Pre-Flop Play, Part 1: Position and Hand Selection

Deciding whether or not to play a hand before the flop depends on three key factors: (1) your position at the table, (2) the tendencies of the players at your table, and (3) the strength of your hand... in that order. More than anything else, position will rule your approach to a hand, both before and after the flop. So what do we mean by “position?” Simply put, it’s being the last player to act in a hand. When playing from position, you will have more information on your opponent’s hand because he or she will be forced to act before you.

The best position at the table is the button. Pre-flop, the button acts immediately before the small blind and the big blind, but is last to act after the flop, turn and river. The seat to the immediate right of the button is commonly called the cutoff, and the seat to the right of the cutoff is called the hijack. Collectively, these three spots at the table are also referred to as late position.

That covers five seats at a typical nine-handed table. Middle position represents the next two seats to the right of the hijack. That leaves us with early position—in the pre-flop betting round, the player first to act is referred to as being under-the-gun or UTG. The player to his immediate left who is second to act pre-flop is UTG+1. However, on all post-flop betting rounds, the small blind acts first, followed by the big blind, UTG, UTG+1, and so on.

Your range of starting hands should vary depending on your position at the table. Something like [Js][Ts] is quite pretty to look at, but if you’ve been dealt it under the gun, there are still eight more players to act behind you. If you open for a raise, you still have eight chances to be reraised. If you limp in, it’s almost an open invitation for multiple players to limp in behind to try and catch a cheap flop—and even then, all of you could still potentially be reraised out of the pot. If you do make it to the flop, you’ll be out of position for the rest of the hand. That’s difficult enough against one opponent, let alone multiple callers.

However, what if the action folded to you on the button and you looked at that same [Js][Ts]? Now it’s a hand definitely worth a raise. If one or both of the blinds call the raise, not only are you guaranteed to be the last to act after the flop, but you’ve already demonstrated strength and aggression. If the action is checked to you on the flop, even if you’ve missed completely, you have a good shot at taking down the pot with a bet.

So, what sort of hand ranges are appropriate for each position at the table? In poker, there are no hard and fast rules and as you gain more experience, you’ll be able to deviate a little further from these suggestions if table conditions allow. In general, you should play fewer hands from early position and open up your range more as you get closer to the button. If you’re just starting out, these are some good guidelines to follow. We’re assuming a nine-handed table of no-limit hold’em.

Early position:

High pairs (A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J, T-T, 9-9), Suited aces (A-Ks, A-Qs, A-Js), Unsuited aces (A-Ko, A-Qo), High suited connectors: (K-Qs)

Middle position:

All early position hands as well as medium pairs (8-8, 7-7, 6-6), suited Broadway cards (K-Js, Q-Js, J-Ts), offsuit Broadway cards (A-Jo, A-To, K-Qo, K-Jo, Q-Jo), medium suited aces (A-9s, A-8s, A-7s)

Late position:

All early and middle position hands as well as small pairs (5-5, 4-4-, 3-3, 2-2), small suited aces (A-6s down to A-2s), medium suited kings (K-9s, K-8s), offsuit Broadway cards (K-To, Q-To, J-To), suited connectors (T-9s, 9-8s, 8-7s, 7-6s), high/medium suited gappers (Q-9s, Q-8s, J-9s, J-8s)


All of the above, plus small suited connectors (6-5s, 5-4s), medium suited gappers (T-8s, 9-7s, 8-6s) and some medium offsuit aces (A-9o, A-8o, A-7o)

What about playing from the blinds? These are the two trickiest spots to handle. The small blind is the worst, since you’ll be first to act on every betting round after the flop. If there are multiple limpers, most of the time you’ll be priced in to call the additional half a bet to see a flop, no matter how terrible your starting hand. However, if you’re in the small blind and facing a raise, first consider the raiser’s position. Is he opening the pot from early position or late position? This should at least inform you somewhat to his range of starting hands. Next, think about how he has been playing. Is this player a maniac that raises every other hand? Or has he been folding for the last half hour?

Let’s look at an example. Say the action folds to a pretty competent player who opens for a raise from the cutoff. You look down at [Ks][Th] in the big blind. This is a hand probably worth defending. Against a late position raiser, king-high rates to be the best hand a majority of the time, so it’s worth a look at a flop. However, what if the same player made the raise from UTG+1? Now, the king-ten doesn’t look so hot. Think about the range of hands he could be opening with—A-K, A-Q, K-Q, bigger pairs. Even K-J has you crushed. In this instance, the king-ten would be better off in the muck.

To recap, here are the key points to remember when it comes to preflop position and hand selection:

  • It is always advantageous to play from position because you’ll have more information on your opponents by the time it is your turn to act.
  • Play tight from early position, entering the pot with premium hands only. As you get closer to the button and have fewer players left to act behind you, start opening up your range.
  • When deciding whether or not to call a preflop raise, pay close attention to the position the raise is coming from. An early position raiser will generally be playing a narrower range of hands than a late position raiser.
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