Abdul Jalib's Preflop Strategy for Limit Holdem
Abdul Jalib, circe 1999, from rec.gambling.poker
Due to the effect of community cards, hold'em is a game of "domination," a term coined by Roy Hashimoto. A hand is dominated if it has 3 or fewer outs against another, like AJ against AQ. Second best offsuit hands are what make you money in hold'em - when *other* players play them. With the flip of a card, pairs and suited hands can transform from dominated to dominating.
Big and small pairs, suited hands, and offsuit hands play differently.
Small pairs, suited cards, and zero and one gap hands (examples: 22-66 A6s, and JTs and QTs respectively) thrive on "implied odds", a term coined by David Sklansky, meaning they will frequently be folding after the flop unless they flop big, and so they normally want to see the flop cheaply.
Offsuit hands have "reverse implied odds", since they cannot usually bet and raise with confidence towards the end of the hand. Normally, an offsuit hand likely to be best should make it expensive to see the flop, in order to harm the hands that would have good implied odds to see the flop cheaply. A strong offsuit hand is still strong when facing several opponents, between its chance of making a AKQJT straight, two pair (usually using a low pair on the board) or a top pair that holds up.
Big pairs have reverse implied odds as well, but they are much more robust, since they can win unimproved, or by making two pair with a low pair on the board, or by making a set or full house.
The flop is the nexus of the hand; limiting raises preflop goes far towards disguising your hand.
The next sections detail strategy for opening, playing against limpers, playing against raisers, and defending the blinds. Six representative hands, namely QQ, 55, ATs, 76s, AQ, and JT, will illustrate preflop strategy for each of these situations. However, if you think you know better for your particular situation, you probably do, as "it depends." In any case, this simple desert nomad does not claim to be always correct, only always thought provoking.
When no one has yet entered the pot, the following chart shows you conservative minimum opening hands for various positions to the right of the button. The farther off the button, the tighter you have to play, as you need a reasonable chance of having the best hand.
OPENING HAND RANKINGS AND MINIMUM OPENERS # Off Button Pairs Suited Hands Offsuit Hands
|A9s KJs QJs||AJ|
|A8s KTs QTs JTs||AT KQ|
|A7s K9s T9s J9s||KJ QJ|
|A3s K7s Q9s 98s T8s||A9|
|A2s K6s Q8s 87s 97s J8s||A7 KT QT JT|
|K4s Q6s 76s 86s T7s||A6 K9 T9|
|K2s Q4s 65s 75s||A3 K7 Q9 98 J9|
|Q2s 54s 64s 85s Txs||A2 K6 Q8 87 T8 J8|
|43s 42s 63s 7xs||K5 Q7 76 T7 J7|
|32s 62s||K4 Q5 65 86 96 J6|
|K3 Q4 54 75 85 J5|
|K2 Q2 43 53 63 J2|
Note: The hands are sorted horizontally to make them easy to locate: aces, kings, queens, zero gaps, one gaps, two gaps, and "other." When a hand is "missing" in the table, it belongs with the lower hand; for example, Q3s belongs with Q2s since Q4s is just above Q2s. Jxs fits in the same spot as Txs. Jxs refers to baby suited jacks lower than the zero gappers, one gappers, and two gappers, in other words J2s-J7s. A handy way to refer to the rank of nonpairs is by the connectors 32-KQ and then big aces AJ-AK. So for example "77/QJs/AJ or better" is a short way of saying 77-AA, QJs, KJs-KQs, A9s-AKs, and AJ-AK. On the button the minimum openers are 22/65s/98 caliber hands. Weaker hands are listed for when you wish to steal with more hands against tighter opponents in the blinds.
Adjustments: You can open one level looser when your opponents are properly tight, at least two levels looser when they are too tight, and two levels looser on pairs and suited hands when your opponents are too loose. You can also open an additional two levels looser on pairs and suited hands when your opponents are passive. A normal rake will move you back up one level, and a harsh rake will move you up two levels, more in late position.
