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 three parts of the series:
Remember from the first part that we’re assuming that we’re playing in a 10-handed game where most players have approximately 100BB stacks. If the stack sizes were substantially different, then the recommendations might be substantially different also. In a 6-handed game, middle position represents the first two seats, and you can use these recommendations as if you were playing 10-handed and the early position players had folded.
In the last section, we broke the recommendations into three groups: opening the pot, playing against limpers, and playing against a raise. We’ll do the same here.
If You’re Opening the Pot
When opening the pot from middle position, I recommend generally that you raise. I made a similar recommendation for early position play, but it’s more compelling from middle position for several reasons:
- You’re less likely to run into a big hand.
- You have a better chance to win the blinds.
- You have a better chance to play the hand in position against the blinds.
With most of the hands you might open from middle position, you’d like either to win the blinds or to play in position in a raised pot. The worst case is that you get reraised by someone behind you; callers behind you is another unwanted scenario.
Before I continue, I want to make one point. Say you have 87s, and the player in the big blind likes to defend with a wide range of hands against preflop raises. You have two choices from which you can freely choose. You can limp in and play the hand heads-up against the big blind, or you can raise to 3-4BB and play against just the big blind. Which would you choose?
Some people might prefer the limped pot because 87s is a speculative hand, so they’d figure they’d want to risk as little as possible before the flop. I, however, would generally prefer the raised pot. Why? I have position. In no-limit, your cards are only one part of the profitability equation. “The situation” is another important part. The situation is a combination of your opponent’s hand range, the betting, how much risk your opponent likes to take, and more. If the situation is sufficiently good, you can turn a profit with any hand, and having cards with value just adds a little something extra.
I like the raised pot because it produces more profitable situations. Since I have position, I’ll win more often. I’ll steal more hands. And therefore I have more equity in the pot (and want it bigger). Not only that, but with the 100BB stack sizes, a modestly-raised pot tends to set up situations where I can exert a lot of pressure on my opponent after one or two bets. Maybe my cards, 87s, would prefer to see the flop cheaply, but that factor takes a backseat to the profitable situation of playing in position in a raised pot. (This logic doesn’t hold against some opponents, but I find it’s true against most.)
So that’s a major reason I like raising. For the above reasons, I also don’t spread my raise sizes as much from middle position. I don’t have to be as cautious about running into a big hand or bad situation, and I’m more comfortable building a slightly bigger pot because I have a better chance to play the hand in position. Typically I’ll raise somewhere between 3 and 4BB when I open. If the “table standard” raise is higher than that, and I have a hand I don’t mind playing an even bigger pot with, I’ll raise up to or even slightly more than the standard. In this situation, SPR plays a significant role in my raise-sizing decision.
So basically, if I open the pot, I do it for a raise, usually in the 3-4BB range, but sometimes more depending on game conditions.
If You’re Playing After One or More Limpers
If there’s one limper, I’m also likely to raise. In this situation, it’s even more likely I’ll get to play the hand in position (though less likely I’ll steal the blinds). I’ll generally make it 4-5BB, slightly more, because more players and money are in the pot.
Against two or more limpers, I’ll sometimes limp along as well. To backtrack a bit, if the limpers and/or big blind are tight and might fold often to a raise, then I’ll generally again raise all my hands, increasing the size to account for the limpers. But if the limpers and big blind are likely to call (setting up a 4- or more-way pot), then I won’t raise every hand anymore. In this situation, my decision is strongly guided by SPR considerations. With a hand like a suited ace or suited connector, I’ll content myself to play with a high SPR and just limp. With a big card hand like a big pair or AK, I’ll typically raise an amount that will produce a comfortable SPR if I get the expected number of callers. That number can change depending on the stack sizes and exactly how many callers I expect, but 6-8BB with several expected callers and 100BB stacks will produce an SPR in the 3-5 range which fits the bill.
If I can get away with it, I’ll also make smaller raises with pocket pairs. It’s easier to stack someone in a raised pot than in a limped one, and with pocket pairs in multiway pots, I’m definitely looking to stack someone. I don’t want to give away my hand with my raise size, so I try these shenanigans only against players I feel confident won’t decode my play. I also don’t do it with aggressive or unpredictable players still around, because I don’t want to get reraised. I save the play for when I can fairly predictably expect nothing but calls all around.
If your opponents are sharp and can figure out that you’re making big raises with big hands and small raises or limps with small hands, then switch it up enough to confuse anyone who might be paying attention. Limp with a hand like AK or raise with a suited connector.
If You’re Playing Against a Raise
If you read the last part, you’re already folding most of your hands in this dangerous situation. If my hand is strong enough to play, I tend just to call if I’m the first into the pot after the raise. It’s a dicey situation to be playing against a raise on your right and multiple unknown hands on your left. You risk getting squeezed. Reraising tends to leave you quite vulnerable with a weak hand, and if you reraise only with AA and KK you’ll be very predictable. I’ll reraise more often if the raiser is loose or if other players at the table are loose (particularly if they might call the reraise cold with a weak hand) and/or predictable.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to give a good rule because play always becomes situational quickly once one of your opponents raises, but I think if you’re in doubt, I prefer calling.
If one or more players has called the raise already, however, then the dead money makes reraising more attractive. After a raise and a call or two, I tend to reraise AK, other big hands, and also sometimes small hands like T9s. With pocket pairs (not the biggest ones) I sometimes reraise and sometimes call; since pocket pairs play excellently in raised, multiway pots, calling is still a strong option. But it’s not the only option, as reraising to collect the dead money is still worth considering.
So against a raise, first, tighten up! Once you’ve done that, if you’re first in after the raiser, tend just to call since you’re in a vulnerable situation and you don’t want to expose yourself to a huge pot. If your opponents are very loose and you have a strong hand, though, you can reraise for value despite your poor position.
If you’re playing after a raise and one or more calls, often reraise. With pocket pairs, however, you have a choice to make because both calling and reraising will likely generate favorable outcomes, and you have to decide which you prefer in your given situation.
In the next installment I talk about playing from the cutoff.