Picking Your Battles

Learning to play only the best starting hands in poker is a crucial lesson you must learn if you ever wish to become an effective player. Play premium hands dealt to you, and throw the rest in the muck. Know when to hold them, and know when to fold them.


Almost every new player to the poker world will play too many hands. It’s one of the biggest mistakes a player can make, and nearly all beginners make it. The reason why is pretty simple.

When you sit down to play a game of poker, you want to play. You want to be in the action - betting and raising. Most new players feel that if they fold, especially pre-flop, they’re not playing, they’re watching. But folding is one of the most important aspects of the game.

Statistics show that professional players, the real poker sharks, will play about 30% of their starting hands. That means 70% of hole cards dealt to them will go right into the muck. Why do they fold so much?

The answer is probability. Poker sharks know that if they don’t have good cards to begin with, the probability of them getting good cards by the river isn’t very high. It’s actually pretty low. You won’t see many pros going into the pot with 7, 2, but you can usually expect a raise - or even re-raise - from a player with pocket aces. If you’re confused about which starting hands you should play, and which should be folded, head on over to - Which Cards Should You Play.

But what if you have a decent starting hand? Let’s say you’re dealt 9, J, off-suit. It’s not a horrible starting hand, but it’s not the greatest, either. Should you play it?

First, you need to take into account the number of players at the table. If you’re playing with seven other players, the percentage chance that you’re going to win with that hand is going to drop. On the other hand, if you’re playing with three others, you’re chances could be a lot higher. In short, the more people, the higher chance there is that someone has a better hand than you. The less people there are, the better the chance that you have the best cards.

Also, you need to ask yourself a question. Are you prepared to call a raise with your hand? Say you’re fine with calling the big blind, and throw in your money. Then, the last person to act raises the bet. Either you call, or you just wasted your money. But if you call, you’d better have the cards to back it up. If you’re not prepared to play a raise, don’t play the cards.

After the Flop

Lets say you played pocket 5s. The flop is K, 10, J. What do you do?

In this situation, I would check to see the turn, but fold on just about any bet. Especially if there’s more than two people in the pot. You can pretty much bet that someone has a queen or ace. Even if they have a pair, they’ve got you beat. Right now you have bottom pair, by a lot, and you’re not going to have much of a shot at winning this hand. Fold and keep your money.
A lot of beginner players make the mistake of only thinking of their hands. This is huge. Lets say, instead of pocket 5s, you had 10, 6, and we’ll use the same flop. Right now, you’d have bottom pair, but not by much. It’s a tough position to be in. Should you fold?

If action isn’t on you first, check and see what other players are doing. Are they checking? If so, I’d check as well - they may be slow playing, or trying to check-raise you. See the turn, and if that doesn’t help you, and your opponents are betting and raising, get out while you still can. The odds that someone has a straight or top pair are just too high. If you don’t fold now, you’ll be kicking yourself for it later.

Remember, you’re never in too far to fold. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that expression. Someone calls a big bet on the river with bottom pair and says, “Well, I’m in this far.” If you find yourself saying or even thinking that, get out of the pot. If you don’t have confidence that you have the best hand, don’t call.

Watch Your Opponents

Know their styles and tendencies. Are they a big bluffer, or are they the tight-passive type?

If a player is always throwing chips in the pot with little or nothing, folding may not be your best option. But on the other side, if a play usually only bets with a solid hand, and you have next to nothing, folding may be the only way to get out with your stacks intact.

« More poker guides or show all guides Page last updated: 22 May 2009

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