Preflop hand selection: Complete introduction

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Preflop hand selection is vital

The decision you make most often during a poker game is whether to fold or play the hand dealt to you. Live poker players receive around 25-35 hands per hour, online poker players receive 60 hands per hour (and that’s per table, as of course online players can multitable). If you get your preflop hand selection wrong, then you are setting yourself up for a fall postflop. It will be difficult to recover.

One of the reasons why live low stakes poker is profitable for studied players is because a lot of their unstudied (or poorly studied opponents) take the wrong hand selection to the flop (usually playing way too many hands), and then they cannot profitably continue postflop.

Once they have started off with too big of a preflop hand selection, they end up either
– playing fit or fold, and with so many weak hands in their range they eventually have to fold – if they are the type to go after every single draw, they usually put way too much money into the pot.
– Or, they end up never folding once they have caught a sliver of the flop (however weak), allowing you to call them down with stronger hands).

Should I memorize hand charts?

Live – No
If you are a live low stakes poker player, we at absolutely do NOT recommend you memorize any starting hand charts whatsoever, even if you are a beginner. Instead learn the theory of what goes into preflop hand selection. Of course, have a rough idea of the types of hands you will be looking to get involved with, from each position. But, whilst you are playing be consistently on the lookout for potential profitable opportunities to vary this. There are 2 big reasons why we recommend this.

  • Stack depth can vary a lot from table to table or even from player to player on the table. This means even in the course of the same session you may be playing deepstacked poker for a while, shallow stacked poker for a while, and somewhere in between for a while.
  • You are looking to exploit your weaker low stakes opponents in every way possible (this is the best way to be profitable in this arena – this is not possible online except at micro-stakes, because players are trying to play close to GTO and the best way to respond is to also try and play GTO). Sticking to a rigid preflop hand selection that you have memorized, is not a good way to exploit the opportunities that may come your way.

Online – If you want
If you are only playing non micro-stakes online poker, where your opponents are playing close to GTO, and stack sizes are consistent (e.g. usually 100bb or 40bb) then there is absolutely a case for memorizing starting hand charts (providing they have been well researched). There is an even stronger case, if your are multitabling online, as you have less time to make decisions (and you will want to spend that time on important postflop decisions). Having said that, if possible we would recommend that consider understanding the theory of what goes into preflop hand selection, come up with your own charts, and adjust these based on what you learn as you play. If however, you want to find starting hand charts for this purpose, there are many websites where you can access these for free – we won’t recommend one over another (just do a search, and see which is best for you).

What factors do I need to consider?

For any hand that you are considering playing (i.e.not folding preflop), ask yourself HOW you expect to make money (in the long run) by playing this hand? If you don’t know how you are going to make money by playing this hand, you should fold.


  • If your are playing 9 handed, and are UTG and thus are first to act preflop, you have to make your decision before knowing what the other 8 players are going to do in this particular hand. Of course, you should have ideas of each of their general tendencies from previous hands on the table (and any other data you have on them – e.g. in the live arena, via profiling and from your previous experiences/notes on them, and perhaps via HUD data or notes online).
  • Nevertheless, you have not yet seen what they intend to do in this particular hand. Also, if you decide to play this hand then postflop you will have to act first (unless your are up against the blinds, and even if you are if one or more of the 6 players who have position on you also came along you don’t have absolute position).
  • In a turn based game, such as poker, where players do not make their decisions simultaneously, making your decision last is obviously going to be advantageous the majority of the time. All this leads to the obvious conclusion, that the earlier your position the more strict your starting hand requirements will have to be.
  • On the button, the opposite is true – you are guaranteed position (and thus get to see all other opponents actions on every street, before doing anything) and you should look to be playing a wide range from the button.
  • In between UTG and the button, the amount of hands in your starting range should increase position by position.
  • How about from the blinds? The blinds are interesting, because preflop they act last (the small blind acts after the button, and the big blind acts last of all), but postflop they will be at a positional disadvantage (unless it is folded to the small blind, in which case if the big blind comes along he will be in position). preflop hand selection from the small blind is often poor from beginner players. In the small blind, you will always be first to act postflop. Also, a call from the small blind, can often give the big blind a great price to come along (as he only has to call the difference between the big blind amount and the call amount), meaning you will be out of position to another player also. This is why small blind preflop hand selection should involve a lot more 3 betting, and and a lot less calling, than many beginner players may think. From the big blind, consider the price you are getting. You should be able to continue with a wide range if you are getting a good price. However, do not feel the need to continue with weak hands when the price is poor (for example in live poker, when opens can be large).

