To begin with, I r ecommend playing only the top ten hands and folding on al others. The top ten are, in order of relative promise: A-A, K-K, Q-Q, A-K, J -J, 10-10, 9-9, 8-8, A-Q, and finally 7-7. Experience has shown me that these are the strongest starting hands in limit Hold'em. This beginning "strategy for survival" is designed to keep you in the game while you learn the more s ubtle techniques that are necessary to beat t ougher games, or t o extract more money from weak games. And in some games using j ust this strategy will make you a winner. With this patient strategy alone, and really not much else in the way of poker instruction, I was able t o crush the games i n Madison. What happens is that when you consistently play only the top ten hands, your opponents wiil begin to fear your bets and raises because they'll see that you're always playing something powerful. This fear gives you some l eeway to make a few different plays l ater on, when you've absorbed the intermediate and more advanced advice I'l be giving you later. In other words, the "top ten hands" strategy teaches the right fundamentals. You wiil need these fundamentals when you do add some intermediate and advanced strategy to your arsenal, because playing supertight alone j ust won't get the pots in these tougher games: the good hands don't come along often enough, and perhaps even more important, y ou risk becoming a bit t oo predictable.
When you break limit Hold'em down to its basic elements, good game theory suggests that you wait for big starting hands before you get involved in a hand, because the blinds are relatively small compared with the size of the pots, unless you're playing in a very t ight game ( which is rare at l ow stakes). I t may seem a bit boring t o play only t hese t op t en hands; a fter all, most of y ou play poker j ust t o have a good time and socialize—that i s, for entertainment. Fair enough, but if you want to win the money, then you need to show some patience and entertain yourself in another way. And, anyway, how entertaining is it to play all t he hands and lose most of t hem?
In general, I recommend playing the top ten hands r egard-less of your position in the beting order or the number of bets it wiil cost you to get i nvolved in t he hand. Always raise with these hands, no matter what it costs you to get involved. Of course, i f you have a l ot of evidence to suggest that your 7-7 is beaten ( perhaps t he tightest player i n the game has j ust re-re-reraised the hand, making it, a s we s ay, " four bets t o go"), t hen you might do well t o fold the hand. But i n general, p laying these hands aggressively i s a good way to play Hold'em.
I k now that y ou're probably thinking right now, ' ' Is i t r eally that easy? All I have to do is play Phil's top ten hands?" The answer is basically yes, at least as far as your starting requirements (your first two cards) are concerned! Yes, b ecause it wiil b e easy for you to play before the flop (on the first round of beting) when all you have t o remember i s t o play only the t op ten. ( Playing after the flop is much more complicated, I 'm afraid; b ut don't worry, we'l cover that as weH.)
In what follows I 'l be giving you a number of examples of hands that wiil help you understand the best courses of action for a beginning player t o take. But before I g ive you these examples, it's t ime t o i ntroduce those "animals" I promised you. I c an-not go much further i n teaching you how to play poker without characterizing some of the personality types that you wiil inevitably face as you play Texas Hold'em, because no matter how much you may want to think of Hold'em as a card game played by people, in many respects it is even more valid to think of it as a game about people that happens to be played with cards. This becomes more and more true as the stakes get higher and the games get tougher.
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