Poker Strategy: Starting Hands - Choosing the Right Ones
Question: Let's look at two situations. In one, you have AQ, and in the other Q10. You can play only one of them; which would you choose?
• You have AQ and are second to speak. The first player to act raises to three times the big blind.
• You have Q10 on the button, and the action is passed round to you.
We'll come to the answer later…
Before all the skills and tricks of becoming a good poker player after the flop, the most important thing to get right is that you are playing the right selection of hands in the right situations.
In the last article, we saw a table showing how the worth of starting hands varied massively according to your position. This touched on another really important concept in poker; namely that you need a much better hand to call a raise with than you do to open the pot with a raise. This is a crucial piece of knowledge that every good poker player has, and is called The Gap Concept.
The gap refers to exactly that- the gap between the hands you should play after a raise as opposed to in a re-raised pot. Some theorists would go as far to say that you should cut in half the range of hands you will play after there has been a raise.
So, what is the reason for this gap, and why this idea of halving?
Where there has been no raise, there is always the chance that your first raise will be passed round, and take down the blinds and antes. This is not the case when you are calling a raise, and you are probably taking on a hand of reasonable strength.
Let's say you are playing against someone who might have raised on about the same range of hands as you would. By calling only with hands in the top half of this range you give yourself a better than even chance that you are playing with the better hand.
So, let's go back to the original question- which of the two hands should we choose to play? The answer combines the lessons of positon and of the Gap Concept, and is of course that we would rather play our Q10 than our AQ. Being on the dealer button in an unraised pot is so much stronger than facing a raise from under the gun when you yourself are second to speak. It drastically turns round the starting hands you should play.
The AQ Test
The AQ test comes from limit poker, but is very applicable to early position play in no limit. It simply says that you can tell whether someone is a decent player by whether they are doing the right thing and passing AQ when another player has opened the pot for a raise.
Limping Into The Pot
Of course, we have not exhausted all the options by talking of raising of calling a raise. Some hands lend themselves to "limping" into the pot for cheap in order to try to hit a big hand. Hands like the small pairs (22 up to 66 or 77) and suited connectors (J10 of spades, 65 of hearts etc) can strike gold on the right flop if they making a set, straight or flush.
These hands should only be played if you are only investing a small amount of your stack (5% is a good guideline); more often than not they do not hit the flop at all. One crucial skill in playing these hands is that, if you do only partially hit the flop, you do not hang onto the hand too strongly. A mistake many players make is when they hold, say, 33 on a flop of J102, or 65 on a flop of AJ5. They believe the other player is weak, and refuse to pass the hand. The situation, though, is not good, and looks is something like this:
• You are probably well behind at the moment, and drawing to very few outs- at most 5 outs with the 65 hand, and just 2 with the 33.
• If you had to be ahead with these low cards, the other player will be drawing very "live."
On the board of AJ5, if your opponent holds KQ, he is drawing to any King, Queen or Ten (Or indeed a running ace and jack). This makes you no better than 60% to win the pot even when you are ahead.
The Trap Hands
The beauty of these limping hands like 98 suited or a low pair is that they will most of the time hit nothing on the flop, but sometimes will hit a massive hand.
There is a group of hands which does the opposite of this, and they are referred to as the trap hands. The look like strong hands, but it is very rare that they hit a flop where you can be confident you are ahead. Instead, they very often connect partially with the flop and are hard to get away from.
What Are These Trap Hands?
The most typical trap hand is the rag ace. A rag ace really refers to anything as high as ace nine, and in an early position even ace ten and ace jack are problem hands. The easiest way to improve your game very quickly is to stop yourself from playing all rag aces. If you hold A7 and the flop comes A62, one of two things will happen:
• You are ahead, but you get very little action on the hand. There are very few hands that you are beating that will pay you off.
• Your opponent is holding an ace with a big kicker, or even a set, and you will find it very hard to get away from your top pair without a bad loss.
The other typical trap hands are KJ , KQ in early position, and hands like QJ offsuit and J10 offusit. If KJ hits a king or jack high flop. it can spell disaster against the hands that have you out-kicked.
The Concealed Hands
Part of the problem with these trap hands is that they are not at all concealed. Throw away those rag aces, and prefer instead to play a hand as weak as 96 of hearts, even 109 offsuit. If you do a hit a flop, your hand will at least be concealed and you may be paid off. If you do raise with these hands and the flop comes with an ace, this is not at all bad news for you. Use the flop to "represent" that you are playing a rag ace, and your opponent may well give up the hand without an ace himself.
The Garbage Hands.
It's obvious what the true garbage hands are in Holdem; people talk jokingly about 72 and 63 offsuit. Be warned though that any "rag-honour" (K2 offsuit, Q4 offsuit, J5 offsuit) is just as ineffective, and should be viewed as total garbage.
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