Texas Holdem Variance & Starting Hands

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Texas Holdem Guide Part 4

Here we go. This is our last guide in our 4 part series. If you haven’t had a chance to read the first three parts,  you can do so by visiting on of the links below.

Texas Holdem Guide » Part 1 » Part 2 » Part 3

In the last section I discussed important concepts that will help you prevent bleeding chips at the table. Concepts including table position, playing from the blinds and bluffing basics. All things you should understand and know how to do well if you want to crush it at the tables.

But there are a couple of more concepts I want to teach you, though, before I can confidently release you into the world of online poker. So what I’m going to cover now is starting hand selection, calling versus raising and poker variance. I’ll then wrap the guide up with 10 tips all beginners will find helpful.

Lets get it done.

What Hands Do I Play? Starting Hands for Beginners

Look in any poker forum and one of the most common questions you see from beginners fall under the scope of what hands they should play, when and how.

First and foremost, this a bad way to think about poker hands. The more important question to ask is why. Why should or shouldn’t you play this specific hand.

Confused? Let me explain.

You see, having some sort of hand chart so that you can pick and choose what hands to play based on where you’re sitting and how many players are in the pot already is static. In early position with no players, you play this hand. In late position with 4 players in the pot, fold these hands, but play these hands instead.

However, poker players are dynamic. Joe Blow likes to play a much different range of hands than Sassy Sally does, and they play their hands differently, too.

Do you see now how specific instructions on what to play is flawed? It doesn’t take into account the types of players you will come across.

What you need to be thinking about instead, and ultimately combine, is position, players and situations. So lets dive further into each of those.

Table Position

I covered table position in more detail in our last guide. So I’m only going to touch on it a little here.

Position should play a role in what hands you choose to play because it will determine if you’re in or out of position postflop. Do you really want to play a hand like 76o out of position? It’d be hard to do for a lot of players, regardless of their skill set. As a beginner you should try to make things as easy on yourself as possible. So as a rule of thumb you should play stronger hands from earlier position and start playing more hands as you move into later position.

It’s not just about where you sit though. Position also refers to where you sit in relation to your opponents. If you have a really good player to your left (he has position on you), that will impact what hands you choose to play. He’s going to call or re-raise you a lot, so you need to play hands that are going to have clearer decisions postflop.

On the flipside, if you have players who call with any two cards, nits or some other kind of bad player, that means you can play a wider range of hands — for value! Open them up and bet when you hit the flop.

Does that make sense?

Who Are Your Opponents?

Your opponents will play a role, too. Instead of looking at your own two cards, you should be thinking about what cards they could be holding. Don’t put them on two specific cards, either, but instead think of what they can have in terms of ranges. In other words, what are all the hands they’d play, and how would they play them?

Hand ranges are determined by a number of factors including table position, mood, skill set, playing style and so on. They’re dynamic too. Each player is different. And each player’s hand range will change frequently as well.

To give you an idea of how this works, say your opponent raises from the under-the-gun. He’s a good player, so you know he doesn’t have any junk hands. We could guess that he’s got something like jacks or better, ace-jack or better and king-queen. If you look down at your own cards and see KJs, do you think it makes sense to call and see the flop?

Not really, right?! Your hand isn’t in front of your opponent’s range. If you hit a jack or king you’ll feel compelled to play it, yet your hand will probably be dominated. Then you’ll spend chips with what’s likely to be the worst of it.

On the other hand, say the same player limps into the pot (instead of raising). You can make the assumption that he’s playing the same range of hands plus the remainder of pocket pairs and broadways. In this case it might make sense to play a hand like KJs, possibly raise it and just take it one street at a time postflop.

Consider the Situation

Situations play a role in what hands you choose to play, too. For example:

  • You lost most of your stack in a cash game and for whatever reason can’t top off. Maybe you choose to short stack these games on purpose. This will impact your range — you’ll need to play fewer hands, and play them to win.
  • The bubble of a tournament or sit and go. You can play a wide range of hands if you’re the first player to enter the pot, but you need to stick to your best hands if someone open-raises in front of you.
  • When there are antes. Antes create more dead money, which is a good reason for you to play more hands so that you can steal more pots.
  • Your on the final table and have an average stack. Here you want an average hand range.

I think you get the point.

Overall, choosing what hands to play is a combination of all three of these points. One of these points might stick out more than the other, and ultimately be the deciding factor in what hands you choose to play, but I hope that you see that at no point you should look down and say, “Oh, I’m sitting here and I have XX. I should call/fold/raise.”

Calling is For Sissies — Why You Should Be Raising Instead

In this section I want to talk about a big mistake beginners make. Scratch that. It’s not just beginners that do it. Bad players do it.

