For starters, play a tight poker game

Jan 30, 2006 4:21 AM

First, I would like to thank everyone for all the encouraging comments following last week’s column.

Also, for those who had questions or asked for clarifications, please submit them to me directly or through GamingToday. I very much welcome your comments and questions and will try to respond as best I can.

When my friend, David Stratton, at GamingToday approached me about helping him with a new poker column, I saw an opportunity. It was not an opportunity to make money, in fact I am doing this for free, but a chance for me to express my true feelings about what’s been going on with the explosion of poker today.

Most poker professionals have been writing books and selling CD’s on how to play the game and how to beat others without explaining the downside of this new phenomenon. Personally, I have always loved teaching others, especially young people, but what is really disturbing to me is the fact that a lot of young and old people alike these days want to make poker their new profession.

As an example, I speak with a lot of young people at the poker tables and many want to drop out of college and pursue a career in poker. Please understand I am not trying to discourage you from playing the game, I love poker as it is a lot of fun and very competitive; but, my advice to you is please make it a hobby not a career.

My view is that out of all of the people playing poker today there is a very small percentage that will become somewhat successful; another small percentage will have their ups and downs and will be able to hang around for a while.

The majority of people, if they’re lucky enough, will realize that they made a mistake and return to a normal lifestyle before they lose everything. Personally, I have tried to earn a living playing poker and realized that even with the amount of skill I felt I had, and was somewhat successful, it was still very stressful and emotional with much uncertainty unlike having a real job or a profession where hard work and effort will ensure success.

Do remember that poker is a form of gambling where luck and timing could prevent you from being successful regardless if you are the best player in the world. Poker playing does take a certain mentality and attitude as well as a killer instinct.

Poker is about maximizing your winnings when you have the best hand, which means, busting or taking other player’s bankrolls without mercy.

Now on the techniques that will ensure your enjoyment of the game. Last week I pointed out the importance of carefully choosing which hands to play in Texas Hold’em.

Specifically, I’d like to address the task of choosing which starting hand — the first two cards — you should play and which you shouldn’t.

First of all, most people know that any two starting cards can win the pot. Doyle Brunson once won a world championship with a 10-2 (off-suit) as his starting hand. Subsequently, the 10-2 has come to be known as a "Doyle Brunson."

And I’m sure you’ve all seen either on TV or in tournament play how a player holds 3-7 (off-suit) and flops two 3’s to hit a set.

These lucky occurrences happen every day, but for those players just starting out they can be an expensive way to learn the game.

You don’t want to learn the game by taking too many chances. Anybody can do that. It’s like anything else — if you learn through bad habits, you’ll hold on to them; learn good habits and you’ll hold on to them as well.

So let’s begin by saying these rules I’m putting forth are directed especially to beginners. And as a beginner you want to learn how to play conservatively or "tightly" as it is often called.

You can always loosen up as you get better, at which point you can start making moves and being more aggressive.

Keep in mind that, as a beginner, you’re paying as you’re playing. And there’s a difference between paying a big price for poker and paying a small price. By playing conservatively at the outset, you will be paying as small a price as possible.

Beginning players often want to stay in the hand long enough to at least see the flop, regardless of their starting cards. But between the antes, the blinds and the calls, it can get expensive "seeing" what comes on the flop. I’d estimate that a beginner might lose up to 20 percent to 30 percent of his chips paying for flops that produce nothing.

In selecting which hands to play, most professional players agree that pocket aces, kings and queens, along with ace-king suited and unsuited are the best starting hands.

Of course, you will play these hands and proceed to the flop (in future columns we will discuss the nuances of calling, raising, slow playing and so forth).

Obviously, these high starting cards don’t occur on every hand. In fact you can play for quite awhile before seeing them. That’s why you should consider playing lesser hands, depending on your position and the betting that occurs in front of you (more on this in future columns).

Among the starting cards that should be considered in addition to the ones named above are pairs — jacks through sevens — ace-queen, ace-jack and ace-10, and suited connectors, from king-queen down to five-four.

Many textbooks rate starting hands and they can be helpful. I’ve included a couple of lists for you to look over.

One aspect of being conservative is moving all-in after the turn card. Too many players like to make their move after the flop, but that leaves too many possibilities to the final two cards.

If you make your big move on the river, you only have one card to contend with, and hopefully you’ve done the math to determine where your hand will be relative to what you perceive the other players to be on.

Keep in mind these starting cards aren’t always absolutes. Your position at the table, the betting progression and the style of your opponents can influence how you play. Next week we’ll examine those issues further.