One of the keys to winning at the poker tables

A large advertisement in the L.A. Times caught my eye. It’s been run several times in the recent past, so it was bound to have been noticed.
It shows a U.S. Olympic skier holding his skis with one hand and looking straight out at us. The advertiser is a branch of Citibank, the banking giant. It is offering personal checking and financial services with a variety of benefits, including up to $500 after qualifying.
That’s powerful stuff, and should get lots of response. That’s all well and good, but what really intrigued me was the theme printed in the mid-page headline:
“A successful finish often depends on the right start.”
By golly, that’s one of the keys to winning at poker! If you want to succeed (i.e., win) at poker, it is essential you have “the right start.”
Your starting hand must be carefully and wisely selected. If not, you will most likely end up losing that hand. And then another and another. Occasionally, you can expect to get lucky and connect with a poor starting hand. But, in the long run, such a player will be a loser.
The only time I will play without “the right start” is when I am in the blind and the pot has not been raised preflop. At tight tables, that’s quite common – less so in loose-aggressive games. But most of the time, you have to decide if your two hole cards represent the “right start.”
Sometimes it’s an easy decision: two small/medium cards, offsuit and unconnected, should always be mucked. The same applies to one high card and one small card in the hole. A big pocket pair is always a “right start.”
Made hands preflop – A-A, K-K, and Q-Q – are always playable. (Usually, you will raise with one of these as your starting hand.) Likewise, always plan to play premium drawing hands – A-K, A-Q, A-J, K-Q, and middle pairs (J-J, 10-10 and 9-9) – great starting hands.
You certainly want to see the flop with these hands, hoping to improve. After all, with the flop, you will have seen over 70 percent of your final hand. If your hand is the best on the flop, you can expect to win that pot about 70 percent of the time!
How about an Ace-rag as your hole cards? According to Epstein’s Hold’em Algorithm, the only time such a hand is worth your initial investment is if the two cards are suited, in a multiway pot (three or more opponents staying to see the flop), and there are no raises (see the flop for a minimum investment).
Unless it’s a loose-passive table, preferably you want to be in a late position so you can easily fold if there is a raise before you. In this case, you are really hoping to catch two more of your suit.
The odds are about 8-to-1 against it. Then, if you catch four-to-the-nut-flush, the odds drop down to less than 2-to-1 against; now you have a reasonable chance to catch the nut (Ace-high) flush – most often the winning hand. You may even be able to check-raise or bet for value to build your pot.
Of course, you do need to be somewhat cautious if there is a pair on the board; in that case, an opponent could have a full-house and beat your big flush. The same applies to a straight flush; it slaughters your Ace-high flush, and could be very costly. (It happens.)
I should warn you, “the right start” – a good starting hand – won’t get dealt to you very often – perhaps one out of four or five hands. In fact, in an early position, Epstein’s Algorithm will get you a playable starting hand only about one out of six hands. Be prepared. It takes patience – lots of it.
If you don’t have enough patience, perhaps you should not be playing poker. Think it over. Do you qualify? Like the Citibank ad said: You can “earn up to $500 after completing the qualifying activities.” Same in poker…And it usually depends on “the right start” for “a successful finish,” as the ad says.

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