Smart Early Position Play in Texas Holdem Poker

Kenny Tran - top rating cash game poker professional

Recently, Andy Bloch blogged about the perils and pitfalls of playing big cards – A-K, A-Q, etc. – when they don’t connect with the flop. Like Andy, I think learning to play these kinds of hands well, adds an important weapon to any player’s arsenal. Of course, like any weapon, you have to approach these hands carefully to ensure that they don’t blow up in your face.

One of the most important safety tips I can give in regards to “big” hands is to be especially cautious when you’re playing them from early position. I believe in this so strongly in fact that I won’t even play A-Q unsuited from under the gun at a full table. It’s just too easy to get into trouble with this hand and cost yourself valuable chips.

In my opinion, the smartest thing you can do with hands like A-K in early position is mix up your play as much as possible. That means you’re going to sometimes want to raise with these hands and, at other times, you’re going to want to limp with them. Why? Because by mixing up how you play in early position, you’ll make it harder for your opponents to figure out what kinds of hands you really are playing. Of course, there are some other things to keep in mind when adopting this strategy, the most important of which is that if you’re going to limp with big hands in early position, you also need to limp with small hands like 6-7 suited.

By the same token, if you’re going to be raising with hands like A-K, you also need to sometimes raise with your smaller hands. Of course, you don’t want to play complete garbage from under the gun, but you shouldn’t be scared to sometimes pop the pot with a less than premium holding. If you get called, you may hit something like two pair on the flop and, if you get re-raised before the flop, you can easily throw your hand away without costing yourself too many chips. Again, it comes down to keeping your opponents off-guard.

While some players argue that you should always raise your big hands, I think limping with something like A-K in early position provides another potential benefit. For example, let’s say I limp from under the gun and three other players limp behind me before the button puts in a raise. Because of the amount of money in the pot, it’s likely that the button is raising with a very wide range of hands. Depending on my read, I might just flat-call his raise and try to out-play him after the flop or I might even re-raise before the flop and try to take down a substantial pot right then and there.

If I had raised with my A-K in this position, chances are that none of the limpers would have put any chips in the pot and I might only get flat called by the player on the button. By limping with my hand, I can get some extra money in the pot and put myself in a position to re-raise pre-flop. If the button was just trying to steal from position, he’s likely to lay down and let me take the pot. If he calls, I can play the hand cautiously if I miss the flop and, possibly, take a down a monster pot if I connect.

Of course, there’s no “right” way to play a hand like A-K from early position. Instead, look around your table and determine what kind of opponents you’re facing, and how aggressively you want to play against them. Mix up your game and you should be able to make your big hands pay off at crucial times.


A resident of Downey, California, Kenny is one of the best cash game players in the world. He’s also “not bad” at tournament play with over $2 Million in Career Tournament Earnings to his name plus a WSOP bracelet (Winner of the 2008 WSOP $10K Heads-Up No-Limit Hold ’em World Championship).

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Pro Poker: Re-Raising as the Big Blind in Holdem

Poker tipsSeldom Re-raise As The Big Blind In Hold’em
by Mike Caro

First, you need to know that I frequently re-raise as the big blind when an aggressive, blind-stealing-type opponent raises in the small blind after everyone else folds. I don’t need a very strong hand to justify that re-raise, because even if I’m beat by a mediocre hand, the re-raise gives me psychological leverage to add to my positional advantage. Remember, I’ll get to act last on all betting rounds.

But in all other circumstances, while you should vary your play, and you can certainly sometimes justify re-raising when you’re in the big blind position, usually you’ll make more money by waiting to see the flop. Among the many reasons for this, these important ones come to mind:

If the small blind isn’t involved in the pot, you will have the disadvantage of acting first on all future betting rounds.
With all but aces and, perhaps, kings, the strength of your hand is not usually defined until after you see the flop. You really don’t know if it is strong or weak. Unlike stud games where your strength often changes slowly, one card at a time, the three-card flop strongly defines your hand in hold ’em. Although your cards may be strong enough for you to believe that you have a likelihood of having the best hand, that edge is usually not enough to justify a re-raise and risk facing yet another raise from a rare hand that might truly dominate you. This is especially true because of your poor position.

