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 part of the series Early Position Standards.
Last time out, I recommended that in early position (the first four seats of a 10-handed game), you play any pocket pair, AK, AQ, AJs, ATs, and KQs. I had you folding everything else, except occasionally mixing this range up by playing a small suited connector.
In this installment, I’ll talk about how to play those hands – whether to limp in or to raise (and if so, how much).
You are vulnerable in early position, even with a strong hand. Playing 100BB stacks, a top pair or an overpair may not be a strong enough hand to commit your entire stack on a favorable-looking flop. If your opponents are tough enough to test you with big bets and semibluffs when they have position, you may want to play conservatively up front, event with the top hands.
Indeed, I want to dispell a few no-limit myths right now. Open-limping is not necessarily a bad play. It’s not necessarily a bad play even if you have pocket aces. Some people say, “Open-limping with aces is stupid because you’re just asking someone with trash to flop two pair and stack you.” The problem with that statement is the second part, “and stack you.” If you limp in with pocket aces, the whole idea of the play is to make sure you don’t lose a big pot with just an overpair. In a limped preflop pot with 100BB stacks, generally speaking you need to hit the flop (usually either by catching another ace or a nut flush draw) to play for your stack. So limping in with aces is pretty bad if you are willing to defend any old overpair with your whole stack. But if you aren’t, then it can be an ok play in early position.
The same goes for the often-maligned min-raise. Making a 2BB raise isn’t necessarily a “donk play” any more than limping in is. In fact, I min-raise from early position with some frequency. Generally speaking, if you min-raise with a big pocket pair, you similarly shouldn’t commit your whole stack with just an overpair.
Playing the Big Hands
Ok, back to the main discussion. You are in early position and are sticking to premium hands. How should you play them? You have two major considerations:
- You want to protect yourself and your stack since you are out of position.
- You want to get value from your premium hand.
First, assume that your opponents are weak and unlikely to test you with big bets and bluffs. For instance, say you flop top pair with AK, make a pot-sized bet, and get raised the pot. If you can be fairly confident that you are, on average, a big underdog once you get raised big, then you don’t have much to worry about. You can play aggressively preflop by opening for a solid raise. How big the raise can be depends on what your opponents will call. In some games (particularly in online games) players will be sensitive to raise size and may not call a raise bigger than about 3.5BB or 4BB. If that’s the case, raise that. If you’re playing in a looser game where people will call 6BB or even 8BB raises, then raise that. Because your opponents are timid and won’t test you after the flop, you can get maximum value for your premium hands even from early position.
Now assume your opponents are the opposite. They are wild and make big raises and calls postflop with weak hands and draws. You still have nothing to fear, because you can now safely commit your stack with top pair or an overpair if you get challenged after the flop. So again, you can make a solid raise, as big as your opponents are likely to call.
If your opponents are tricky, however, and can put you in difficult postflop situations when you have just a pair, then you should be more careful. Start limping or making min-raises when you open from early position. Again, you do this to avoid getting stacked after the flop. You also do it for deception. When you limp or min-raise, your opponents are less likely to give you credit for a strong hand, and you’ll find yourself getting raised (or reraised if you min-raised) more often than if you had opened for a larger amount. Generally, you can reraise with your strong hands (AA-QQ and AK at least). And you can reraise sometimes with your weaker hands like 66 as well, especially if the person who raised you is a loose raiser.
The Small and Medium Pocket Pairs
Let’s talk about the small and medium pairs for a moment. Playing these hands does two things for you:
- It balances your hand range so you don’t always have big cards when you play up front.
- It allows you to flop sets and win big pots occasionally.
Above, I recommended that against weak players you make big raises with your big early position hands. What about the small and medium pairs? You don’t want a huge pot with a small pair, since usually you’ll fold on the flop. So you don’t want a huge raise either. But you might want to make a small raise rather than limp, because it could make it easier to win a big pot if you “sweeten” it somewhat with a small preflop raise.
The Bottom Line
Against bad players, you want to make big raises (as much as the table is generally calling) with big hands. This is true whether your opponents are timid and fold too much postflop or they are crazy and get all-in too often with bad hands. You want to limp or make a small raise (2BB-3BB or so) with small and medium pairs.
Naturally, making different-sized raises with different hands can be a giveaway to an observant player. So disguise your general plan – sometimes min-raise with pocket aces or make it 4BB with pocket fives. If your opponents are barely observant, then you barely have to disguise your plan. Remember, you won’t be playing much from early position, so your opponents won’t have many data points on you to form a pattern. If you play just a few hundred hands with someone, they’ll be hard-pressed to figure out how you size your early position raises.
If your opponents are tougher and use position well enough to put you in difficult situations post-flop, then play more cautiously. Limp and make small raises (2BB-3BB again) with all of your hands. Also default to this strategy if your opponents are observant and you’re worried that spreading your raises is tipping your hand. If you get raised, then reraise usually with your big hands (AA-QQ and AK) and sometimes with weaker hands (particularly small pairs). If a tough player who has position on you raises, you may even throw away the weakest of your hands (e.g., AQ, AJs, ATs, KQs). In general, avoid limping/min-raising and then calling a raise behind you.
Remember, no-limit is an extremely complex game, and these recommendations are in no way meant to override a situation-by-situation analysis of each hand. It’s merely a general plan that should get you started on the right track.
Move on to the next installment of the Building a No-Limit Hold’em Starting Hand Chart series where we talk about playing in middle position.