The Flop: Poker's Essential Decision

Deciding whether to see the flop with your first two cards is generally the most important decision you'll make playing hold'em. Choosing to play or toss your cards away is really a decision about investing money in a pot with hopes of winning it. It's a decision you have to make each time you're dealt a hand.

The key to successful pre-flop play in hold'em is selectivity - putting yourself in situations offering favorable pot odds. When you're in a favorable situation, you need to be aggressive, either to get more money in the pot when you have a big hand or to eliminate competition when you're holding the kind of hand that plays best against fewer opponents.


How To Play Your Starting Cards:

What should you expect to find in the two cards dealt to you before the flop? Sometimes you'll be dealt a pair. If there's no pair in your hands, the cards will be either suited or not. They also can be connected (K-Q, 8-7, 4-3). If not connected, they might be one-, two- or three-gapped (K-J, 9-7, or 5-2). Cards that are neither suited nor paired, unconnected, and four-gapped or larger should not be played under normal circumstances. Important: If a player who acts before you raises, you need to tighten up significantly, and throw away many of the hands you'd play if the pot had not been raised.


Complex Situations:

Complex situations stem from uncertainty over how to play your own hand, or respond to an action by your opponent. What should you do, for example, when you're dealt a medium or big pair in early position? If your big pair is Aces, Kings, or Queens, you ought to raise - or re-raise if the pot was raised in front of you. If you're the first one in, raise with any pair of tens or higher, and occasionally - to add some deception to your game - raise with any pair of sevens or higher. If you regularly have to make choices you're not sure about, consider changing tables or packing it in until the tough players leave and the game gets a bit softer.


Playing Small, Medium and Big Pairs:

With smaller pairs, unless you are up against only one other player, you almost have to flop a set to make it worth your while to play on. If you don't flop a set when dealt a pair of deuces, for example, you can be certain that every subsequent card will be an overcard. The only way to win under these circumstances is for the board to miss everyone - and with multi-way action, that's unlikely. With a medium pair, you might have to flop a set to win the pot. If I'm holding a pair of Kings, only an Ace on the flop may give someone a bigger pair. But if you hold Tens, every face card on the board creates a potential pair bigger than yours. When you're dealt a big pair, it's usually smart to raise before the flop. Your objectives are to limit the number of players in hopes that your single big pair will be sufficient to capture the pot without having to improve, and to give your opponents a chance to make a mistake - calling your bet when the odds don't warrant it. However, if you get a lot of callers, you'll need to reassess this strategy, to determine whether your pair is still the best hand.


Playing a Big Pair When Someone Raises in Front of You:

If you hold a big pair before the flop, you should welcome a raise ahead of you. Your re-raise should then eliminate all but the truest kamikazes as well as players holding premium hands. The secret to playing big pairs is to play them against fewer, rather than many opponents, while locking those opponents into as many bets as you can garner.

Again, the lesson to be learned from these examples is that you must always be extremely selective in poker, even after you've chosen to play a hand aggressively. When you've been raised, force yourself to answer this question: What's my opponent likely to be raising with? Many beginning hold'em players simply do not play their opponents' hands. Making the mistake of playing only your hand is a common, costly error among beginners and low-limit players.


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