Pre-Flop Strategy for Texas Hold ‘em


Whether you’re playing a cash game or a tournament, prefer to play tight or loose, are gambling with some extra money or are on a tight budget, your pre-flop strategy in Texas Hold ‘em can vary dramatically. What makes this seemingly simple aspect of the game even more complex is that, just as you’ll have to evaluate several factors before you sit down to help develop a pre-flop strategy, you’ll consistently have to change up your strategy as the game goes along.

Cash Game Pre-Flop Play vs. Tournament Pre-Flop Play

In a cash game, you’ll want to be much more conservative with your pre-flop strategy than you would be in tournaments, where your goal is to knock other players out of the game. Sometimes that requires a willingness to gamble when you only have a small advantage, or even if you know it’s a coin flip situation. However, cash games are more of a grind, and with real money on the line with each decision, you’re often better served by taking a more conservative route before the flop, then playing the hand as it develops. Learn more about cash versus tournament strategy here.

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Pre-Flop Play in Tournaments

In tournaments, people tend to play tighter before the flop than they do in cash games. One reason for that is because the pre-flop raises as a proportion of chip stack are usually much higher in tournaments – meaning players have to be more selective when deciding to come into a pot. There’s also a heightened awareness that one false move can mean the end of your tournament life, which tends to dampen people’s pre-flop enthusiasm.

To take advantage of that tendency among tournament players, especially in the later stages of play, you can get very aggressive pre-flop. Even when your opponents don’t believe you have the hand you’re representing, they will often fold knowing that if they’re wrong it could be the last play they make in that tournament.

Texas Hold ‘em is always a game that requires a player to abandon fear, and rarely is that more true than in pre-flop tournament situations. In tournaments, the onus is on you to put your opponents to a decision, and pre-flop they are less likely to take you up on that challenge than in any other scenario .

Pre-Flop Play in Cash Games

Cash games require quite a bit more finesse than tournaments in almost all areas, but especially before the flop. While you will certainly need to be aggressive in cash games, using that aggression pre-flop is more likely to get you in trouble than to help you build your stack.

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A player with a pair of sixes.

Doyle Brunson, considered by many to be the greatest all-around poker player of all-time, wrote in the no-limit Texas Hold ‘em section of his classic 1979 book, Super System, that in a cash game you should almost never move all-in before the flop unless you have pocket aces or pocket kings. And while the game has changed considerably in the more than 30 years since the book was published, that is one rule that still holds true. For more information on Super System and other poker strategy books, see our Poker Books guide.

Playing Tight Before the Flop

Conservative pre-flop play is a good strategy for avoiding trouble. You rarely raise, only doing so with premium hands, which means you can make your decisions once more cards have been dealt and bets have been made, giving you more information from which to work.

However, playing tight before the flop also limits your options as the hand progresses. Rarely raising before the flop means you won’t establish strength that can be used after the flop or turn. That will keep you from being able to make small bluffs to pick up extra pots, or use other power poker techniques.

Tight pre-flop play also keeps you from being able to take control of specific hands, or the table in general. Consistent raising, in and of itself, serves as an intimidating factor, no matter when you use it. If you aren’t raising before the flop, opponents will be able to easily read your hand – knowing that you only raise with premium cards – making their decision-making process much simpler.

Aggressive Pre-Flop Play

On the other hand, playing more aggressively before the flop, while it exposes you to more risk, puts more chips in play and opens up the game for the whole table. Pre-flop raising builds pots, so that when you do have the best hand or decide to bluff there is already a decent, if not substantial, amount of money to be won.

Regular pre-flop raising also allows you to sneak up on your opponents. Deciding to raise in late position with a 9-7 suited, for instance, is one way to throw the table off balance. Many of the other players are likely to assume you’re raising with at least a couple of face cards, which means when a middle flop comes up – say, 9-6-5 – they will be less inclined to think you’ve hit your hand. Then, when you do bet out, you’ll have an even greater advantage because you’ve masked your hand.

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Deciding to raise in late position with a 9-7 suited, for instance, is one way to throw the table off balance.

Raising aggressively before the flop is something many inexperienced players are afraid to do. It means you’ll be involved in more hands, are putting yourself at risk of being re-raised and could find yourself in situations where you feel compelled to make a follow-through bet on the flop no matter the situation.

Those are all valid concerns. But, as the saying goes, you have to give action to get action. Unless you are actively adding to the money in play, your opponents are only going to want to get involved with you if they feel they have an advantage, or the ability to sneak up on you with a good drawing hand. So, by playing too conservatively before the flop you may unwittingly be exposing yourself to a different kind of risk altogether.

In the end, you have to figure out which pre-flop style works best for your temperament and skill level. Many people begin their poker careers with a conservative strategy, then implement more aggressive tactics as they gain experience, which is something that is worth keeping in mind as you become more comfortable at the table.