Why announce that you have a fairly strong hand if you don’t have to? The very tiny edge of pushing a hand you think might be slightly better than your opponents’ hands is often overwhelmed by the fact that you are giving away information unnecessarily. Of course, this show of strength can sometimes work in your favor (and you CAN use it deceptively with weak hands), but it is more likely to work against you by chasing away weak callers and the long-range profit they might supply on future betting rounds. If you just call, opponents will think you might have anything, from very weak hands to moderately strong ones or better. You keep your options open on future betting rounds, and you can fold more easily, having invested less, if the flop disappoints you.

For these reasons and others, I recommend usually not re-raising in the big blind with moderately strong hands, except when isolated with only the small blind.

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Online Poker Tip: Your Play Environment is Key to Successful Poker

Scott Fischman professional poker player

We’ve all had moments in good old fashioned brick and mortar casinos where our senses become overwhelmed by an environment that we have no control over. From uncomfortable chairs to overflowing A/C to the guy sitting next to you who obviously hasn’t bathed since the last time the Cleveland Indians won the Series, playing live poker can be a less than pleasant experience at times.

An advantage of online poker playThat’s why one of the biggest advantages of playing online poker versus live poker is the ability to control your environment. By standardizing all the variables of game play and setting your poker playing environment to your liking, you can maximize your focus and take that next step toward becoming a winning player.

So how do you control your environment? Well, let’s start at the beginning. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to be very anal about your poker playing environment. That means you turn off your phone and shut down whatever program you use for instant messaging. Even if you’re just playing for fun, you should still be taking poker seriously (unless you’re just looking to flip away your roll). Along those same lines, make sure to turn off the TV, stop surfing the web and answering emails. This is about minimizing distraction in an effort to maximize focus, and one of the pitfalls of online poker is all the readily available procrastination devices at your fingertips.

Now that you’re distraction free, tune the other variables in the house to your liking. Is the temperature in the house comfortable? Check. Do you have water and soda within reach and a tasty meal ready to go in the fridge? Check. What about music? I always like to have some music going in the background, but nothing too loud or distracting (if you’re singing along with the lyrics, it means you’re not focusing on poker).

Customize your poker client - its easy and well worth the effortSo you’ve got all the peripherals taken care of, now comes the game play itself. Go through the options in the game lobby and set everything to your liking. Most of it is up to you, but personally, I like to roll with the animation off (so the game runs smoother) and “highlight bet amount” turned on. For those of you who don’t know, when you turn on “highlight bet amount” it makes it so the bet amount is always highlighted when it’s your turn to act. That means all you have to do is type in the amount you’d like to bet when it’s your turn – no having to manually highlight the number yourself or fumble around with the bet slider. I also like to set the game background to plain brown, especially when you’ve played down to the final table. That bright blue “hockey rink” final table background can be distracting, so I always switch it off.

Once again, you’re doing all of this because it’s to your advantage, not just because you’re a control freak. By controlling your environment, you give yourself the best chance to maximize your focus on the game and be a winning player. This is far and away one of the biggest assets available to all online poker players.

tickyScott Fischman progressed from professional dealer to the other side of the table as a pro player in his early 20’s.

Scott’s vital poker stats are:
Over $2.1 million in career earnings
2 WSOP bracelets
10 WSOP cash finishes

tickyIf you’re USA-based, play and chat with top professionals online at Bookmaker Poker or BetOnline Poker.

Looking to improve your poker profits? Have you tried Caro’s Poker Missions?

Eons ago, well, in 1983, Mike Caro published a document called Poker Plan 3 (PP3). Here’s an extract from a more recent article by Caro that may be of interest. This guy has succesfully taught – and through his books and online poker university continues to teach – some of the best poker players on the planet. They’re not neccessarily the “teen idol tournament stars” but he’s helped create a huge number of good, solid profitable poker players – many of whom are now professionals… Interested?

