, offering me better pot odds.” Almost invariably, the limpers will call your raise. Since you cannot force them to fold, your best bet is to limp along, hoping to make a set on the flop – a powerful hand that is most often a winner.

Explanation

Recognizing that your card odds are about 8-to-1 against catching your set of 9’s on the flop, to make up for it, a multi-way pot is best – three or more opponents staying to see the flop. Then, the pot will be big enough to overcome your poor card odds. As we all know, for a Positive Expectancy, the pot odds need to be higher than your card odds.

It’s an entirely different situation if the preflop betting has been folded to you. In that case, from your late position, your raise is likely to force out the few opponents yet to declare – especially if they are tight players. There is nothing wrong with stealing the blinds. At least, you win some chips to cover your next blinds.

Alternatively, if the opponents yet to declare – the Button and the two Blinds who, effectively, are getting a reduced rate to call – are loose players, they may very well call your raise. With just two or three opponents, your middle pair has a reasonable chance of holding up and taking the pot without improvement. Be aware that your pocket 9’s is not likely to improve – although, you can be hopeful.

Nevertheless, if an honor card falls on the flop, your hand may have become second – or third – best. Many players are wont to call with any Ace or King. Checking along would be wise in that case. And, of course, being in a late position, you have an edge over the two blinds who must declare before you. The information they give you by how they bet can be invaluable. And, by all means, always look for tells.

Early position

If one of the first to declare for the preflop round of betting it is especially important to know your opponents. With your pocket 9’s, a raise will not force out loose or aggressive players who hold one or more honor cards. Indeed, you may very well get re-raised. So, from an early position, your best option is to just limp along, hoping to see the flop for a minimum investment.

On the other hand, if there are a lot of tight players behind you, a raise might force them to muck their holecards. That’s OK as long as one or two stay to see the flop, so you can get decent pot odds – especially if you get lucky (hopefully) and connect for your set of 9’s. It can – and does – happen.

Think about it.

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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