I’m going to go through this part of our Poker School in basically the opposite way I did the section on playing limit games. Rather than build the Starting Hands Basic Strategy Matrix bit by bit and discussing it as we go along, here I’m going to show you the entire matrix and over a series of lessons discuss why (and more importantly), how I use it. Unlike Limit Hold ’em, which allows you to make a lot of small errors and still survive financially, No-Limit Hold ’em (NLHE) isn’t nearly so forgiving. It’s not like you can lose everything you own when playing NLHE, but you can – and will, at times – lose every chip you have on the table. That’s bad, of course, but remember that the same goes for your opponents and they know it. If they don’t, they’ll soon find out, especially if they play against you when you’re using this starting hands strategy.
Before we get into the matrix itself, let me give you some thoughts on playing NLHE in general. What I’m going to show you here comes from my experience at playing on-line, something I began (insofar as NLHE is concerned) in January, 2004. Oh, I had played some no-limit tournaments from time-to-time, but I typically got my butt beat, mainly because I was trying to adapt my Limit Hold ’em play to the no-limit version. As I noted above, they are two different animals. I was happy with my earnings from the limit games (over 2.5 big bets per hour), but I was playing mainly $2-$4 games, so my earnings weren’t all that much. I suppose I could have stuck with Limit games and moved up to the $10-$20 level and (if I may flatter myself), probably done okay there as well, eventually. But the big $$$ in Poker today is in No-Limit games – especially in tournaments – so that’s when I began to develop the Starting Hands Matrix you’ll see here.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the lowest hand you’ll play is J-Qs, and even then, it’s only when you’re in late position. Believe it or not, that’s not playing “tight” – it’s playing smart because the vast majority of the time, you’ll enter the game with a raise. You’ll see a few times where calling is the correct play, but that’s usually when you’re in the blinds. It really is true: aggressive play pays dividends in NLHE and it took me quite a while to learn that. Does this mean I never “limp” when I’m in early, middle or late position? Well, no, but it’s rare and it usually happens when there’s a “maniac” at the table. But we’ll discuss that in later lessons.
I first began my NLHE play like I did for Limit; at the play-money tables and I urge you to do the same. But, you’ll quickly see that most of those games are a circus, so get yourself a bunch of play-money chips as you become familiar with the Matrix, but don’t think what’s happening is anything close to “real” games. Games played for $$$ are a lot tighter, which will suit the strategy presented here just fine. My suggestion is to begin your real-money play by entering Sit & Go (SnG) tournaments. These are one-table tournaments where each player is given a certain number of tournament chips in return for your entry fee. The poker room takes a portion of those fees (usually 10%) and the balance makes up the prize pool, which is typically paid to the top three finishers; First Place getting 45-50%, Second Place getting roughly half that and Third Place getting back the entry fee and a small profit. SnGs begin when the required number of players sit down (usually 9 or 10) and the blinds increase relatively rapidly – anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes per level – so an SnG will often be over in an hour or an hour and a half. I’ll have a lot more to say about SnGs in future lessons, but remember two things about them: You may watch SnGs at any level of play for free and all you can lose in an SnG is your entry fee. Yet, you’ll be playing honest-to-goodness, genuine No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em against players who want to eat your lunch and that’s a good thing. If you start like I did, you’ll lose most of the time, but it won’t be long before you’re starting to get “ITM” (In The Money), which will defray your expenses.
I have kept precise records of my NLHE play on an MS Excel worksheet and I see that the first month where I played more no-limit SnGs than limit SnGs was April, 2004. I was ITM in 15 of 36 no-limit SnGs, but ITM 20 of 29 limit SnGs that month. The limit games were paying for my no-limit experiences and that’s what I wanted to do. I never expected to show a profit at the beginning of my no-limit play, but it sure was nice to have a way to at least pay for them. Limit Hold ’em can be played a lot like Blackjack; you have “X” as a hand in “Y” position (EP, MP, etc.) and that has an expected value which is fairly easy to calculate, so it should be played in a certain, almost non-changing way. That “rote” style of play will work to a degree in no-limit games, but only at the lowest levels of play, like inexpensive SnGs and micro-limit tables.
