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Texas Hold ’em Strategy Guide

Texas Hold ‘em is one of the most popular forms of poker, least of all because of the amount of strategy involved. As Kenny Rogers once famously sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em...”. But how do you know which hands to hold and which to fold, and what strategies can you apply to give yourself a better idea of the true strength of your hand?

What are you holding or folding?
The holding and folding referred to above mean your hole cards. These are the two cards that are dealt face down to you at the start of a game of Texas Hold ‘em. You are the only one who can see these cards, and you can use either or both in combination with the five cards dealt face up on the table, which everyone can see and use.
Source: Wikimedia
The problem is the cards dealt face up are only revealed in stages: the first three (known as the flop), the fourth card (known as the turn) and finally, the fifth card (known as the river). You need to decide whether to hold or fold each time and to make matters worse, you need to make your first decision before you see any of these cards, which means you need to be able to assess the value of your pair of hole cards fast and accurately.

Hole card combinations
There are 1,326 possible combinations of two cards from a standard 52-card deck, which comes down to 169 possible combinations when you take out pairs of equal value. Your chances of these being worth anything on their own are slim as just 1 in 17 for a pair and 4 in 17 get a matching suit.

Rating your hole cards
When 12 out of 17 sets of hole cards have no immediate value, how do know which of these to hold onto? The key to success is in rating your hole cards accurately. You need to know how to calculate the potential of your hole cards, even when they initially appear to have none. What’s more, you need to be able to do this in just a minute or two, as you need to make your call before the flop is dealt.

Systems and strategies
Just like the many statistics and strategies for the game of roulette, many leading players and mathematicians have created systems for grading Texas Hold 'em poker hands. Both 14x World Series of Poker Champion Phil Hellmuth and the top player and strategist David Sklansky have proposed tier ranking systems for hole cards.

Hellmuth’s system has six tiers:
  1. 1. AA, KK, AKs, QQ, AK
  2. 2. JJ, TT, 99
  3. 3. 88, 77, AQs, AQ
  4. 4. 66, 55, 44, 33, 22, AJs, ATs, A9s, A8s
  5. 5. A7s, A6s, A5s, A4s, A3s, A2s, KQs, KQ
  6. 6. QJs, JTs, T9s, 98s, 87s, 76s, 65s

Any pair of hole cards not achieving a ranking should be folded. The Sklansky system is built on similar principles but has eight different tiers as shown below:
Source: Wikimedia
These systems are hard to learn, but once you have mastered them, you will have a good idea as to your chances of winning with any given pair of cards.

The Chen formula
If you don’t fancy learning a complicated table of hand rankings, you could try the Chen formula, proposed by Bill Chen who used his Ph.D. in math to analyze the mathematics of poker.

Under the Chen system, you can quickly calculate the relative value of your hand as follows:

  • Assign a value to your top card A=10, K=8, Q=7, J=6 with all others valued at half their numerical value (e.g. 8=4 pts)
  • Double your points for a pair (e.g. KK=16)
  • Add 1 point if your cards are consecutive and 2points if they match suit
  • Lose points for gaps between your cards with -1 for a one-card gap, -2 for a two-card gap, -4 for a three-card gap and -5 for a larger card gap
  • Add a point for a single-card gap if the top card is lower than a queen (as the run can go both ways)
Thus, the maximum value will be 20 points — for an AA — down to minus one and a half points for a completely unrelated low-rank hand such as a 7 of clubs and 2 of diamonds (7x ½ =3½ -5 for the gap= -1½).

The Chen formula can be quite hard to master, but at least once you have learned it, you will not risk mixing up the cards in the different tiers as you could with other systems.
Source: Wikimedia
Keeping your cool
Constantly looking at your hole cards can make you look unsure or nervous, so it is also worthwhile to learn a system for remembering what you have. Try to come up with your own mnemonic to remember mixed suits such as points for diamonds and spades and rounds for clubs and hearts. Or use the initials to create memorable word combinations.
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