In early position you have to play fairly tightly, even in loose games, since you don't know how many raises there will be. Consider how likely you are to be raised by weaker (or stronger) hands if you limp, how likely you are to be called by weaker (or stronger) hands if you raise, and how likely you are to steal the blinds if you raise.
When opening in tight games in any position or loose games in late position, your attention should be on getting heads up with a blind or outright steal the blinds. Most hands are worth less than the blinds and so for most hands stealing the blinds is a coup; hence, raising is correct for most hands. AA is worth about four times the blinds, so stealing the blinds with it and your other very strong hands is a major disaster. Without other concerns, in a tight game you should raise with marginal hands, and limp (and usually reraise if raised) with your strongest hands. This advice contradicts Sklansky and Malmuth. Balance your hands that you could have in various preflop scenarios, mixing strong with weak and weak with strong, so that you do not give too much information away by your actions, yet strive to still play most hands appropriately.
Here is one way to balance your opening strategy for a tight game where you are fairly likely to steal the blinds if you open-raise:
Tight Game Opening Strategy
|Raise and call 2||QQ JJ TT KQs KTs JTs|
|Raise and call 1||77 QJs KJs AQ AJ|
|Limp-reraise / raise & call 2||AKs AQs AK|
|Limp & call 1||66 55 A9s A8s A7s KQ|
|Limp-reraise||AA KK 99 88 AJs ATs|
Note: "Call 1" means call one raise back, fold for two, and similarly for "Call 2." When two ways to play are listed, separated by a slash (/), do them each 50% of the time or adjust depending on the texture of the game. In general, you should mix up your play a bit on all hands. Because players tend to put you on AA or KK when you limp- reraise, often refrain from doing so heads-up. Some plays are "sacrifice plays" for the sake of balance, such as limping with KQ in early position when in isolation raising would be better and folding would be best. Other plays are profitable only in context, such as being able to play 55 early under the cover of the limp-reraising hands. Beware reraising when the raise comes from the blinds, as few players will raise from the blinds without holding QQ-AA or AKs.
Example: You are in early position, 6 off the button, in a game that's so tight that an early raise often wins the blinds. The pot is not yet opened. How do you play your hand?
QQ Raise to add support, but limp-reraise is more immediately profitable. 55 Limp if (and only if) you limp-reraise often with other hands. ATs Limp-reraise to profit from opponents folding AQ & AJ to limp-reraises. 76s Fold. A raise would be better than a call, though, to steal the blinds. AQ Raise, for win share and to get heads up. JT Fold. Dominated. Even KQ is played up front only for balance.
In games where a raise generally gets 1 or 2 callers, but rarely steals the blinds, open-raising with any playable hand is very reasonable and helps avoid leaking information.
In a loose game, where you will gets lots of callers if you limp and almost as many callers if you raise, proper play is more straightforward and includes playing more suited aces. Here is one way to balance the hands for loose-aggressive games:
Loose-Aggressive Game Opening Strategy
|Limp-call 2 / raise & reraise||99 88|
|Limp-reraise / raise & reraise||AK AKs|
|Raise & reraise||AA KK|
|Raise & call 2||A5s A4s A3s KQs AQ|
|Raise & call 1||AJ KQ|
|Limp & call 1||QJs JTs QTs 66|
|Limp & call 2||ATs A9s A8s A7s A6s KJs KTs 77|
|Limp-reraise||QQ JJ TT AQs AJs|
Note: For loose-passive games and extremely loose games, replace all limp-reraises with "raise & reraise."
Example: You are in early position, 6 off the button, in a game that's so loose that you always see a flop, usually 5-8 way for 1 bet or 4-6 way for 2-4 bets. The pot is not yet opened. How do you play your hand?
QQ Limp-reraise to punish them, except raise in very loose or passive games. 55 Borderline call/fold. Play if you can see flop cheaply. ATs Limp and call all raises, fearing that raises indicate AK, AQ, or AJ. 76s Fold, but it's close for very loose-passive games. AQ Raise to destroy the implied odds of the fish and narrow the field. JT Fold. Dominated. KJ and QJ suffice in very passive games with no rake.
