How to Play Poker Lesson 1: Before the Flop

Lesson 1: Before the Flop


Perhaps the biggest mistake most below average players make is their insistence on playing lousy hands before the flop. There are 1326 possible starting hands in Texas Hold ’em, and only a fraction of those are profitable. Why? Because Hold ’em is a game with community cards, which means the best starting hand will, on the average, finish as the best hand more often than in other poker games.


Consider the following example: Before the flop, I have ace-ten, and you have ace-jack. At this point, the only way I can win (except for a fluky flush or straight) is to catch one of the three remaining tens in the deck while you don’t catch a jack. If the flop yields neither a ten nor a jack, you’re still ahead, and I will have to catch a ten on either the turn or the river to win. Even if the flop brings an ace, I will still need to catch a ten since you have a pair of aces, too. If the flop brings a jack but no ten I’m in real trouble, since now I have to catch ‘running tens’—i.e., a ten on both the turn and the river card, which is about a 400-1 shot.

This isn’t the case in a game like 7 card stud, where hand values can change dramatically as more upcards are revealed. If we’re playing stud, for example, your ace-jack is still a favorite to my ace-ten. But I have the chance to catch a small pair, or an ace, which will help my hand while not helping yours. In stud, our hands are independent. In Hold ’em, they are not. As all stud players will tell you, there are few things more aggravating than starting with a strong hand, like a pair of kings or aces, only to be ‘run down’ on seventh street by a small two pair. But in hold ’em you don’t have this problem (or at least it’s not as pronounced), since if the board brings a pair, thereby giving your opponent two pair, you also have improved to two pair.

This aspect of hold ’em makes it absolutely critical that you show great discretion when deciding with which starting hands you will enter a pot. Generally speaking, you should be folding before the flop about 80% of the time (Party Poker makes it easy to see how often you are playing the flop – right click on your seat and select ‘Show Statistics.’ On other sites there is typically a ‘statistics’ button you can click on). If you are seeing the flop a lot more than 25% of the time, YOU WILL NOT WIN LONG TERM. You may get lucky, and have a great run, but there is no way you can be a consistent winner. You will see other players playing the flop much more frequently, and sometimes you will see them winning. Do not be fooled. Those players are not winning long term. The main concept here is this: fold until you are dealt a strong starting hand. When you have a strong starting hand, make as much money with it as possible or lose as little money with it as possible.

So how do you know when you have a strong starting hand? In 1976, David Sklansky, a very famous and well-respected poker strategist published a book entitled Hold’em Poker in which he ranked starting hands on a scale. His system showed the relative value of playable starting hands. Following you will find our system for classifying starting hands, which varies from Sklansky’s. Starting hands that are not ranked are not considered playable hands, i.e. you should always fold those hands. The exception to this, of course, is if you are in the big blind and nobody has raised. Then, since you’ve already posted the requisite amount to see the flop, you should check and take advantage of the opportunity to see the flop for “free”.

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