Stack depth

The shallower the effective stacks, the more the (hot and cold) equity of your preflop hand is important versus your opponent(s) ranges.

This is because with less money behind, your opponent(s) will find it more difficult to get you to fold your hand, allowing you to realize your raw equity more often. Of course, you will also find it difficult to get your opponent(s) to fold out their equity when stacks are shallow, meaning you want to have as much (hot and cold) equity as possible. You will not be punished as much for having capped ranges at shallower stack depths, nor can you punish your opponents as much for having capped ranges.

The deeper the stacks, the more you would prefer to hold hands that can make the nuts postflop.

When effective stacks are deep, the hot and cold equity of your preflop hand versus your opponent(s) ranges is less important. This is because there will be a lot of money behind. This means it is easier for your opponent(s) to make you give up on your equity, when you are not overly confident in your hand – they can do this by aggressively betting (or even overbetting, which may not even be possible with shallower stacks) or raising.

You have the opportunity to win a massive pot, when you make the nuts, versus a strong hand (that’s weaker than yours) that your opponent holds. With deeper stacks your preflop hand selection will consist of hands than can retain their equity over multiple streets, and board types. Hands that have playability and the ability to signal to you if you should continue, are useful. Small/medium pairs which can make sets go up in value the deeper the stacks. The same can be said for suited connectors (which can make flushes or straights), suited gappers (which can do the same, often in more hidden ways), suited aces (which can make the nut flush). Broadway suited aces are even better as they can make nut flushes and nut straights. You do not want to cap your ranges when playing deep stacked, and you should look to take advantage of any of your opponents who have capped their ranges.

Live poker preflop hand selection tips

When playing live always look to your left (hopefully subtly, so as not to give the game away). You might be surprised as to how often some of your opponents, give away what they are about to do. THIS INFORMATION IS REALLY VALUABLE!

  • A player who might be about to fold might be holding their cards slightly off the table in a ‘fold hold’ (once you start playing live poker, you will be able to recognize this).
  • A player who might be thinking of calling or raising a previous bet, might have their chips in their hand to call or raise. Although it is less common to see players who want to raise have raising chips in their hands, as players with strong hands usually want to hide this fact and want more money to go in before acting.
  • A player who wants to leave the table either temporarily or because this was their last hand and they want to fold (in most live cardrooms the rules/etiquette mean that you cannot fold out of turn), are doing nothing to hide the fact.
  • A player might be busy chatting away, but has stopped talking when he receives his cards (perhaps he has a strong hand, and is considering what to do).

Of course, all this varies from player to player. Strong players usually won’t give away any information (but even they might do so sometimes). Someone may also try and reverse these tells, so you need to be on the lookout for that also. If you know one or more players who have position in you are folding, then your position improves (e.g. if you can see the button is about to fold), and you are in the cutoff, then you are effectively the button (and thus can play a wider hand range from the cutoff, as you know you will act last postflop). Conversely, if you know a player is likely to get involved and they will have position on you, consider if you want to play your hand at all. If it is folded to you on the button, and you can see the players in the blinds are not interested, open any 2 cards etc.

When playing live poker, it is often easy to spot the whale that comes to the table. You know this player is likely to lose all his money, and you want to be the one to get it. Other players on your table may also have the same plan as you. This is where, you should really look to play hands you otherwise wouldn’t to get involved with this whale. It is even OK to make -EV decisions in one hand, if you think it will improve your EV overall.