Before we get into a discussion of the starting hands matrix, let me make a few comments about playing pre-flop hands from an early position. In this series of lessons, we’ve been working our way around the table in reverse, beginning with the Big Blind, so we’ll conclude with the hands that act earliest; the so-called “under the gun” position and the one to play after that. By my numbering system, where the “button” is # 0, these are positions 7 and 6, although in a 10-player table they’d be #8 and #7, because the two blinds aren’t numbered. However you care to number them, these two positions have several disadvantages, the first being is that they must act before all of the other players in the pre-flop betting and secondly, they are both vulnerable to late-position raises as well as raises made by the Blinds, both of whom already have some $$$ committed to the pot and thus are quick to re-raise if they have a strong hand. That obviously means you should play only “premium” hands from early position, which are basically high pairs and A-K, with an occasional A-Qs or K-Qs thrown in.
In order to save both of us some time, I’m not going to get into a lengthy discussion on the mathematics of hands that should be played from early position, but they do appear in the matrix and, if you’ve been playing Hold ’em for a while, there won’t be many surprises. It’s just basic common sense; if you’re going to raise from early position, it’s a high probability that you’ll be called or re-raised, so you need to play really strong hands.
Within the scheme of my starting hands matrix, the strength of the hands we should play progress from weakest in the blinds (only because you already have $$$ committed) to the stronger hands as move back past the button, into middle position and cap out at the strongest in early position. So, it stands to reason that we should call or raise only with hands that are favored to beat those which might be played in late position. If the “average” hand played on the button is a J-10 or 8-8 (just a guess on my part), the average hand under the gun should be A-Q or J-J (another guess, but a better one).
Poker is really a game of mistakes. Unlike Blackjack, which is a game of precise mathematics, poker is a game of incomplete information. Sure, we don’t know exactly what the Blackjack dealer has in the hole when s/he is showing a 6, but we know it’s one of 13 cards so we can make some fairly accurate assumptions about the best play for our hand of, say, 13 or 20. We won’t be correct every time, but if we play enough hands the odds will even out and the expected value for a particular hand will eventually be realized. It’s not as simple with poker, but that’s what gives the game such huge potential. I don’t care how smart you are or how well you can count the cards; if you play at a Blackjack game with lousy rules and horrible penetration, you’re not likely to ever win at it. However, as a poker player, you don’t have to beat the rules or the dealer or even the cards – you only have to beat the other guy. And, because poker is as democratic a game as any out there, the “other guy” might possess a lot less skill than you. Given enough time, you will prevail over the person who is less skilled than you, if your skill includes not making as many mistakes as the other guy.
For those of us (myself included) who are relatively new to poker, avoiding stupid, dumb mistakes is the first thing we have to do. But that comes with experience, plus a healthy dose of good old-fashioned discipline, something winning Blackjack players already have. Time will give us the experience. Once we get beyond making mistakes ourselves, we want to create opportunities that will not only allow, but actually encourage our opponents to make mistakes – mistakes that will cause them to lose their $$$ to us. No, we won’t win every hand and sometimes other players will benefit when we force one of our opponents to make a mistake, but in the long run we’ll collect what’s owed to us, simply because that’s how “expected value” works. Just like losing with 20 against a dealer’s up card of 6, it stings when it happens, but wouldn’t you like to play every hand of Blackjack with a 20 versus 6? You’d own the casino in a month; three weeks if they dealt quickly.
So, we must start at the beginning and the beginning of a Hold ’em poker game is your hole or “pocket” cards. As my lessons continue, we’ll discuss playing the flop and so on, but we must start with a good foundation. The odds of poker state that you have a 50-50 chance of improving your hand, so you better start with something good if you want to win. As I said in Lesson 3, “The end depends upon the beginning.” That’s basically what my lessons have been about up to this point – getting a good beginning. With that, allow me to present my Limit Hold ’em Basic Strategy Matrix”, a list of those cards you should play, depending upon your position, which is adjusted by what has happened prior to you making a bet. As you’ll see, the matrix will tell you whether or not you should “limp” into the pot, raise or re-raise. It will also tell you whether or not you should call one or more raises made in front of you. I want to stress that my recommendations are based strictly upon the mathematics of the situation and, while you may come across as something of a “tight” player, this is a sound start for a beginner at the game. We’ll get fancier as we go along, but I already know – because of emails that I’ve received – that many of you are enjoying at least modest success at the game by following the advice presented here.
Okay, here’s the matrix. It’s a separate page, which will allow you to print it out and keep by your side if you’re playing online (and who isn’t these days?) As you get used to it, you’ll find you’re memorizing it pretty well, so if you play at brick-and-mortar casinos where something like this chart may not be permitted (or, as in my case, too embarrassing to use), the benefits will still be available. Take a look at it, print a copy and I’ll explain a few things about it below.
Notes and comments
This matrix is basically a compilation of the charts shown in the prior lessons with only a few changes. For some charts, I had added a category “Call 1 Raise Only”, which is designed to keep you out of pots that have been raised and then re-raised. As you can easily see, most of the “Re-raise” hands in the Matrix are a pair of Queens or higher, so if a re-raised bet comes to you, it should be called only by hands in the “Call All Raises” category and, truth be told, probably some of those will be rather loose calls in a higher-stakes game where the players know what they’re doing. You’ll see that the hands played on the “button” are of the “call all raises” or “limp only” type. That’s, of course, because position plays such an important part in this game; there’s not a lot of need to be cautious when playing from the button, but we don’t want to be stupid about it. Another notation, “Complete Only” is found in the Small Blind section and it refers to a SB bet that is 50% of the Big Blind. If completion requires a larger bet (like if the SB is $1 and the BB is $3), then you should use the “Call All Raises” section only. I included the recommended hands for both Blind bets, which puts a lot of additional information on the chart, so I find it easier to just keep the separate charts presented in the lessons covering the Blinds at hand, consequently my personal copy of the matrix doesn’t show them. Since this was produced as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, if you’d like a copy, email me and I’ll be happy to send it and you can modify it for yourself, if you wish.
As I created this matrix, I hopefully was accurate in transposing the information over from the charts presented in each individual lesson, but as I often say, I’m not really perfect – I only act that way – so if you see an error, please let me know. Beyond that, I think the matrix is pretty much self-explanatory but don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. Regarding future lessons, I can tell you that I’m doing some theoretical work of the type I’ve yet to see in print (although somebody, somewhere, has undoubtedly done it before me) and I’ll hopefully have that ready for publication soon. In the meantime, good luck and thanks to those who say hello to me out there on the tables. It’s nice to be recognized.
I’ll see you here next time.