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Intro to Preflop Strategy - Part I

What are we trying to accomplish with our preflop strategy? Most players do not reflect on this question, or at best give it a cursory glance. Failure to consider the big picture is a considerable mistake, especially in shorthanded poker. In this lesson, we examine what we are trying to accomplish with our preflop strategy. Our assessment will allow us to come up with a loose set of hand rankings in lesson 5, followed by a final look at blind defense in lesson 6. These three lessons will setup a shorthanded plan on the flop and turn.

Win Money, not Pots

In my experience, one of the biggest (and yet most common) amateur errors when considering preflop strength involves the heavy use of preflop winning percentages when considering the viability of starting hands. The problem is that preflop winning percentages do not translate to profitability. For example, one can note that 22 is a slight favorite versus AKo. Or, we might point out that a hand like A3o is a favorite over KQo. But in both cases, I'd rather have the second hand, since the latter will be much easier to play successfully after the flop. Remember, the goal of poker is not to win the most pots. The goal is to win the biggest net profit possible, which in large part means maximizing our wins while while minimizing our losses.

So, if we cannot use preflop winning percentages to determine which hands are strongest for shorthanded play, what factors do we consider? The answer is mostly common sense, especially for advanced players. First, we look for bigger cards that are more likely to be ahead on the flop. Second, we look for hands that are likely to have a second-best hand dominated, allowing a big win. Third, we look for holdings that are as invulnerable to "hand domination" as possible. Let's look at each of these factors.

Big Cards

One of my earliest articles on PokerPages.com deals with the immense value big cards acquire in shorthanded poker. Drawing hands and smaller pairs go way down in value since so many hands are heads-up or 3-handed on the flop. With few players, the implied odds of drawing hands are significantly reduced. In turn, the reverse implied odds suffered by big cards are minimalized. Furthermore, big cards are simply more likely to flop top pair with a good kicker rather than second or third pair. In shorthanded games, top pair with a good kicker wins often, lures a lot more action from second-best hands, and is less likely dominated by two pair. In other words, big cards meet all three of the criteria we measure to determine the profitability of our starting hands.

Another factor to consider is the value of overcards when holding a drawing hand. With an 8-out straight draw in a shorthanded game, a player might find the pot odds offered are very close to the odds of completing the drawing hand. However, if we can hold a reasonable expectation that top pair may be a winning hand, then that same 8-out straight draw becomes an 11- or 14-outer with live overcards.

Finally, a player with big cards is far less likely to be drawing dead when holding one pair on the flop. Let's look at three simple examples to illustrate this point.

Example 1. Two players see the flop. 4.5 small bets

Flop is Kh 8s 3d. Button holds 8c7c. Big blind holds Jd8d.

This is a common situation seen in shorthanded play. The button has raised with good suited connectors, trying to win the blinds or flop a strong hand. Instead, the button hits only second pair, leaving them in the unenviable position of holding a second-best hand. Worse, the button has a bad kicker and cannot know for sure whether he is winning, or is behind with 5, 3, 2, or 0 outs. In example 1, the button has only 3 outs. If one of the two remaining 8s falls on the turn, the button is going to lose an extra 2, 3, or more big bets.

Example 2. Two players see the flop. 4.5 small bets.

Flop is Kh 8s 3d. Button holds 8c7c. Big blind holds Ks3s.

In this scenario, the big blind has flopped two pair. They will likely play their hand fast, and the button will be in an awkward position. If a 7 falls, the button will lose a couple extra big bets and has very little chance of getting away from the hand. Of course, it could be worse...the big blind could hold Kd8d.

Example 3. Two players see the flop. 4.5 small bets.

Flop is Kh 8s 3d. Button holds Ac8c. Big blind holds Ks3s.

What a difference a kicker can make! By holding Ac8c rather than 8c7c, the button can call confidently and will be able to effectively estimate their chances of successfully sucking out. All 5 outs are live, even though the big blind holds two pair. Furthermore, if an Ace falls, the button is very likely to earn some extra bets (providing some implied odds for a flop call) from the big blind's smaller two pair. Of course, the button would also earn extra bets if the big blind had held KQ, K8, or A3.

Example 4. Two players see the flop. 4.5 small bets.

Flop is Kh 8s 6d. Button holds 8c7c. Big blind holds 9h7h.

Last but not least, we look at what happens when the button holds second pair against a good but not excellent draw. The important factor here is the confidence of the button. Since the button's kicker is so low, they might actually fold on the turn if they don't improve-a huge victory for the semibluffing big blind. If the button held an Ace, on the other hand, the button is less likely to be bluffed off their hand by a lesser holding. This is a big advantage in the wild, bluff-heavy games often found in shorthanded play.

Big Wins

A player who frequents full ring games, especially loose games, will immediately recognize the value of pocket pairs and suited connectors. Furthermore, they will eschew many of the big hands that are so valuable in shorthanded games, such as KJ, KT, QJ, and QT. In full games, the relative value of the lower-ranked suited connectors and pocket pairs is based heavily on their potential for a huge hand that will earn a significant pot. To some extent, this assessment still applies to shorthanded games.

Basically, the challenge is that one pair can only earn a certain amount of action from lesser hands. Players are not likely to push 3 or 4 bets out on the turn or river with just one pair, even with a good kicker. So while big hands earn a large number of small and medium-sized pots, there will always be a certain amount of anxiety associated with their play, as well as a fairly low cap on the amount of profit that may be earned. Note: Big pairs still earn more money in shorthanded games than during full games since so many extra hands (second pair, top pair/bad kicker) will grant at least some action.

On the other hand, a hidden straight or a set can earn heaps of extra bets from top pair/top kicker, an overpair, two pair, or a lower big straight or set. Furthermore, if suited connectors or a pocket pairs don't improve, there is a limit to the amount of loss that will be sustained if the drawing hand is not played too fast. In other words, there are still some implied odds, even in shorthanded play.

For these two reasons, suited connectors and pocket pairs are still playable in the correct circumstances. The ability to win a big pot is worth enough to make many hands playable if considered in conjunction with the ability to steal the blinds and semibluff profitably, as long as the game is conducive to such strategies.

Avoiding Big Losses

I consider avoiding big losses to be the least important of the three factors we use when considering preflop play. In general, thinking defensively is not profitable in shorthanded play. ATo is a terrible hand in a full ring game since the chance of domination is so high. But in a shorthanded game, domination by a bigger ace is far less likely. Of course, it is still a factor to consider. This is one of the main reasons a hand like AXo is still less valuable than KQo, even though AXo will win some small pots when checked down in late rounds. AXo is going to lose significant pots to bigger kickers, as well as stronger hands such as two pair or better. Overall, the possibility of a hand being dominated should be considered as a secondary factor to the size and potential of each starting hand.

The reasoning above is universal. The same considerations apply when examining starting hands for a 10-handed game, although the weight and priority given to each factor is different.

What Next?

In shorthanded poker, there are two added concerns. First, we must think about the 'playability' of each hand after the flop. Since so many flops will create difficult or marginal options for shorthanded players, it stands to reason that those hands that are "easier" to play post-flop are more desirable. Second, we must consider how the play of each of our hands affects our overall strategy. Can a good preflop strategy produce synergy? Can we take normally unprofitable hands and make them profitable with good overall preflop strategy? We will consider these questions and more in part 2 of this lesson.

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