In middle position, you will be raising with more weak hands to steal the blinds, so you can raise with most of your strong hands too, especially since limping is unlikely to induce a raise.
Example: You're in (late) middle position, 3 off the button. How do you play your hand?
QQ Raise. No one is likely to raise for you. Provide cover to steals. 55 Raise if you can get heads up, call if you can get 4 callers, else fold. ATs Limp-reraise if you are limp-reraising with AA and KK, else raise. 76s Fold. Likely dominated downstream. Cannot count on enough callers. AQ Raise, for the same reason as early position. JT Fold. You'd need a minimum offsuit of close to AT or KJ to open here.
On the button, you should be open-raising with a lot of hands if your opponents defend the blinds properly, and if they are too tight you can raise with any two cards at least until they start adapting.
Example: You're on the button. How do you play your hand?
QQ Raise. It is too conspicuous to limp here. 55 Raise. Your pair is quite strong here, if you get heads up. ATs Raise. 76s Borderline raise/fold. Laying odds. Fold versus loose small blind. AQ Raise. This is a monster. A3 would suffice. JT Raise. Finally, on the button or one off, it is likely best, barely.
A rake seriously reduces the number of hands with which you can steal, as you will be paying a lot for a crapshoot against the big blind. With a Draconian rake, like where the big blind gets dropped once the flop comes, you would need about JJ or better to open on the button! Even with a modest rake, JT and 76s should be folded.
You should raise an opened pot when you will win the pot more than your fair share of the time or your hand would play better without additional players in the pot. Consider whether calling would lure dominated hands to call after you (or additional hands period to give you odds for your draw), or whether raising would drive out dominating hands after you or allow you to get heads up (or almost so) versus a hand you dominate.
Most people think that you should play looser after limpers compared to opening. If a tight player limps, you have to be careful. Even if the limper raises with his best hands, versus his weak limp you have to play about as tight as if you were opening in his position, as you have no chance to steal the blinds, though you should still raise if you suspect you might dominate his hand. On the other hand, if the limper would limp with his best hands, then you must play much tighter. After several tight players limp, you can play hands that do well multiway (any pair, any suited ace, big suited kings and queens, and medium to big suited zero and one gappers), but the only offsuit hands you can play are AQ and AK, partially for fear of domination, partially for fear of the big cards being "dead." (AJ and KQ are okay after just one tight limper.)
Example: You are facing one tight limper and you are on the button. How do you play your hand?
QQ Raise. No need to worry about stealing blinds. Calling is a mistake. 55 Borderline fold. Unlikely to get heads-up and cannot get 4 callers. ATs Call. Proceed with caution if you flop an ace for fear of limping AJ. 76s Fold. Similar to 55 case. Borderline fold/call versus 3 tight limpers. AQ Raise. Same with AJ and KQ. Your hand is likely best. Get heads up. JT Fold. Dominated. Fold QJ/KJ too. Calling here is a huge mistake.
With loose players coming in with hopeless hands like T7 and J6, then it's true that you can play looser after limpers, with "trashy" suited hands like T8s and K4s, and any pocket pair. You should raise liberally to punish them, since weak offsuit hands really get hurt by preflop raises, as they have only a tiny chance of winning the pot. After many limpers, even Q6s and 65s can play best with a raise on the button; suited aces, kings, and queens and suited zero gappers win more than their fair share of pots versus many loose limpers. Offsuit hands likely to be best will also win more than their fair share of pots and should raise.
Example: You are facing five loose limpers and you are on the button. How do you play your hand?
QQ Raise. You will win the pot more than your fair share, though < 50%. 55 Call. About 8-way to flop, but it will win less than 1 in 8 times. ATs Raise. Big suited's win more than their fair share in multiway pots. 76s Raise. Even suited zero gappers win more than their fair share here. AQ Raise. Your hand is likely best, by far. JT Fold. If you want to play offsuit cards, you must have the best.
