STARTING STANDARDS — THE GOSPEL FOR BEGINNERS, A GUIDE
FOR SKILLED PLAYERS, AND A POINT OF DEPARTURE FOR EXPERTS.
One of the more enduring discussions among hold’em players at
all levels — but particularly among beginning players —
deals with starting standards. What kind of starting hands should be
played is always a hot topic on the Internet newsgroup, Rec.Gambling.Poker,
as well as in conversations among poker players at and away from the
A lot of thinking has historically been invested in this topic: After
all, isn’t each and every one of us looking for those hands that
are guaranteed to be profitable in the long run, and aren’t we
equally interested in avoiding starting hands that are long term losers?
To the best of my knowledge, noted poker authority David Sklansky was
the first to publish starting standards for hold’em hands, and
he did this nearly 20 years ago. Other poker writers have promulgated
starting standards as well. I took a shot at it in my first book, Hold’em
Excellence: From Beginner to Winner and again in my second book, MORE
Hold’em Excellence: A Winner For Life. Mine weren’t identical
to Sklansky’s, but they weren’t that different either. In
fact, the primary difference was in presentation, not content —
mine were depicted graphically, whereas Sklansky depiction was in a
tabular, list-like format.
You could argue until the proverbial cows come home about which sets
of starting standards are better, but it’s not really worthwhile.
Most are similar, and in any event, there are no contrarian theorists
out there arguing that you ought to play 9-2 offsuit under the gun.
What’s important is the simple fact that you ought to be following
some set of standards. After all, everyone’s standards come with
the caveat that they should be modified based on position, and the texture
of the game — and it’s that elusive game texture that can
neither be measured nor subsumed within a formula. And therein lies
the rub. While you have to make adjustments to starting standards because
of game texture, you’re seldom certain whether your adjustments
are correct. That’s why a computer will never be able to play
poker perfectly, and that’s why — as long as your opponents
are human — you’ll seldom be certain that your adjustments
are precise, accurate, and on the money.
That, however, doesn’t negate the need for standards. Neither
does the fact that you’ve had your last three pairs of aces and
kings cracked by guys who stuck around to catch two runners and wound
up beating you. Don’t blame your starting standards for this;
they’re not at fault. Getting drawn out on is not about starting
standards, it’s about predicting the future — and I’ve
precious little wisdom to offer you on that topic.
But I can offer you some words of wisdom about guidelines for playable
hands: Starting standards should be gospel for beginners, a guide for
skilled players, and a point of departure for experts.
Simple? Of course it is. Still, some amplification is required. If
you are a beginner, you shouldn’t think about departing from whatever
starting standards you adopt. Here’s why. You will never deviate
from starting standards because they are wrong. They’re not. Once
you know enough about the game to recognize appropriate opportunities,
you can deviate because your adjustment represents a more profitable
play. It doesn’t obviate the book play, it simply means that for
a specific situation, you’ve found am even more profitable alternative.
If you’re a beginner or purely recreational player, you probably
won’t recognize those opportunities, and if you deviate from the
book play, you’ll be wrong more often than not. For a beginner,
playing correctly will result in some very repetitive play on your part
precisely because I’m suggesting that you follow these standards
like a robot. In the long run, however, you’ll be far better off
than you’d be by looking for reasons to deviate from the book
move. If you are a beginning or recreational player, be boring, be predictable,
build a foundation based on sound play, and win money.
Once you have your chops down and know them cold, feel free to experiment.
Only please heed this word of caution. Experiment a whole lot less than
you’d like to. Remember, most of the time the book move is the
best move. That’s why it’s the book move.
Even chess masters play standard openings most of the time. They do
it because it works. If you’re a skilled player you can use standard
play as a guide, rather than treating it as the gospel. Nevertheless,
most of the time you’ll still be playing book hands — only
you’ll be deviating just enough to put some variety into your
game and some doubt into the minds of your opponents. Of course, this
presupposes that your opponent is the type who pays attention to the
kind of hands you’re playing. If he’s not, don’t waste
your time trying to deceive him. Just play straight ahead poker. You’ll
probably have to show down the best hand to get the money against this
kind of adversary, but that has a bright side too. You won’t have
to waste any time or lose any money trying to be clever. Just come correct
and you are guaranteed to win as long as you catch your share of good
Even when you reach the exalted expert player level, you’ll still
play the right cards most of the time. The very fact that experts know
all the book moves cold allows them to depart from starting standards
once in a while, depending on the game, the opponent, and the current
situation. Believe me, when you see an expert player win a big pot with
what appears for all the world to be a terrible starting hand —
“My God, how could he have called from fourth position with one
player already in and only a 7s-6s in his hand” — unless
you have reason to believe otherwise, just assume he had a reason for
making that play. If he makes this play routinely, or makes it when
he shouldn’t, he is not really much of an expert at all.
If you are playing pot limit or no limit poker, deviating correctly
from book starting standards becomes even more important. The reason
is simple. You don’t need to win all that many hands to win a
goodly amount of money. But to win a bundle, you usually have to trap
one of your opponents for some big bets. In no limit and pot limit games
— where your opponents are likely to be even more wary than they
are in limit games — you often need to be deceptive to accomplish
this. And sometimes the easiest way to practice deception is to allow
your opponents to fool themselves. How does one accomplish this? By
playing a strange hand every now and then, and playing it in a manner
that causes your opponent to become completely convinced that you are
holding something you’re not.
But without knowing starting standards cold, you’ll never be
able to pit together a cogent plan. And whenever you make a move at
the poker table without much of a plan, you usually don’t have
much of a prayer either.