No-Limit Hold'em: BSS - Pre-Flop Play
In this article we explain the basic pre-flop strategy with the aim of forming a solid basis for all later betting rounds (flop, turn and river). The playing style described here requires that we are playing at a full ring table (usually with nine or ten players) where the majority of our opponents have stacks in the region of 100 big blinds. If we are at a $0.50/$1 table with a total of nine players, six of whom (us included) have a chip stack of approx. $100, then we can use this strategy to its full effect.
Depending on our own skill level, there are definitely alternatives to the one described here. At the end of the day a number of factors play an important rule in no limit hold'em and therefore influence our pre-flop decisions:
- our own hand
- our position at the table
- the previous course of the hand
- whether it is easy to read the opponents
- the playing style of our opponents
- our own image, i.e. how do our opponents rate us?
- our opponents' skills
- the size of our stack in relation to the blinds and to the stacks of our opponents
- … and other minor factors
It becomes clear that a lot of factors are of importance here, making it impossible to develop and document a perfect pre-flop strategy. Nevertheless, here is a strategy that can make you a winner while forming a solid basis for developing your own game.
Whoever makes the least mistakes will win! We should always be aware of the fact that you can bet any amount at any time. We should of course always try to do this as a favourite. A stronger selection of starting hands, thus playing tight, is a good basis for developing our own playing style. We shouldn't aim to be the "Rock" at tables (having a playing style that is too tight), but at the same time we don't want to be too loose and unnecessarily lose money in unfavourable situations – we need to generate a healthy balance between the two!
Every once in a while we hear people who think that a loose and aggressive playing style (LAG stands for loose aggressive game) is the key to success, which may well be true under certain conditions. But this generally does not apply to lower limits. The lower limits often see players who are too loose as well as too passive - the opposite of this is tight aggressive (also known as TAG which stands for tight aggressive game). So if our opponents play a lot of marginal hands, then we as a tight aggressive player usually have much better starting positions and can exert pressure without hesitation on such players by betting or raising.
The hand categories
In order to provide a better overview, we have divided the various NL Hold'em hands into different categories. This should make it easier to master different pre-flop scenarios.
When deciding which hands we should play in which situations, the question of whether our hand is often a mathematical favourite is of little importance. The playability of the hand is, however, very important. So a small pair such as is much easier to play than e.g. , because if we don't hit our set on the flop when we are up against several opponents and the flop brings a number of overcards, then we have an easy fold. But if we have and hit the king, things are much more difficult and we end up in situations in which we can easily make bad decisions – and that of course isn't part of our aim, which is avoid making mistakes.
In a no-limit hold'em cash game we need to remember that it doesn't matter how often a hand would win a showdown against another hand. What is far more important is which hands will win the biggest possible pots and only lose small ones. To just focus on the hand ranking is of little use in big stack no limit hold'em – the main point here is always to work out how easily we can achieve maximum profit with which starting hands.
There are four categories in total that cover all of the starting hands.
- Hands for a big pot
The biggest pots can be won with these hands, they are fairly easy to play and thus have a high value. They include all pocket pairs from AA to 22, AK, all suited aces (AKs to A2s) as well as all suited connectors from KQs to 54s.
- Hands that win smaller pots
This category includes all hands with a certain value but they aren't as easy to play and should therefore be played cautiously. They run the risk of being dominated by other hands and will often only be the second-best hand in big pots. This category contains AQ, KQ, KJs and all one gap connectors of the same suit from QTs to 53s and 43s and 32s.
- Hands for very small pots
At first glance these hands seem to be somewhat marginal combinations with which only a small profit can be made. But sometimes, usually when we are in position, they can be played profitably. However, beginners in particular often make the mistake of overrating such hands. This is something we should definitely try to avoid. The risk of being dominated and therefore making mistakes is simply too high.
This group includes all combinations of different suits such as JT or higher (i.e. JT, QT, KT, AT, QJ, KJ, AJ), all Kx of the same suit, all connectors with two holes in the same suit from Q9s to 52s and all two-gap connectors of different suits from T9 to 54.
- Losing hands
All of the hands not listed above generally have a value that is too low for us to consider playing them. Since we don't always need to have a good hand to win the pot, theoretically all hands can be played. But beginners should refrain from doing that. Even experienced players only rarely invest money in such hands either when they are bluffing or to minimize their readability.
These categories are of course flexible. Deviations may occur depending on how we rate our opponents. A hand that should normally only be played rarely such as can also become a hand that is played regularly against bad opponents because it is easier for us to control these opponents and force them to fold or get paid off when we hit (implied odds).
The tight aggressive game in practice
As already mentioned, we need to develop a strategy that can be used as a basis for developing our own game. The tight aggressive strategy is suitable for this as it depends on playing strong starting hands and we therefore often have the best starting position when we enter a hand. This reduces complicated situations and does therefore correspond to the above aim to avoid making mistakes.
One of the key factors here is our own position in relation to the dealer and to all of the players still in the hand. At a full ring table we distinguish, as usual, between
- Early position (EP),
- Middle position (MP),
- Late position (LP)
- and the positions of the blinds (small blind/SB & big blind/BB).
Every position has an influence on our hand range, i.e. on hands that we do or do not play (see the Starting Hands and Position Play article for more information).