The real fun part (to me) of playing no-limit SnGs is moving up in “class”, so to speak. You start at $5 +$.50 SnGs ($5 goes into the prize pool and $.50 goes to the poker room), then work your way up to $50 + $5 or higher SnGs. Along the way, you finish OTM (Out of The Money) most of the time and must drop back down to get some cash, but you suddenly find that you’re a lot better player in that lower level than you were before. Consequently, it doesn’t take too long to refresh the old bankroll and up the ladder you go again. In May, 2004 for example, I played $10+$1 SnGs for the first time – 14 in all (my other SnG play was limit games) – and I got ITM just 4 of the 14 (28.57%). Well, since 30-33% of the players are ITM in 10- or 9-player SnGs through luck alone, I was running just below that level – average, at best. (Small sample size, of course.)
Anyway, I pretty much stayed with $10+$1 SnGs in June, but I ended the month ITM in 16 of 34, which is a 47.05% ratio. Along the way, I had basically given up on limit SnGs altogether because my no-limit play was now paying for itself. The next month, July, saw me playing mostly $10+$1 SnGs, with some trips up the ladder to $20+$2 matches. My ITM percentage dropped to 10 of 28 (35.70%), but I actually made a profit from my play. Only a few bucks, but that’s still fine with me because I knew (and still know) that I can make a profit from SnGs, if that was what I wanted to do. I can spend the day playing $10+$1 SnGs, get about 5 or 6 of them in and end the day with a profit. Certainly not enough $$$ to live on, but when you consider that my bankroll is never more than $500, forty or fifty bucks a day is a darn good return. I don’t want to encourage anyone who can’t afford the risk, but after an initial loss of less than $200, I’m at the point where I can be fairly certain that I’ll make a profit each month if I stick to SnGs in the $20+$2 or lower range. That’s not what I do, because I’m constantly challenging myself by playing at higher and higher limits, plus I enter a lot of multi-table tournaments (MTTs), which is where the BIG $$$ are. But that’s another topic for another time.
Let’s talk about bankroll requirements a bit. My advice to you is to have no less than 20 entry fees in your account. So, if you begin with $5+$.50 SnGs (avoid the $5+$1 SnGs that are out there), you should have at least $110 in your account at the poker room where you’ll be playing. I speak from experience; during my worst losing streak, I ended OTM in 9 straight matches! It happens, but that’s poker. Play the SnGs for a while, at least 3 or 4 months and see if you can add to your bankroll, or at least not deplete it. Then and only then, give some thought to playing regular “ring” games of NLHE. Remember, in tournament play (SnG or otherwise) you can lose only your entry fee. In ring games you can lose every $$$ you have on the table. Notice that I said “every $$$ on the table”, not “every $$$ you own.” I suppose you could eventually lose everything at NLHE, but the way it usually works at the on-line poker rooms, you may start at the table with only a set amount, like $25 or $40 in a $.50-$1 game. Having such a rule keeps some clown from coming to the table with $10,000 and going all-in on every hand; it’s just not any fun. By restricting the amount you can start with, they’re also restricting the amount you can lose.
I mention the ring games only because your tournament experience, coupled with a disciplined use of the Matrix you see here, will turn you into a devastating “cash” player. A lot of the poker books out there say, “Great cash game players are often lousy tournament players” and/or vice-versa, but in my experience they’re wrong. Think about it. In a tournament (SnGs or MTTs), the blinds are constantly rising, so you cannot be overly patient and wait to play only good hands. But in a cash game, the blinds remain the same, so you can afford to wait for the premium hands. A lot of “experts” will say playing only premium hands will not get you much action – everyone will fold when you raise – but the “experts” aren’t playing the $.50-$1 games. The turnover of players is huge in those games, so even though 1 or 2 of the other players may think you’re a “rock”, the vast majority will give you plenty of action. For me, it’s now a case of playing the ring games to get the $$$ for the MTTs I’m playing, or for the occasional venture into the $100+ SnGs. In all of my years as an “advantage player”, I’ve never seen a situation as lucrative as playing $.50-$1 NLHE ring games; pound-for-pound, dollar-for-dollar. Sure I know how to make a hundred bucks an hour at Blackjack, but it takes a minimum of $20,000 to do it right. I can easily make $20 an hour at NLHE on a $400 bankroll. That’s a return of 5% an hour, folks!
