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You Play Too Many Hands

by Ed Miller |  Published: Mar 05, 2014


Ed MillerConsider this an intervention. You play too many hands. You should cut back.
Sure, I’ve never watched you play no-limit hold’em. I’ve never sat behind you and looked over your shoulder as you limped into pots with QDiamond Suit JHeart Suit or 9Spade Suit 6Spade Suit. I’ve never actually witnessed you calling that preflop reraise cold with 8Heart Suit 8Diamond Suit.

But I’ve seen a whole lot of people play no-limit hold’em at the $1-$2, $2-$5, and $5-$10 levels, and darn near 100 percent of them play too many hands. Great players, good players, regulars, amateurs, nits, and tourists. One and all, these players play too many hands.

I’ll give a pass to the great players, since these guys have reason to play too many hands. But for everyone else, you play too many hands. You should cut back.

More Hands Preflop Means More Folding Postflop

Here’s the excuse I hear most often for playing too many hands. “Oh, I play that one because I know how to get away from it if I miss the flop.”

Most folks seem to think that the main problem with playing too-weak hands is that you can make a second-best hand and get yourself stacked. As long as you avoid that bugaboo, their thinking goes, slinking into pots with JClub Suit 8Club Suit or 8Club Suit 7Spade Suit is A-OK.

There is a massive problem with this line of thinking. It comes in two pieces.

First, I can’t find the profit. The whole idea is, “I know how to lose only a little with this hand, rather than a lot.” Folding doesn’t make money — it loses money. You aren’t going to fold your way to riches.

There is an implicit assumption. Those times you hit the flop hard, you’ll make such a killing that you’ll win back everything you lost and more.

In today’s games, I think this assumption is generally flat wrong. It isn’t so easy to get paid off these days. Many of your opponents are just trying to make hands and stack the guy who doesn’t know how to fold. If you make hands against these players, there’s no way you can expect to win stacks just because you made a small flush. They simply won’t pay.

If this assumption is a key part of your poker thinking, it needs to leave immediately. You can’t just assume that all those folds you make are OK because the big score is on the way. It’s not. Likely you’re just bleeding cash.

Second, all the extra hands make it very difficult to play the turn and river. Do you often have trouble playing the later streets? Do you feel like too often you’re stuck with a hand that’s not quite good enough? Do you feel like you won’t have an answer if your opponent decides to toss a big bet at you?

There’s no way to eliminate these problems completely. But if you play too many hands preflop, you guarantee yourself problems on the turn and river.

Here’s why. On the late streets, your hand falls into one of four categories.

1. The nuts or a strong value hand that you’re happy to bet.
2. A good hand to bluff with.
3. A hand with showdown value that will make you want to puke if your opponent bets big.
4. Total junk.

The size of the first category is relatively fixed. On any given board, there are only so many hands that are strong and worth betting. As you add more hands preflop, this category grows — a little bit. For instance, say the board is KHeart Suit 9Heart Suit 4Diamond Suit 10Heart Suit 4Spade Suit. If you are very loose preflop, you might play 9Club Suit 4Club Suit, which obviously is very strong on this board and worth betting.

But if you play tight preflop, you still grab a lot of the strong hands. Suited heart aces. Pocket kings, tens, and nines. Pocket aces. A-K. Q-J suited. Even 5-4 or A-4 suited.

For a given board, as you add loose hands preflop, you grow the number of category one hands, but only by a few extra hands at a time.

The number of category two hands, the bluffing hands, depends directly on the number of category one hands. You can only bluff so many hands. You need the threat that you “have it” to be real. You can add bluffs only as fast as you add real value hands. Therefore, this category doesn’t grow fast either.

When you add preflop hands, you’re really ballooning the size of categories three and four. You’re adding mostly marginal holdings and worthless junk. These are the hands you don’t want to be stuck with at the end. And yet, as you add extra hands preflop, you condemn yourself to showing up with too much garbage at the river.

Most people just fold all this extra junk on the flop and turn. The problem with that, again, is that folding on the flop or turn isn’t free. Every time you see a turn and fold, you’re out a healthy chunk of cash.

What’s the bottom line? When you play too many hands preflop, you are locking in losses after the flop. It’s not worth it.

What To Fold

I’ll focus on the first five seats in a nine-handed game. That’s everyone except the cutoff, the button, and the blinds. If you have any doubt whatsoever, in these five early seats you should fold it. Dealt 9Heart Suit 7Heart Suit? Fold it. Dealt AClub Suit 10Spade Suit? Fold it. Dealt 4Heart Suit 4Spade Suit? Fold it. Dealt KHeart Suit 8Heart Suit? Fold it. Dealt KDiamond Suit JSpade Suit? Fold it.

Fold. Fold. Fold. In these five seats, you fold it.

In a typical $5-$10 (or $2-$5) live game, when I am under the gun, the worst hands I play are 7-7, 10-9 suited, and A-Q offsuit. Four seats from there, I stretch it to 4-4, 5-4 suited, 10-8 suited, K-9 suited, and K-Q offsuit.

I open all these hands for a raise, and I raise against limpers.

Both of these ranges make me the tightest preflop player at nearly every table. But when I do all this folding preflop, I don’t need to fold that often after the flop. I get to value bet and bluff with a large percentage of my range. This makes playing pots with me difficult, because when I do play a hand, I rarely go away easily.

Since I know I’m playing against players who will have too much junk by the river, I like to wait hands out. I’ll call flops and turns light, knowing that my opponents will be forced to give up much of the time. Their preflop looseness dooms them when it counts the most.

I recommend giving my ranges a try next time you play. It may feel boring at first doing all that folding, but I think you’ll get used to it. And it makes postflop play a whole lot more fun, since you get to put the screws to your opponents much more often. ♠

Ed’s brand new book, Poker’s 1%: The One Big Secret That Keeps Elite Players On Top, is on sale now at Find Ed on Facebook at and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.