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Hold ‘em if you Got ‘em

In tthis installment of our H.O.R.S.E. series, Lee Munzer focuses on the unstoppable game of limit hold ‘em.

Shortly after arriving in Las Vegas 14 years ago, I began playing low-limit Texas hold ‘em around town. I became poker pals with a man who, at a comped dinner one night, pulled out a yellowed, wrinkled piece of paper and told me, “This is all you need to win enough to cover your rent and expenses in Las Vegas.” I perused a complex set of letters carefully situated to the outside of an oval. The letters were minimum starting hand requirements shown by position. The oval designated a poker table layout. For example, in the first position to act (under the gun), J-J, A-K and Q-J were listed. My poker buddy explained those three hands are the minimum holdings one should play in pocket pairs, unsuited cards and suited cards respectively. His minimum button requirements for a 10-handed game were far more lenient (5-5, 9-7, and 6-5). Beneath the oval were ‘adjustment’ lines for each position (excepting under the gun) showing modifications for the number of players who had entered the pot. For instance, when third to act and two players had limped, requirements for pocket pairs were eased from 9-9 to 6-6. The reasoning: pocket pairs play well in multi-way pots since you will generally invest one small bet and usually fold if you miss the flop. When you have the good fortune to spike a set or quads (an event that will happen 11.76 percent of the time), a big pot will often be pushed your way.

Although I had issues with the robotic chart which failed to incorporate raising hands and ignored alterations geared to the passive or aggressive nature of a specific game, I could not argue with the premise that highly conservative starting hand play will turn a profit against competitors who fail to recognise the importance of position and venture forth with hands such as J-4 suited in non-blind positions. Playing snug will also result in below-average contributions to the black holes of poker (the rake and dealer’s shirt pocket).

So, to win during the hold ‘em sessions of H.O.R.S.E. the first thing you must master is starting hand selection. Rather than following a chart, I prefer to apply a mental governor that restricts me from playing (approximately) the bottom 60 percent of the 169 starting hands in almost any non-blind situation. When to play the best 40 percent is predicated upon the texture of the game, the tendencies of my competition, the number of players who have already joined the fray and my position.

Short-handed skills come into play since we will be competing against a maximum of seven adversaries. H.O.R.S.E. is always played eight-handed (or less when players sit out or the game isn’t full). That’s because playing stud games against eight or nine opponents would create the potential problem of running out of individual cards for each player, and most stud players disdain receiving a community card on seventh street.

So, our first adjustment is to alter starting hand requirements when playing eight-handed versus 10-handed. Typically, when the action gets to you, there will be fewer opponents when playing eight-handed, so you’ll be able to increase your range of calling and raising hands. Mathematically, winning one hold ‘em pot in eight hands dealt (on average) is 20 percent easier than winning one pot in 10. So, should we be playing 20 percent more starting hands? I don’t think so. I recommend adding approximately four more hands in early position and another four from middle position. The reason I opt for fewer hands than the mathematical computation is that you will still be out of position versus late-position players, and you will be subject to their raises. As for playing in late position, when it’s your turn to act, the situation will be more clarified, and you can loosen your requirements accordingly (basing your hand selection and your action on the number of previous callers/raisers and the tendencies of the blind players to defend).

One of the most important decisions one is faced with preflop is when to raise and whether to call an adversary’s raise. Some calling hands become raising hands from early position simply because, with fewer players to wade through, the possibility of stronger hands lurking behind you is less than one encounters playing 10-handed. Some of your opponents will fail to adjust to shorter-handed play. Push these foes around. Others will become overly aggressive. They can be trapped more easily.

In general, when playing H.O.R.S.E. I’ve found the hold ‘em rounds to be hotly contested through the river. H.O.R.S.E. competitors seem to relish the period of time hold ‘em is spread. They want to utilise their skills in this popular game. This generally translates to looser play pre-flop and an almost stubborn tendency to play each hand as far as they can. You will often see some surprisingly weak hands at showdown. When you spot players who cherish hold ‘em, you should attempt to isolate them and play aggressively when heads-up against them.

I’ll be back next month with a comprehensive review of my favourite game, Omaha high-low eight-or-better, as we enter the backstretch seeking greater H.O.R.S.E. profits.

Common Hold ‘em Errors to Avoid

Bluffing too much
In general, low-limit players tend to call you down with almost any hand that has a remote chance of winning (they are sometimes correct based on pot odds).

Playing too many hands
Folding can get boring, but playing tickets that should be mucked is a waste of chips. Dump hands such as Q-7 suited and A-7 unsuited. They are not in the top 40 percent of the 169 possible starting hands and will often result in costly kicker problems.

Chasing better hands on later streets
“If the flop doesn’t fit, you should quit” is a good general rule to follow.

Calling too much with good hands
Since you’ll be starting with relatively strong hands, you’ll usually be in good shape when the flop fits your hand. Consider raising (not calling) when someone bets into you.

Ignoring mathematics
Hold ‘em presents many drawing situations. Always consider your pot and implied odds when drawing.

Failing to adjust to competition
Pound weak and loose players; play carefully against tight and tricky adversaries.
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