Monday, March 06, 2006

"Limit hold'em is a game for morons who can't play poker."
Mike Matasow

Guilty as charged.

But I'm done fucking around with the push monkeys and no-limit poker.
I give up trying to put the monkeys on hands in this day and age.
I give up on coin flips for my entire stack.

No more guessing games.

I'm a big believer in not spreading your poker thinking around too thin. It's too easy to do, at least for me. Yet I've gotten away from that and been screwing around too much lately in NL and tournament play. I'm going back to what I do best. Grinding.

And so allow me blog this limit poker treatise by one of our founding fathers, Abdul Jalib. I still can't believe he deleted his web site.

Originally posted April 27, 1999.
The archived version (and clearer/cleaner hand charts) is here:

Hold'em Preflop Strategy According to Abdul Jalib

Due to the effect of community cards, hold'em is a game of
"domination," a term coined by Roy Hashimoto. A hand is dominated if
it has 3 or fewer outs against another, like AJ against AQ. Second
best offsuit hands are what make you money in hold'em - when *other*
players play them. With the flip of a card, pairs and suited hands
can transform from dominated to dominating.

Big and small pairs, suited hands, and offsuit hands play differently.

Small pairs, suited cards, and zero and one gap hands (examples: 22-66
A6s, and JTs and QTs respectively) thrive on "implied odds", a term
coined by David Sklansky, meaning they will frequently be folding
after the flop unless they flop big, and so they normally want to see
the flop cheaply.

Offsuit hands have "reverse implied odds", since they cannot usually
bet and raise with confidence towards the end of the hand. Normally,
an offsuit hand likely to be best should make it expensive to see the
flop, in order to harm the hands that would have good implied odds to
see the flop cheaply. A strong offsuit hand is still strong when
facing several opponents, between its chance of making a AKQJT
straight, two pair (usually using a low pair on the board) or a top
pair that holds up.

Big pairs have reverse implied odds as well, but they are much more
robust, since they can win unimproved, or by making two pair with a
low pair on the board, or by making a set or full house.

The flop is the nexus of the hand; limiting raises preflop goes far
towards disguising your hand.

The next sections detail strategy for opening, playing against
limpers, playing against raisers, and defending the blinds. Six
representative hands, namely QQ, 55, ATs, 76s, AQ, and JT, will
illustrate preflop strategy for each of these situations. However, if
you think you know better for your particular situation, you probably
do, as "it depends." In any case, this simple desert nomad does not
claim to be always correct, only always thought provoking.


When no one has yet entered the pot, the following chart shows you
conservative minimum opening hands for various positions to the right
of the button. The farther off the button, the tighter you have to
play, as you need a reasonable chance of having the best hand.

Button Pairs Suited Hands Offsuit Hands

99 AJs AQ
6/7 88 ATs KQs
5 77 A9s KJs QJs AJ
4 66 A8s KTs QTs JTs AT KQ
3 55 A7s K9s T9s J9s KJ QJ
2 44 A3s K7s Q9s 98s T8s A9
1 33 A2s K6s Q8s 87s 97s J8s A7 KT QT JT
22 K4s Q6s 76s 86s T7s A6 K9 T9
0 K2s Q4s 65s 75s A3 K7 Q9 98 J9
Q2s 54s 64s 85s Txs A2 K6 Q8 87 T8 J8
43s 42s 63s 7xs K5 Q7 76 T7 J7
32s 62s K4 Q5 65 86 96 J6
K3 Q4 54 75 85 J5
K2 Q2 43 53 63 J2

Note: The hands are sorted horizontally to make them easy to locate:
aces, kings, queens, zero gaps, one gaps, two gaps, and "other."
When a hand is "missing" in the table, it belongs with the lower
hand; for example, Q3s belongs with Q2s since Q4s is just above Q2s.
Jxs fits in the same spot as Txs. Jxs refers to baby suited jacks
lower than the zero gappers, one gappers, and two gappers, in other
words J2s-J7s. A handy way to refer to the rank of nonpairs is by
the connectors 32-KQ and then big aces AJ-AK. So for example
"77/QJs/AJ or better" is a short way of saying 77-AA, QJs, KJs-KQs,
A9s-AKs, and AJ-AK. On the button the minimum openers are 22/65s/98
caliber hands. Weaker hands are listed for when you wish to steal
with more hands against tighter opponents in the blinds.

