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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: My Preflop Philosophy

Miller Explains Why Good Preflop Play Is Fluid

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Ed MillerPeople ask more questions about preflop strategy than anything else. When to raise. How much to raise. How to vary raise sizes. When to limp. When to reraise. What hands to play from early position. When to make exceptions. And so on.

These questions all have a relatively specific answer in some types of no-limit hold’em. In tournaments, for instance, where stack sizes are often just five, 10, or 20 big blinds, it’s vitally important to play the correct sets of hands in the correct ways. When your stack is only 14 big blinds, preflop play is nearly all there is to the game.

But in other types of no-limit hold’em, the answers become much more flexible. In particular, in live cash game no-limit hold’em, the game I tend to write about most, good preflop play is very fluid. No single set of rules will give you the best play in every situation. Instead, it’s much better to adopt a more general philosophy for play, and then to apply the philosophy to each individual circumstance.

Incidentally, for those of you who really want a set of rules to follow—perhaps you don’t feel comfortable enough with flexibility yet—I outline a basic one-size-fits-all preflop strategy in my book, The Course, that should be good enough for most situations. It won’t have you making the best play every time, but it will keep you out of the biggest preflop traps.

Here are the basics of my preflop philosophy.

Preflop Play Should Support Post-flop Goals

This is the most important point. Your post-flop play should work in harmony with your preflop strategy. For example, if your goal post-flop (given your opponents’ tendencies) is to try to make a big hand and get paid off for stacks, then you shouldn’t do a whole lot of three-bet or four-bet bluffing with hands like suited aces and suited connectors.

After all, suited aces and connectors are often the hands you will have when you make that big hand that can get you paid. So it makes no sense to try to shut the pot down preflop when you hold the hands you hope to win a big pot on the river with.

If your goal post-flop is to try to steal a lot of pots on the turn and river, then you shouldn’t do much limping. You want to raise most pots you play. Why? Because limped pots are tiny. You don’t want to base a strategy around stealing $40 pots on the turn when you can steal $150 pots instead just by raising preflop.

So first make sure that whatever you are doing preflop works in harmony with your plan to get an edge after the flop.

Preflop Play Should Serve A Purpose

When you play hands preflop, you should have a purpose in mind. “I’m limping this hand here because this game is wild and I expect it to be reraised behind me if I raise. And I want to see a flop with the hand because it can make a big hand by the turn that will get me paid because the chips are flying.”

In particular, don’t limp in with hands thinking, “I’m limping because it’s easy to get away from the hand if I miss.” Getting away from a hand means losing. If your main purpose for playing is that you probably won’t lose too much with the hand—it’s not a good play. You usually need to feel like you can steal the pot a significant percentage of the time when you miss to make this type of hand worth it.

Preflop Play Should Maximize the Value Of Post-flop Edges

You should look at the likely source of your post-flop edges and the stack sizes, and try to create a scenario preflop where you will make the most from your post-flop play.

Here’s what this means. Say you make most of your money in a $2-$5 game by stealing pots on the turn and river from players who don’t like to stack off without the nuts. You have 10Heart Suit 9Heart Suit on the button.

The player four off the button opens for $20, and the player to your right calls. Your opponents both have $350 stacks.

Here you should probably call. Your goal is to see a flop, maybe call a flop bet, and then hopefully have it checked to you on the turn so you can steal the pot. Say the hand plays out as follows.

You call, and the big blind calls. Four players see a flop with $82 in the pot and $330 stacks.

The flop is KDiamond Suit 8Heart Suit 6Spade Suit. The blind checks, and the preflop raiser bets $35. The next player folds. You call, and the big blind folds. There’s $152 in the pot and $295 behind.

The turn is the 2Club Suit. The preflop raiser checks, you bet $70, and he folds.

Now let’s say we’re playing the same hand, but stack sizes are $1,200 instead. Now, instead of calling preflop, you might want to reraise. Here’s how the hand might play out in an ideal way.

The player four off the button makes it $20, and there’s a call. You reraise to $70. The blinds fold, and the preflop raiser calls $50 more. The caller folds. There’s $167 in the pot and $1,130 behind.

The flop comes KDiamond Suit 8Heart Suit 6Spade Suit. Your opponent checks, and you bet $80. Your opponent calls. The pot is $327, and there is $1,050 behind.

The turn is the 2Club Suit. Your opponent checks, you bet $180, and he folds.

Why call in the first scenario and reraise in the second? Reraising in the second was good because it got more money in the pot that ultimately you ended up stealing. If your opponent is going to fold too much on the turn, in general, it’s better for you if they fold in $300+ pots rather than pots half that size.

But if you had reraised preflop in the first example hand, so much money would have gone in the pot preflop and on the flop (relative to the $350 starting stacks) that very little would remain to steal the pot with on the turn. Even players who fold too much will probably just stick the rest in with a pair when there’s so little left.

So while reraising with deep stacks makes more money, with shallow stacks it threatens to change your opponents’ behavior that you intend to exploit.

Final Thoughts

People want hard-and-fast rules about how to play preflop. But in live no-limit cash games, preflop play is usually just a prelude to the postflop play where the real money is won and lost. The best thing you can do is to articulate the types of post-flop situations you’d like to be in, and then make sure your preflop strategy maximizes both the chances you’ll get into those situations and the value they will have for you when they arise. ♠

Ed’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.