It is a myth that hands like AQ are in trouble here. You are in trouble if you don't raise, but if you raise you wreck the implied odds of the suited garbage your opponents hold. AQ frequently wins even in family pots by making aces up with queen kicker or an AKQJT straight. Also, your cards have a better chance of being live if no one raised, so you will win the pot considerably more than your fair share of the time. Similarly, if you were likely to have the highest hand with something like KJ or even KT, you should raise here, again partially for win share, partially to wreck the implied odds of your opponents. This advice contradicts Sklansky and Malmuth, as well as others. Their argument is that the fish will call correctly with gutshots and pairs on the flop if you raise preflop, but the problem is that the fish will be calling with pairs and gutshots no matter what, and their loose calls usually will be correct whether you raised or not. Would you prefer they pay 3 small bets to see the turn or would you like to let them get off cheaply for just 2 small bets to see the turn? However, if you make a mistake by usually laying down AQ on flop that misses even though you believed you had the best hand preflop then perhaps you would be better off playing incorrectly preflop by not raising. Another exception could be made if your opponents will "check to the raiser" if and only if the flop contains an ace, king, or queen.
It is a myth that you should raise with baby pairs like 33 after six (or fewer) limpers, even if you know the blinds will call, because though you will flop a set more then 1 in 9 times, you will win the pot less than 1 in 9 times. This too contradicts Sklansky and Malmuth. A possible exception is when the raise has a decent chance of buying you a free card on the flop, as this now improves your chance of winning to better than 1 in 9, but it is normally rare that all 8 opponents would check to the raiser.
Facing a Raiser
The key concept when facing a tight raiser is: "run away and live to fight another hand." Most players raise with their best hands, limp with their worst hands, and you can exploit this by deftly sidestepping their raises and punishing their weak limps with raises of your own. You need a hand a couple levels higher than the raiser's minimums to consider playing. Offsuit aces are especially vulnerable to being dominated by a tight raiser. The implied odds of suited zero or one gappers are trashed by raises. Medium pairs can easily be dominated by bigger pairs, and otherwise it's usually a crapshoot against two overcards. Versus a tight raise, you can only three-bet profitably with AA, KK, and AK. Therefore, to avoid giving away information, flat call with these hands preflop and go for a raise on the flop.
Example: You are facing a raise from 77/QJs/AJ or better. What do you do?
QQ Call, for fear of AA, KK, or losing to something like AK. 55 Fold. You need about 99 to call, two levels higher than his 77. ATs Fold. Dominated. You could call with AQs, barely. 76s Fold. Implied odds are shot to hell. JTs/QJs/KQs should fold too. AQ Fold. Against looser raises you could call. See AQs note under ATs. JT Fold, unless you are a fish.
Versus a loose raise, such as a steal raise from one off the button when you are on the button or small blind, you should reraise liberally to isolate, unless you fear your hand could be beat by the raiser but could be called by some weaker hands behind if you flat call.
Example: You are on the button facing a raise from one off the button from a good player with competent opponents in the blinds.
QQ Reraise. You do not fear AA or KK here. 55 Reraise. Your hand plays much better heads up than 3-way. ATs Borderline call/reraise. For fear of AJ, AJs is the first safe reraise. 76s Borderline reraise/fold. Your hand plays better heads up than 3-way. AQ Reraise. Keep it heads-up to preserve chance of winning unimproved. JT Borderline fold. Could call versus an even looser raise.
Versus a raiser plus cold callers, you have to play a bit differently than versus just a raiser. Tight cold callers are bad news; each one increases your calling requirements. Loose callers relax the calling requirements for suited cards, and for pairs if you will have many opponents for the flop.
Given how tight you have to play versus a single raise, you can imagine how tight you have to play if there is a raise and reraise from tight players in early position. You can still play with TT and JJ, unless the reraiser is extremely tight. This contradicts Sklansky and Malmuth. This is a reraise or fold situation. Make it four bets with TT-AA, AK, AKs, and fold everything else, normally. Now if it's a steal raise and a resteal reraise, then that's another story, and you could wade in with 88/QJs/AQ and up, certainly, and probably a bit weaker hands as well.