Adjustments: You can open one level looser when your opponents are
properly tight, at least two levels looser when they are too tight,
and two levels looser on pairs and suited hands when your opponents
are too loose. You can also open an additional two levels looser on
pairs and suited hands when your opponents are passive. A normal rake
will move you back up one level, and a harsh rake will move you up two
levels, more in late position.

In early position you have to play fairly tightly, even in loose
games, since you don't know how many raises there will be. Consider
how likely you are to be raised by weaker (or stronger) hands if you
limp, how likely you are to be called by weaker (or stronger) hands if
you raise, and how likely you are to steal the blinds if you raise.

When opening in tight games in any position or loose games in late
position, your attention should be on getting heads up with a blind or
outright steal the blinds. Most hands are worth less than the blinds
and so for most hands stealing the blinds is a coup; hence, raising is
correct for most hands. AA is worth about four times the blinds, so
stealing the blinds with it and your other very strong hands is a
major disaster. Without other concerns, in a tight game you should
raise with marginal hands, and limp (and usually reraise if raised)
with your strongest hands. This advice contradicts Sklansky
and Malmuth. Balance your hands that you could have in various
preflop scenarios, mixing strong with weak and weak with strong, so
that you do not give too much information away by your actions, yet
strive to still play most hands appropriately.

Here is one way to balance your opening strategy for a tight game
where you are fairly likely to steal the blinds if you open-raise:

Tight Game Opening Strategy

Raise and call 2 QQ JJ TT KQs KTs JTs
Raise and call 1 77 QJs KJs AQ AJ
Limp-reraise / raise & call 2 AKs AQs AK
Limp & call 1 66 55 A9s A8s A7s KQ
Limp-reraise AA KK 99 88 AJs ATs

Note: "Call 1" means call one raise back, fold for two, and similarly
for "Call 2." When two ways to play are listed, separated by a slash
(/), do them each 50% of the time or adjust depending on the texture
of the game. In general, you should mix up your play a bit on all
hands. Because players tend to put you on AA or KK when you limp-
reraise, often refrain from doing so heads-up. Some plays are
"sacrifice plays" for the sake of balance, such as limping with KQ in
early position when in isolation raising would be better and folding
would be best. Other plays are profitable only in context, such as
being able to play 55 early under the cover of the limp-reraising
hands. Beware reraising when the raise comes from the blinds, as few
players will raise from the blinds without holding QQ-AA or AKs.

Example: You are in early position, 6 off the button, in a game that's
so tight that an early raise often wins the blinds. The pot is not
yet opened. How do you play your hand?

QQ Raise to add support, but limp-reraise is more immediately profitable.
55 Limp if (and only if) you limp-reraise often with other hands.
ATs Limp-reraise to profit from opponents folding AQ & AJ to limp-reraises.
76s Fold. A raise would be better than a call, though, to steal the blinds.
AQ Raise, for win share and to get heads up.
JT Fold. Dominated. Even KQ is played up front only for balance.

In games where a raise generally gets 1 or 2 callers, but rarely
steals the blinds, open-raising with any playable hand is very
reasonable and helps avoid leaking information.

In a loose game, where you will gets lots of callers if you limp and
almost as many callers if you raise, proper play is more
straightforward and includes playing more suited aces. Here is one
way to balance the hands for loose-aggressive games:

Loose-Aggressive Game Opening Strategy

Limp-call 2 / raise & reraise 99 88
Limp-reraise / raise & reraise AK AKs
Raise & reraise AA KK
Raise & call 2 A5s A4s A3s KQs AQ
Raise & call 1 AJ KQ
Limp & call 1 QJs JTs QTs 66
Limp & call 2 ATs A9s A8s A7s A6s KJs KTs 77
Limp-reraise QQ JJ TT AQs AJs

Note: For loose-passive games and extremely loose games, replace all
limp-reraises with "raise & reraise."

