Recognizing What Is Important

By Anthony Bee (a.k.a. ‘Tony’ on the Low Limit Poker Forum).

When I was at school I played chess.  In fact you might say I was obsessed.  I’d spend hours studying the various openings when I should have been doing my homework.  I’d make hand-written notes and play out the moves on a board until I’d memorized them completely.  I was absolutely convinced that I was going to become the next Nigel Short.

I joined a chess club and started to play competitive games.  I couldn’t believe the poor standard of some of these players.  They were TERRIBLE.  Hardly any of them new a tenth of the opening theory I did, and I was confident I’d wipe the floor with them.

But a strange thing happened.  I LOST.  And not just once or twice.  I lost over and over again, to players who knew NOTHING about the finer points of the Sicilian Defence, or the best lines of the Queen’s Gambit.  I was devastated.

Then it dawned on me why this had happened.  I experienced the horrible realisation that unless you’re a grandmaster, it’s much more important to learn how to play after the opening.  In fact, for amateur players the opening is probably the LEAST important part of the game.  I’d wasted weeks of my life worrying about the WRONG thing.

Why am I telling you this?

Because many beginning poker players make exactly the same mistake.

Many newcomers to the game of limit Hold’em spend countless hours agonizing over decisions that will have almost zero impact on their win rate, when at the same time they often have HUGE leaks in their game that are ignored.

The purpose of this article is to prevent you, the new player, from making the same mistake. It will tell you what you REALLY need to worry about and what you don’t.  Much of what follows I’ve gleaned from poker forums, books and conversations with other players.  I’ve also learned much of it the hard way.  So let’s start with…

Things You DON’T Need to Worry About…

Common worry No. 1: “I’m not playing enough hands”.

Don’t worry if the percentage of hands you’re playing before the flop seems low compared to most of your opponents.  New players are often obsessed with the idea that they’re somehow ‘missing out’ on profitable opportunities because they’re playing too tight.  This is usually not the case.

Firstly, many playable hands are marginal, meaning they will more or less break even in the long run.  You could play all of these hands or none of them and it would make almost no difference to your win-rate.  Most of your profit will come from relatively few strong hands.

Secondly, as a new player you will inevitably make more mistakes than an experienced player.  Strong players can often eke out a small profit with very marginal hands, but as a new player you’re more likely to LOSE money by playing them.  You shouldn’t be looking to play as many hands as possible.  You should instead be waiting for profitable opportunities and then exploiting them to the max.  Limit poker is the ultimate game of patience.

As a beginner it’s generally good advice to play TIGHT preflop, particularly in early position.  There are a number of good starting hand charts available in books and online which are aimed at the beginning player.  You can use Ed Miller’s, Lee Jones’s, Lou Krieger’s, Matthew Hilger’s or any of the other good authors.  It doesn’t matter which you choose, as long as you have the discipline to stick to it.  This will keep you out of trouble when you’re starting out and ensure you only play profitable hands.  Once you gain some experience you can do away with the charts and start to think for yourself.

Common worry No. 2: “I never know what to do with marginal hands before the flop”.

Many new players spend countless hours worrying about starting hands and close decisions preflop.  Poker forums abound with questions such as:

“I called with 87s on the button after only one limper.  Is this a leak?”

“It’s folded to me in middle position with Axs.  What do I do?”

“Should I play KQo UTG in a ten-handed game?”

For the beginning player, the answer to these questions and many more like them is:  “IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER.”  Because if these ARE mistakes, they are definitely NOT large ones.  They’re tiny.  In the long run they’ll make little difference to your overall profits.  Let’s look at why this is the case.

First of all, these are marginal decisions.  If they weren’t we wouldn’t be discussing them.  So if you wished you could simply fold, and be giving up very little.  But the correct answer to these questions is “It depends”.  It depends on the table conditions, the opponents involved in the hand or those that are to act after you, the tightness of the blinds, your table image and a host of other factors.

Calling before the flop with a marginal hand you should have folded is usually a small mistake.  The maximum it can cost you is the amount of the preflop bet (assuming you play well after the flop).  However, on average it will cost you much less than this, since sometimes your hand will improve and you’ll win a decent pot, or you’ll bet in late position and everyone will fold.  Although this won’t happen often, a hand like 87s has multiple ways to improve and will show a marginal profit in the long run as long as you don’t play it out of position.

So is it a mistake to call with 87s after only 1 limper?  Well, it might be, but for the beginning player it’s just not worth worrying about.  With two limpers in front it probably wouldn’t be a mistake at all.  On average, the amount you’re losing if you ARE making a mistake is very small.  It will be a tiny fraction of a small bet, certainly not enough to constitute a serious leak.

But “Hold on”, you say.  “In that case, why shouldn’t I also play hands such as J7o and K5o? Surely I can just fold these if I don’t hit the flop?”  Well, no.

A hand like 87s is significantly stronger than hands such as J7o.  87s can flop a flush or flush draw, a nut straight or straight draw, or combinations of the two.  It’s also relatively easy to play after the flop. If you flop a single pair with a hand like 87s and get any action you’ll often know you’re outkicked.  Usually you’ll need to hit the flop twice or pick up a strong draw to carry on after the flop.

On the other hand, J7o has few of these advantages.  It’s not suited, its straight possibilities are severely limited, and if you hit top pair with it you may end up with a costly second-best hand.  So calling with this kind of hand is a larger mistake than calling with a hand like 87s.

Another important factor is the number of opportunities you have to make the mistake.

Let’s take 87s again.  How often will the situation described above arise?  Since there are only four 87s hands out of a total of 1326 possible starting hands, and you’ll also only be on the button one-tenth of the time, you don’t need to be a mathematical genius to see that the answer to this question is “not very often”.

