Strategy: Opening the pot

Dara O'Kearney

In my first article, I talked about the most important concept in poker: position.

Position is an important factor at every point in a hand, starting with pre-flop. Preflop we describe the 2 or 3 seats just before the button (button, cutoff, hijack) at “late position”. We describe the first 2 or 3 seats as early position, and the seats between early position and late position as middle position. Whether it’s 2 or 3 in the last sentences depends on how many players are at the table. If there are six, both late position and early position consist of 2 seats.

Why does position matter preflop? The simple answer is that it is a lot more advantageous to be in late position. The reasons for this are twofold: we will be in position on every street more often when we raise from late position, and with fewer players behind yet to act it’s less likely someone will have a hand. If it’s folded to us on the button, we can open a lot of hands knowing if there are any callers we will be in position for the rest of the hand. We also know that with only two players behind us it’s a lot less likely someone finds a hand strong enough to raise us than when we open under the gun with the whole table yet to act.

In this article, I’m going to look at how these positional considerations factor into what hands we should open from different seats at the table, and show theoretically correct opening ranges from early position. Before I do a word of caution: opening ranges are not set in stone. The ranges I will give are the correct ranges at a table where there are 8 players, all with 100 big blinds, all playing perfectly.

In reality, there will be different stack sizes, skill levels of opponents, and the number of players, all of which will affect the ranges we should open. I’ll come back to this in future pieces but for now, I just want to focus on giving you good theoretically sound ranges that’ll set you up to play good profitable poker. Beyond that, I also want to explain why the ranges are the way they are, as I think this is important. It’s much easier to remember ranges if you understand the underlying reasons for them, rather than simply trying to memorise them. It’s also easier to adjust the ranges to changing conditions if you understand them.

Let’s start by looking at the range you should open in early position. In theory, this is the range you should open under the gun (first to act) at an 8-handed table in a tournament with antes, but in practise there’s not much difference whether you have 7, 8, or 6 players yet to act.

This 13×13 grid is the standard way to show ranges, rather than listing all the hands. In this grid, the hands shaded in brown are opened (all the time), the hands shown in white are folded (all the time) and those that are a mix of white and brown are opened some of the time.

If you look at the grid, you will see the pairs are the diagonal. Hands below them are all the unsuited hands, and hands above them all the suited ones.

As I suggested in the introduction because we are first to act we have to be careful not to open too many hands with the whole table still to act. This opening range means we will be opening just under 15% of the time (and folding the other 85%).

The most common mistakes players make with their opening ranges in early position

1 – They open too many hands

Let’s face it, playing a hand is a lot more fun than folding, so most players (particularly beginners) have a natural preference for playing more hands. You’ll see some players play almost any hand that looks reasonable: any pair, any two picture cards, any two suited cards that are even distantly connected.

Doing this will just get you into trouble not just preflop when you will have too many hands that can’t profitably call a raise (and if you are opening too many hands other players should pick up on this and start raising you even more than normal), but also post-flop when you will have too many weak hands. Playing too loose is a particularly bad idea if you’re inexperienced (if anything beginners should play tighter than I recommend until they get used to playing post-flop).

As you get more experienced and better post-flop you may be able to get away with playing looser, but even then you don’t want to overdo it. Most of the money you make in poker comes from the strongest hands, and the weakest hands you open won’t be much better than breakeven (or worse if you’re opening too loose).

2 – They open too few hands

You don’t want to go to the opposite extreme and play too tight. This is a mistake I made at the start of my career as the advice back then was “tight is right” and we were advised to only open sixes, ace-queen, ace-jack suited, and better.

The problem with opening this tight is you twofold: you don’t get dealt those hands often enough (so you’ll get eaten up by blinds and antes waiting for them), and it makes you very easy to play against on a lot of flops.

For example, if that’s your range and the flop comes 552, you can’t have any hand that is stronger than a pair (your overpairs). Knowing this, opponents can start making your life miserable with big bets and raises.