When you are in a crazy game that is constantly having capped family pots preflop, you can call with a minimum of 22/JTs/AQ. If the game is crazy but tighter, only getting capped once or twice per lap three to five way, you must play very tight, playing not much more than JJ/QJs/AK and up.
How to Play in the Big Blind
Raising in the big blind after limpers gives away information, but a raise often can buy you the pot by the turn if the game is not too loose, as your opponents will often put you on AA or KK. You can raise fairly liberally in the big blind versus loose limpers, with 88/JTs/KQ and up, possibly a bit weaker. Versus tight limpers, you have to be sure your hand is best.
The rankings of hands when defending the big blind versus a raise is quite a bit different than the rankings for opening. You are getting over 3:1 odds to flop something good, or at least a pair. Proper big blind defense strategy varies dramatically depending on the raiser's minimums. Against typical raises, call liberally with hands that have straight or flush potential, as well as pairs. Get away from big offsuit hands that are likely dominated. 65s is usually on par with KQ here. If flopping a pair won't do you any good, because the raiser is so tight that he is likely to have a big pair, then fold liberally, especially offsuit hands. More specific recommendations are in the table below. The minimum hands are listed, and you can defend with any hands "between" the ones listed and the column headers.
Big Blind Defense vs a Raise
Defend with minimum...
AA AKs KQs QJs JTs J9s J8s Jxs AK KQ QJ JT J9 J8
|Tight||99/AJs/AQ||55 AJs KQs QJs T9s ... ... ... AQ .. .. .. .. ..|
|Legit||66/JTs/KQ||22 A2s K2s Q2s 43s 53s 74s 9xs A2 K9 Q9 54 42 85|
|Steal||22/54s/76||(all but Q3 J4 T5 94 84 73 62 32 or worse)|
Notes: Versus a tight raiser heads up, do not reraise - you are either beaten, or you'd like to check-raise on the flop. Versus multiple loose players, you can reraise fairly liberally, e.g., with 88, ATs, K9s, QJs, AQ, KQ or better. Versus steal raises, reraise heads up almost any time you are likely to have the best hand, as your opponent is sure to call one more bet before the flop, but not necessarily on the flop. Bet into a steal-raiser liberally on the flop. Versus one or more callers in addition to the raiser, get away from offsuit aces below about A9 and your weakest offsuit hands like 42, but you can call with any two suited.
Example: You are in the big blind, a sane player raises in middle position, and there is no rake. (Assume he has 66/JTs/KQ or better.) What is your best play?
QQ Call. Go for check-raise on the flop. 55 Call. Do not necessarily give up if you do not flop a set. ATs Call. Bet or check-raise on most flops, but check-call when ace flops. 76s Call. Check-raise the flop if you have a draw or flop a pair. AQ Call. Consider a check-raise on the flop even if you miss. JT Call. Proceed with caution if you flop a pair.
Keep in mind that versus a very tight raise, like from 99/AJs/AQ or better, the situation is much different, and you should fold even AQ in the big blind for fear of being dominated.
A rake will severely reduce the number of hands with which you can defend heads-up. In the above scenario, JT should be mucked when there is a rake. If the rake is harsh, like 10% with a cap, you should defend with very few hands indeed.
In games where you are facing a preflop raise that is bigger than the big blind (like a $4 raise to $6 against the $2 big blind in 1-4-8-8), obviously you are not getting much odds and must play much tighter than normal.
How to Play in the Small Blind
Small blind openers are similar to button openers, but you should go 2 levels looser on the suited hands, and a bit looser on zero and one gap offsuit cards as well, while actually playing a bit tighter on weak offsuit widely gapped hands. Do not raise with all playable hands, as you would like to call with your weakest hands and you need to provide them some cover, and also there is no small blind to knock out.
When the pot is not raised and you only have a fraction of a bet to call, the situation is similar to calling a raise in the big blind, as you are getting big odds. You still need to get away from hopelessly dominated hands like Q5 except versus many loose limpers. Getting big odds to see the flop is no good if you are dominated.