How the missions work

Mike Caro the Mad Genius of Poker I called PP3 “a structured, precise game plan for mastering poker.” The introduction explained the concept. “Each time you play, I will give you one mission to accomplish. Sometimes it will be a single thing and sometimes it will be short series of related objectives. Except for fulfilling your very specific daily goal, you should simply play your normal best game of poker.”

Then I gave a warning. “Here’s a problem: You may decide that some of the missions are trivial or unimportant. You may feel you already use some of these tools effectively, and therefore, it may seem reasonable to skip the mission. DON’T SKIP THE MISSION! You may not now understand why it’s necessary to do some of the things I instruct, but once you’ve successfully completed your 15th mission, you WILL understand.”

The point of the game plan is to force you to go out and accomplish the task of the day – even if it seems like something you already understand. Understanding and actually doing it are two very different things. There are short follow-ups that you are instructed to read AFTER you accomplished the mission. Now that you know what to do, here is another mission from Poker Plan 3.

In PP3, this was Mission 3. You’re going to like this mission. It’s fun because it deals with the most primitive nature of poker. You get to choose an opponent as your target. You will study that player and examine his weaknesses, then you’ll try to bluff him … twice.

That’s just the first part of the mission. In the second part, you’ll concentrate on just two players of your choice, observing and making comparisons. The ability to focus in poker is almost a secret art. Yet all world class professional players use this art effectively — whether they know it or not.

You can study a whole table of opponents all at once and, no matter how hard you concentrate, the information you gain about their habits is apt to be trivial. One of the most important things I can teach you is: Don’t watch too many things. Instead you must watch selectively. On this mission you’re going to try to focus on one opponent and then on two at once. You won’t excel at this right away. But the realization of the power behind this method will hit you almost immediately. Pretty soon you’ll be focusing unconsciously, isolating on what’s really important.

Something I’ve discovered while talking with professional poker players is that the good-but-not-great players try to take as much as they can into consideration. Their minds work feverishly and with great effort as they struggle to grasp everything.

The truly great players do quite the opposite. While they take very many factors into consideration, and while they seem to be aware of everything, they really spend most of their energy focusing on one goal (and no more than two players). True, they’re aware of many other things, but they usually focus on one thing. The rest comes naturally and unconsciously, as they soon will for you. In fact, each of these missions puts something new in your head that will keep helping you win, whether you concentrate or not.

You see, these missions are evidence that you should only focus on one main thing. As you undertake the later missions, you’ll be surprised how many times your previous missions will reward you — often when you least expect It. So, right now, let’s focus …

Today’s mission, part 1.

Isolate on the player to your left. Watch every hand he or she plays and study the gestures. Remember to listen for voice tells.

Don’t try to draw conclusions! Drawing conclusions is a mistake. Observation is the key. Usually the major conclusions will come to you effortlessly.

So, study that opponent to your left. Try to find an opportunity to bluff him. Keep these things in mind:

Most players are easier to bluff after they’ve come from behind and have just gotten even – especially if forfeiting the money they have in the current pot will not put them behind again.

Most players are easier to bluff after you’ve made some friendly gesture. If you’ve shared a joke or let the player share your hand while he’s out of a pot, it could be a good time to bluff. If you’ve accepted coffee from or bought coffee for this opponent, it could be a good time to bluff.

Most players are easier to bluff when they’re conspicuously looking at you or at their chips.

You can get away with a large share of bluffs if you bet decisively while a player is reaching for his chips as if to call. That’s because the player is usually just trying to prevent your bet.

Also, keep in mind that it’s much easier for your bluff to succeed if you make a sizable bet in a no-limit or pot-limit game than if you are confined to betting a fixed limit. You have two hours to run two bluffs against your target to your left.

Today’s mission, part 2.
Simply try to focus on two players at the same time. Pick these players at will, but don’t include the one who figured in your bluff exercise.


Follow-Up: Don’t worry if your bluffs failed. In limit poker, because the pots can be many times the size of the bet, your bluffs can fail most of the time and still be profitable. The point is, in Part 1, you became very familiar with one player, and you learned things about him that would otherwise have escaped you. You tried to bluff, and whether or not you succeeded, you took that action with a better understanding of your opponent’s behavior. You might have gotten unlucky and targeted an opponent who was difficult to bluff. That doesn’t matter, either. The value is in having accomplished the mission and knowing how to apply this type of observation to your future games.

