Hold'em Basic Strategy

In the words of our collective, imaginary Texan grandpappy, “Hold’em’s like love: it’s not somethin’ you just jump into, and if ya find yerself in an armadillo’s den, the only cure’s a sarsaparilla bath.”

We’re still not sure what that second part’s supposed to mean, but we’re pretty sure imaginary Texan grandpappy’s hit the proverbial nail with the first part. Hold’em seriously isn’t a simple or simplistic game, and if you’re going to play it right, you’ll at least need to learn the most basic of basic strategies. And, wouldn’t you know it, we’ve compiled them here to make your life that much easier:

Fast-play high pairs and very strong hands before the Flop: While it’s best not to focus too much on the early hands of a Texas Hold’em round, if you start strong, play strong. This puts more money in the early pot, and it encourages weak players and those with garbage hands to fold. Getting them out early helps you because it prevents them from picking up a lucky Flop and beating you.

Do NOT draw to the low end or both ends of a straight: If a 7, 8 and 9 flops, you want to play to a 10, J, not a 5, 6 (or even a 6, 10). Always play for the higher, stronger hand. It shows, for one thing, that you’re a smart player (It’s not for nothing, after all, that the low end of a straight is commonly called the “ignorant” end). But, even more importantly, playing for the low- or bookends of a straight before the flop, you’ll normally screw the pooch because either you’ll wind up with a lower straight than one of your opponents, or you’ll have no hand at all. So do yourself a favor: on an unsuited 5, 6 or any 6, 10 hole, fold.

Play starting low pairs cautiously: For our purposes, we are starting low pairs at 6, 6 and ending them at (obviously) 2, 2. Like all poker hands, you’ll want to approach these pairs smartly. Don’t bother playing them from an early seat or from a late position. Play them cautiously only when the price is right—say, when your pot odds are much better than your outs odds. What’s more, if you don’t pick up a three- or four-of-a-kind on the flop, you should probably fold.

Play aggressively when you have a two-way draw after the Flop: If you play cautiously with low pairs, ramp up your play when you have a two-way draw. For example, if you can make a straight and a flush after the flop, bet or raise your hand. You have the makings of a very strong hand, so go ahead and bet as if you do.

Bet an ace or two high over-cards after a garbage Flop: Just so we’re clear, we’re defining a “garbage flop” as something akin to a three-suited “rainbow” with unconnected middle and/or low cards. If that happens and you’re still holding cards that are relatively strong, make a bet. However, be smart – if someone raises after your bet, you should fold.

Watch out for uniform Flops: Be mindful of flops like 7, 8 and 9. These can easily turn into straights that can surpass your high pair (or other good hands you might have).

Watch the raiser’s chips: In life as in poker, desperate times call for desperate measures. Players that are close to all-in will often rush the betting just so they can put all their chips in the pot. They’re playing with a “sink-or-swim” mentality, and you can pick up on this if you notice their chips before they go all-in.

Beware of suited flops: Obviously, suited flops can lead to a flush. So, unless you’re holding a strong hand yourself, you probably should fold if a suited flop turns up.

Get caught bluffing every once in a while: The worst insult you can be called as a poker player is “predictable.” You always want to keep your opponents guessing, and when you get caught bluffing, you’re varying your play. Sure, when you get caught you’ll lose some chips. But this strategy pays off in the long run because you’ll usually get calls from weaker hands down the line when you have a stronger hand and need the action.

Study your opponents: In Texas Hold’em, you aren’t playing your hand, but the people across the table from you. Simply put, then, the more you can learn about these folks, the better player you’ll be. Do they play more hands than they fold? Do they bluff? Can they be bluffed? Do they have any “tells” that give away information about their hands? Don’t just know what you’re doing; know what your opponents are doing. Master this aspect of the game, and you’ll be more than halfway to a WSOP bracelet.


-Jim Abrahamsson