If you build a house on shaky foundations it will never be secure and that's exactly the same principle you need to bear in mind when you're looking at your pre-flop poker strategy. Let me quickly illustrate this point with a quick story:
Recently I was playing $1/$2 Limit Texas Hold'em online and I noticed something striking about one of the players at my table. Although he claimed to be a good player, I noticed that he made a number of mistakes and one of the biggest was his pre-flop play. After studying this player I began to notice that he was not the only one at the table making these mistakes and that's when I thought to myself that there are many people who simply do not know how to play their hands pre-flop.
If you read any strategy books written by some of the game's best players you'll notice a common theme in what they say about pre-flop play: "Play tight, but be aggressive" (David Sklansky), "Play tight and also play aggressive" (Doyle Brunson), "Play the top hands and be aggressive" (Phil Hellmuth).
"Play the top hands and be aggressive" - Phil Hellmuth
One of the biggest mistakes I noticed that my online opponent was making came when he was under-the-gun (UTG). Because this most dangerous seat at the table (namely because you will have between five and eight people to act after you), there's essentially one mantra you should abide by in this spot: "If it's good enough to call with, it's good enough to raise with."
Your range from UTG - both in 6-max and full ring games - should be extremely narrow and consist mainly of hands ranked among the top 8% of hands. Additionally, you should start any of these hands with a raise and never with a call. Indeed, this is the mistake our virtual friend made as he simply called with A-7o from UTG.
So what hands fall within the 8% of playable hands from UTG? Using a poker calculator you'll see that 8% of hands equates to: 99+, ATs+, KQs, AJo+ and KQo. Hopefully this explanation will show you that UTG is the most critical position and you should play extremely tight simply because you don't know what players behind you will do.
Obviously, you should always consider table dynamics when you think about your pre-flop strategy, but while you may need to make the aforementioned range slightly tighter if the table is aggressive, you should stick to this basic rule.
One other strategy you can think about when playing UTG is the re-raise. This would be a move where you choose one of the very strongest hands in the above range (think A-A, K-K and Q-Q) and call UTG and then re-raise when some raises you. However, this is a move you should use sparingly and only if you're certain that someone behind you is aggressive enough to isolate your limp with a raise. Indeed, in general your main strategy should be to raise pre-flop when you're UTG; especially when playing Limit Hold'em because the pressure you can exert on someone with a raise is significantly less than in No Limit Hold'em.
While you might think that raising pre-flop when UTG is a more costly strategy the opposite is actually true. Indeed, consider a scenario where you simply called pre-flop with A-K and four other people did the same. The board rolls out K, 4, 3, 5, 7 and you've bet on all three streets because you have top pair and assume that the most likely hand someone has is a pair of 77+. However, when each player reveals their hand you see that one of them A-2 and takes the pot with a straight.
Because you failed to raise pre-flop you gave a player with a weak hand the chance to enter the pot cheaply and outdraw you to win the pot. Preventing players from playing weak hands and hitting disguised hands should be your main aim when raising UTG because it will allow you to play against opponents with a narrower range (i.e. only good hands that you can read more easily) and make you more money in the long run.
As we've established, a number of players make a lot of mistakes pre-flop to so help you fix your leaks we've put together a general guide for the types of hands you should be playing at each position at the table: To fix the leaks in your game I suggest you follow the following pre-flop strategy until you get a feel of the game and the players that you are playing with.
While this guide is a great start it's important to remember that everything at the poker table is subjective. Sometimes you need to adjust the requirements based on the players around and that could mean being somewhat looser or tighter than stated above.
Whenever I play poker one thing that helps me calculate whether I should call is whether or not someone is giving away the strength of their hand (broadcasting) before the action gets to them. It is neither a mathematical aspect nor a psychological aspect of the game, but it is a combination of both. When you learn the art of spotting broadcasters at a live table you can work out if someone is going to make a move based on their reactions to their cards.
Broadcasting is when a player who holds a hand does something that makes it easy for you to tell what their next action will be. For example, some players will pick up some chips ready to bet before the action gets to them. Indeed, when players do this it's easy to pick up on their intention to make a move and thus you can adjust your play accordingly.
The best advice I can give you so you can take advantage of broadcasting is to not look at your hand straight away. After you cards land in front of you make sure you pause for about 5-15 seconds and watch the other player's reactions to their cards before you look your action.
In low limit games most players will have certain tells that they broadcast and these usually include: holding their cards carelessly if they have a weak hand, grab chips if they are going to call and cover their cards (in order to protect them) if they are thinking about raising. If you can pick up on these tells then you can not only assess the strength of your hand based on its own merits and your position at the table, but what others appear to have based on their reactions.
Indeed, if you can see that each of your opponents has shown you a weak reaction then it's possible to raise with almost anything pre-flop. This is where you should use our pre-flop raising chart in conjunction with the table dynamics. While we advocated raising only 8% of hands in full ring games from UTG, you could increase this to 12%-15% of hands if it appears that no one else at the table is keen to play. Of course, you shouldn't be throwing in raises without thinking just because people appear weak, but you can increase your raising range by paying attention to everyone's tells.
Consider a contrasting situation which backs up this idea of adjusting your range based on tells:
Let's say you are in middle position and you have a player behind you who is making a motion to raise before the action gets to him. You look down and see A-A and instead of raising you decide to flat call. Although A-A is a very powerful hand, you have already established that someone is willing to raise so you should let them do it. A raise from you might stop them from raising, so by calling you can let them raise you limp and then put in a second bet when the action gets back to you. Doing this will not only give you the advantage in the hand but allow you to put more money in the pot pre-flop.
The best thing I can suggest is to not look at your cards until it is your turn to act. When you look at your cards you will usually subconsciously change your posture or the way you pay attention to action. Good players will pick up on this so don't give them that opportunity. While the action is moving towards you simply use that time to study everyone else at the table. (Find out more about poker tells.)
Becoming a profitable pre-flop player is a mixture of discipline, patience, observation and timing. If you're still a novice then we recommend that you stick rigidly to our raising and calling conditions defined above. Once you become comfortable with these ranges then you should begin to study the players around you and look for tells and tendencies that will help you refine your play. Indeed, if you notice that a loose-aggressive player behind you is ready to raise then you should be a lot tighter and not play some of the hands listed in our chart. Conversely, if someone is looking disinterested then you can add some more hands to your raising/ calling range.
Table dynamics and solid fundamentals are crucial when putting together a solid pre-flops strategy and if you can follow the advice we've outlined in this article then you should be well on your way to a nurturing a healthy bankroll.