Preflop strategies

Preflop strategy Staff
Posted on: September 28, 2022 09:12 PDT

Whether your goal is to play in a poker tournament or develop your skills at a cash game with friends, learning poker terminology is a fundamental step for any beginner poker player. 

If you play poker variations like Texas Holdem, you’ll hear the term “preflop” a lot. But does it mean exactly? In this article, we cover everything you need to know about the preflop, when it happens, and how to use it to your benefit. 

What is the preflop in poker?

The preflop in poker is the round of the game that occurs before the dealer puts down the first three community cards.

The preflop round is the first betting round

As you may have already noticed, all poker game variants that use community cards feature several game phases and each one has its own name. Before the game can officially begin, the small blind and big blind place their mandatory bets.

In games like Texas Holdem, the very first round is called the preflop round. This is when the dealer distributes two face down cards to each player. Those first two cards are also referred to as each player’s hole cards.

Once the players look at their hole cards, the preflop betting round begins. The player to the left of the big blind places their bet first, followed by each remaining player going clockwise.

Next comes the flop

After all of the preflop bets, the dealer places the first three community cards on the table. Players look at their hole cards and flop cards, start to form a strategy for potential poker hands, and then place their bets. This round is called the flop.

The remaining rounds

Gameplay continues in the same way on the later streets, with the dealer next revealing one card for the turn, and one card for the river. 

Why the preflop matters

Each poker player’s hole cards are the only cards that their opponents can’t see or use. They are the basis of your poker hand and can lead to a big win or a frustrating loss.

Preflop position strategy

Where you sit at the poker table can make a big difference in your success the majority of the time. Player positions are divided into early positions, middle positions, and late positions. Many of the positions have a specific name and experienced players use a different poker strategy depending on their position. 

Early positions

The player to the immediate left of the dealer button is the small blind, followed by the big blind. The player to the left of the big blind is under the gun (UTG). The UTG player begins the preflop play by placing their bet. The UTG player doesn’t have an opportunity to see how anyone else bets, so they have to wager solely on the strength of their hole cards.

For the preflop round only, the small blind and big blind have a chance to re-raise based on the strength of their hole cards and the first round of betting.

Middle positions

Players to the left of UTG and to the right of the cutoff are in the middle positions at the poker table. As you go clockwise around the table from UTG, each player has a slightly better position in the preflop round because they can see how every player before them reacted to their starting hands.

Late positions

The cutoff, or the player to the right of the dealer button, and the button have the second best preflop strategy capabilities because they’ve seen all the other players (except the small blind and big blind) place their bets. For all the later streets, the late positions have the biggest strategic advantage.

Preflop betting tips

In every round of a poker game, you have a chance to call, raise, or fold your hand. Deciding when to bet big vs when to bow out usually comes down to if you have a strong hand, like a pocket pair or suited connectors, and how other players are betting.

In many ways, deciding on your flop strategy is easier than preflop strategy because you have a chance to see the first stage of community cards. This gives you a better opportunity to tell if you’re in good shape with suited cards, or if you have pairs or even three or four of a kind.

Optimal preflop cards

The best preflop cards you can hope for are a pair of aces. Other top preflop cards are KK, QQ, AK suited, and JJ. If you have any of these card combinations, you’re well on your way to a premium hand and should bet accordingly.

Marginal preflop cards

Even if you don’t have very strong preflop cards, you may still end up with a winning hand. Marginal hands in the preflop round include cards that aren’t great but also aren't bad. For example, if your cards have one or two card gaps, aren’t suited, or include a lower number, you probably have a marginal hand and should bet more conservatively until you see the community cards.

Weak hands in the preflop round

If your preflop cards consist of low numbers and aren’t suited, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to build a winning hand. The best course of action is to bow out early.

What is the difference between a good preflop strategy and a bad preflop strategy?

The most important takeaway about preflop strategies is that you should have a strategy in place. Even if your preflop strategy is to fold, it's a good strategy if you have a weak hand.

Pay attention to preflop charts

If you’re not sure how to gauge the strength of your preflop hand, consider studying a preflop chart. These charts make it easy to assess the likelihood of turning your hole cards into a pot winning hand by showdown.