Example: You are in early position, 6 off the button, in a game that's
so loose that you always see a flop, usually 5-8 way for 1 bet or 4-6
way for 2-4 bets. The pot is not yet opened. How do you play your

QQ Limp-reraise to punish them, except raise in very loose or passive games.
55 Borderline call/fold. Play if you can see flop cheaply.
ATs Limp and call all raises, fearing that raises indicate AK, AQ, or AJ.
76s Fold, but it's close for very loose-passive games.
AQ Raise to destroy the implied odds of the fish and narrow the field.
JT Fold. Dominated. KJ and QJ suffice in very passive games with no rake.

In middle position, you will be raising with more weak hands to steal
the blinds, so you can raise with most of your strong hands too,
especially since limping is unlikely to induce a raise.

Example: You're in (late) middle position, 3 off the button. How do
you play your hand?

QQ Raise. No one is likely to raise for you. Provide cover to steals.
55 Raise if you can get heads up, call if you can get 4 callers, else fold.
ATs Limp-reraise if you are limp-reraising with AA and KK, else raise.
76s Fold. Likely dominated downstream. Cannot count on enough callers.
AQ Raise, for the same reason as early position.
JT Fold. You'd need a minimum offsuit of close to AT or KJ to open here.

On the button, you should be open-raising with a lot of hands if your
opponents defend the blinds properly, and if they are too tight you
can raise with any two cards at least until they start adapting.

Example: You're on the button. How do you play your hand?

QQ Raise. It is too conspicuous to limp here.
55 Raise. Your pair is quite strong here, if you get heads up.
ATs Raise.
76s Borderline raise/fold. Laying odds. Fold versus loose small blind.
AQ Raise. This is a monster. A3 would suffice.
JT Raise. Finally, on the button or one off, it is likely best, barely.

A rake seriously reduces the number of hands with which you can steal,
as you will be paying a lot for a crapshoot against the big blind.
With a Draconian rake, like where the big blind gets dropped once the
flop comes, you would need about JJ or better to open on the button!
Even with a modest rake, JT and 76s should be folded.


You should raise an opened pot when you will win the pot more than
your fair share of the time or your hand would play better without
additional players in the pot. Consider whether calling would lure
dominated hands to call after you (or additional hands period to give
you odds for your draw), or whether raising would drive out dominating
hands after you or allow you to get heads up (or almost so) versus a
hand you dominate.

Most people think that you should play looser after limpers compared
to opening. If a tight player limps, you have to be careful. Even if
the limper raises with his best hands, versus his weak limp you have
to play about as tight as if you were opening in his position, as you
have no chance to steal the blinds, though you should still raise if
you suspect you might dominate his hand. On the other hand, if the
limper would limp with his best hands, then you must play much
tighter. After several tight players limp, you can play hands that do
well multiway (any pair, any suited ace, big suited kings and queens,
and medium to big suited zero and one gappers), but the only offsuit
hands you can play are AQ and AK, partially for fear of domination,
partially for fear of the big cards being "dead." (AJ and KQ are okay
after just one tight limper.)

Example: You are facing one tight limper and you are on the button.
How do you play your hand?

QQ Raise. No need to worry about stealing blinds. Calling is a mistake.
55 Borderline fold. Unlikely to get heads-up and cannot get 4 callers.
ATs Call. Proceed with caution if you flop an ace for fear of limping AJ.
76s Fold. Similar to 55 case. Borderline fold/call versus 3 tight limpers.
AQ Raise. Same with AJ and KQ. Your hand is likely best. Get heads up.
JT Fold. Dominated. Fold QJ/KJ too. Calling here is a huge mistake.

With loose players coming in with hopeless hands like T7 and J6, then
it's true that you can play looser after limpers, with "trashy" suited
hands like T8s and K4s, and any pocket pair. You should raise
liberally to punish them, since weak offsuit hands really get hurt by
preflop raises, as they have only a tiny chance of winning the pot.
After many limpers, even Q6s and 65s can play best with a raise on the
button; suited aces, kings, and queens and suited zero gappers win
more than their fair share of pots versus many loose limpers. Offsuit
hands likely to be best will also win more than their fair share of
pots and should raise.

Example: You are facing five loose limpers and you are on the button.
How do you play your hand?

QQ Raise. You will win the pot more than your fair share, though < 50%.
55 Call. About 8-way to flop, but it will win less than 1 in 8 times.
ATs Raise. Big suited's win more than their fair share in multiway pots.
76s Raise. Even suited zero gappers win more than their fair share here.
AQ Raise. Your hand is likely best, by far.
JT Fold. If you want to play offsuit cards, you must have the best.