What do these guys do? Call. Call. Call. Then call some more.

To be specific, I mean that when they are first to enter the pot preflop they just call the big blind or “limp” in.

Before I get into why calling is bad, and what to do instead, I want to cover the reasons why players do this. You might see where some of their problems lie.

  • Players limp because it’s cheap. You don’t lose much when you have to fold.
  • You can play more hands. Playing more hands means more opportunities to hit the flop.
  • You can be sneaky with your good hands. When you limp preflop your opponents don’t know if you have AA or 98o.

Those are the most common reasons I see and hear. They make sense. I don’t agree with them, but you can see where these guys are coming from.

But lets now look at why these reasons are flawed.

Calling may be cheap, but these players don’t take into account how often they fold and the number of chips they give up. They definitely don’t make the chips up the few times they win. Remember, they’re passive – my guess is that they don’t raise with their good hands either, winning much less than they should.

The ability to play more hands isn’t a good excuse either. Sure, you’ll hit more flops, but how often do you think you’ll hit the flop hard enough to be excited about committing a lot of chips? Not very often. But you’ll do it anyway. Why else would you play the hand?

And as far as being sneaky — yeah, it works sometimes, against the right players. However, more often than not you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Here’s how:

  • You don’t start building a pot. If the pot starts off small, it’s going to end small. Small pots are not what we want to win with premium hands.
  • You let more players into the pot, which decreases the value of your hand. Your hand is more likely to be outdrawn.

Another point worth mentioning is that when you don’t open-raise preflop, you give up your initiative in the hand. You won’t be able to continuation bet successfully (very often). Double barreling wont’ work either. No one will believe you have “it,” because players raise with “it” preflop.

By now I hope you see why limping preflop is a weak play to make, and by doing so, that you’re putting yourself at a major disadvantage from the get-go. The bottom line is that if you decide to play your hand preflop, and no one has entered the pot before you, 9 times out of 10 you should be coming in for a raise.

There is one exception, though. Maybe two.

If you play in micro stakes tournaments and sit and goes a standard play with small pairs is to limp preflop. Raising does no good since most players will call you anyway, also rendering a continuation bet useless. So limping lets you set mine and save chips.

Another example would be if you knew your opponent was going to freak out and raise or shove over you while you hold a monster.

But those are more the exception than the rule. When in doubt, raise it up preflop.

Understanding and Learning How to Deal With Bad Beats

One reality that hits players like a ton of bricks is that they won’t win every pot. In fact, a lot of times they’ll have the best of it preflop or on the flop, and by the river their opponent made the better hand. For example, having a set on a rainbow flop, and then their opponent goes runner-runner for the flush.

Then you see these players post these “bad beats” on forums, complaining that some fish got lucky. Occasionally you’ll see images of players who couldn’t stand it anymore, got mad, went on tilt and broke their computer screen.

So before you ever get to that point (assuming you haven’t already), I want to talk to you about variance in poker. What variance is and what you should do when you’re experiencing your fair share of bad beats.

What is Variance?

I like ThePokerBank.com’s definition for what variance is:

Variance is the downswings and upswings involved with playing poker.


Variance is the difference between how much money you expect to win on average over the long run and the results you are seeing in the short term.

For example, if you take a hand like pocket aces versus pocket kings, you should win about 80% of the time, or 4 out of 5 attempts. That’s your long term expectation.

In the short term it can happen much differently. You can lose with aces 10 times in a row before you win once. It can go the other way, too; you win 10 times before you lose once. That’s variance. In the long run you’re expected to win 4/5 times, but it’s not going to happen in an orderly fashion along the way. You’re not going to win 4 times, lose 1 time, win 4 times, lose 1 time and so on.

As you could imagine variance can totally mess with your head. One minute you’re on top of the world, and the next it would be completely normal for that world to flip upside down. This can lead to poker players thinking too much, or too little of themselves. But it’s all an illusion (in most cases) of variance.

One important thing worth noting — to some extent, you control the amount of variance you experience. If you’re a loose-aggressive player you’ll experience more variance than a tight-aggressive player. If you like to go all in with AK preflop you’ll experience more variance than someone who prefers to play the hand postflop. Turbo sit and goes have more variance than non-turbos. The list goes on and on.

And remember — it’s not all negative variance either, although that’s what you hear most players talk about. I cannot count the number of times I got it in behind and won. Sometimes it would happen several times in one game. Variance is funny like that.

How to Deal with Variance

The worst part of variance is having to deal with it. Feeling like you want to chuck your mouse at the screen, drop kick your cat and jump out your window, all at the same time.

Dealing with variance is easier said than done, but with practice you can do it. Here’s how.