The small blind's size relative to the preflop call amount of course makes a big difference. There are 3 common blind sizes:
1/3 $2 blind in $6-$12 with $2 and $6 blinds 1/2 $5 blind in $10-$20 with $5 and $10 blinds 2/3 $10 blind in $15-$30 with $10 and $15 blinds
The $1 small blind with $1 and $2 blinds, $2 to go, in a 1-4-8-8 type game, is more like a 2/3 type blind, than a 1/2 blind, due to the implied odds of flopping something.
It also matters how many opponents you face and how tight they are. The more opponents, the looser you can be on the suited hands. If the limpers are tight, you still have to be extremely conservative with a 1/3 blind, especially with your offsuit hands, as shown in the table below. Again, you can play any hand "between" the listed hand and the column header.
Small Blind Defense Versus 1 Tight Limper
|Blind Size||AA AKs KQs QJs JTs J9s J8s Jxs AK KQ QJ JT J9 J8|
|1/3||22 A9s K9s ... ... ... ... ... AQ .. .. .. .. ..|
|1/2||22 A2s K2s Q7s 76s T8s J8s Jxs A7 K8 Q9 T9 J9 J8|
|2/3||22 A2s K2s Q2s 43s 53s 74s 9xs A5 K7 Q8 98 97 J7|
Note: Play tighter if the big blind is likely to raise.
Example: You are in the small blind versus one tight limper. Best play?
QQ Raise. Calling would give the big blind a free shot to beat you. 55 Call. A raise will be unlikely to get rid of the big blind. ATs Borderline raise/call. Call when you have to put in 2/3's of a bet. 76s Borderline call/fold. Fold for 2/3 bet, since 3-way is bad. AQ Raise. You want to be heads up so you can win unimproved. JT Call for 1/2 or 1/3 of a bet, fold for 2/3 of a bet. Be careful.
When the players are looser, you can loosen way up when you are getting your discount in the small blind:
Small Blind Defense versus 5 Loose Limpers
|Blind Size||AA AKs KQs QJs JTs J9s J8s Jxs AK KQ QJ JT J9 J8|
|1/3||22 A2s K2s Q2s 43s 42s 74s Jxs A3 K7 Q8 JT|
|1/2||22 A2s K2s Q2s 32s 42s 52s 62s A2 K2 Q5 54 J9|
|2/3||22 A2s K2s Q2s 32s 42s 52s 62s A2 K2 Q2 32 42 J8|
Example: You are in the small blind after 5 loose limpers. Best play?
QQ Raise, for the same reason you would normally after limpers. 55 Call. See if you flop your set before investing more. ATs Raise, for the same reason as in late position after limpers. 76s Call. Harder to win pot out of position so may not win your fair share. AQ Raise, as you will win more than your fair share. JT Call. You certainly cannot raise. Enough of a discount to call.
When defending the small blind versus a raise, your minimum requirements are about midway between your minimums for calling in the big blind versus calling a raise cold - a bit tighter for a 1/3 blind, and a bit looser for a 2/3 blind. Additionally, a 2/3 blind can call a raise with any suited ace. When defending versus a raise and reraise, defending the small blind is not significantly different from calling 3 cold.
The above is the result of a lot of hard work on my part, trying and discarding many approaches before arriving at my goal of an accurate preflop strategy that novices can understand (I hope.) However, I stood on the shoulders of giants. My thinking has been especially influenced by David Sklansky, Roy Cooke, Mike Caro, Paul Pudaite, Jim Geary, Annie Duke, Ed Hill, J.P. Massar, "tangram", "Randall Flagg", "Lonestar", "Ramsey", Andy Latto, Roy Hashimoto, Lee Jones, Barry Tannenbaum, Steve Brecher, Michael Maurer, Eric Holtman, Tad Perry, and hundreds of rec.gambling.poker posters, though this is not to say they would agree with my recommendations. All the charts come from Turbo Texas Hold'em 2.0 and 3.0 simulations, as interpreted by me, and so I have to thank Bob Wilson most of all.