First, let me insert the requisite disclaimer that I’m far from an expert on the game but hardly a novice. I’m a student of the game, learning more every week I play, and these are some ideas I’ve picked up along the way. Take them for what they’re worth.
Laying Down Big Hands Preflop
One thing I’ve struggled with that has helped me make more money playing poker is being able to lay down a big hand preflop. Now, I don’t mean AA or KK. I’m going to go broke preflop with those hands each and every time. I’m talking about QQ, JJ, AK, AQ, and AJ.
The five hands mentioned above are great hands that you’re going to raise with preflop. But what do you do when you get reraised and a player who limped goes All-In over the top and the action is back to you? Many times you need to fold. Think about it. If you were sitting in those seats, what hands can you reraise with and then what hands would you reraise a reraise with? Did you say AA or KK? Well, so do most people.
If you play AQ/AJ in this spot, you’re a big dog to AA, AK, KK, QQ, and JJ. You’re also losing to any pocket pair. You’re only ahead of hands like KQ, QJ, and AT; all hands that are unlikely to reraise. Much more often than not, you’re behind. So why put your money in?
JJ has to be the toughest hand to play. You’re ahead of any non-broadway pocket pair and also a slight favorite over hands like AK/AQ/AJ. You are, however, a huge dog to AA, KK, and QQ and if the action ahead of you tells you you’re behind, learn to fold. If you play the flop, any A, K, or Q that flops scares you to death. Tread lightly.
The toughest hands to fold preflop are QQ and AK. The fourth best (some say third) starting hand in Hold ‘Em, AK, is a huge dog to AA and KK. You’re still slightly behind against any other pocket pair and are only beating AQ or AJ. QQ is only really afraid of AA and KK. Again, if the action spells aces or kings in front of you, convince yourself to fold. Believe me, I know, it’s a tough sell. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to play AK and QQ 90% of the time, but if you can recognize those rare times you need to fold it, you’ll definitely pad your bottom line.
The Gap Concept
This brings me to the Gap Concept. You need a better hand to call with than to raise/bet with.
Say you’ve got KQ and let’s even say it’s suited. Nice hand that you’re probably going to raise with. Now, a player ahead of you raises 4 times the big blind. Uh oh. Does he have AK or AQ? You’re dominated. Pocket pairs aren’t looking good for you either. Even AJ is slightly ahead of you.
Call and beware. You’re now looking to flop two pair at worst. Top pair is not going to be good enough to get your money in since you may very well be a huge dog.
Fold preflop and save yourself from the tough decision. If you fold, I guarantee you that another hand will be dealt. We make the most mistakes when we are caught in a tough decision. Avoid putting yourself in these situations in the first place and you’ll have smoother sailing.
Of course, all this is very dependant on your opponent. The looser the player is, the smaller the gap of hands you’ll comfortably call a raise with and fold. The tighter the player is, the larger the gap.
Starting out in poker, aces look like freshly minted gold that has been handed to you on a silver platter. Play enough and you’ll start to notice that you’re losing a lot of hands even when you flopped an ace. Why?
AK, AQ, and AJ are not the subject here. Even AT is not too bad. But A2-A9 can get you into trouble. Your kicker is weak and if an ace flops and there’s action, you’re probably outkicked.
Play A2-A5 for cheap if they’re suited to see if you can flop a straight or flush (draw), but tread very carefully if all you have is top pair. Even if you flop two pair on a board of A 9 3 with A3, if another 9 comes your pair of 3s becomes a 3 kicker. Three pair is not a hand and AK now has you beat.
A6-A9 offsuit can be folded without much thought. Your kicker is big enough (especially A8 and A9) to get you thinking you might be ahead, but also small enough to get you into trouble. Avoid the difficult decision and fold. Suited, I’d call for cheap to see if I can pick up the nut flush (draw), but that’s about all they’re good for.
Top Pair is Not the Nuts
Imagine you’ve got AK and raise preflop. You get a caller and the flop comes down A J 7. You bet and you get raised. What? You raised preflop and bet on the flop when an ace hit and you’re getting raised? You pretty much screamed out “I HAVE AN ACE” and got raised. That raise should tell you “I CAN BEAT AN ACE”.
I’m not suggesting you fold every time you get this type of action since a flush/straight draw might make this play on you also, but you must handle it with extreme care. This is the type of hand that’s easy to get married to and lose all your chips. Proceed with caution and get ready to be shown two pair or a set.
Two pair, a set, a straight, etc. all beat a single pair, no matter how crappy the cards. The big blind might have called your preflop raise with J7 just because it was suited. Resist the urge to lose all your chips futilely trying to teach him a lesson on how you had the best hand preflop. Learn to recognize when top pair is no good and lay it down.
Also, AA is the best starting hand in Hold ‘Em. Just because it’s the best doesn’t make it invincible. Again, it’s nothing but a single pair. Learn to part with it.
