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 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.
If you haven’t already, read the first two parts of the series:
I recommended playing very tightly in early position (the first four seats of a 10-handed game), suggesting you play only any pocket pair, AK, AQ, AJs, ATs, and KQs. In middle position (the next two seats after early position), I still recommend you play tight, but if your game is good you can mix things up just a bit.
I call middle position the two seats after the four early position seats. That is, they are the seats two and three off the button. This corresponds to UTG and UTG+1 in a 6-max game. I’ll break my recommendations down into three categories: if you’re opening the pot, if you’re playing after one or more limpers, and if you’re playing against a raise.
If You’re Opening the Pot
Everyone in front of you has folded. Either it’s because multiple people folded in a ring game, or because you’re first to act in a shorthanded game. Mathematically speaking, the situations are identical. In practice, they can play a little differently because full ring players generally have different expectations and playstyles from 6-max players. But that’s not always the case, and in any event, you should always tailor your play to how your opponents play, not how many opponents started the hand.
You’re in a little better situation opening the pot from middle position than you are from early position for three reasons:
- It’s more likely that the hand will end up with you playing in position against just the blinds.
- It’s more likely that you’ll steal the blinds if you give a little raise.
- It’s less likely you’ll run into a monster hand.
Obviously, it’s also more likely that you’ll play second-to-last in a multiway pot, and so forth.
For that reason, I open up my standards a bit. In most games, in addition to pocket pairs, AK, AQ, AJs, ATs, and KQs, I’ll add AJ, KQ, AT, KJs, QJs, and A9s-A8s. In some games, I’ll mostly stop there. I’ll stop when loose and tough players are behind me, and they aren’t letting me get heads-up with the blinds like I want to be. When I open with a weakish hand from middle position, I definitely want a decent chance to play in position against the blinds. If that’s unlikely, then I want really bad players behind me. If I have loose and tough players, I’ll typically pass on all the marginal stuff.
Note that the marginal stuff includes some popular hands like weak suited aces and small and medium suited connectors. These can be good no-limit hands, but they tend to play poorly out of position in raised pots against tough players. Since you’re out of position, you won’t have the typical bluffing equity you might normally have. And the stacks won’t be the right size to try to make a hand and win a monster. Overall, you’ll end up in too many awkward situations.
If I’m not as worried about the players behind me, either because they are tight or because they play badly, then I tend to open with suited aces and suited connectors also, as well as some of the weaker big card hands like KTs, KJ, and so forth. I often avoid these hands even in good games in early position, since it’s just too likely I’ll run into a big hand and/or end up in an undesirable postflop situation.
So I open in middle position with AA-22, AK-AT, KQ, A9s-A8s, KJs, and QJs. And if the game is soft, I’ll add A7s-A2s, JTs-54s, KJ, KTs, and a few more hands for flavor.
If You’re Playing After One or More Limpers
The main difference here, obviously, is that you have less chance to win preflop without a fight, and more chance that you’ll end up playing a multiway pot. As a first approximation, you can adopt the same standards as above and then adjust them somewhat depending on who has entered the pot and what the game is like. That is, if a really bad player has entered the pot, you might loosen up (and even raise all of your hands to isolate) more than you would if you were first to enter. And if a really tight player has entered, you might skip the weaker big card hands (e.g., A8s or KJ) for fear of being dominated. (Though you might play them anyway if the tight player is also predictable enough that you won’t lose much with a second-best kicker.)
Unfortunately, it’s hard to come up with firm adjustments to the hand range when limpers have entered just because limpers can change the complexion of a hand in numerous and differing ways. But the no limpers hand range is indeed a reasonable try.
One minor thing I’ll point out before moving on. I significantly prefer the higher suited connectors to the lower ones if I feel a multiway pot is brewing. I think T9s has a few little perks that 54s misses out on:
- Not every pot you win will be either a monster or a steal. Sometimes even in multiway pots, you’ll flop a pair and take it down. You’re a lot more likely to beat four opponents if you flop a T to T9 than if you flop a 4 to 54.
- You’re a lot more likely to end up on the good end of flush-over-flush with T9s than you are with 54s. It doesn’t happen that often, but they can be big pots and therefore big swings.
- Bigger suited connectors can have “intangible” advantages also. They tend to connect with more threatening flops than the smaller connectors. Someone with AA is going to fear a JT8 flop a lot more than a 642 flop. That can be good and bad for your hand, but since connectors win a lot of their value by stealing, it’s probably a net positive to be able to push harder on scarier boards.
A little anecdote about big versus small suited connectors. Just today I played a hand where I had 8 7 . I had opened for a raise from middle position, and I got called by the button and a blind. The flop came A 9 5 . I bet about half the pot and got called by both players. (I probably should have bet more because they would call that bet with a lot of hands.) The K came on the turn, and I decided to take another shot at the pot with about a two-thirds pot bet. I got called by the button. The river was the J , so I missed entirely. I checked. My opponent checked behind and showed 3 2 for another busted straight-and-flush combination draw. Since my eight played, I won the pot.
If You’re Playing Against a Raise
Tighten up! One player has already announce a good hand, and if you call, you could easily get sandwiched between the raiser and one or more players with position on you. This is an unenviable situation, and quite frankly, you usually need a strong hand to get value out of it. Unless the raise is uncommonly large, I still play any pocket pair, because pocket pairs are incredibly strong hands. I also still play AK. Depending on the raiser, I might stop there. Or I might add AQ, AJs, KQs, and perhaps even a couple more hands. But that’s about it. You’re asking for big trouble if you play loosely from middle position against a raise. Specifically, please do yourself a favor and don’t play weak suited aces or suited connectors. You’re too likely to end up in a big pot, out of position and squeezed. It’s bad news.
Now occasionally you’ll find someone who makes little dinky raises that don’t carry much more meaning than a limp. Against one of those raises, you can mostly treat it as if you were playing against limpers. But most players don’t make those raises, and even if your opponent is loose and aggressive, they still can make a hand, and you are still sandwiched between the raiser and potential callers.
All-in-all, I think many players play too loose for their own good from middle position. From two and three seats off the button, there’s still a good chance you’ll end up playing out of position. If your game is soft and you have good postflop control and hand-reading, then you can wade in with some marginal hands. But if there are some sharp players behind you, play barely looser than you do in early position. This is true whether you’re playing in a full ring game where a few people have folded, or if you’re UTG or UTG+1 in a 6-max game.
In the next installment, I talk about how to play these hands from middle position – whether to limp with them or raise (and how much), and whether to call a preflop raise or put in a reraise.