A Guide to Starting Hands
Most card rooms offer both spread- limit and structured-limit hold’em games to their lower limit players. And most players play these two games in exactly the same way. After all, hold’em is hold’em, right! Wrong. Choosing your best game strategy depends on the structure of the game you’re playing in.
In a structured-limit hold’em game, the amount a player can bet on any round is completely determined by the betting structure of the game. Consider a $4 — $8 limit hold’em game where the blinds are $2 and $4. On the first two rounds of betting, a player can bet or raise $4 and only $4 and nothing in between. On the second two betting rounds, a player can bet and raise $8 and only $8 and nothing in between. A11 bets and raises must be in increments of $4 and $8. But in a $2 — $4 — $8 — $8 spread-limit hold’em game, where the blinds are $1 and $2, the bets aren’t so rigidly predetermined. Instead, a player has the option of betting anywhere from $2 to $4 before and after the flop and betting anywhere from $2 to $8 on the turn and the river. How much a player bets within this spread is completely up to the Slot player. The differences in betting structure in these two types of games are big enough to require drastically different strategies.
Your main strategy change should occur right at the top, in the selection of starting hands. In hold’em, the quality of your starting hand should directly depend on the amount of money you have to pay to see the flop compared to the return you expect if you get lucky and hit your hand. Why? Because your hand will miss the flop such a high percentage of the time. As it becomes more expensive to see the flop, you need to increase your chances of hitting your hand by increasing the quality of the cards you start with. Because of the differences between spread and structured limits, you can limp into a pot to see the flop for half as much money in a spread-limit game (e.g., $2) as in a structured-limit game (e.g., $4). Since the price to see the flop differs so much between structured- and spread-limit games, your strategy has to differ, too.
Suppose you are dealt a drawing hand, such as the 8d 6d in early position. In your basic structured- limit game, this hand is a marginal starting hand for several reasons. The 8d 6d plays well in only a specific type of situation — a large, multi-way pot — and when you are one of the first players to act, you have no guarantee that your pot will be multi-way (unless you are playing in a very loose and passive game). Since you can’t know whether or not the pot will be multi-way when you are in early position, it is very important that you get to see the flop for a small bet — in other words, as cheaply as possible. The earlier your position in the hand, the more likely it is that someone will raise behind you and the less likely it is that you will get to see the flop for a single small bet. This is where these types of hands can get very expensive. In structured-limit games, once you’ve called the initial small bet you are almost always forced to call any subsequent raises because of how much money is in the pot. Suppose you’re in a $4-$8 game where there is $6 in blinds. You limp for $4, a player raises behind you making it $8 to go, and the blinds fold. There is already $l8 in the pot when you have to make the decision whether or not to call the extra $4 raise. There is too much money in the pot to fold your hand for $4. The call is automatic. Since you will frequently be playing for two or more small bets, hands like 8d 6d, played in early position, can be very dangerous and expensive to play — unless, of course, you are a very good player, capable of getting off this hand cheaply after the flop when you hit it badly and squeezing out those extra bets when you hit it well.
A spread-limit game is a totally different story. Drawing hands such as the 8d 6d are clearly playable, even in early position. First, since players only have to pay half as much to see the flop, they are much more likely to limp into most pots. This means that the pot in a spread- limit game is more likely to be both un-raised and multi-way. Which means you are more likely to get to see the flop for only a small bet since spread-limit games tend to play much more loose and passive than their structured cousins. Second, even if there is a raise behind you when you limp in early position, you do not have to play for the extra bet in a spread-limit game. This is because, compared to the same scenario in a structured-limit game, there is not as much money in the pot relative to the size of the bet. Take a $2-$4-$8-$8 game where there is $.3 in blinds, for example. You limp in for $2, there is a raise behind you making it $6 t0 go, and the blinds fold. In this game, there is only $11 in the pot when you have to make the decision whether or not to call the $9 raise (as opposed to $18 in the pot in the same situation in the structured- limit game). Because there is so much less money in the pot in spread-limit, when the pot is raised behind your limp, it is easy to throw your hand away for the extra $4.
The fact that you should surrender your hand when there is a raise behind you in the spread-limit game makes all the difference in whether or not drawing hands like the 8d 6d are playable. Suited connectors play best in multi-way pots because when you hit these hands well, flopping either a straight or flush draw, you would prefer to have a lot of company. In a spread-limit game, it is not only 50 percent cheaper to limp in, speculating that the pot will be multi way, but when you find yourself in the unenviable position of having the option to call a raise in a short-handed pot, you can throw your hand away because the pot you are defending is so small compared to the size of the bet. Spread-limit games allow you a bigger choice of starting hands in unraised pots. Remember: Since you can limp in for less, the pot is offering you relatively more — a major recommendation for playing spread-limit because if you can outplay your opponents from the flop on, you will have many more opportunities to do so.
Spread-limit games also have the advantage of giving you more control over the pot when you are in late position, This is because you have complete control over the size of any raise you might make before the flop (e.g., you can raise $2, $3, or $4 in a $2-$4-$8-$8). Consider a situation in which you have the same 8d 6 — except now you are in late position with four limpers in front of you. This is a perfect situation for this hand — a guaranteed large, multi-way pot in which you have position on the field. In an ideal world, you would flop the straight or flush draw:, everyone would check to you, and you would bet to buy a free card on the turn in case you miss your draw. The advantage of spread-limit hold’em is that you can actually create this ideal world for the cheapest possible price. When everyone limps to you, you can raise and take the lead on the pot for the absolute minimum (e.g., $4) and cause everyone to check to you on the flop most of the time. When you hit the flop, you can then bet and take a free card if you miss on the turn. And if you marginally hit the board, flopping something like the Kh 7s 2d which gives you a three-straight and a three-flush, you can now take a free card when everyone checks to you and see if you improve on the turn. You have controlled the situation for the minimum amount of money. As another example, consider how a small pair such as the 5h 5c plays in spread- limit. If you are in late position and there are four limpers in front of you, you should again raise $2 but for entirely different reasons from the 8d 6d. In this case, you are raising merely to make the pot a little bigger since your opponents will tend to go farther with their hands the larger the pot is. And if you are playing a small pair, where you are really only looking to flop a set, you want your opponents to chase you as often as possible since a set in hold’em almost always wins the pot. Further, raising with a small pair gives you the added advantage of often being able to see both the flop and the turn for the price of the minimum raise since your opponents will often check to the raiser on the flop. Now, when you miss the flop and everyone checks to you, you can check back and see the turn for free, giving you two chances to hit your set for the price of the small raise.
One of the biggest advantages of being able to raise the minimum in the spread-limit game is that you keep the pot small enough to release your hand easily if you only marginally hit the flop (as in the case of the Kh 7s 2d discussed above) and an opponent bets into you. The main problem with taking the lead on the pot by raising with drawing hands like the 8d 6d in a structured-limit game is that, because you are putting in extra money before the flop, your return when you hit your hand is proportionately less (even though the pot is larger) and this will cost you money in the long run. Since your goal is to get off these types of hands as cheaply as possibly when you don’t hit the flop, raising into several limpers becomes a very marginal play in structured-limit games.
Spread-limit games are more advantageous to the solid, thinking player because of the major strategy differences between spread-limit and structured-limit, most of which have to do with the greater ability to manipulate the size of the pot in a spread-limit game. Even if your daily game is a structured-limit game, you should still apply some of the concepts discussed here to maximally force your opponents to always take the worst of it whenever possible, You might not be able to make your opponents play badly against you all the time (even if they only play well by accident), but if you are always thinking well and making the best decisions possible, winning will take care of itself.