However, if you’re willing to play hands like J7o and K5o, you should also be willing to play a whole host of other offsuit trash.  Individually none of these mistakes are very large.  But since you would be making them dozens, even hundreds of times per session, collectively they combine to become a serious leak.

Don’t waste time worrying about marginal calling situations in unraised pots before the flop.  Just make your best decision at the time and go with it.  Stick to playing profitable starting hands, don’t play too loosely for your position and spend your time learning to play well after the flop.  This is where you’ll make most of your money.

Common worry no. 3: “I overplay my premium hands”.

Many players have trouble folding their strong hands such as QQ, KK and AA when they should.  They call down when they think they’re probably beat.  They play too aggressively with AK when it misses the flop, and whine when their JJ and TT are sucked out on the river.  They think that this is a major leak and consider playing these hands more passively to save money.  But I can tell you they are almost certainly WRONG.


Because hands this strong will make money in the long run no matter how you play them.  In fact, if you were to lose your mind for a moment and simply check and call your premium hands to the river every time, they’d still show a profit.  (NO, I’m not suggesting you do this).

If at the moment you ARE losing money with hands as strong as these, there is probably a simple reason.  You haven’t played enough hands yet. Many players don’t realise just how ‘long’ the ‘long run’ actually is.  10 000 hands for example is not even close.

Also, how often are you dealt a premium hand?  Not very often at all.  So if you are making mistakes with these hands, it’s unlikely they will constitute a serious leak.  Just play them as best you can when you first start out.  With experience your judgement will improve.

Similarly, as a beginner don’t spend too much time learning how to play very strong made hands such as sets, full-houses or quads.  These hands occur relatively rarely, and are usually so strong that it’s quite hard to misplay them.  Instead spend time learning how to play hands that you’ll be faced with time after time, such as weaker pairs and drawing hands.

This leads me neatly onto…

Things You DO Need to Worry About…

DO: Seek out loose tables full of weak players.  Your profits come from your opponents’ mistakes, so these are the kind of opponents you want to play against.   This is so important it’s worth repeating.  Even if you don’t play very well (at first), you will still make a profit as long as your opponents play worse than you.  Playing against weaker opponents is possibly THE most important part of becoming a winning player.

DO: Consider your position before deciding whether to enter a hand.  Some hands are profitable in later positions but not in earlier positions.  If anyone tells you that position isn’t really important then ignore them.  They don’t know what they’re talking about.

DO: Fold the majority of your hands to a raise preflop.  This is particularly important if your hand is not suited.  Only play after a raise with your strongest hands.  Calling raises with dominated hands preflop is a HUGE error, and very costly in the long run.  If you cold-call a raise once per session you’re probably doing this too often.  No, I’m NOT kidding.

DO: Raise your premium hands and strong suited hands preflop, particularly in loose games against weak players.  Not to do so is a HUGE error.  Most of your opponents have already made an error by limping in, so you make money on every additional bet that goes into the pot.  Make them pay before they see the flop and realise their mistake.  In this kind of game you’re not raising primarily to limit the field, you’re raising to get maximum value from your hand.  You WANT them to call with weaker hands.

DO: Always consider the size of the pot before making any playing decision after the flop.  The size of the pot can help you to choose the best play.  Specifically, in LARGE pots you should:

The larger the pot, the more you should do everything in your power to win it, and the less inclined you should be to fold if you think there’s even a small chance of having the best hand.  In particular, don’t fold for a single bet if the pot is large and you have a reasonable hand.  When the pot is large don’t worry about making it larger, and don’t worry about deception.  Just do everything you can to win the pot as quickly as possible.

DO: Learn how to play pairs.  Top pair with a decent kicker is how you’ll make much of your money in Hold’em.  Learn to assess the STRENGTH of your pair on the flop. Take into account the number of overcards that can beat you, the size of your kicker, the texture of the flop, your position and the number of opponents in the hand.  Make an estimate of the strength of your pair and recall the size of the pot, then play accordingly.

Remember that not all pair hands are equally strong after the flop.  Some pairs you should be raising, others you should be folding.  Learn to tell the difference.

DO: Protect your hand if necessary.  For example, if you have a weak pair but you think you may currently have the best hand, then it’s very important to bet, particularly if the pot is large.  You don’t want to give weak draws or overcards a free card to beat you.

DO:  Learn to play drawing hands.  If you chase when you shouldn’t, you’re throwing money away.  If you fold when you should chase, you’re probably leaving money on the table.

Practice discounting your outs and only draw if you’re getting the correct odds to do so.  In limit Hold’em you’ll almost always be correct to see the river card with a strong draw (one with 8 outs or more), so you really only need to learn the break-even pot odds for weak draws (less than 8 outs).  Make sure you do.  Consider raising your strong draws for value on the flop.

DO:  Take a free card if you need one and your opponents are kind enough to offer it.

DON’T:  Raise the flop to ‘find out where you’re at’ if your opponents’ actions have already told you.  You don’t have to bet or raise the flop just because you raised before the flop.  You are allowed to fold.

DON’T:  Try to bluff the fish.


Many new players spend far too much time thinking about marginal situations that will make little difference to their long term profits.  These same players fail to raise their strong hands when they should, cold-call raises with dominated hands, ignore position, bluff too much, and chase when they shouldn’t.  They don’t protect their vulnerable hands by betting or raising and they don’t take free cards when they need one.  In short, they can’t distinguish between what’s important and what’s not.  Hopefully, after reading this article you won’t be one of them.

Now, one final question.  Can anyone recommend a good chess book?

Disclaimer: I strongly believe that the information in this article is correct.  However, I cannot guarantee results as a consequence of applying this advice.  Never gamble with money you cannot afford to lose.