Texas Hold'em Is a "High Card" Game
By Fred Renzey
As you read this, there is a veritable Texas Hold'em explosion going on. At nearly any social event -- weddings, birthdays, what-have-you, somebody eventually starts talking about the game and what fun it is to watch or play.
Right after that, the questions and opinions about Hold'em strategy usually start flying. However, because of the dramatic do-or-die tactics often witnessed at the end of championship Hold'em tournaments on TV, many Hold'em novices have sadly misguided views of effective Hold'em strategy.
Always remember this: Texas Hold'em, more than anything, is a game of high cards. Low cards will simply not pay for themselves in this game over time. When you peek at your two hole cards, if they're not both pretty big, it's very unlikely you belong in the pot.
This should all seem logical once you think about it. Let's say I have Ace/Jack and you have 8/9. If the flop hits me and misses you, I win. If it hits you and misses me, you win. But if it misses both of us, I win again. In fact, mathematically speaking, an Ace/Jack will beat an 8/9 seven times out of eleven.
Here's a true story from a local poker room that exemplifies the tried-and-true "high card" axiom in Hold'em.
A player sat down in a $20/$40 Hold'em game and bought in for $500. He came to the table complete with his notorious, intimidating "chip shuffling" routine that earmarks him as an experienced player. He was a flashy, aggressive type, often check-raising and back-raising from out of position. On a few hands, "Flash" made it three bets (double-raised it) before the flop and won a couple of nice pots with 6/4 and 8/5.
A little later, he raised from the big blind with the 5/3 of clubs. He flopped a pair of 5s with a club flush draw and check-raised on the flop. On the turn, the deuce of clubs came making Flash his flush. Again, he managed a check-raise and confidently bet out at the river -- only this time he got raised. Flash called out of reflex and his opponent showed down the Ace/Jack of clubs for the nut hand. Flash turned up his 5/3 of clubs as though he had taken a bad beat -- but with those cards he was just asking to get beat. A short while later, Flash was making another buy-in and when that was gone, so was he.
The moral? Flashy play with low cards will win once in a while, but before long -- it'll bust you. Here are a few more high card/low card matchups with their associated odds to win.
That's how things would stack up if the two hands were in the pot "heads up". More typically though, about four players usually stay to see the flop. So let's put four different hands in one pot together and run them through my "poker whiz" simulator to see how often each hand wins the pot.
You can see that the big pair is the chalk (favorite) and the Ace/Queen has a good solid shot. However, notice the pocket pair of 4s. It only wins the pot about once every six times. That's not often enough, since you're only getting about 3-to-1 odds on your money.
Because of that, there's only one way to manage those small pocket pairs. In early position, just fold them because you don't know if you'll be getting good enough money odds. In late position, call only if there are already a lot of players in and remember, you'll usually need to flop a set (trips), or you'll have to give it up there.
Now let's look at the 7/2. Out of 169 different hands you can be dealt, this one ranks dead 169th. In this four-horse field, it'll win the pot once every eleven times. It's impossible to survive getting paid three times your investment once, then losing it back ten more times.
Looking at both lists above, notice that the high cards take down the money the majority of the time in Hold'em. That could be the game's most important lesson.
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