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Five Preflop Mistakes In No-Limit Hold’em

by Doug Polk |  Published: Feb 15, 2017


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Hold’em is an easy game to learn but a difficult game to master. Mastering it requires making good decisions from the outset, and the very first decision to be made, obviously, is what to do preflop. Let’s dig into some common preflop mistakes that players make and discuss how to correct them.

1. Limping

There are some particular situations where limping may be correct, but generally limping puts you at a disadvantage. This is for two reasons. The first is that it’s a very passive play, leaving you with just one way to win the pot, namely, playing well post-flop. And playing well post-flop is far more difficult than playing well preflop. By raising instead, you can win the pot preflop, perhaps by folding out players who have limped or by picking up the blinds. Further, if your raise gets called and your hand misses the flop, you can continuation bet and still win the pot.

In other words, raising preflop allows you to maneuver in the hand more easily by giving you more than one way to win the pot, whereas limping almost always requires you to make your hand on the flop.

2. Playing Too Loosely

Many players aren’t mindful of the value of the hands they play preflop. It should go without saying that A-A is better than K-Q offsuit, which is better than 10-5 suited, which is better than 7-2 offsuit. The question is, which hands should be played? Some hands are strong enough to play, while others are far too weak. Of course, the trouble is not whether to fold A-A preflop, but rather determining whether to fold, say, A-10 offsuit in middle position.

If you’re first in the pot, is that hand usually a fold? How about K-8 offsuit on the cutoff? Many amateurs simply do not know which hands are strong enough to play pre-flop and which hands they should fold. It is crucial to have a line in mind, between which hands you should play and which hands you should fold, for every position. Playing too many unprofitable hands pre-flop is one of the quickest ways to go from a winner to a loser, even if the rest of your game is solid.

3. Playing Too Tightly

Just as you can play too many hands pre-flop you can err in the other direction and play too few hands. What’s more, contrary to what many players think, playing too tight can be just as detrimental to your results, or sometimes worse!

The problem here is two-fold. First, playing too tight means you are folding value hands that you should otherwise be winning money with. Second, and consequently, it means you are probably getting less action with your premium hands. Opponents who are paying attention will notice how few hands you are playing, and, as a result, will run for the hills when you actually do play a hand.

4. Having No Plan

Really, the mistakes on this list culminate into the more general mistake of not having a plan preflop, or having a too loosely-constructed plan. The best way to play winning poker is to begin with a strong preflop strategy: Work out which hands to raise when it folds you to, which hands to limp (and when limping is correct), which hands to raise or call or fold when someone else raises ahead of you, and so on. Think carefully about potential weaknesses in your current preflop strategy.

It’s important to note that the best time to figure this out is away from the poker table. Developing your strategy while playing could be costly, especially if you’re just beginning to develop your game or making significant changes to it. Thankfully, much of what you do preflop should follow a general plan that is easily developed away from the table. The rest—the parts of your strategy that change with player and game conditions—will require time spent actually playing, but any adjustments you make to your preflop game should be corralled by a strong general strategy.

5. Mixing It Up

Without a well-developed plan preflop there is a temptation to “mix it up” arbitrarily. I see many players do this—they decide to do something unusual, for no obvious reason, and they (predictably) get punished for making such a silly decision.

Of course, making adjustments is important. The best players vary their games to remain balanced, and to adapt to different opponents and playing conditions. But they vary their games with a certain purpose in mind. You’ll never see a good player just call with A-A preflop to mix things up. The fact is, while players may not expect you to do something, such as just call with A-A, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good play. Keeping your opponents guessing is important, but doing so can’t come at the cost of playing your hand poorly.

What it all comes down to is the math. To stick with our example, although you may trick some opponents into believing you could never have A-A by just calling pre-flop, you will never recover the value you would have earned by simply raising or three-betting.

“Trapping” an opponent with a hand as strong as A-A cannot be made a part of a well-rounded strategy that employs the proper raising and three-betting frequencies. It’s simply not profitable over any reasonable stretch of hands played. You will make so much more money by raising or re-raising A-A preflop that is impossible to recoup any value gained through the deception of flatting at random.

If there are times when a play seems “mixed-up,” in any correct sense, it must be because we have carefully considered more than one correct option. They are both “correct”, because either they are very close in value, or one is superior to the other because we’ve figured something out which may not have been obvious. In these cases we are not doing something out of the ordinary to be tricky or deceptive; we are playing smart, measured preflop poker. ♠

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