Preflop play in Limit hold 'em concerns decisions made on the first betting round, before the three-card flop is dealt. Conventional wisdom holds that your most important decision is which hands to play and which to fold. However, a bit of a revisionist school of thought has coalesced around Ed Miller's Small Stakes Hold 'em. This book holds that, although preflop decisions are certainly important, it's postflop play where inexpert play costs the most money.

Preflop decisions can be a particularly heated topic of discussion in hold 'em, because there are only 169 combinations of significantly different hands (counting, for example, ace-king suited and ace-king offsuit separately, but not AK♣ separately from A K♣).

Starting Hand Selection

Most of the important books on Texas Hold'em strategy will include a chart of starting hands. These charts generally show the two cards and which position they can be played from. There are only 169 possible starting hands, so such a chart isn't particularly large. Most books will also include information on how each hand plays against a raise before you and how they play against many or few opponents. Consult Getting Started In Hold'em, Small Stakes Hold'em and Hold'em Poker for Advanced Players for some starting hand discussions.

Multiway vs. Headsup Action

Some starting hands play well against many players and other hands play better against only one or two opponents. Some hands play well against any number of opponents. The differences between hands usually relate to their hand equity and their implied odds.

Hand Equity. Some hands, such as AA or KK, have high equity. This means that they will win far more than their "fair share." Fair share is just 100% divided by the number of players in a hand. Against only a single player with a random hand, AA should win about 85% of the time. But one's fair share in this pot would only be 50%, so AA has a huge equity edge against most other hands. Hands with high equity play well against many or few opponents.

Other hands, such as KJo, have an equity edge against a random hand, but they can also be easily dominated by a hand such as KQo or AJo. These are types of hands you want to play against fewer opponents to decrease the possibility of domination. For instance, KJo vs KQo is at a large disadvantage due to domination with an equity of only 27% or so.

Implied Odds. Implied odds are the odds based on bets you win if you make your hand. This type of odds refers to making a well hidden monster hand and collecting extra bets from your opponents on later rounds of betting. When deciding whether to play, you can take into account these future bets. Hands with high implied odds are low to medium suited connectors and small to medium pocket pairs. These hands like multiway action because if you should hit a monster hand on the flop, you're likely to collect many bets from your opponents.

See also Implied odds.

Poker Stove - helps determine equity.

Playing against a preflop raise

A particular leak many players have is loose calling against a raise before the flop. This is called cold calling and is almost never the correct play.

There is a basic rule of thumb that should be remembered when trying to decide what to do when facing a raise. That rule is that you need a better hand to call a raise with than you would have needed to raise yourself. The raiser has told you, via the raise, that she has a solid hand. So, your hand needs to have even greater value than the value you think the raiser would need.

For example, there's a raise to you preflop by a solid player. You think she'd raise with any pocket pair down to 9s, AK, AQ and maybe AJ. You'll need a hand better than this to keep playing.

Now, what about calling versus raising after a raise before you? If you have one of the hands that is better than you estimate the raiser needs, you should seriously consider raising it as well. Most of these hands will play well against many players or heads-up. Since the raise your opponent put in will likely knock players behind you out, you might as well raise to get the pot heads-up.

Heads-up you have excellent equity with one of these premium hands. Against many players you have decent equity and will be getting good implied odds, so you don't mind a big field with a premium hand. But against a couple of opponents your implied odds suffer and your equity will be cut.

So, when facing a raise, either raise it yourself - if your hand justifies a raise - or fold.

One note, if there has been a raise and a number of cold callers already, you can loosen up and play hands with big implied odds such as mid-to-high suited connectors and suited aces. You won't often hit your hand, but when you do the pots will be huge and will generally pay for the times you missed.

PokerWiki's guide to limit hold 'em preflop play
Pairs: AA | KK | QQ | JJ | TT | 99 | Medium | Small
Suited connectors AKs | KQs | QJs | JTs | Medium | Small
Other suited hands AQs | AJs | ATs | Axs | Kxs | Qxs | Semiconnectors | Junk
Offsuit hands AKo | AQo | KQo | AJo | QJo | JTo | Connectors | Junk
By position Early | Middle | Late | SB | BB
Preflop | Flop | Turn | River

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