Monday, June 30, 2014

Preflop Starting Hand Selection - Part 1

[As part of my project with Le Monsieur, I'm (slowly) writing down some of the key foundational material that will serve as the basis upon which the app quiz material will be generated. First up is the concept of preflop starting hand selection. Today's installment begins with basic level-1 hand selection decisions.]

One of the most important decisions you will make in poker is whether to play your hand preflop or not. In other words, should you fold or stay in the hand when the action gets to you?

A relatively large number of factors go into fully and correctly answering this question. These include things like your position, the effective stack sizes, the action upstream of you, the number of players left to act downstream, the types and tendencies of the other players, your own image, table dynamics, and so on. And yes, also important are what your own two cards actually are. In other words, the answer to whether you should fold or not is is that old classic answer for most things poker-related: it depends.

As it turns out, in simple low-stakes games, the strength of your two hole cards is one of the most important factors. This is because the majority of your profit at low-stakes games will come from so-called value hands that win at showdown against worse hands. Remember, there are two ways to win a poker hand: a) get a worse hand to call down to the river (i.e., value); and b) get a other (better) hands to fold before you get to showdown (i.e., bluffing). For better or worse, bluffing at the low stakes tables is generally quite difficult. This is because the level-1 poker players that populate these tables are typically unaware of factors like board texture and what the bets you make signify. In other words, these villains are not good enough to be bluffed off of a better hand. You can certainly make some profit from bluffing at these low-stakes tables, but the vast majority of your profit will come at showdown from your value hands.

As you get better and progress up into mid-stakes poker, you will actually begin to see that your own two cards begin not to matter nearly as much as other factors at the table, such as the type of opponents you're facing, their specific tendencies, and what kinds of cards they play. And when you get to tough, high-stakes games, your own cards are by far the least important decision factor when considering whether to fold or not preflop. Up in these big money games, “meta" factors like game flow, players’ states of mind, leveling, and so on will dominate the action, not the actual cards that were dealt.

For now however, in low-stakes games, we have to learn to master “showdown value” poker, which implies choosing strong preflop hands and situations in which to play. To do this properly, there are four primary factors we need to learn to consider when deciding whether the situation warrants playing our hand or not:
  1. Position. The first key factor is your position relative to the dealer button. Said simply, the later you are to act preflop, the more options you have.
  2. Upstream Action. The second key factor are the actions that have happened before it's your turn to act. We call this villain "upstream" action, and while we'll consider the basic type of villain who has entered the pot upstream of us, we will focus more on what they've actually done, including bet sizes, than why they've done it. The "why" part comes into play in the higher stakes games when we begin playing more of a level-2 and level-3 style.
  3. Effective Stack Sizes. The third key factor is the size of the upstream (and downstream) chip stacks, including yours. Shallower stacks puts a premium on big, one-pair type hands, while deeper stacks allow for more speculative hands to be played for profit.
  4. Hero's Hole Cards. The fourth and final key factor of course is the absolute strength of your own two hole cards.
Now, astute readers will notice that aside from considering the upstream action, that these factors are essentially the definition of level-1 poker. I.e., we're not really considering reads or specific ranges or lines of the the villains; instead, we're focused much more on our own situation and cards before the flop is dealt. At the low-stakes tables, this is more than adequate to be profitable for 90% of the hands you will be dealt. (The remaining 10% will be addressed later when we learn the technique of REDi and level-2 poker.)

In the next installment in this series, I'll begin to put all of these factors into context, and we'll begin the process of developing a level-1 style starting hand selection chart. Stay tuned.

All-in for now...

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