First and foremost, you should reread my section above about what variance is. Understand that all hands are going to lose sometimes, and that they won’t win or lose in a logical way. All you should care about is whether or not your hand is supposed to win in the long run.

You should also make the connection between the volume of hands and games you play, and the mathematical significance of it all. In other words, anything and everything can happen in one game. Even 2, 100 or 1,000. However, the more hands and games you play, the more the numbers are going to even out to resemble long term expectations. So that means only after thousands of hands or games will you truly be able to tell if you’re any good, or are just getting lucky (in the short term).

If thinking logically about variance doesn’t help, then you might need to take a more drastic measure. Maybe take a break from poker, or quit altogether. Some players just cannot handle the stress of the constant up and downs, especially the higher up in stakes they go. I don’t know of anyone personally, but I bet variance has been the final nail in many a poker players’ (potential) career coffins as rounders.

What can you say? Variance is an ugly beast.

Other than taking a break all you can really do is talk to your peers and mentors. Have them review your hands and try to put things into perspective for you. Often times what you’ll find is that you were initially hit with variance, but you adjusted how you play afterward (for the worse) and compounded your problems. Sometimes it truly is all variance. Talking with a peer or mentor will help you determine what’s going on, and give you some peace of mind in the process.

10 Beginner Texas Holdem Tips

Alright, lets finish this section off with some tips. The following tips are more ideas that I feel are important for beginners to know, but are too small to warrant their own section in our guide. But follow them (or at least understand them) and I’m sure you’re game will improve.

1. Play fewer tables. One of the benefits to playing online poker is your ability to play more tables at one time. Done right, you can boost your hourly rate, your bankroll and your ability to play higher stakes. Done wrong and you’ll go broke. I recommend sticking to 1-2 tables at most to focus on quality of play over quantity. Then as you improve add one table at a time.

2. Specialize. I recommend focusing on one variation of Texas Holdem. That way you can pick up the different nuances of the variation, get good at it and build some momentum. In other words, if you want to play turbo sit and goes, stick to those. Non-turbos? Stick to those. Heads up cash games? Then focus on those. Once you get good and/or bored, then consider trying a different variation of Holdem. You’ll find that learning a new variation will be easier if you do.

3. Review your hands. One of the fastest ways to improve is to review your own hands. You can do this in a replayer or HUD tool. The most important thing to do here is to remove all bias and look at each hand objectively. If you have a hard time doing that then maybe find a peer or mentor to look them over (and discuss special spots) with you.

4. Post hands to forums. Like above, posting hands to forums is a quick way to improve. These guys won’t have a problem tearing your hand apart and telling you where you screwed up. You’ll need to be able to take the criticisms, but trust me, I can tell you from experience that there is no faster way to learn outside of playing a lot.

5. Think about every hand. You don’t want to turn into a robot and play each hand the same way just because you’re told to or because it’s the standard play. Yeah, raising pocket aces preflop is standard, but is it the best way to get value in that particular situation? That’s the question you need to ask each hand you play.

6. Don’t let the other players both you. In fact, I recommend turning off the chat, unless you’re just playing poker for the social aspect of things. (I’ve never been in a worthwhile discussion online though.) All these guys want to do is talk smack and try to throw you on tilt.

7. Play as often as possible. The more you play, the more experience you’ll get. And experience will teach you (the hard way) how to play poker well. When to raise. When to fold. What hands to play. How to establish ranges. Poker is hard to learn from a forum or book because each hand is different, even between two players holding the same hole cards. So you need to play, and play often.

8. Play within your bankroll. Playing outside of your bankroll is a surefire way to end your poker career, or stunt it drastically. Playing outside of your bankroll can also have an affect on your mood, what hands you play and how you play them. I understand if playing within your limits is hard to do, since everyone wants to play as high as they can. But you’ll thank yourself when you go on a bad run and you’re still able to log-in and play tomorrow.

9. Play aggressively. Aggressive players win pots. Keep in mind that is controlled and well-timed aggression. When you raise you can steal the blinds, build pots, induce folds, take initiative, etc. When you limp, call or check, you can’t.

10. Buy in for the max. When you sit down to a Texas Holdem cash game you should always buy in for the max. That way when you pick up a good hand you can get the most money for it.

The End (of Our Guide)

Well, that’s it for our guide.

I know. Sad face, right?!

The upside, though, is that you know more than most beginners. Even some intermediate players. Use this knowledge right and you’ll have no problem making money playing poker.

The next step is to put everything you learned into action. Go out and play some hands. Then write down the hands that you had a hard time with, review them and figure out why they were hard. Then rinse and repeat. Before you know it you’ll be crushing the Texas Holdem tables.