If you’re serious about playing poker, it's a good idea to get familiar with preflop charts and commit as much of them to memory as possible. You’ll be able to determine your pot odds early on and can adjust your playing style accordingly.

Foundations of a good preflop strategy

The most important factors to building a good preflop strategy are considering your table position, honestly assessing your hole cards, and keeping track of how other players have bet before you.

Some aspects of your strategy will feel like common sense. For example, if you’re playing UTG and your hole cards are a non-suited 3 and 4, you should consider bowing out and waiting for the next round. However, if you’re playing the big blind and you have a pair of aces or a pair of kings, you have more freedom to play aggressively.

Preflop mistakes to avoid

At every round of the game there are a few key mistakes to avoid and the preflop round is no exception. Some inexperienced players may feel like there’s little harm in playing aggressively preflop even with a weaker hand because the stakes are still relatively low.

Even when the pot is small and you haven’t contributed much to it yourself, you want to avoid overly confident or aggressive bets that may make it harder for you back down on later streets if your hand doesn’t come together.

Here are a few common beginner mistakes to avoid in the preflop round.

Beware of limping

Limping occurs when you call the big blind instead of raise in the pre-flop round. Many players frown upon the idea of limping in because if the whole table chooses to call, the pot will grow slowly and the game will feel less exciting.

The idea is that it’s better to make a strong entry into the game. Experienced players specifically look for limpers and may identify them as weak opponents.

Open limping vs over limping

Open limping refers to when the first bet preflop is a call. For example, if you’re playing UTG and your starting hand is marginal, and you limp in, you’re broadcasting to the table that you’re not excited about your cards. A stronger play would be to raise modestly. It won’t cost you much and you won’t reveal that you’re unsure about your hand.

Over limping is when multiple players limp in a row. If everyone else before limped in, then there’s less harm in doing it yourself because you’re not broadcasting any particular message about your cards. You may as well wait to see the flop before you increase your bet.

Ultimately there is no reward without a bit of risk, so try to avoid limping if you can.

Don’t overvalue offsuit broadway hands

In poker terminology, broadway refers to T, J, Q, K, and A. When you have a broadway hand, it means that your hole cards feature any two broadway cards.

It’s very easy to get excited when you get two broadway cards in the preflop round. After all, many of the best possible hands include broadway cards. That said, the strength of your preflop hand relates not just to the value of each of your cards, but also whether or not they’re suited.

Suited cards are always stronger than offsuit cards unless you’re talking about a pocket pair. Keep in mind that both of the top ranking poker hands, royal flush and straight flush, require suited cards, so offsuit broadway cards won’t do much to help you against these hands.

Even if your offsuit broadway cards turn into a full house or a four of a kind, you can still lose to an opponent with a straight flush or royal flush.

Avoiding overvaluing your cards is an important lesson for any poker player, no matter your preflop cards. To win big, you need a special combination of aggressive gameplay, a realistic view of your odds, and willingness to fold even if it means losing your earlier bets.

Don’t shy away from raises

Raising is a good way to scare other players out of the game early on. While you may feel hesitant to raise unless you have obviously optimal cards, bluffing is a key component of any poker game. 

The fewer players remaining at showdown, the higher your chances of winning with a marginal hand. By raising at preflop, you broadcast confidence and potentially scare off less confident players.

If you play in a tournament or plan to play multiple hands against the same opponents, it's important to avoid only raising with your most optimal hands. If your opponent sees a pattern emerge where your raises mean you have a high ranking hand, then they’ll always fold when you raise and while you may win, the pot will stay small.

Raising with marginal hands creates a sense of unpredictability that makes it possible for you to take away larger winnings with lower ranking hands.

Along those same lines, pay attention to how your opponents choose to raise vs call. If they only raise when they’re holding a pocket pair of aces, then you know it’s not worth going up against them when they increase the bet.

The takeaway

The preflop round is an important stage in poker because it establishes the overall tone of the game. More aggressive preflop plays result in higher pots and a more interesting poker game, while more subdued preflop rounds where everyone limps in will usually become more boring.

Featured image source:  Flickr by World Poker Tour used under  CC license