They said it couldn’t be done. They meaning me. A starting hand chart for no-limit? Can’t be done. There are too many variables. For as long as I’ve been writing about poker, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with starting hand charts. Mostly skewed towards hate. They are, by their nature, quite imprecise. Yet they have an air of faux precision about them that impels some people to quote them as gospel. No matter how many disclaimers I put in about how this is just a guide or suggestion, and good players will alter the plays from this chart based on situational variables, yada yada, I see over and over again people saying, “Raising is bad because Ed Miller’s chart from four years ago said to limp.” Ugh.
But I do also love them. I think for many players they do more good than harm. They give people confidence and point them in the right direction. Used correctly, a starting hand chart can be a big boost.
I’ve always thought a true starting hand chart for no-limit was out of reach. Preflop play in no-limit cash games is very malleable; a wide array of different styles and strategies can work well, and your opponents’ stack sizes and styles matter a lot also. But then I got this question from Wayne:
I’ve been doing a lot of reading on NL and believe I am starting to absorb some of the concepts. I just bought Professional NL Holdem and will start reading that shortly.
Unfortunately, I feel like I am learning the game backwards. Even though I have a reasonable understanding of many of the post flop concepts, I have absolutely no idea which hands to play from various positions, how much to raise, what hands to call a raise with, what hands to re-raise with etc…. preflop.
When I learned limit from SSH, I used the starting hand charts as a basis for my play and slowly made adjustments over time to isolate weak players, steal more often, plays some extra hands when condition warranted etc… I feel like a need some kind of cookie cutter pre flop standards to help me get going, but when I’ve looked at the Harrington book and Theory and Practice, the standards are different enough to keep me lost.
Can you give me some advice on how I could build a starting hand chart just to get through the first few months of play so I don’t make any terrible mistakes?
And I figured, what the heck. Let’s try to build a decent starting hand chart, step-by-step, on NPA. I’ll write about the reasoning that goes into the chart. Then at the end we’ll compile the whole thing. That way, if someone (mis)reads the chart without the reasoning behind it, which is the most important part, it’s not hanging over my head.
This post is part of the Poker Made Simple series. As with the other articles in the series, the emphasis here will be on solid concepts and ease of understanding. I’m not going to talk about every exception, condition, or possibility. My goal is to build a basic, serviceable starting hand chart that shouldn’t get people into too much trouble in the worst of circumstances. You won’t find the Holy Grail here.
Let’s get on with the chart-building.
For the chart I’ll assume we’re playing 10-handed and that the stacks are mostly roughly 100BB. If you play 6-handed, you can still use the chart, just start with the later positions. The stack size assumption is important, because different sizes can change hand values drastically.
Early position is the first four spots, that is, from four to seven off the button. In general, you simply don’t want to play in early position. It will leave you out of position and vulnerable for the remainder of the hand.
In particular, you don’t want to call raises from early position. Not only does a raise increase the stakes (while you’re in a precarious position), but it also gives the initiative to another player and escalates the postflop betting. Being out of position starts you at an information deficit. Then with escalated betting, you may have only one or at most two postflop bets to figure out “where you’re at” before you have to commit to your hand. Combined, these factors will leave you often guessing in tough decisions, which is decidedly not how you make money at no-limit.
The answer is simply not to play. Some hands are so good that you can win with them despite the problems. But most aren’t. That includes some good-looking hands like A 8 or A T or T 9 . Out of position these hands will bring you headaches, not profits. Avoid them.
So what is worth playing? Pocket pairs (up to and including deuces) are virtually always worth playing if no one has raised yet. And usually they’ll be worth it for a single normal-sized raise. Ace-king is also worth playing. I tend also to play AQs-ATs, KQs, and AQo. Often I fold even AJo and KQo, and since I’d like this chart to be nice and conservative out of position, I’ll recommend you fold them here too.
Before we go any further, I want to debunk a common no-limit myth. There are two words that have almost magical meaning to many no-limit players, encouraging them to play any and all hands as long as the stacks are deep enough. They are “implied odds.” The thought process goes like this:
“Sure, T 8 isn’t a very good hand. But every once in a while it’ll make a monster. And if I catch someone with top pair when I flop, say, two pair, trips, or a straight, I’ll win a whopper that will make up for all the little preflop bets I lose when I miss.”
It’s an alluring thought. And it can be used to justify playing nearly any hand there is. Unfortunately, the logic is basically bogus. Why?
Well, the goal of winning poker is to get an edge over your opponents. Whenever you think about playing a hand, don’t think about how you could win with the hand, think about how it will give you an advantage. Everyone gets dealt two cards. How do your two cards give you enough of a leg up on the competition that you’ll beat the rake on average?
Say you played with 10,000BB stacks (now that’s deep). Theoretically, even 72 could flop a big hand often enough to turn a profit if you managed to stack your opponents most of the time. But if you’re winning with 72, then what are your opponents doing with JT or QQ or K6? Are they all winning too? Does everyone win once the stacks are deep enough?
Of course not. Poker is zero sum (less than that if there’s a rake). If you are a long-term winner on average with your hand, then someone else must necessarily be a long-term loser with theirs. If you have 72, then what hands are you victimizing?
Well, it is indeed possible to make money with 72 with a deep stack, but you need something beyond your cards to build that edge for you. One thing you can do is concentrate on building bigger pots with your winning hands and losing smaller pots with your losing ones. That is one way to generate an edge. Another way is to steal. Since 72 will make a hand less often than your opponents’ hands, you need to steal a lot more to compensate.
So sure, any two cards can make a hand and win a big pot. But each of your opponents gets two cards too, and that’s exactly what they’re thinking, “If I make a big hand, I can win a big pot.” That’s not where your major edge is going to be. You’re going to steal smarter. You’re going to steal more often. And you’re going to win more with your medium-strength (e.g., two pair) hands than they do.
So what’s the point? The point is that out of position with bad cards, you don’t have an edge. Your opponents have cards too, and they have position on you. It’s easy to get seduced by “implied odds” and play small cards out of position, but the reality is that those implied odds are mostly illusory. If you’re in early position, just fold. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief.
So I’ll recommend playing pocket pairs, AK, AQ, and some of the big suited hands in early position. Occasionally you can mix it up with a hand like T9s, but basically stick to those hands. In the next installment of the Building a No-Limit Hold’em Starting Hand Chart series, I talk about when and why to raise or limp, how to choose a raise size, and then hammer out the chart suggestions for early position.