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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: The Preflop Checklist

Miller Offers Six Principles To Apply To Your Preflop Game

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In 2015, I released one of my most popular books, The Course: Serious Hold ’Em Strategy For Smart Players. It’s a step-by-step guide to mastering the live no-limit hold’em games that you will find in most cardrooms around the world. The book starts with the most important skills that you need to beat $1-$2. Then it moves onto the more advanced skills you’ll need for $2-$5 and finally $5-$10 games. With just what’s in the book, you can learn how to win in most home games and live games in cardrooms.

In this and upcoming articles, I’ll recap some of the high points from the book. The rest of this article is adapted from some of the preflop advice in the $1-$2 section.

When you’re evaluating your preflop strategy, sometimes it can be easy to get side-tracked. It’s easy to come up with some rationalization for nearly any preflop play. Three-bet with 8-5? Sure. You thought your opponent would fold. Called an early raise with K-9 offsuit? Yeah, why not. You thought the raiser was a bad player that you could outplay.

Without some basic, bedrock preflop principles, nearly any play could seem to make sense. To protect you from the worst of that sort of thinking, I recommend you run your preflop ideas past a strategic checklist. Your preflop plays should, most of the time, check these boxes. If they do, chances are your play was fine. If they don’t, you should strongly review the play.

Principle 1. Play Tight.

You can alter the mixes of hands you play—sometimes favoring suited connectors and other times favoring offsuit big cards, for instance—but don’t stray too far from basic frequencies. If you’re out of position, play about 15 percent of your hands. If you’re on the button, play about 35 percent. In the cutoff and lowjack, you can choose frequencies between these numbers.

The problem with playing way too many hands is that you are far too often caught with junk after the flop. In today’s game, unless you play extremely well, it’s hard to overcome this disadvantage.

Principle 2. Avoid Strength.

Your $1-$2 opponents will give you far too much information about their hand strength, and that information begins with preflop play. If someone rarely raises, but they raise this hand, assume they are strong and react accordingly.

One of the big mistakes $1-$2 players make is they don’t take their opponent’s preflop raises and particularly reraises seriously enough. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen someone pay off A-K on a king-high flop with K-10 or K-9. You can’t avoid this outcome completely, but if you are attuned to your opponents’ strength signals, you will avoid it in situations others don’t.

Principle 3. Attack Weakness.

This is the flipside to Principle 2. Your opponents play too many hands preflop. This tendency forms the base of why you can win money at this game. When you suspect your opponents are in with weak hands, you should attack them with raises.

While I’ve written recently about some situations where limping is good, most of the time you want to build nice, big pots preflop. The bigger the pots you build, the more you win when things go your way. And if you’re playing with an edge—like you will be when your opponents are weak preflop—you will win more than you lose.

So be aggressive when your opponents don’t tag themselves with strength preflop.

Principle 4. Don’t Try To Make Hands.

Making trips and straights and flushes is not how you win. If you think, “Gee, maybe I can slip in with this suited hand and catch a flush,” you are thinking like everyone else. If you think like everyone else, you will play like everyone else, and you will lose the table rake—about $10 an hour. If your opponents are limping, they’re probably weak, and you should probably attack them with a raise—even if your hand isn’t so great either.

If you are playing a hand thinking “This is a good play because if I miss, I can get away from it,” you are probably thinking wrong. This is losing logic—it’s right there in the second half. If the best thing you can say about a hand is that you know how to fold it, you’re probably not going to win over the longterm with it.

You should be playing hands because you think you can win pots with them. Sometimes you’ll win the pot by making a big hand, but usually you will win either with a medium-strength hand or with a bluff.

Play hands that can win in many different scenarios.

Principle 5. Choose Hands That Have Equity-When-Called.

A hand like 8-7 suited is better in this game than a hand like A-4 off. (This is true with typical cash game stack sizes. In tournaments with short stacks, it’s potentially a different story.) The real value of 8-7 suited is that it hits a wide range of flops, ensuring that you often have equity. A hand like this will be one of your best bluffing options. Whereas on flops that don’t contain an ace, A-4 off will be mostly useless.

If you think you will be able to play aggressively on a wide range of flops and turn cards, it’s a good sign you have a hand worth playing.

Principle 6. Defend Blinds Against Steals, Not Strong Raises.

This is another one that’s extremely important at $1-$2. It’s basically a restatement of Principles 2 and 3, but for when you’re in the blinds. Many players feel obligated to play hands from the blinds due to the direct pot odds you get. But when the stacks are relatively deep, as they usually are in cash games, the immediate odds aren’t as important as how the hand will play after the flop.

When your opponent makes a big raise that’s likely to be a strong hand, don’t worry about defending your blind. You might be getting good pot odds, but unless you have a hand like 4-4 that’s good for taking down strong hands, you’ll have an uphill battle on the post-flop play.

On the other hand, when your opponent makes a raise that’s likely to be a steal, defend with lots of reraises and calls. You don’t want opponents to run over your blinds when they have junk. Even if your blind hand is a little junky, you can usually win a junk-versus-junk battle if you plan for it.

Avoid strength. Attack weakness.

Final Thoughts

Good preflop play is necessary, but not sufficient, to win at live no-limit hold’em. For the most part, a solid preflop strategy will earn you a few bucks here and there, but mostly it will set you up to create bigger edges later in hands.

My book, The Course, covers a few specific strategies to create these tangible post-flop edges. I will introduce a few of them in upcoming articles. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, Poker’s 1%: The One Big Secret That Keeps Elite Players On Top is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the brand new site redchippoker.com.