Most poker experts agree that "playing tight" is the right way to win at Texas Hold’em, the game of choice for most big-time tournaments.
Specifically, playing "tight" means playing as few poker hands as possible, thus concentrating on the most winnable hands.
Texas Hold’em is similar to Seven Card Stud in which each player is dealt two "hole" cards, but share five community cards to make the best five-card hand.
The five community cards are revealed in three steps: the "flop," in which three cards are turned over, followed by the "fourth street" and "river" cards.
Poker pro Phil Hellmuth recommends playing only the Top 10 Texas Hold’em starting hands and folding on all others. Here are his best dealt hands in descending order:
The Top 10 hands, as well as other poker strategy, are contained in Hellmuth’s book, "Play Poker Like the Pros." And Hellmuth is certainly a pro: He is a seven time World Series of Poker champion, and was the youngest player to win the WSOP Championship Event at the age of 24 in 1989.
Since then, Hellmuth has been a top poker tournament money winner on the Discovery Channel, E! and ESPN. He has been featured in Sports Illustrated, Time and Esquire magazines.
Hellmuth says playing only the strongest 10 starting hands has several benefits. First, it virtually ensures the player that he or she will be in contention.
Additionally, when you "consistently play only the top 10 hands, your opponents will begin to fear your bets and raises because they’ll see that you’re always playing something powerful."
Moreover, it is important to "always raise with these hands, no matter what it costs you to get involved."
Like most experts, Hellmuth agrees that raising is critical to "reading" the opponent, that is, gauging how he reacts to raises, and thus determining the value of his hand.
With this foundation in mind, Hellmuth recommends players to raise and re-raise or "ram and jam" before the flop.
Which is all well and good if the flop goes well. But what if the flop is a marginal one?
"What you do is raise your opponents as if you have hit the flop perfectly, and then watch to see how they react to your raises," Hellmuth says. "If you get the strong impression that you’re beaten, on the basis of your opponents’ reactions to your raises, then fold. But if you’re pretty sure you still have the best hand, then keep on betting and calling."
Continuing, Hellmuth suggests the same tactic on the fourth and fifth cards. "If you believe you have the best hand after the fourth card is turned up, then you need to make a bet or raise. If you’ve learned that you are beaten, now is the time to fold your hand.
"If you’ve made it all the way to the river (the last card) with your top 10 hand, then it’s probably correct to call one bet on the river ... But be leery of calling two bets on the river."
Being the last player to act in a hand is a great advantage, Hellmuth says. "By acting last, you get a better feel for the strength of your opponents’ hands."
In his book, Hellmuth offers strategies for various games and for players of various levels. In the game of No Limit Texas Hold’em, he recommends that beginners bet it all when they hold Ace-Ace, King-King, Queen-Queen or Ace-King.
The tactic of raising and re-raising is a critical one and Hellmuth has a wealth of suggestions on how to use it to your advantage.
"Anyone who makes one weak raise can be expected to make more than one." Thus, if he can catch a player making a weak raise, he will re-raise him to force his weak hand.
"The re-raise wins many more chips than a mere blind steal would win, but you’re also risking a lot more chips to win the pot when you re-raise on a bluff."
Overall, Hellmuth says he likes to play "conservatively ... until I smell blood or have a good situation come up."