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Ace Speaks Hold'em: No-Limit Versus Limit, An In-Depth Analysis - Part II

Preflop play and starting hands in no-limit; some hand examples

by Rolf Slotboom |  Published: Mar 01, 2006


The Starting Hand J 10

In early position: Is this a playable hand? In general, in a full ring game, no. If you flop top pair with this hand and the pot gets big, you are almost certainly in trouble. Your aim with this hand is to flop a good draw. But the problem is that the other players will usually have position on you. This could get you into a lot of trouble when you don't hit your draw on the turn, but to a lesser degree when you do hit your draw. Your best option when flopping a good draw is to check-raise all in for all of your money, so that if you get called, you will at least have two shots at making your draw. This move somewhat compensates for your positional disadvantage; however, it is by no means an optimum play. Usually, when making this type of power play, you will win a small pot, but when you get called, you will usually face a very big hand, such as a good made hand or even a better draw.

In late position: If the players in front of you have just called, you have an easy call, as well. In fact, I recommend that from late position, you often raise with other hands than just big pairs and premium high cards. Suited connectors like J-10 all the way down to 6-5 or even 5-4 are excellent for making this play every once in a while.

However, you always should take a close look at who the limpers are. If they are short-stacked and may well be planning to reraise all in, you should not raise, as you may very well be raising yourself out of the pot. Let's say that with your J 10 on the button, you have two limpers in front of you. Assuming blinds of $10-$20, two people have so far called the $20. Now, let's assume that one of these limpers is a top pro with a $360 stack. While normally you would raise to about $80 or so, in this case you should simply call. If you raise, the pro will see that you are on the button, meaning that – in his opinion – you could very well be raising with a wide range of hands. If he has limped in with a big pair, A-K, A-Q, or even A-J suited, he will almost certainly put you to the test and move all in. Your only options would then be to call with a hand that is a clear dog, or throw away your hand after having invested 80 bucks. Either way, you will have turned a potentially profitable situation into a highly unprofitable one. So, pay attention to who is in the pot before making your "automatic" position play.

Now, if the pot has been raised in front of you, and both you and the raiser have quite a bit of money left, there is nothing wrong with calling the raise. In position with a decent hand, you could get lucky and catch a good flop, and you also have the chance to represent a wide range of hands, especially those that the preflop raiser is unlikely to hold. However, you should be aware that you are playing cards that are probably in the same range of those that the raiser holds, with the difference being that yours are probably just a little lower. This means that you should proceed with caution when you flop something like top pair and the initial raiser still seems very interested in the pot, as you may very well face something like top pair/top kicker or even an overpair. You should know that your main reason for calling before the flop is not just that you have a decent hand. The main reason would be that you have position, and that after the flop you could represent a wide range of hands, possibly causing your opponent to make lots of mistakes. So, you would be more inclined to call the preflop raise if you had labeled the raiser as a weak or predictable player who can easily be outplayed. If you had labeled him as a top pro, there is nothing wrong with throwing away your cards – despite your decent holding, and despite your good position.

Rolf's Rule No. 2: In big-bet poker, always take into account who you are up against. Against people who can easily be outplayed after the flop, you should be willing to get involved quite often – even without good hands. This is especially true when the money is deep, and you have position.

The Starting Hand 8 8

In early position: Most of the time, this is a playable hand. If you can get to the flop for no more than 6 percent or 7 percent of your stack, there is nothing wrong with first limping and then paying off a decent raise. All pocket pairs have a lot of value in no-limit because if you hit your set, the payoff can be enormous. What you are really hoping is to be up against someone who has flopped top pair/top kicker or an overpair to the board. Actually, this is one of the classic "doubling through" situations in no-limit. Depending on the depth of the money, you could check-raise on the flop, or if the money is quite deep, it may be best to bet into him, so that he will raise and you can come over the top – or maybe flat-call and then wait for the turn to make your move. You do whatever you can to make him committed in this situation now that your hand is so good that you don't have to worry about protecting yourself against being outdrawn. You want to get your opponent into a situation in which he thinks: "I am in too deep now – there is no way back for me anymore."