Okay, one more comment, then let’s discuss the Matrix: Where to play SnGs, MTTs and NLHE cash games. Although I dearly love Party Poker for all of the “soft” competition there, I do not like their SnG format. They’re the ones who charge $1 for the $5 SnG, which is way too much. Their other levels have a 10% fee up to the $50 level and actually less than that at the highest levels. But, and this is a big “but”, the SnGs at Party start with only 800 tournament chips and I think 1000 should be the minimum, at least for those of you just getting into NLHE. The ring games are very beatable, though so I’ve kept my account there. I guess it’s fair to say that I play mostly at Poker Stars, but I also make the rounds to InterPoker, Royal Vegas and Pacific Poker, primarily for multi-table tournaments. PokerStars.com is a good spot, both for SnGs and cash games, even if they don’t advertise here. Fair warning: the competition there is tough, real tough. But their SnGs start you with 1500 chips and the blinds rise slowly (except in their “Turbo” tournaments, which are basically crapshoots), so skill is a definite factor in their tournaments. The cash games are tough, but not impossible and I like that. Besides the $$$, I want a good challenge when I play. But at the end of the month, I ultimately want the $$$ and I’m getting them at Poker Stars. By the way, my “handle” there is Canada Bill. No, I’m not from Canada. Canada Bill Jones was a riverboat gambler who said: “It’s immoral to let a sucker keep his money.” I kind of like that and, because someone else already had Aceten, my usual handle, I went with the Canada Bill approach. Say hello if you see me.
Enough chit-chat; here’s the matrix. It’ll open in another window, so do that (even better, print it out) and we’ll discuss it a bit.
Got it? Good. The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s not very big and certainly not nearly as complicated as the matrix for Limit Hold ’em. The reason is simple: All of the hands you should play are listed in the first column. If it’s not on here, you shouldn’t play it, period. No A-5 suited, no K-10 offsuit, no 6-7 of any type; you just don’t play hands like that in no-limit Hold ’em, at least as a beginner. Okay, I know I opened a door here by saying “at least as a beginner” and I know you see Fossilman and Gus Hansen and Clonie Gowan playing hands like that, but remember, they’re not beginners. This isn’t limit Hold ’em where a dumb mistake can cost you a bet or two – this is no-limit Hold ’em where a dumb mistake can cost you your entire stack, be it tournament chips or real $$$. Plus, this matrix is designed to have you open the betting with a raise as often as possible, but seldom just call a raise ahead of you.
For example, look at the hand of A-Qo (remember, “s” is suited and “o” is off suit). If you’re in Early Position (see Lesson 11 for the various position designations), you should raise with A-Qo. Now, look at the * (asterisk) next to most of the starting hands, including A-Qo. Down at the bottom, you’ll see this note: * = fold if a player before you raises preflop. So, if the UTG were to raise and you’re next to play, you fold with A-Qo or any other hand marked with an asterisk. About 90% of the time you’ll be either raising or folding. If you’ve read many books on no-limit Hold ’em, you’ll often see the words “raise or fold” and it’s good advice. Also note that most of the hands have a “Fold” designation in the Early Position column. It means just that; you don’t limp and you certainly don’t raise in EP with A-Jo, you simply throw it away. About the only time you’ll call in EP is when you have 9-9 to Q-Q and the pot’s been raised in front of you. Those hands are just too good to fold, but they’re not strong enough to re-raise.
