Friday, Mar. 27, 2015

Basic Fixed Limit Hold ‘em Strategies Starting Hands


If you happen to be new to poker it is likely that you will start off by playing fixed limit. The reason for this could be that the mere concept of losing your entire stack in No Limit is just too daunting or it could be that spending hours playing a tournament and not win anything as too frustrating. Either way, many players start out playing fixed limit and become proficient in the game and eventually migrate up the limits.

As mentioned before, I started out as a fixed limit player and still play it once in a while. It is a fascinating game and with good discipline, hand selection, table selection, positional play and post flop, you will be able to grind away at winning a few big bets per hour, particularly at the lower limits.

In this article I will not bore you with the rules of fixed limit and I assume that you know the very basics including what beats what in poker, how blinds work and betting rounds.

Tight Is Right

The first decision in each game is hand selection and it is the most important since avoiding to play a crap hand, particularly out of position could save you a lot of money in that hand and in future hands.

Do not be fooled by the donkey who decided to play 47s and won a massive pot. Everytime he decides to play such hand he is literally burning money, although the consequences are not immediate.

Good hand selection is the foundation of winning hold ‘Em. No matter how well you play otherwise, if you often start with the wrong hands, you will be a long-term loser. Learning a basic guide as to which hand to play when and where is relatively straightforward.

At showdown, only the best hand wins and second best hands are worthless, regardless of their value. Choosing hands that have a positive expectation takes skill but can be mastered.

The best starting hands make a lot of money regardless of position. For example, in my database of 80,000 hands 6 max, these are the following results for won hand % and total expected big bet payout for the given hand (big bet being the big blind), in other words AA has a expected value of 1.37 big bets per time I play it, so if I am playing $5/10 then I’m expected to win roughly $46 every time I am dealt aces, not bad – play it strongly.

AA: 82% / 4.6
AKs: 75% / 0.9
AKo: 61% / 1.4
AQs: 57% / 1.3
AQo: 55% / 0.8
AJs: 61% / 1.25
AJo: 50% / 0.56
ATs: 49% / 0.04
AT: 46% / 0.4
KK: 75% / 4.14
KQs: 50% / 0.8
KQo: 48% / 0.52
KJs: 48% / 0.44
KJo: 44% / 0.52
QQ: 74% / 3.5
QJs: 36% / 0.3
QJo: 48 / 0.31
JJ: 67% / 2.7
JTs: 41% / -0.08
JTo: 29 / 0.01
TT: 62% / 1.74
99: 59% / 1.3
88: 56% / 1.4
77: 48% / 0.4
66: 46% / 0.35
55: 48% / 0.2
44: 40% / 0.21
33: 35% / -0.15
22: 9% / -0.18

Note that 80,000 is a lot of hands and of course another players’ 80,000 sample will be different but not too far off. I am what one would consider a TAG in limit and for you who know Pokertracker/Hold ‘Em Manager stats I am 25 vpip/20 raise pre flop for 6max.

These are most of my significant winning hands and they represent about 20% of all starting hands. Interestingly, some hands that may be considering quite “strong” at first such as JTs, 33 and 22 are not even winning hands at all in my sample. These types of hands as well as Ace with a lower kicker than a T (even suited), also known as ‘AceRags’ need special circumstances to be played and ideally should be avoided.

These are how my ‘AceRag’ hands break down:

A9s: 46% / 0.26
A9o: 37% 0.15
A8s: 44% / 0.5
A8o: 32% / 0.05
A7s: 47% / 0.62
A7o: 27% / -0.07
A6s: 40% / 0.06
A6o: 24% / 0.02 A5s: 45% / 0.7
A5o: 25% / -0.18
A4s: 45% / 0.3
A4o: 21% / -0.17
A3s: 28% / -0.32
A3o: 17% / -0.17
A2s: 23% / -0.42
A2o: 14% / -0.31

To be honest, I expected these results to be almost all negative, certainly from A7o downwards but I suppose I have been careful post flop not to get myself involved in these ‘sucker hands’ and folded when it seemed when I was beat or I was the one doing the raising with these hands to steal the blinds.

For the vast majority of players, most if not all, of these AceRag hands will have a negative expectation and should be avoided like the plague (especially when it comes to open limping which means the first to act and cold calling a raise, especially out of position – which I will discuss shortly).

Beginning players overvalue AceRag hands because they see the ace and they think that if only they could pair it up, they can win a big pot but the number of times they miss or hit the ace but lose to a higher kicker are too great, making them losing hands in the long run.

Also one must resist the temptation to play suited ace rags as you will only flop a flush draw 10.9% of the time and complete the flush by river 6.4% of the time. There is also a strange misconception that playing hands like A2-A5 can give you a low end straight, therefore they should be played quite regularly.

Although these hands do make disguised straights and win big pots, these are rare and you can expect to lose a lot of value playing them.

Three Hand Types

Top Pair Hands

The usual top pair hands consist of two big, offsuit cards like AJo. They win many small to medium sized pots by making top pair and having it hold up. Top pair hands play better against few opponents.

