If you want to take an opponent to Valuetown (the subject of my last ABC blog), you have more chance of doing so if you start with holecards that flop well.
It was my intention to provide the long-awaited hand charts this week, but while writing an introduction to them, I realised that forming a pre-flop strategy is rather more complicated than just saying “Here's your position, here are your cards, go make some money”. I think a new player would benefit from understanding why certain hands are playable in certain situations. This blog would be indigestible if I bombarded readers with a long wall of text and a load of charts, so I've decided to post an introduction to positional pre-flop strategy today, with the open-raising charts (along with further advice) to follow in a few days.

Before we look at hand charts, I want you to think about some of the things that make a hand playable. Obviously there is the relative strength of a starting hand itself (everyone knows that raising AA is +EV, but calling with 72 is -EV) but before you consider opening a pot, you should also be cognisant of the number and tendencies of players who still have live cards, their stack sizes and positions in relation to the dealer button.

Even a total beginner intuitively recognises that playing in position post-flop confers several benefits. Most could tell you that being in position is good because “You get to see what everyone else does first”. This is certainly true, but information alone doesn't make money.

Perhaps the most important advantage of being in position is that it allows you to control the size of the pots you play. Apart from when you or your opponents are already all in, you will always have the option to put more money in the pot in position when an opponent bets into you. If you have a big hand, then you can raise in order to build a bigger pot. With a draw, you can calculate the precise pot odds and compare them with the probability of making your hand, so you immediately know if calling is +EV. If you have a weak holding, and don't think bluffing is wise, you can fold to the bet, thus minimising your losses.
If villains happen to check to you in position, then you might want to bet for value or as a bluff, but you also have the option of closing the action by checking behind. This is ideal when you have a weak hand or draw, because you get one street closer to showdown with your marginal hands, and the free card may improve your hand without costing you a penny.

Being out of position lacks the advantages above. Since the villain in position can control the size of the pot, hands you play out of position will not be as profitable as the same hands played in position. The reasons are several.
  1. When you have the best hand OOP and bet for value, villain has the option of folding, so you don't get paid. You can't take him to Valuetown if he won't pay your asking price! You'll often just win the minimum, which might just be the small amount of money that went in pre-flop.
  2. When you bet with what you think is the best hand, villain can raise with better hands, so you lose the maximum (you get “value-owned” if you call/re-raise) or he can bluff you off the best hand after you've invested a significant proportion of your stack, by representing that he has you beat.
  3. If you check, in an attempt to keep the pot small with a marginal hand, villain may bet in position (sometimes as a bluff), so you are compelled to put money in the pot if you want to continue. (You wanted to keep the pot small, but villain made it bigger).
  4. If you have a draw or marginal hand OOP, you can never check behind to take a free card or see a cheap showdown. You can only hope that the villain in position allows to do so by not betting himself.

Throughout this course, I advocate a straightforward playing style that follows standard lines and reduces your exposure to trouble spots. Since playing out of position significantly increases the likelihood of running into tricky post-flop spots, I recommend avoiding “trouble hands” when you are likely to be OOP. I'll talk more about “trouble hands” in due course.
There are certain types of hands that play particularly badly out of position. These tend to be low-rank cards which form speculative or “drawing” hands. Suited connectors are a case in point. These cards can make very strong hands (flushes and straights) if all 5 community cards can be seen fairly cheaply, but if you're out of position, it's hard to keep the pot small, and - as I said above - when you finally make your monster hand, it's hard to get paid off.

If you're not yet convinced that position is of utmost importance when deciding whether to play a hand, look at these stats for net profit by position over a sample of over 100k hands of full ring 2NL.

At the top of the profit table is the button, and that's a seat where I might be raising hands as weak as 65s or T9o. At the bottom are the blinds. Everyone loses in the blinds in FR games. But look at the figure for EP+1 (equivalent to UTG on a 9-handed table). Even though I only play super-strong hands UTG, I only made $1.90 profit with them in that seat. Believe or not, I lost money with pocket jacks when I raised UTG (albeit partly due to sick coolers). The crucial inference to take is that I made more money with a weak range of starting hands (high VPIP) played mostly in position, than with a strong range of hands (low VPIP) played out of position.

There are very few hands that can be profitably open-raised in the first few seats at a 9-handed table. Since making money OOP is so tough, I recommend that beginners avoid doing so if their expectation is only marginally +EV.
We should be much more inclined to raise pre-flop when we are likely to be in position post-flop, because playing a hand in position is more straightforward and has a higher expectation. Being heads up on the flop is also preferred to being multiway, since it's obviously easier to win a pot against one opponent than against several. When we open in late position, we are much less likely to be multiway on the flop, because 5 or 6 players have already folded when we enter the pot.

The open-raising ranges I detail in the next article are extremely "unbalanced". I'm much tighter than most 2NL players in EP, but much looser than most players in LP. (At higher stakes, against observant players, we might need to mix it up and include some suited connectors or small pairs UTG, to disguise our hand strength and balance our ranges. But at 2NL, we can play “exploitably”.)
While it may be profitable to play according to my charts robotically, I think it's important for readers to understand how they were formed, in order that they can adapt them to their own personal style, and (more importantly) table conditions. For example, if you are on a table that is very loose passive, you should be more inclined to raise with “big cards” that make good top pairs, and focus on value-betting when you connect. If the table is particularly tight, then there is some scope to widen your opening ranges, because you're more likely to steal the blinds. On an aggressive table, featuring a lot of 3-betting, you'll typically tighten up and only play hands that can withstand a re-raise, because raise-folding marginal hands will be a drain on your bankroll.

The hand charts for each seat at the table will be posted in a few days, but if you've not seen a card matrix before, you may find them confusing at first. This diagram should help you out.

While I would certainly alter my raising ranges according to table conditions (villain types, stack sizes etc.), the charts are based on being at a 9-handed table of random 2NL players with 100bb stacks. Note, in particular, that the forthcoming charts are based on a full 9-handed table. If a seat to your left is empty, or a player is sitting out, then you are effectively one place closer to the button. In this case, you may technically be “under the gun”, but you should play the range recommended for UTG+1. If several players just busted or left the table, there might only be 6 players dealt in. In that case, being in 2nd position would be equivalent to playing in the hijack seat (MP3), so you could open with the range for that position.

A standard size for raising when first into the pot is 3bb (6c at 2NL). If there is a limper, add 1bb to make your raise 4bb (8c); for 2 limpers make it 5bb (10c). There is some scope for deviating from standard sizes for specific reasons (and occasionally we will over-limp instead of raising according the charts), but I'll detail those special cases in a later article.

Hopefully, this blog has highlighted the importance of position when putting together your pre-flop plan. There will be much more information provided with the charts themselves. Hit SUBSCRIBE above to receive an email notification when my next blog goes up.

Questions, comments or suggestions are welcome as usual, but note that I'm more likely to see and answer them in my blog thread on the forum.

Further reading: RockerguyAAA's excellent forum post Defining A NL Holdem Pre-Flop Strategy.

Till the next time, good luck on the tables!