Let’s continue with A-Qo. If you’re in Middle Position and no one has raised ahead of you, (which would cause you to fold), you’ll raise with A-Qo. If one or more players have limped, you’ll still raise, but you should raise more than the standard 3 times the big blind, which is why I say, “Raise should be 3-4x Big Blind” in a note at the bottom of the matrix. You’ll fold if someone (anyone) re-raises after you. It’s tough to do, I know, but it’ll be the correct play the vast majority of the time. Oh, sure, you’ll get some player who will re-raise with A-10s every now and then, but most of the time you’ll lose if you call the re-raise. If you’re in Late Position, you should raise with A-Qo, assuming no one has raised in front of you (in which case you’d fold), but call if someone now re-raises you. Because the re-raise might come from an early position limper, you might wonder why you’d call and it all has to do with position. You’ll most likely be last to act for the rest of the hand, so it’s profitable to see the flop, then make a decision by how others bet it. See how this matrix uses hand strength and position to dictate the play? I’m sure it’s not perfect, but I will say it works pretty well if you follow it.
Okay, now let’s discuss the hand of A-Qo in the Blinds. You’ll notice that I didn’t make a distinction between the Small Blind and the Big Blind in the matrix. I did that primarily to keep it simple, but also because in most no-limit cash games the Blinds are a relatively unimportant part of the pot. Admittedly, they can be a factor in tournaments, but we’ll discuss that in a later lesson. For now, treat the SB and the BB the same. With A-Q in either Blind, re-raise a Late Position raise, but just call a raise made by a player in any other position. So, if the UTG raises, for example and you have A-Qo in one of the Blinds, just call, assuming it’s a 3x to 4x BB raise. If you re-raise a Late Position (“button”) raise and that player re-raises again, just call. How do you know to do that? You know because there’s not a “RR2” designation on the hand. Looking at the notes on the bottom, you’ll see this: RR2 = Raise a Reraise. You’ll also see that RR2 applies only to A-A, K-K and A-Ks. So, a re-raise of your raise by a LP player warrants only a call.
Let’s say you’re in the BB with A-Qo and everyone has limped in. Regardless of their position – early, middle, late or SB – you should raise about the size of the pot, but certainly not less than 3 times the Big Blind bet. If someone subsequently re-raises you, it’s just a call because there’s no “RR2” next to the hand, remember? If everyone folds to the SB and s/he limps by only completing the bet, then you should raise. If the SB raises, that’s a Late Position raise, so you should re-raise. Of course, if you have A-Qo in the SB, it’s the same as if you had it in the BB: re-raise a Late Position raise. But if the BB or anyone else re-raises you, then just call, because A-Qo doesn’t rate a “RR2” designation.
You can see that there’s a (1) next to Q-Js in the Blinds column. That relates to the comment at the bottom. If everyone has limped into the pot, then raise from the SB or BB with Q-Js or higher. “Higher” refers to every hand above it in the left-hand column, which essentially means you’ll raise in that situation with any of the playable hands I show on the matrix. This situation will actually occur quite often in cash games because people like to see cheap flops, but you’re not going to let that happen, are you? If you get re-raised, just call because Q-Js does not have the RR2 designation.
And that’s basically it for now. Just play your hand as shown for the position you’re in and you’ll soon be holding your own in No-Limit Hold ‘Em. (Poor pun, I know.) When in doubt, fold; there’ll be another hand coming along soon enough. I’m not trying to turn you into a wimpy player, but folding is the best tactic if you’re confused about a hand. In time, you’ll begin to feel real comfortable with this matrix and as the $$$ come rolling in, you’ll know it’s working.
Oops! I almost forgot the ** designation that you’ll find next to the LP column up top. In the notes at the bottom, you’ll see this: **LP = 2-3 players left. This is a reminder that you must “open up” your game when you get down to 2 or 3 players left. As time goes on, you’ll find yourself as one of the last few players in SnGs and, because the Blind bets will be coming around a lot quicker, you cannot sit and wait for premium hands. When that happens, start making all of your plays according to the LP column regardless of the position you’re in. In the case of A-Qo, for example, you’d raise and call a re-raise even if you were UTG at the short-handed table. A-Qo isn’t a great hand at a full table, but it’s not bad when there are only three of you left.
If you have any questions about any of this, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll get back to you as quickly as possible.
If not, I’ll see you here next time.