All-In: Knowing your cards, and when to play them

After a reassuring trip to the Tropicana in Atlantic City, N.J., two weeks ago, I was convinced that while I’m not the top dog in the poker circuit, I like to think I have potential. Satisfied with a few hundred dollars won in a couple of cash games, I tested my play in a 48-person tournament, finishing in sixth place, the bubble spot, just before the big payouts.

Coastal Point • File PhotoCoastal Point • File Photo

That said, as I noted in last month’s column, I’m not here to boast about my personal successes, but rather to inform our readers about the amazing utopia that is No Limit Texas Hold’em. If you’re still a beginner, feel free to look at the July 25 issue of Coastal Point (also available on our Web site at and brush up on the basic terms and rules of the game from my first column.

But even if you have the basics of Texas Hold’em mastered, there’s still plenty out there for the beginning player to understand before taking to the felt. For instance, positioning and starting hands have a lot to do with how particular players play their hole cards (the two exclusive cards they are dealt) and place their bets.

The hole cards in Texas Hold’em are your tickets to winning. Making sure you understand their strengths and weaknesses is key.

Obviously, a pair of aces is going to be your strongest starting hand. For that matter, any starting paired cards, or “pocket pair” is going to have an edge when you’re up against other players. Keep in mind, though, that “suited” cards (both hole cards belonging to the same suit) and “connecters” (two consecutive cards that, in conjunction with three others, would make a straight) can result in excellent hands that may win big pots.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say Player 1 is holding a King of hearts and a Queen of diamonds. He’s in a hand against Player 2, who has the King and Queen of clubs. Both players have connectors, and the same chance of hitting their straight, but because Player 2’s cards are suited, despite that they are of the same rank as Player 1’s cards, he holds a slight advantage, as he’s already two cards in toward making a King-high flush.

Granted, if no clubs come out on the flop, his chances for the flush are shot, but that’s what makes poker poker, right?

While on the topic of hands, let’s look at some more. Again, Ace-Ace will definitely be your strongest starting hand. Known as “bullets,” “pocket rockets” and “American Airlines,” it dominates all other hands, pre-flop.

But don’t forget, while Aces are the strongest starting hand, they may easily be “busted” or beat by other hole cards in the hand. Players have even stated, “Aces are only good until the flop,” so just be sure to use a conscious mind when playing them.

King-King, or “cowboys,” is the next strongest hand in poker, followed by Queen-Queen. Ace-King, or “big slick,” comes next. It is the best of the drawing hands, especially if suited. Holding a suited Ace-King gives you the best chance at the almighty hand in poker, the royal flush.

Other starting hands that follow include drawing hands and pocket pairs. Two 10s in your hand or two Jacks are advantageous, as they are only afraid of cards on the board higher than themselves, although if they catch one more for a set, or “trips,” they are at an extreme advantage. Pocket pairs that find their set are one of the least likely anticipated cards and can usually rake the pot at the end of a hand.

Now that you have a grip on the strong cards, let’s dive into the realm of some hands you should just walk away from. First and foremost, the laughing stock of the hole cards in Texas Hold’em is the “7-2 off,” or an unsuited 7 and 2. They are the lowest cards to pair, because they have the least likely chance to make a straight (there are four cards between them) and would make for the lowest (and an unlikely) flush.

For that matter, be wary of playing any cards that are too wide apart in rank. Many beginners make the mistake of playing “Ace-rag” or “King-rag” where “rag” refers to a lower, less powerful card. Twos through 5s are often considered “rags.” Even if you pair up your Ace or King, someone else in the hand may still have you “out-kicked,” where their second card is ranked above yours.

Also, don’t depend too much on a low pocket pair. Unless you caught that third deuce, a board showing five “over cards,” or cards with ranks above yours, will probably have helped your opponents more than it helped you.

Once again, this column is not the end-all, be-all to the poker rule book. The beautiful thing about poker is that there is no rule book at all. In fact, it’s smart to up your play from time to time, to keep your opposition guessing what you might have. Every once in a while, go ahead, play a 3-9 off-suit. You might get lucky.

With an understanding of the hand ranks, it’s now time to look at your position around the table.

“Position” in poker is usually used to describe a player’s seat relevant to the dealer or the button. As the blinds and dealer button rotate around with each hand, it helps to ensure fair positioning and play throughout the game. The dealer in each hand is said to have “position,” a desirable spot in Texas Hold’em or other community card forms of poker, as after each round of betting, excluding the pre-flop wager, that player will be the last to act.

Because players are using the mutual cards in the table along with their hole cards to make the best hand, a player seated in this position will be able to see how the rest of the players act, as betting rotates clockwise from the button. Due to this, they have more of an opportunity to play marginal hands that may not initially be as strong as others. The player or players seated directly to the right of the dealer are also said to have a favorable position, for the same reason: knowing how other players are betting on the hand.

Due to the advantages based on seating, skilled players are more inclined to play different hands at different times of the game. For example, players sitting in an early position, in the small and big blinds, or just to the left of them, may typically wait for a strong hand to come along, such as Ace-Ace, Ace-King or King-Queen suited. Some players in early position may “muck,” or fold away, anything that’s not a high pair or high suited cards.

As you work your way around, players in middle position would play those hands, and others, including middle pairs and high, unsuited cards, keeping in mind that there are still others who will have the chance to bet or re-raise after them.

As an overall guide, you can afford to play a little looser the later you sit in the betting order. Players in late position can usually get away with playing weaker hands, such as suited connecters and small pairs.

Once again, do what makes you comfortable. Bet on the hands you want to bet on and make the calls you want to make. Don’t expect to play strictly by these guidelines, and don’t expect that if you do, you are necessarily going to win every time. Switch it up.

I, for example, trust the hand Ace-9, simply for the fact that 9 is my lucky number, and an Ace is a strong card to hold... not to mention, the hand has worked out for me a couple of times. It’s by no means the strongest starting hand out there, but I will most likely play it every time it’s dealt to me.

Now that you understand the hand ranks and the idea of position, you are that much closer to being a multimillionaire. Again, research some more styles and strategies online. Try a few free games online with a poker server, and if you’re up for the challenge, register this weekend in the Millville Fire Department Texas Hold’em tournament.

For $100, entrants will receive their chips for their chance at $2,000. Players will have the chance at two re-buys if their chip count falls below, for $25 each. The doors will open at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 23, with registration leading up to the start of play. For more information about the tournament, stop by the Millville Fire Department or call (302) 539-9535.