Pre-flop strategy is one of the most important poker skills to learn before jumping into games. If you are making mistakes pre-flop, it is going to be extremely difficult to play effectively post-flop as well, because you will end up with unbalanced ranges, having too many bluffs, with too many mediocre hands or in undesirable spots.
To avoid this, I will try to explain 10 of the most important things you should always take into consideration when making decisions pre-flop. We will start with the hands you should be playing.
10. Opening with correct hands
Opening too many hands can backfire. When you are just starting out or new to the game, tight is right. Otherwise, you will end up playing too many hands and facing a lot of difficult decisions post-flop, which is not something you want.
Therefore, you should build strong or even unexploitable opening ranges, which you can use against anyone. You should use advanced solving software or devote hundreds of hours to studying your database to come up with working ranges. To save you from all this trouble and wasting time, I created a poker hands cheat sheet where you will find all the answers and be ready to jump into your games at once.
9. Adjusting opening hands vs. different players
When you have your basic and fundamental strategy ready to go, you should concentrate on changing these ranges versus different players. Most of the time you should play a bit tighter if you are up against the tough competition and loosen up against recreational players.
So when you see a weak player in the blinds, you can raise a few more hands and expect many mistakes from your opponents, making it a very profitable play.
8. Not playing too loose
However, many players take this advice too far and start playing too many poor hands. Even though it makes complete sense to play extra hands against weak and passive opponents, you should not get out of line opening with trashy hands, because you will quickly encounter resistance from other thinking players and will not have many chances to play heads-up with recreational ones.
Even knowing that you can play extra hands against passive opponents, you should add only playable hands like suited connectors, suited ace-high hands and some broadways, while remembering to fold all the trash.
7. Isolating aggressively vs. limps
As straightforward as it is, many players still play these spots too passively. When you see someone limping in front of you, you should be raising him like crazy, especially if you are in position.
When your opponent limps, he is most likely a weak player, and you want to play a heads-up pot with him even without premium holdings. Raising him is the best way to do that. I would say you could easily raise 21% of your hands almost against anyone, and in most cases even more. Remember that you do not need to hit your hand to take it down, and a simple continuation bet will do the job post-flop in many cases.
6. Three-betting balanced ranges vs. regular ranges
Three-betting is one of the best ways to bluff your opponent or make sure that you will end up playing heads-up post-flop, which is quite good in most cases.
That being said, you should understand that strong players will not let you get away with bluffing them too often or raising just your value hands.
They will spot these tendencies very quickly and punish you for it. Therefore, when you are playing against regulars, make sure to balance your ranges and have enough value hands to go along your bluff so you are protected.
5. Exploiting weaker players by three-betting
Obviously, this is not the case when you are up against someone with notable tendencies to fold or call too much. When you see it, you should not even think about balancing and should do all you can to exploit their mistakes.
If they are folding too much, you should be looking to add very weak hands to your three-betting range and call some of your stronger ones to exploit him. Moreover, if your opponent is not folding at all, you should not be three-betting as a bluff. Instead, try to three-bet wider for value with most of your pairs and broadways that will dominate his calling range, and you will make him pay very quickly.
4. Defending enough hands when facing a three-bet
Unless you are playing in a very passive live game where players do not tend to three-bet as a bluff, you should be defending quite a lot of your opening hands if you have position. Even if you miss the flop, you will have plenty of ways to win it by floating and bluffing later on, or even raising when your opponent uses a continuation bet. Moreover, if he decides to check, you can almost print money by betting extremely wide on the boards, which hits your range.
Thus, defending pre-flop with many suited connectors and broadways is always a good idea and you should not be folding too much.
3. Defending the big blind
You should be playing many hands from the big blind because every time you fold, you lose the one blind you already posted. So if you can call and lose just 0.5 big blinds per hand, in the long run, it is still much better than folding, and these small differences will add up to a massive increase in your win rate.
It is particularly true in multi-table tournaments where you have antes in play and get even better odds to call. To learn more about how to defend your big blind and win, I highly recommend reading my full article about MTT poker tournament strategy.
2. Changing big blind calling ratios based on the sizing of the pre-flop raise
This one is a bit tougher to explain, but you should be fully aware that you need to call more hands when facing a 2x raise compared to the spot when your opponent raised to three big blinds. The biggest difference is the odds you are getting, and when you face just a mini raise, you should call a lot because you only need to add one big blind to play at least a 4.5 big blind pot (two big blinds from original raiser, 0.5 big blinds from the small blind and two big blinds if you call).
If you have antes or someone else already called that raise, you are getting even better odds, and defending any playable hand will be the right play. However, when someone raises three big blinds, you are getting worse odds, and most of the time players tend to open stronger hands with bigger sizing, so you do not need to defend as wide as before and can comfortably fold some of your weaker holdings.
1. Using table dynamics
All things considered, table dynamics are extremely important. If you keep raising the same player as a bluff, he will eventually play back, so you need to consider this when bluffing and always ask yourself how your image looks to your opponents.
Therefore, sometimes you will need to choose between GTO poker strategy and exploitative play to make the best decision.
Remember, when you have an option to exploit someone using your table image – just do it!