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Texas Holdem Poker


by: Lou Krieger


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 table.

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 cards.

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.

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