By contrast, the range I recommend not only contains 55 (for quads) but also A5s (trips). This is a concept known as “board coverage”, meaning no matter what the flop (board) comes, you’re covered because you can have some very strong hands.

3 – They open the wrong type of hands

Beginners will often figure any pair, any two picture cards, and any ace they consider decent (ace eight or better) is a “good hand” and therefore worth opening from any seat.

The fact that these are all above-average hands is not the point: with the whole table to act some of these hands just are not worth opening. Small pairs might look good (it’s hard to make a pair as the old saying goes) and will be the best hand at the table right now most of the time, but in early position there are two problems with them. Every player at the table is dealt a pair roughly 6% of the time.

That means that if you open pocket twos with 7 players yet to act, one of them has a higher pair than yours 40% of the time, in addition to the percentage of the time they have a strong hand like ace-king to raise you with.

The second problem is that even if nobody raises you but you get called, you won’t like too many flops unless you hit a set (which will only happen 14% of the time) as you’ll be looking at overcards trying to guess whether your opponent has hit one of them and pulled ahead.

Similar problems arise with weak aces like A8o. Players behind will play stronger aces with a better kicker, and (usually unless they’re total fish) worse aces with lower kickers.

If you have an ace under the gun, there are three remaining aces, so again each player behind has on average a 6% chance of being dealt an ace, and when they are dealt one they’ll have a better kicker about half the time.

And again, even if they only call, your problems don’t go away. If an ace comes on the flop, they are unlikely to put more money in unless they can beat your weak ace. This (when you and your opponent have the same high card but you have a worse kicker) is a concept referred to as “domination”, and is something you want to avoid as much as possible.

Domination is also the reason to stay away from the worst broadway (two picture card) hands like KJo and QJo. Opponents will tend to play any stronger kicker than yours and fold any worse one, so when you do find yourself playing a flop and hit top pair, you have to worry about being outkicked.

4 – They don’t open enough suited hands

It might seem odd that I’m recommending folding ATo, but opening all the suited aces down to A4s (and A3s half the time), but there are two reasons for this.

First, you want to achieve board coverage as I explained earlier so you are “covered” no matter what the flop comes. You are dealt unsuited hands (of which there are 12 combinations of each) three times more often than their suited counterparts (because there are only 4 combinations of each of those).

So while the grind might make it look like you get suited hands as often as unsuited ones, almost half the time, in actual fact the grid is similar to the famous London Underground map (a graphical representation that is not to scale).

So opening, for example, A6s, A5s, A4s covers you on boards when a 6, 5 or 4 makes a very strong hand, but is only the same number of combinations as one unsuited hand such as A9o.

The second reason is that suited hands have more going for them: they flop a flush over 1% of the time (giving you a very strong hand you can bet for value), and a flush draw about 10% of the time (giving you a hand that can turn into a very strong hand on a later street so you can always continue past the flop with) and a backdoor flush draw (three to a flush on the flop that can make a flush by the river) most of the time.

Backdoor flush draws are useful hands on the flop as they often make very good semi-bluffs (hands we can bet and get better hands to fold right now, or can pull ahead on later streets if we get called).

When we hit a pair with a weak-suited hand we won’t want to play a big pot but we can try to keep the pot small and win at showdown, but we have more ways to win than unsuited hands.

Now that we know what hands we should be opening in early position, we can go on and look at the recommended opening ranges in middle and late position, which will be the subject of my next article.




Dara has written three number 1 best-selling poker strategy books (“Poker Satellite Strategy”, “PKO Poker Strategy” and “Endgame Poker Strategy: the ICM book”) with Barry Carter and hundreds of strategy articles for various sites and magazines. I have coached dozens of players of all standards, made training videos for various sites, and cohost the Global Poker award-winning podcast The Chip Race with my good friend David Lappin.

"I have played a number of Irish Poker Tour events and I’ve absolutely loved the atmosphere and craic at them, so when they asked me to start providing strategy content for them aimed at the players who play them, I was flattered and honoured to accept."

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