The first decision you have to make in any poker hand
is whether to play the hand or not. There are several factors that will influence your decision – including your position at the table, your opponents and your table image – but the most important factor to consider is the strength of your hand.
To use an extreme example, if you get dealt pocket Aces you're always going to play. Whereas if you get dealt 7-2 offsuit it would have to be extraordinary circumstances for you to play.
Here's a quick-fire guide to hands you must play, hands that you should play depending on position and then those hands that should be marked with a big red warning sign next to them…
Must-play (premium hands)
- Pocket pairs T-T and above
- A-K, A-Q suited
As you can see, this is a very exclusive list. These hands are so strong that they should be played under any circumstance – whether that's facing a raise, a 3-bet or if you're the first to enter the pot. Hands this strong don't come around very often so make the most of them and try to win a big pot.
Should-play (Good but not great hands)
- Pocket pairs 6-6 to 9-9
- A-Q offsuit, A-J, A-T suited
- K-Q, Q-J, J-T suited
- 8-7, 7-6, 5-4 (all suited)
This is a much wider category that should be amended depending on your position at the table. If you are in late position all of these hands are good enough to raise or call with – and you can even include slightly weaker hands like A-9 and K-J to the list – but if you are in early position then you should only play the stronger parts of this range, such as A-Q, 9-9 and K-Q suited. This is because there are many players to act after you who could have a stronger hand.
It's also important to note how tough your opponents at the table are. If you're in a difficult game it's often a good strategy to tighten up, whereas if the table is quite soft you can play more hands and look to exploit mistakes post-flop.
WARNING! RED ALERT!
- Ace-rag hands, such as A-2 through to A-8
- Small pocket pairs, 2-2 to 5-5
- K-T, Q-T etc
These hands all appear attractive on the surface but it's important not to get too carried away with them either. Weak Aces like A-7 are valuable because you can flop top pair but whenever the pot starts to escalate it will usually be because you are dominated by a bigger Ace. You have to be prepared to sometimes fold top pair if you get involved with this type of hand.
Small pocket pairs are usually a case of feast or famine. If you hit a set you will almost certainly have the best hand and should look to bloat the pot, but when you don't hit a set the problems begin.
Now you've got a pair that will almost certainly have two or three overcards to it on the board, leaving you in a difficult spot. You either have to accept that you will often be bluffed off the best hand or call down desperately with little information as to whether you are ahead! By all means play these hands but be aware that you will run into a ton of issues post-flop when you miss a set.
Adapting from tournaments to cash games
In general, the starting hands that you choose to play in either a tournament or cash game should be pretty similar. The only difference is that you will probably be sitting with many more big blinds in a cash game, and this affords you more options and leeway.
When you are 'deep' in a cash game, sitting with 100 big blinds or more, hands like suited connectors gain a lot more value because of their potential to crack monsters like K-K. By contrast, those low Ace-x hands, K-J and the like go down in value because the risk of being dominated is so much higher.