Top pair is more likely to be best against two or three hands than it is against five. The best to pair hands are, AT, KJ and better. Weaker top pair hands like K9 and A6, for instance lose more in most multiway pots than they gain from additional chips.

With a good top pair hand like AJ, you should usually raise and depending on who you are up against, re raise.

‘Drawing Hands’ (speculative hands)

Fixed limit is much more a drawing game than No Limit since bet sizes are small in proportion of the pot and fixed. Drawing hands have little to know ‘showdown value’, in other words you must preferably hit your draw to win the pot or hope to hit your top pair or better (unlike Ace high which can win at showdown unimproved, although very rarely).

Speculative hands do not prevail frequently but they make big hands and win big pots when they do. Suited connectors make big hands when they flop flushes, straights and strong draws.

Drawing hands play best in later positions and when there are multiple players in the pot. These hands are best seen cheaply since they often miss. Of course not all drawing hands are equal, as one can see from the results:

KQs: 50% / 0.8
KQo: 48% / 0.52
QJs: 36% / 0.3
QJo: 48 / 0.31
JTs: 41% / -0.08
JTo: 29% / 0.01
T9s: 40% / 0.19
T9o: 19% / 0.01
98s: 39% / -0.15
98o: 13% / -0.19
87s: 37% / -0.14
87o: 14% / -0.14
76s: 28% / -0.51
76o: 12% / -0.15
54s: 23% /- 0.05
54o: 7% / -0.29
43s: 15% / -0.05

Therefore, it’s clear that most of these drawing hands need to be avoided at all costs as they have a negative expectation, particularly 87s and below. If you are going to play 87s and up, also make sure that you are not playing from early position and avoid calling raises with them (unless your opponent seems to be raising a lot – in Hold ‘Em Manager / Pokertracker speak, he is raising more than 15%).

Powerhouse Hands (Monsters)

These types of hands like AA, KK, QQ, AKs and off, AQs and off win far more than most other hands (as demonstrated earlier). These hands should be raised and re raised pre flop indefinitely, regardless of position.

Pocket Pairs

Big Pairs

Hands like QQ, JJ, TT are great hands and play well in any game conditions and similarly to monsters can be raised and re raised from pretty much any position. They differ from monsters because they win less often unimproved. Do not play these timidly but be wary of overcards than may kill your hand.

Medium Pairs

99 – 77: These hands are best in short handed games and opponents are likely to have weak holdings. These pairs are very profitable in multiway pots when you flop a set. From early position, it is OK to limp with these hands and hope to see a flop cheaply. From late position, it is auto-raise and it is OK to call one raise.

Small Pairs

66 – 22: These hands do not win often and should be playing almost always purely for set value in a ‘fit or fold’ strategy. You would definitely like to see a flop cheaply with these hands.

Avoiding Costly Errors

There are two preflop mistakes that must be avoided at all costs. They are:

  • Playing weak hands out of position, particularly weak offsuit hands; As for playing position, you should avoid playing weak hands up front because they tend to make marginal hands on flop. J9s will often flop middle pair, a gutshot straight draw, or a backdoor flush draw. Now it may be OK to call for one bet for these draws if the pot is big enough but if you are out of position, you may be forced to call several bets or may be forced to fold without seeing the turn. Hands like KJo, KTo are easily dominated by AJ/AK/AT type hands and even if you hit your top pair you may lose a significant pot. As you move closer to the button, you may start to play more hands and being on the cut-off (1 from button) or button, you can be very liberal in your hand choice when stealing blinds. Any ace, literally, just don’t over do it!
  • Cold-calling raises with mediocre and potentially dominated hands. Cold calling is calling two or more bets when you have not yet invested any money and does not include calling from the blinds. The rule of thumb is that when someone raises, it typically indicates an above average hand. Therefore, in order to cold call, you usually need a hand that you would have probably raised yourself if it wasn’t for someone else raising before you. Also, before cold calling, you should consider whether your hand is good enough to re raise in order to discourage other cold callers and blinds from calling. If the flop is very likely to be multiway and you have a good speculative hand like JTs or a pocket pair, then its more than alright to cold call and hope others come in for the ride.

Playing Different Table Conditions

Generally, you should play opposite table conditions. If a table is tight, then opening up your range and raising more with hands such as A9s, 44, KJ can be profitable. On the other hand, if a table is loose (which is likely to be the case for most low limit games), then in order to win in the long run you must play extremely tight, especially from early positions. It is important to resist the temptation to try to get involved in big pots with mediocre holdings. Just because someone else is winning big hands with crap, does not mean you will as well.


Many of these concepts take getting used to. By all means practice, practice, practice! Soon it will become second nature to fold KTo under the gun and fold ATo to a raise.

By avoiding the two costly errors mentioned earlier, you will be ahead of more than half of low limit players and should help to consistently beat the game. Next article, onto where to sit and post flop play!

For more information on limit starting hands, take a look at a previous article written on this site.

Good luck!