It is a myth that hands like AQ are in trouble here. You are in
trouble if you don't raise, but if you raise you wreck the implied
odds of the suited garbage your opponents hold. AQ frequently wins
even in family pots by making aces up with queen kicker or an AKQJT
straight. Also, your cards have a better chance of being live if no
one raised, so you will win the pot considerably more than your fair
share of the time. Similarly, if you were likely to have the highest
hand with something like KJ or even KT, you should raise here, again
partially for win share, partially to wreck the implied odds of your
opponents. This advice contradicts Sklansky and Malmuth, as
well as others. Their argument is that the fish will call correctly
with gutshots and pairs on the flop if you raise preflop, but the problem
is that the fish will be calling with pairs and gutshots no matter what,
and their loose calls usually will be correct whether you raised or not.
Would you prefer they pay 3 small bets to see the turn or would you like
to let them get off cheaply for just 2 small bets to see the turn?
However, if you make a mistake by usually laying down AQ on flop that
misses even though you believed you had the best hand preflop then
perhaps you would be better off playing incorrectly preflop by not
raising. Another exception could be made if your opponents will "check
to the raiser" if and only if the flop contains an ace, king, or queen.

It is a myth that you should raise with baby pairs like 33 after six
(or fewer) limpers, even if you know the blinds will call, because
though you will flop a set more then 1 in 9 times, you will win the
pot less than 1 in 9 times. This too contradicts Sklansky and
Malmuth. A possible exception is when the raise has a decent chance of
buying you a free card on the flop, as this now improves your chance
of winning to better than 1 in 9, but it is normally rare that all 8
opponents would check to the raiser.


The key concept when facing a tight raiser is: "run away and live to
fight another hand." Most players raise with their best hands, limp
with their worst hands, and you can exploit this by deftly
sidestepping their raises and punishing their weak limps with raises
of your own. You need a hand a couple levels higher than the raiser's
minimums to consider playing. Offsuit aces are especially vulnerable
to being dominated by a tight raiser. The implied odds of suited zero
or one gappers are trashed by raises. Medium pairs can easily be
dominated by bigger pairs, and otherwise it's usually a crapshoot
against two overcards. Versus a tight raise, you can only three-bet
profitably with AA, KK, and AK. Therefore, to avoid giving away
information, flat call with these hands preflop and go for a raise on
the flop.

Example: You are facing a raise from 77/QJs/AJ or better. What do you do?

QQ Call, for fear of AA, KK, or losing to something like AK.
55 Fold. You need about 99 to call, two levels higher than his 77.
ATs Fold. Dominated. You could call with AQs, barely.
76s Fold. Implied odds are shot to hell. JTs/QJs/KQs should fold too.
AQ Fold. Against looser raises you could call. See AQs note under ATs.
JT Fold, unless you are a fish.

Versus a loose raise, such as a steal raise from one off the button
when you are on the button or small blind, you should reraise
liberally to isolate, unless you fear your hand could be beat by the
raiser but could be called by some weaker hands behind if you flat

Example: You are on the button facing a raise from one off the button
from a good player with competent opponents in the blinds.

QQ Reraise. You do not fear AA or KK here.
55 Reraise. Your hand plays much better heads up than 3-way.
ATs Borderline call/reraise. For fear of AJ, AJs is the first safe reraise.
76s Borderline reraise/fold. Your hand plays better heads up than 3-way.
AQ Reraise. Keep it heads-up to preserve chance of winning unimproved.
JT Borderline fold. Could call versus an even looser raise.

Versus a raiser plus cold callers, you have to play a bit differently
than versus just a raiser. Tight cold callers are bad news; each one
increases your calling requirements. Loose callers relax the calling
requirements for suited cards, and for pairs if you will have many
opponents for the flop.

Given how tight you have to play versus a single raise, you can
imagine how tight you have to play if there is a raise and reraise
from tight players in early position. You can still play with TT and
JJ, unless the reraiser is extremely tight. This contradicts Sklansky
and Malmuth. This is a reraise or fold situation. Make it four bets
with TT-AA, AK, AKs, and fold everything else, normally. Now if it's
a steal raise and a resteal reraise, then that's another story, and
you could wade in with 88/QJs/AQ and up, certainly, and probably a bit
weaker hands as well.

