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A Beginner's Course in Texas Hold'em

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A Beginner's Course in Texas Hold'em
Part 2

Hold'em in depth - While there are literally millions of combinations of poker hands, in Hold'em, there really are only 169 different two-card starting combinations. That number, of course, assumes that a hand like Kh Qh is the equivalent of Kd Qd. If three diamonds were to appear on the flop, the Kd Qd would be significantly more valuable than Kh Qh. But the future can neither be predicted nor controlled, and these two hands have identical value before the flop.

Starting hands - Each of these 169 unique starting combinations fits into one of only five categories: pairs, connecting cards, gapped cards, suited connectors, or suited gapped cards. That's it. Five categories. That's all you have to worry about.

If you are not dealt a pair, your cards will either be suited or unsuited. They also can be connected or gapped. Examples of connectors are K-Q, 8-7, and 4-3. Unconnected cards might be one-, two-, three-gapped, or more, and would include hands like K-J, 9-6, 5-2, or 9-3.

Small gaps make more straights - As a general rule, the smaller the gap, the easier it is to make a straight. Suppose that you hold 10-6. Your only straight possibility is 9-8-7. But if you hold 10-9, you can make a straight with K-Q-J, Q-J-8, J-8-7, and 8-7-6.

To every rule, however, there are exceptions. A hand like A-K can make only one straight. It needs to marry a Q-J-10. An A-2 is in the same boat, and needs to cozy up to a 5-4-3. Although connected, each of these holdings can make only one straight because it resides at the end of the spectrum.

There are other exceptions, too. K-Q can make a straight only two ways, by connecting with A-J-10 or J-10-9, and 3-2 is in a similar fix. The only other limited connectors are - yes, you guessed it - Q-J and 4-3. These two holdings each can make three straights. The Q-J needs A-K-10, K-10-9, or 10-9-8. It can't make that fourth straight because there is no room above an ace. The 4-3 is similarly constrained because there is no room below the ace. But any other connectors can make straights four ways, and that's a big advantage over one-, two-, or three- gapped cards.

Unless you are fortunate enough to wrap four cards around one of your four-gappers, there's no way that these cards can make a straight. But don't worry about that. If you take my advice, you will seldom, if ever, play hands that are four-gapped or worse unless they are suited - and then only under very favorable circumstances.

Gapped cards - Gapped cards, in general, are not as valuable as connectors because of their difficulty in completing straights. But if you were to make a flush, there's no need to be concerned about the gap. After all, a flush made with Au 6u is just as good as an Au Ku flush. But A-K is more valuable for other reasons. Suppose that flush never comes. You can make a straight with A-K; you can't with A-6.

You also might win if you catch either an ace or a king. If an ace flops, you'll have a pair of aces with a 6 side card, or kicker, and you easily could lose to an opponent holding an ace with bigger companion. But any pair that you'd make with A-K would be the top pair with the best possible kicker.

Acting last is a big advantage - Since acting later in a hand is a big advantage, you can afford to see the flop with weaker hands when you're in late position. If you're last to act, you've had the advantage of knowing how many opponents are still in the pot and seeing how each of them acted on the current round of betting. That's a big edge, since some starting hands play better against a large number of opponents, while others play better against a smaller field.

In late position, you'll also know which of your adversaries are representing strength. The later you act, the more information there is at your disposal, and poker is a game of information - incomplete information, to be sure, but it's a game of information, nevertheless.

Starting hands - Some starting hands are so strong that they can be played in any position. You don't get these hands very often, but when you do, you are a favorite from the get-go to win the pot.

Both of my books contain a Start Chart that visually depicts starting-hand relationships. These relationships also are described in tabular form below. In a typical lower-limit game, you usually can play any pair of sevens or higher in early position, as well as 12 suited and six unsuited card combinations.

Playable Hands in Early Position

Pairs: sevens through aces

Suited: aces with a king, queen, jack, or 10
king with a queen, jack, or 10
queen with a jack or 10
jack with a 10 or 9
10 with a 9

Unsuited: aces with a king, queen, jack, or 10 king with a queen or jack
When you are the fifth, sixth, or seventh player to act, you are in middle position, and can safely play smaller pairs such as sixes and fives. You also can add 10 additional suited hands and four more unsuited combinations to your playable repertoire if the pot has not been raised.

Playable Hands in Middle Position

Pairs: fives and sixes

Suited: aces with a 9, 8, 7, or 6
king with a 9
queen with a 9 or 8
jack with an 810 with an 8
9 with an 8

Unsuited: king with a 10
queen with a jack or 10
jack with a 10

In late position, you have the advantage of acting last or next to last. As a result, you can add a variety of hands to your arsenal. Most are bargain-basement specials that should be played only if the pot has not been raised. Moreover, you'll need enough discipline to release them if the flop brings anything less than an abundant harvest of friendly cards.

Playable Hands in Late Position

Pairs: fours, treys, and deuces

Suited: aces with a 5, 4, 3, or 2
king with an 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2
jack with a 7
10 with a 7
9 with a 7 or 6
8 with a 7 or 6
7 with a 6 or 5
6 with a 5
5 with a 4

Unsuited: king with a 9
queen with a 9
jack with a 9 or 8
10 with a 9 or 8
9 with an 8 or 7
8 with a 7

If you are new to the game, have been playing indiscriminately, or have an any-two-cards-can-win philosophy, you may believe that these recommendations are too tight. They're not. In fact, they are somewhat loose. A hand such as Kc 2c, while playable, is a pretty sorry excuse for a Hold'em hand. If you flop a king and there's any appreciable action, it's fairly apparent that someone else has a king with a bigger kicker than yours. If you flop a deuce, you've guaranteed yourself the lowest pair on board. Even if you are incredibly lucky and flop a flush, there's no assurance that it is the best flush. Probably the very best flop that you could hope for is something such as Ac 2h 2u, which gives you three deuces with a strong kicker. You also have a backdoor draw to a flush, and - more importantly - an ace on the board guarantees a call or two from any opponents holding an ace.

Still, Kc 2c and lots of the other playable hands in late position are vulnerable from any number of directions, and it takes some degree of skill to navigate your way through the murky waters of a Hold'em pot in a rickety canoe like this one.

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