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 five parts of the series:
- Early Position Standards
- Playing In Early Position
- Middle Position Standards
- Playing In Middle Position
- Cutoff Standards
In the last part, we talked about what hands to play from the cutoff. The cutoff is the most complex position since you have position (and therefore want to play), but you are also very sensitive to what the button might do. What hands to play in a given situation can depend a lot on your opponents’ hand ranges and tendencies. Similarly, how you play them can depend also. Let’s take a crack at it.
If You’re Opening The Pot
Raise. While theoretically situations can arise where you might want to limp in from the cutoff, in practice you’ll usually want to raise. While you’re still learning no-limit preflop play, I think it’s fine to raise every time.
I raise about 3x to 4x the big blind with most hands I play. I might deviate from that standard if the player in the big blind is highly atypical. For instance, if they are super-loose, I might raise up to 10x BB with my good hands. This decision really comes down to basic raise-sizing which is covered well in Professional No-Limit Hold ‘em: Volume I.
One case where I might limp is if the button is hyper-aggressive. I might limp planning to reraise the button’s expected auto-raise. But I wouldn’t do that with just any stack size; I’d want a favorable SPR after the button calls the reraise. But certainly, when in doubt, raise.
If You’re Playing After One Or More Limpers
If there’s only one limper, I tend to raise also. The raise is designed to juice the pot in position with my good hands. It’s also designed to juice the pot with my bad ones. If the pot gets heads-up or 3-way and I have position, I’m happy even if my hand is near the bottom of my range. I’m counting on the combined chances of making a hand and leveraging my position to steal the pot to make a profit. Both of these plans work just fine in a raised pot so long as the stack sizes are deep enough that my opponents won’t feel immediately committed with just a pair.
Indeed, one of the worst common no-limit leaks is to play too many raised pots out of position. If you find someone who likes to limp in a lot and then call your raise, you’re in a great situation. You can exploit that weakness obviously by raising your good hands, but you can exploit it also by raising your so-so hands. Position is that important.
If I expect at least one player to call the raise, then I size it according to the principles of SPR.
If I expect three or more opponents after the flop, or if I expect the button to call, then I’m more judicious with my raising. Raising with a so-so hand is good only if I can count on stealing a lot of pots. With too many opponents or with someone on the button disrupting my plans, I can’t steal as many. So in that event I’m more inclined to simply limp with my weaker hands. I still tend to raise my pocket pairs, even the small ones. It’s a lot easier to stack someone in a raised pot than a limped one, so I find that it’s usually worth risking a few extra chips at the outset to juice the pot in hopes of flopping a set. Also, don’t forget that you can steal postflop when you hold a small pocket pair. (It’s easy to get into a “set it or forget it” mindset with small pairs. It’s not a bad mindset, but sometimes steal situations will pop up. Don’t miss them just because your hole cards are paired.)
Against multiple limpers, I tend to raise my strong hands that I want to play a big pot with and limp with everything else. This rule in particular has me limping sometimes with hands like K Q after a few limpers. Sure, it’s a strong hand that has a good shot with position. But if you build too big a pot preflop, you can end up with an awkward SPR on the flop if you catch top pair. Just last week I was playing $2-$5 and absent-mindedly raised four limpers with KQo. Everyone called making it $150 in the pot preflop. The flop came KT9, and because the preflop pot was so big (and because I had a straight draw to go with my top pair and because he played his hand well) I was essentially forced to commit my remaining $400 against someone who flopped top two. Obviously, that’s just one outcome out of the millions possible, and many outcomes will have you winning more because you raised preflop. But overall you have more flexibility to exploit your position if you don’t juice the pot to an awkward SPR with big offsuit cards.
So against one limper, I tend to raise unless I expect a whole lot of callers. Against multiple limpers, I tend to raise hands that I want to play a big pot with and limp the marginal ones. I tend to raise a larger amount against more limpers, though I take stack sizes and player personalities into account before choosing the size.
If You’re Playing Against A Raise
In middle position, I recommended just calling if you’re first in after a raise. It’s an unenviable situation. You are sandwiched between a raiser and four or five unknown hands. In the cutoff, you’re not so bad off, since you have only three players behind you. You can still flat call, but I tend to reraise more often as well, especially when the initial raiser is loose. I’ve noticed online that many loose raisers will happily call a reraise with almost any hand. That’s a big weakness, and you can exploit it only by reraising your strong hands.
For instance, say you’re playing with 100BB stacks and a loose player makes it 3.5BB to go. If you make it 12BB to go and he calls, the preflop pot will be 25BB, leaving you with an SPR under 4. That’s a great SPR for your hand, and if you flop top pair, you’ll have no problem committing. You have position, and you likely have the stronger hand. It’s really an ideal situation for you. Sure, stuff can go wrong. You can miss the flop and get pushed off your hand by an all-in checkraise. You could even get 4-bet preflop and have a tough decision. There’s no way to completely insulate yourself from trouble. But if your opponent likes to open a lot of hands and then call reraises out of position with them, you can put him in a lot of difficult situations by reraising your strong hands.
Against a raise and callers, I tend to reraise my good hands nearly every time, call with small pocket pairs and perhaps some other “big pot” hands, and also sometimes reraise as a squeeze.
If You’re Playing Against A Raise And A Reraise
This is such a specialized situation that there isn’t much general advice I can give. Presumably, if you’re playing in this situation, it’s because you have a terrific hand, and you’re not afraid to end up all-in with it preflop. So realistically, your choices are typically whether to simply push preflop or to call preflop and push on the flop. You don’t want to call too much attention to yourself, though whatever you do the fact that you didn’t fold will attract attention. So I guess I’ll just recommend that you use your judgement.
The main thing to avoid is calling preflop and then folding to a lot of postflop action. If there’s a raise and a reraise preflop, expect your opponents to have good hands. Expect a lot of postflop action. It makes no sense to call a big preflop bet only to lose your nerve on the flop when your opponents are following through as expected. Obviously if you have KK and an ace flops, you might very well be toast, so you could consider a fold given the right circumstances. But if you’re calling a raise and a reraise preflop, the stacks are 100BB (or otherwise not super-deep), and the flop comes 8 5 3 , you have no business folding on the flop.
If you’re in a situation where you might feel compelled to fold on the flop, often you should instead have pushed (or perhaps folded) preflop. Ace-king is the most prominent example. Naturally you would be inclined to fold AK to a lot of action on an 853 flop. But your opponents’ postflop action is merely a continuation of the preflop action, since no one expects to have hit the flop, and you likely still have significant equity. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right to call, but it does often mean that you should have simply pushed preflop.
So if you’re against a raise and a reraise, you should be thinking either that you’ll push preflop or get it all-in postflop. You shouldn’t be planning to call and “see what happens” on the flop, because typically you’ll be risking too large a percentage of your stack in such unclear circumstances. Occasionally everything will go wrong postflop and you will end up folding, but folding isn’t a plan in this case – it’s what happens when the plan falls apart.
Next up is playing on the button.