When you are in a crazy game that is constantly having capped family
pots preflop, you can call with a minimum of 22/JTs/AQ. If the game
is crazy but tighter, only getting capped once or twice per lap three
to five way, you must play very tight, playing not much more than
JJ/QJs/AK and up.


Raising in the big blind after limpers gives away information, but a
raise often can buy you the pot by the turn if the game is not too
loose, as your opponents will often put you on AA or KK. You can raise
fairly liberally in the big blind versus loose limpers, with 88/JTs/KQ
and up, possibly a bit weaker. Versus tight limpers, you have to be
sure your hand is best.

The rankings of hands when defending the big blind versus a raise is
quite a bit different than the rankings for opening. You are getting
over 3:1 odds to flop something good, or at least a pair. Proper big
blind defense strategy varies dramatically depending on the raiser's
minimums. Against typical raises, call liberally with hands that have
straight or flush potential, as well as pairs. Get away from big
offsuit hands that are likely dominated. 65s is usually on par with
KQ here. If flopping a pair won't do you any good, because the raiser
is so tight that he is likely to have a big pair, then fold liberally,
especially offsuit hands. More specific recommendations are in the
table below. The minimum hands are listed, and you can defend with any
hands "between" the ones listed and the column headers.

Big Blind Defense vs a Raise

Raiser... Defend with minimum...
Is Has
Type Minimum | AA AKs KQs QJs JTs J9s J8s Jxs AK KQ QJ JT J9 J8
===== ========= | == === === === === === === === == == == == == ==
Tight 99/AJs/AQ | 55 AJs KQs QJs T9s ... ... ... AQ .. .. .. .. ..
Legit 66/JTs/KQ | 22 A2s K2s Q2s 43s 53s 74s 9xs A2 K9 Q9 54 42 85
Steal 22/54s/76 | (all but Q3 J4 T5 94 84 73 62 32 or worse)

Notes: Versus a tight raiser heads up, do not reraise - you are
either beaten, or you'd like to check-raise on the flop. Versus
multiple loose players, you can reraise fairly liberally, e.g., with
88, ATs, K9s, QJs, AQ, KQ or better. Versus steal raises, reraise
heads up almost any time you are likely to have the best hand, as
your opponent is sure to call one more bet before the flop, but not
necessarily on the flop. Bet into a steal-raiser liberally on the
flop. Versus one or more callers in addition to the raiser, get
away from offsuit aces below about A9 and your weakest offsuit hands
like 42, but you can call with any two suited.

Example: You are in the big blind, a sane player raises in middle
position, and there is no rake. (Assume he has 66/JTs/KQ or better.)
What is your best play?

QQ Call. Go for check-raise on the flop.
55 Call. Do not necessarily give up if you do not flop a set.
ATs Call. Bet or check-raise on most flops, but check-call when ace flops.
76s Call. Check-raise the flop if you have a draw or flop a pair.
AQ Call. Consider a check-raise on the flop even if you miss.
JT Call. Proceed with caution if you flop a pair.

Keep in mind that versus a very tight raise, like from 99/AJs/AQ or
better, the situation is much different, and you should fold even AQ
in the big blind for fear of being dominated.

A rake will severely reduce the number of hands with which you can
defend heads-up. In the above scenario, JT should be mucked when
there is a rake. If the rake is harsh, like 10% with a cap, you should
defend with very few hands indeed.

In games where you are facing a preflop raise that is bigger than the
big blind (like a $4 raise to $6 against the $2 big blind in 1-4-8-8),
obviously you are not getting much odds and must play much tighter
than normal.


Small blind openers are similar to button openers, but you should go 2
levels looser on the suited hands, and a bit looser on zero and one
gap offsuit cards as well, while actually playing a bit tighter on
weak offsuit widely gapped hands. Do not raise with all playable hands,
as you would like to call with your weakest hands and you need to provide
them some cover, and also there is no small blind to knock out.

When the pot is not raised and you only have a fraction of a bet to
call, the situation is similar to calling a raise in the big blind, as
you are getting big odds. You still need to get away from hopelessly
dominated hands like Q5 except versus many loose limpers. Getting big
odds to see the flop is no good if you are dominated.