It should of course be clear that all of the instructions here should not always be used down to the last letter. This article merely serves to give recommendations on how hands should generally be played. Consequently, sticking to this strategy is definitely no mistake at the lower limits. When we have reached limits of NL $1/$2 and higher we should start to think about altering our playing style to adjust to the pecularities of higher limits.
The starting hand chart
No-limit hold'em is a very complex game that depends greatly on the situation. Describing a winning strategy in detail could fill an entire book, so creating a chart containing as many of the pre-flop situations as possible is a more sensible approach.
The "hand categories" section above is the basis for this chart as it indicates a very tight, but effective and simple strategy.
The starting hand chart indicates precisely which instructions we should follow depending on
- our starting hand
- our position
- and our opponents' actions.
If we take a closer look at the starting hand chart, we will find typical terms such as call, fold or raise. We will however also find a few other terms that are new to us.
Call15 is only used with pairs in a raised pot. When we're holding a pair we usually want to see a cheap flop in order to hit a set and then receive a large payout. However, we will only hit our set in 12% of cases and we will not always get paid off. And in the worst possible case we may even lose to a better hand. These three factors mean that a maximum amount has to be found, which we can call pre-flop in order to speculate for a set.
- The set rule says that we and the opponent should have 15 times the previous raise in chips in order to be able to call.
- Call 2/Call 3
Entries "Call 2" and "Call 3" are only found with connectors, such as T9s. These starting hands are highly speculative and are thus best played in a pot with two or more opponents. "Call 2" and "Call 3" means that we should call, if two respectively three or more players have already called in front of us.
- Raise 0
"Raise 0" stands for raise, when nobody has entered the hand yet. This means that all of the players have folded in front of us so that these hands can be raised. If any of our opponents have called in front of us, then we should also call rather than raise.
Using the starting hand chart
If we have all of the necessary information, we can always make a correct decision with the help of the starting hand chart. Here's an example:
In this situation we have to decide whether to raise, fold or call. In order to avoid making a mistake, we should ask ourselves and answer three questions pre-flop:
- What hand do I have?
- What is my position at the table?
- What are the actions of my opponents?
As soon as we have answered these questions, we can use the chart.
We are holding in the small blind and three players in front of us have already called, i.e. there was no raise yet. We now look for AT (left-hand column) in the blinds (top line) in an unraised pot in the chart and find the entry "Raise 0". This entry says that we should raise, if none of our opponents has raised in front of us and only call if an opponent is already in the hand. As three opponents have already called, we follow the recommendation in the chart and call.
If all of the players had folded to us, a raise would have been the better option.
The advantages of a raise
Pre-flop we should either raise or fold most hands, if all of the players in front of us have folded (open raise). Consistent players will avoid calling and raise instead, even with small pairs and suited connectors.
There can be various reasons for a pre-flop raise:
- To maximize the value of our own hand,
- To improve our own position (by causing players in better position to fold),
- To limit the number of opponents,
- To gain control of the hand,
- To win a pot immediately,
- To minimize the opponents' implied odds
- or to isolate bad players.
After we have decided to raise, we have to determine the amount.
The raise amount always depends on the number of players already in the hand.
- If you are the first player to enter the pot (excluding the blinds), you should select a raise amount of three to four times the big blind. A lot of people choose a fixed amount such as 3.5 times the amount of the BBs. This value is roughly the amount of a pot-size raise.
- However, if players have already called in front of you, you should raise one big blind amount more for each player that has already entered the hand.
You should never make the mistake of raising amounts based on the strength of your hand. So if we always raise more when we have aces and less with small pairs, then we give our opponents far too much information.
If we stick to the above rules and raise amounts based on the number of players, it is difficult for our opponents to put us on a hand.
If one or more opponents have raised in front or after us, we need to adjust our playing style once again.
- An opponent in front of us has raised
If precisely one player has bet an amount larger than the big blind, and we are holding a hand with which we should raise again according to the table, then we should raise three times the amount bet by the opponent. If one or more players have already called the raise, we should raise one factor per player more, i.e. four, five, six times the amount of the bet etc.
If there were already several raises or if an opponent's raise is more than ten BBs, we should only raise again with aces and kings since they are strong enough when it comes to an all-in (hence the "Raise (all-in)" entry in the starting hand chart).
- An opponent raises behind us
If an opponent raises behind us, then in general, we should only continue playing with aces, kings and smaller pairs. Small pairs are called or folded according to the above "set rule" and with aces and kings we can simply raise again, which means that in an ideal scenario, we will get all the chips in the middle before the flop.
An exception to be made is with . Depending on the opponent, position and stack size, this hand can also be played against a re-raise. In general we should call when we are in position and fold or re-raise, if the opponent also has a big stack. Combinations of the same suit such as should be preferred here.
But we shouldn't simply fold to every raise. If, for example, a player behind us makes a minimum raise (i.e. just doubles the amount of the bet), we can call with any hand due to the good pot odds.
Our own playing style
If we stick to the tight aggressive pre-flop strategy described in this article, we should always have an appropriate solution available.
At the end of the day it's up to each individual which playing style he chooses. With some experience it is for example possible to play a lot of hands profitably in late position. We recommend that you use the strategy described in this article as a basis upon which you can then optimize your game step by step with the help of other education content. This strategy also forms the basis for the later rounds of betting.