Home Strategy School of Poker: Pre-flop play at small stakes


You suck at poker. It’s ok to admit it, we all sucked when we first started. The most common reason players suck is because they play shit hands. So today we’re going to talk about playing hands that aren’t shit, which hands are the least shit, when you should play what kind of shit, and how much shit your shit is worth (i.e. whether you should limp, raise, re-raise, etc). This isn’t some type of bible that you should follow to the letter;* there are no absolutes in poker. Instead, there are guidelines like the ones in this article that give you a general idea of how to play.

Note: Everything here assumes you’re playing full-ring no limit hold’em (the best game for learning).

For the most part, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been playing poker, you still suck. Luckily for you, at small stakes, your opponents suck, too. They’re going to be playing too many hands, calling with total garbage, and taking their marginal hands all the way to the river. Because of this, the biggest advantage you can give yourself is to play better hands than your opponents (shocking, I know). Let’s look at an example:

Jim read this article. As a total rube, Jim decided to take my advice of playing only strong hands way too far, and only plays AA. While this may be a terrible way to play, Jim will always have the best hand preflop, and will win about 90% of the hands he plays. Obviously any player who isn’t a total idiot (surprisingly few), would realize what he’s doing and fold whenever he’s in the pot. The point stands that if you play fewer shit hands preflop, you’ll end up with fewer shit hands post flop.

We’re going to look at various hands by groups. These groups were originally created by David Sklansky. Since the poker community lacks any creativity, pretty much everybody rips off Sklansky and uses this grouping to determine a hand’s strength. I’m going to talk about what positions to play these from (handstands are usually best), and some common situations you’ll be placed in by idiots who think they have a better hand than you.**

Group 1 – AA-JJ, AKs***

These are the best of the best, your big money hands. Every time you’re dealt one of these, you should jump for joy, kiss your wife, and send a large portion of your winnings via check or money order to Top Tier Tactics. If you’re the first one in (meaning nobody has raised before you), then you should always open raise. A standard preflop raise is between 3-4BB plus 1 more BB for every limper. If you’re lazy, most poker sites have a “pot” button that will give you the right size.

A note about KK: If one hand is really going to piss you off, it’s this one. Nothing feels worse than going all in preflop with KK and having your opponent turn over pocket aces. Even though the only other hand I advocate going all in with is AA, most players will also call you with things like QQ, JJ, AK, and possibly even TT or AQs if they’re really terrible. You beat all of these. If your opponent has AA, just shrug it off, that’s poker for you.

If you raise and some rube has the nerve to re-raise you, you’ll want to re-raise again if you’re holding AA or KK (if your bet is going to be close to one of your stack sizes, take the sucker all in, he’ll call regardless). Keep in mind a standard re-raise is around 3x your opponents raise, which you lazy bastards can get quickly with the pot button again. Facing a re-raise with the other group 1 hands is a bit trickier. With QQ, if the opponent is very loose or very short stacked, go ahead and push. Otherwise, a re-raise is usually the right call unless you’re playing against a really tight player. If they’re a tighter player, or if you’ve got JJ, just call and see what happens after the flop. With AKs, always re-raise. If your opponent raises again, call. There’s a good chance the idiots are playing with AQ or some other garbage.

If you’ve yet to enter the pot, and you’re lucky enough to have some unsuspecting pleb raises before you enter the pot, re-raise with any of these but JJ. With JJ, re-raise if they’re loose; otherwise, call. If you’re re-raised again, and you’ve got AA or KK, cheer and get your stack in the pot. Fold with anything else unless the raises are especially small, your opponent is especially stupid (loose), or your stacks are especially large.

Group 2 – TT, AJs+, KQs, AK

If you’re first in, open raise with all of these from any position, with the exception of KQs which is the redheaded stepchild of this group and ought to be folded if you’re in early position. If you’re raised, you’ll want to 4-bet most losers with AK. If they’re pretty tight, just call. AQs is a bit tougher to play, and you should fold if they’re tight, call if they’re loose. Fold everything else, even the worst scrubs get hands sometimes.

If there’s a raise in front of you before you enter the pot, you’ll want to re-raise with AK, and call with everything else. AQs and TT aren’t complete shit, and are sometimes worth 3-betting if you’re in late position. If you’re re-raised again, fold everything. AK is the only hand worth calling with, but only if they are really terrible, or if you’re already pot committed. You’ll only win about 40% of the time against most players here, so be careful.

Group 3 – 99, JTs, QJs, KJs, ATs, AQ

If your table is full of girly-men and everyone’s folded to you, open raise these hands from middle position or later. AQ you can raise from any position. If you’re raised, you’ll want to fold with a few exceptions. If you’re holding AQ and the raise came from the blinds, you’ll usually want to call. If you’re in late position and the raise came from the blinds you might also want to call with any of these. For 99, apply the 5/10 rule.

The 5/10 Rule
The 5/10 rule tells you how to play pocket pairs smaller than 10s when facing a raise. If the raise is less than 5% of your stack or your opponents stack (whichever is smaller), always call. If it’s more than 10%, always fold. Between 5% and 10%, it’s a judgment call.

If those silly fish tried to raise in front of you, you’ll want to call most raises with 99 and AQ from any position. If you’ve got QJs or JTs, call if you’re in late position. All other hands are unsuitable for a player of your caliber and should be folded.

When your enemies are really attached to their garbage hands and have raised and re-raised in front of you, you’ll want to fold all of these hands.

If you’re in the blinds and facing a raise, you should call with 99 and AQ, and fold everything else. If the raise came from the button or the cutoff, then it is likely that they are trying to steal from you. Yes, they had the nerve to steal from you! You are obliged to punish this insolence by re-raising.

See Part 2 for other, more challenging playable hands.

*I am, however, a god whom you should worship
**If you don’t know the definitions of terms like under the gun or limping, Google them now.
***An ‘s’ after 2 cards indicates that that they are the same suit; ‘o’ means off-suit, and nothing means either one.

8 replies to this post
  1. I just wanted to add that suited pocket cards are more playable then an unmatched pair. JT although a junk hand could possibly be placed in group three if suited (I always play this because it’s my favorite hand. Also you shouldn’t have favorite hands.) Suited AJ would be a higher group 2 or lower group 1 choice if suited and so on.

    • Yeah for this part of it I was just going by Sklansky’s groupings because it’s a common way to define what’s premium, what’s playable from any position, what’s playable in mid/late only, etc. In part 2 I talk a lot about hands by type. The thing about suited connectors is that they’re not as easy to play as a pocket pair. A pocket pair has great equity for beginners because you’ll almost never take them to the turn without having a solid made hand. As opposed to suited connectors which will usually flop draws which are harder for beginners to play.

      If you’re saying any suited cards, I wholly disagree. Being suited only adds about 2% to a hand’s chance of winning. Suited trash is still trash.

      • I was referring to the card groups (1,2,3) mentioned being suited. However I did capture a full house on the flop with a 3 and 4 of diamonds. The guy across from me raised before the flop with a pair of Kings in the hole; I just had a huge chip lead and caught a break. He crumpled when I flipped and proceeded to bitch, and call me a bad poker player the rest of the game. I retaliated by winning the tourney.

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