The small blind's size relative to the preflop call amount of course
makes a big difference. There are 3 common blind sizes:

Blind Size Example
========== ============================================
1/3 $2 blind in $6-$12 with $2 and $6 blinds
1/2 $5 blind in $10-$20 with $5 and $10 blinds
2/3 $10 blind in $15-$30 with $10 and $15 blinds

The $1 small blind with $1 and $2 blinds, $2 to go, in a 1-4-8-8 type
game, is more like a 2/3 type blind, than a 1/2 blind, due to the
implied odds of flopping something.

It also matters how many opponents you face and how tight they are.
The more opponents, the looser you can be on the suited hands. If the
limpers are tight, you still have to be extremely conservative with a
1/3 blind, especially with your offsuit hands, as shown in the table
below. Again, you can play any hand "between" the listed hand and the
column header.

Small Blind Defense Versus 1 Tight Limper

Blind Size AA AKs KQs QJs JTs J9s J8s Jxs AK KQ QJ JT J9 J8
========== == === === === === === === === == == == == == ==
1/3 22 A9s K9s ... ... ... ... ... AQ .. .. .. .. ..
1/2 22 A2s K2s Q7s 76s T8s J8s Jxs A7 K8 Q9 T9 J9 J8
2/3 22 A2s K2s Q2s 43s 53s 74s 9xs A5 K7 Q8 98 97 J7

Note: Play tighter if the big blind is likely to raise.

Example: You are in the small blind versus one tight limper. Best play?

QQ Raise. Calling would give the big blind a free shot to beat you.
55 Call. A raise will be unlikely to get rid of the big blind.
ATs Borderline raise/call. Call when you have to put in 2/3's of a bet.
76s Borderline call/fold. Fold for 2/3 bet, since 3-way is bad.
AQ Raise. You want to be heads up so you can win unimproved.
JT Call for 1/2 or 1/3 of a bet, fold for 2/3 of a bet. Be careful.

When the players are looser, you can loosen way up when you are
getting your discount in the small blind:

Small Blind Defense versus 5 Loose Limpers

Blind Size AA AKs KQs QJs JTs J9s J8s Jxs AK KQ QJ JT J9 J8
========== == === === === === === === === == == == == == ==
1/3 22 A2s K2s Q2s 43s 42s 74s Jxs A3 K7 Q8 JT .. ..
1/2 22 A2s K2s Q2s 32s 42s 52s 62s A2 K2 Q5 54 J9 ..
2/3 22 A2s K2s Q2s 32s 42s 52s 62s A2 K2 Q2 32 42 J8

Example: You are in the small blind after 5 loose limpers. Best play?

QQ Raise, for the same reason you would normally after limpers.
55 Call. See if you flop your set before investing more.
ATs Raise, for the same reason as in late position after limpers.
76s Call. Harder to win pot out of position so may not win your fair share.
AQ Raise, as you will win more than your fair share.
JT Call. You certainly cannot raise. Enough of a discount to call.

When defending the small blind versus a raise, your minimum
requirements are about midway between your minimums for calling in the
big blind versus calling a raise cold - a bit tighter for a 1/3 blind,
and a bit looser for a 2/3 blind. Additionally, a 2/3 blind can call
a raise with any suited ace. When defending versus a raise and
reraise, defending the small blind is not significantly different from
calling 3 cold.


The above is the result of a lot of hard work on my part, trying and
discarding many approaches before arriving at my goal of an accurate
preflop strategy that novices can understand (I hope.) However, I
stood on the shoulders of giants. My thinking has been especially
influenced by David Sklansky, Roy Cooke, Mike Caro, Paul Pudaite, Jim Geary, Annie Duke, Ed Hill, J.P. Massar, "tangram", "Randall Flagg", "Lonestar", "Ramsey", Andy Latto, Roy Hashimoto, Lee Jones, Barry Tannenbaum, Steve Brecher, Michael Maurer, Eric Holtman, Tad Perry, and hundreds of rec.gambling.poker posters, though this is not to say they would agree with my recommendations. All the charts come from Turbo Texas Hold'em 2.0 and 3.0 simulations, as interpreted by me, and so I have to thank Bob Wilson most of all.

All Content Copyright Iggy 2003-2007
Information on this site is intended for news and entertainment purposes only.

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