Either way, it should be clear that with this type of holding in early position, you want to reach the flop. Your goal is not to raise to steal the blinds or get the others out. Your goal is to reach the flop and break someone who has flopped a good but second-best hand.

In late position: Inasmuch as this hand is playable from early position, it should be clear that it is usually playable from late position. Here's one word of caution, though. You should not become overly aggressive with this type of holding just because you have good position. You should realize that the main strength of these small and medium pocket pairs in no-limit is to flop a set and break someone who has a good but second-best holding. You want to see a flop with this hand. What you don't want to do is raise so much that you are opening yourself up for a reraise that you can't call. What's more, you don't want to raise big and then fold what may very well be the best hand; after all, a big reraise could just as well be from an A-K or even a total bluff as it could be from a higher pair. So, I would give the same advice here that I did with J-10; sure, you can be a bit more aggressive now that you have good position, but beware of the people who (as I often do) will try to make up for their positional disadvantage by trying to limp/reraise people who are a bit too aggressive from the button. And 8-8 is not a hand you want to play against a big reraise. Usually, you will be either a tiny favorite (when you are up against two overcards) or about a 4-to-1 dog (when you are up against a higher pair).

Here's one more thing: When you call a raise with a pair of eights, your main goal is to flop a set. When small cards flop and the preflop raiser continues to bet big, don't value your overpair too highly. In other words, don't automatically think that he is just pushing overcards. While he may be doing this, he also may hold a bigger pair. Pay attention to your opponents' betting patterns, so that you can get him to bluff off his money with unimproved overcards, and avoid losing your entire stack when your opponent does have the goods.

Rolf's Rule No. 3: While it is usually correct to play more hands from late position and to become more aggressive with them, you should avoid raising yourself out of the pot. While this may not be so bad if you were just making a move with a trash hand, it can cause trouble if you have a hand with which you would have loved to see a flop – such as suited connectors and small or medium pairs.

The starting hand A K

This hand has been discussed so often that I have nothing much to add to what has already been said. A-K is an excellent hand in no-limit, but you should be aware that its main strength is its bullying power before the flop. It can become a very expensive hand if you allow others to get into the pot cheaply and let them catch a great flop while you get a merely good one. So, this is a hand that you want to play rather aggressively before the flop, in order to clear the field and find out who is playing what. Unless you are up against aces or kings (which is not very likely, considering you've got one of each), you are usually in pretty good shape, even if all the money goes in before the flop; and sometimes you're in very good shape if someone stubbornly holds on to an A-Q. One of the main strengths of moving in with A-K is the fact that you can put so much pressure on the small and medium pocket pairs, the hands that are actually a slight favorite over your A-K. But with a large enough raise, you usually should be able to get them out, because now they may fear that you have a bigger pair than they have, and thus they are either about even money or a very big dog. All of this means that your A-K is a very strong holding when you can play the hand aggressively and the money is not too deep. It is even stronger when there are people in the game who call huge raises with hands that are clearly dominated. However, when playing a very deep stack, A-K is not nearly as strong, and can actually get you into a lot of trouble. This is especially true if you are up against good players who are actively trying to snap you off with speculative holdings. Against these players, you are likely to win many small pots, but when the pots grow big, they are usually favored to take your entire stack. So, if your preflop play is too predictable and people can easily label you with an A-K type of holding, A-K with deep money may be a mixed blessing for you. You will have to make sure you are going to mix up your play a lot, both before and after the flop – or else the good players will take advantage of your predictability, bluffing you out when they know you have missed, and making you pay off when they hit.

Rolf's Rule No. 4:
A-K is an excellent move-in hand in no-limit when the money is relatively shallow. With very deep money, this is a hand that may get you in a lot of trouble, especially after the flop, and especially if your overall play is predictable. When you have flopped top pair/top kicker and very large stacks go in after the flop, you could very well be in awful shape, putting your entire stack in danger. On the other hand, if you are capable of releasing strong hands like this under certain circumstances, good players will almost certainly try to take advantage. As a result, they may occasionally bluff or semibluff you out of the pot, causing you to fold the best hand – which is an absolute catastrophe.

This is Part II in a 14-part series on limit and no-limit hold'em. This series was created especially for Card Player Europe. The accompanying DVDs on this subject can be obtained through Rolf's site,