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Holdem: Preflop Hand Categories (Part I - Pocket Pairs)
- Holdem: Preflop Hand Categories (Part II - Suited Cards)
- Holdem: Preflop Hand Categories (Part III - Offsuit Cards)
In this poker article we group hands together that have common playing characteristics. Within a category the hands may range significantly in strength, but they will generally play similarly after the flop and share game texture preferences. For each category we describe its optimal playing conditions and discuss what to expect after the flop. Then we give rough recommendations for when and how to play the hands.
Monsters (AA and KK).
These hands are the two best in holdem, no matter the situation. They play well in short-handed and multiway pots. They play well in passive games and in aggressive ones. Against few opponents, they will usually win unimproved. Against many opponents, they win unimproved less often (though still frequently), but their big hand potential becomes important. When you make a set, you will sometimes win a very large pot with a big full house or even just three of a kind. You should almost always raise and reraise with these hands, no matter the action.
Big Pairs (QQ, JJ, and TT).
These are outstanding hands. They too play well in any game conditions. They differ from the monsters chiefly because they win less often unimproved. They still fare well without help and will frequently win even when overcards come. Do not play timidly with these hands before the flop simply because an overcard could beat you.
You should typically raise with these hands from any position if it has not yet been raised. It is also usually right to reraise if it has been raised once.
Medium Pairs (99, 88, and 77).
These pairs shine in two situations. One is when you are two- or three-handed, and your opponents are likely to have weak hands. In this spot they are strong enough to win a fair number of pots even unimproved. This is particularly true if your opponents' hands might contain cards lower than your pair.
These pairs are also quite profitable against five or more opponents. When you make a set, some of your opponents will likely have one pair. Anyone with only one pair on the flop is drawing almost dead against your set. If these players will pay you off with calls and raises, your medium pair has become very profitable. When you have a set, you prefer that the game be loose and aggressive. Looseness ensures that many players will play against you at a big disadvantage. Aggressiveness increases the likelihood that you will get multiple bets in on each street. Many of the biggest hold'em pots are won by medium pairs that flop sets in loose, aggressive games.
From early position you should usually limp in. If exactly one loose player has limped in front of you, you may want to raise from late position. You are trying to play short-handed against weak hands. Once two or more players have already limped, you should usually also merely limp to encourage multiway action. If someone has raised, you should typically fold unless you are fairly sure several others will enter the pot. You do not want to play short-handed against a bigger pair. However, when there are already three or more players in the pot, call the raise. You are looking to win a big pot by making a set.
Small Pairs (66-22).
These pairs do not win often unimproved, even against few opponents. You are hoping to win a big pot with a set or full house. Therefore, they play best when the game is loose and somewhat aggressive. Loose and passive is acceptable as well, but you will not make as much money under those conditions when you flop a set. If the game is tight, usually two to four players to the flop, these hands are not worth much.
You would like to see the flop cheaply, for one, or at most, two bets. You will make a set on the flop only about twelve percent of the time. Since you will fold so frequently after the flop (when you miss your set or occasional straight draw), you need to anticipate collecting a lot of bets those times that you hit your set, and it holds up.
Small stakes games are almost always loose. In most games you can play these hands profitably from any position if it has not yet been raised. However, if it is frequently three or more bets before the flop, you should fold from early position. If it has been raised in front of you, to play you need to be almost sure the pot will be five-handed or more. You need a multiway pot to compensate for the extra money you invest before the flop.
Against certain players who are almost guaranteed to put many bets into the pot on the flop (and sometimes on the turn as well) you can, on occasion, make do with fewer than five players.