Let’s talk about part two. Answer these questions about the two players you focused on: (1) Which was more conservative? (2) Which had the better emotional control? (3) Which would be easier overall to bluff? (4) Did either player seem to dominate the other? That’s all.

The main thing that PP3 taught with this mission is that you need to learn to focus on one thing at a time. You can learn to be conscious of other things going on at the same time, but this should happen automatically. Your focus should be on one thing. When you try to monitor many things, you usually fail. You’d be surprised how many more things you will be aware of, when you concentrate on one thing at the poker table. It’s magic.

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Pro Poker Tip: Playing Over-Cards

For many players, there’s nothing prettier than peeking at their hole cards and seeing paint. A-K. K-Q. Q-J. They’re all big hands and, often times, very playable ones, especially in position. Sometimes though, your masterpiece of a starting hand can lead to a very ugly result.

Andy Bloch - poker professionalThe fact is over-cards can be some of the trickiest hands to play well if they don’t connect with the board. So how do you avoid going broke when you whiff with your overs? In the words of Kenny Rogers, “you gotta know when to hold ’em and you gotta know when to fold ’em.”

Let’s say you’re in late position or in the blinds with over-cards and are facing an all-in bet after seeing a ragged flop like 8-5-3 rainbow. What do you do? The answer is an unequivocal “It depends”. First of all, what could your opponent possibly be betting here? Top pair? An over-pair? A set? Your read of your opponent’s hand should greatly influence your decision because if he’s holding anything but a set, you may have odds to call.

That brings me to the next question: how much is he betting? If your opponent’s all-in bet is worth half the pot or less, I think you have to call with any two over-cards so long as you think they’re still live. Over-cards give you six potential outs to the board, meaning that you’re only about a 3-1 dog against top pair if you have no straight or flush draw possibilities. Your over-cards may even be ahead if you think your opponent is pushing all-in on his own draw or is bluffing at the pot.

In situations where you’re not facing an all-in bet, the decision becomes a little harder because you must not only consider the size of your opponent’s current bet, but also the size of his next potential bet. If you’re both deep stacked and you call on the flop, you could find yourself facing a sizable bet on the turn. In this situation, I believe mucking your hand and looking for a better spot is the preferred option.

Another thing to consider in this type of situation is your position relative to your opponent. If you’re playing from position, you may want to consider staying in the hand even if you miss the flop – especially if you can do so cheaply. For one thing, calling a cheap bet on the flop might let you hit one of your overs, giving you what may likely be the best hand. For another thing, being in position can let you try and steal the pot away on the turn or river if your opponent shows further weakness on those streets.

Facing this same situation out of position is much riskier as your opponent has control of the hand and gets to act behind you on every street. I’m much more likely to throw my over-cards away here and look to play a better hand later on.

While position can be a key factor in determining if you carry on with your over-cards, the texture of the board is also something to be considered. On a flop like the one earlier – 8-5-3 rainbow – I’m much more likely to at least see the turn with my two over-cards than I am if the flop is more coordinated, like 9-8-7 or something that brings flush or straight draw possibilities. Why? Because unless my opponent is holding a pocket pair, it’s just as likely that he missed the flop the same way I did. On a more coordinated flop, there are more ways for my opponent to connect and, even if I hit one of my cards, I could be drawing dead against a flush or straight.

If I’m in a pot with multiple opponents, I’m even more likely to play my over-cards conservatively because there are that many more hands that can easily beat me. Where I might try to continuation bet the flop against a single player, I’ll almost certainly check against multiple players because I don’t want to give someone the chance to raise behind me and force me to give up chips I don’t need to waste.

If someone does bet and another player calls, I can very easily give up my hand without having lost too much. If, on the other hand, someone else bets and the action folds back to me, I can determine whether I want to fold, call or possibly even raise in an attempt to steal the pot myself.

When all is said and done, the key to playing over-cards successfully is not to fall in love with your starting hand no matter how pretty it may first appear. Play your hand smart after the flop and you can avoid an ugly result.


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