When There’s a Short Stack All-In
In tournament poker, you’re going to run into the situation where a short stack is being forced All-In by the ever increasing blinds. You’ve got a decent hand and decide to call. The blinds complete, so we’ve got four players to the flop with one of them All-In. The strategy? CHECK IT DOWN.
Top pair? Check. Pocket aces? Check. Unless you’ve got the stone nuts, it makes no sense to bet. It is much tougher for the player All-In to beat three other hands, so don’t narrow the field for him. Let the player who got in for free in the big blind catch some random runner runner straight. You want the player All-In to bust out because each player out brings you closer to first place. DO NOT BLUFF, especially in a dry sidepot. The player All-In can only win the amount he bet from each player. Any additional chips go into a sidepot. When there is no sidepot, it’s said to be like the desert. Dry.
There will be times when the sidepot is much bigger than the main pot. Sometimes it will be more advantageous for you to win this sidepot than working as a team to bust the player All-In. Go ahead and bet to take down the sidepot, but be very careful as these situations are rare and it is usually in your best interest to just check it down.
Playing on the Short Stack
Say now you’re the short stack. You’ve obviously got two plays: All-In or fold. You’ll push with just about any ace, pocket pair, suited connector, or suited face card. Are there times when you should be pushing with less than this? Yes.
People will be willing to call you with marginal hands because they know you’re desperate and probably aren’t too bad of an underdog. What about the player who’s been waiting for you to bust out since they’re also on a short stack? If he’s in the big blind, push with any two cards. Why?
Usually, if no one finds a hand worth playing and folds, the big blind has proper pot odds to call your bet with any two cards. If the blinds are 100/200 and you’ve just gone all in for 500, the big blind may fold if he’s only sitting on 700 chips after paying the blinds/antes. Sure, he only has to call 300 chips to win the 800 in the pot, but that’s almost half his stack. If he folds, he still has over three big blinds and can wait for a better spot. In this situation, you’ve got a greater chance of it being folded to you. This is especially true at the final table where players are scared of busting out on the bubble.
Also, you can’t wait for aces and kings. One of the advantages of the short stack is that if you’re in the hand, it’s for all your chips. Try to make your move when you’ve got at least 3-5 times the big blind left in chips. Your move will still be a decent raise for any player to call, so you’ve put yourself in the position to pick up blinds uncontested and survive another orbit.
Playing the Big Stack
On the other end of the spectrum is playing the big stack; an art often overlooked. You’ve got the bullseye on your head and you’re also feeling very confident. You’ve won some big pots and feel like you’re on top of the world. BE CAREFUL. It’s easy to loosen up your play too much and play too many hands. You’ll slowly bleed your chips away and go on tilt because you’re upset with yourself for losing your huge chip lead.
Avoid getting into big hands. Everyone at the table wants to double up through you and are probably going to slow play you since you’ve been playing more loose. You want to take down a bunch of small pots and slowly bleed your opponents. Play aggressively, but don’t continue with a weak hand if your opponent has shown strength just because you can afford it.
Taking a Bad Beat
We all have bad beat stories to tell. They’re predictable stories that everyone knows the end to. They’re forever engraved into your poker memory because of the emotional roller coaster ride they took you on when you went from an overwhelming statistical favorite to watching the pot get pushed towards your opponent who sucked out a runner runner boat to your flopped nut flush.
When this happens to you, you have to learn to shake it off. Observant players at the table are going to take advantage of you if you’re showing signs of tilt from the bad beat and you will quickly find yourself announcing that there’s a seat open.
Poker is a game of trying to always make the right decision based on the situation and the odds. You need to make the fewest mistakes you can. Sometimes, when you make the right decision you will lose. You will come out ahead in the long run, but in the short run you may taste the bitter side of the odds. DO NOT BE RESULTS ORIENTED.
Be happy that you read the player/situation correctly and had the best hand when the money went into the pot. Know in your heart that you made the right play and if you continue to make that same play each time the same situation arises, you will win more than you lose. That’s the nature of odds. There can’t be good odds if there aren’t bad ones. You’re not a winning or losing player based on your short term results but your long term ones. You made the play a winning player makes. Be proud and be ready to sweep in the pot next time.
Final Table Experience
Feel like you’re in uncharted territory when you finally make it to a final table? For practice at the final table away from the final table, try playing in some of the “Sit-n-Go” (SNG) tournaments found online. An SNG is usually a single table tourney that starts when the table is full (usually 9-10 players) and has buy-ins that range from $5-$1000.
Towards the middle of the tourney, the blind levels are extremely high relative to the players’ stacks, so you’ll quickly see desperation set in. Experience maneuvering in these situations is important at the final table since busting out in 6th can be much different from busting out in 2nd. Also, because the blinds become so high relative to the stacks at the table, you also gain valuable short stack experience.
So there are my two cents. Hopefully these two cents help you pick up more than they’re worth. Most of this you all probably know without having conceptualized it. I know the past poker corner articles have helped me put a name to some ideas. Putting a name on them helps you categorize and work on that part of your game. I hope this helps, too.