Preflop in Poker

Our guide to playing before the flop in poker. Learn about preflop ranges, strategies, and betting patterns, to increase your chances of winning.

Building a solid Texas Holdem preflop range is a vitally important step in becoming a winning poker player. Preflop ranges are the foundation we build the rest of our strategy on, and if that foundation is shaky it will become very hard to play a good post-flop strategy on later streets.

In this article, we'll look at what preflop starting hands should make up our range, what we need to consider before we play them, and how best to play our range based on the action before us.

What Is Preflop in Poker

Preflop is the first round of betting before the first 3 community cards (called the flop) are dealt. The blinds are posted by the two players to the left of the button, and this dead money is the financial incentive to start playing the hand.

Check our poker glossary for other poker definitions.

Preflop Ranges

If you're unfamiliar with the concept of hand reading, a range is the collection of hands that a player would play in a certain way. While we might only play one hand at a time, we can recognize that there are multiple different hands we would play the same way. For example, if I was to raise under the gun (UTG) there are several hands I would raise, AA, KK, AK to name a few, and all of these hands together is called my range.

The hands that make up your preflop range will depend on a couple of things - your specific playing style and the game that you're playing in. Each player has a different style of play that they're most comfortable with which will influence their preflop starting hand selection, either being slightly tighter or looser than what may be considered 'optimal', but in the majority of games, this won't have a large impact on your overall win rate.

Secondly, the type of game you're playing in will have an impact. Some games play extremely nitty where there isn't a lot of action and you can make the most money by playing a wider range and taking advantage of people folding too much. Other games will be on the opposite end of the spectrum where the action is wild and crazy, and the best poker strategy would be to wait for good hands and go for max value. Moderation is the key where we still play with good hands and fold weak pre-flop ones.

Preflop Guidelines

There are some generally agreed-upon guidelines for building a solid preflop range:

  • We raise our tightest range UTG and progressively widen it as we approach the button.
  • We play more suited hands than offsuit hands as they can flop more equity.
  • Don't overvalue offsuit Ax hands.
  • The earlier position you raise, the more high-card value is important.

We use the button as a frame of reference when it comes to preflop play because position is power in poker. Getting to act last means that we get to see what everyone else does before us, thus giving us the most information for that street and we can use that information to make better decisions than our opponents.

Being on the button, we are guaranteed to be in position for the entire hand post-flop and therefore we can play the most hands profitably from the button.

Preflop Strategy

Now that we know what a preflop range is, how do we go about choosing what starting hands we should put in them and start building our strategy?

Starting Hand Selection

The earlier position you are preflop, the tighter your raising range should be. This is because there are more players left to act who can have a strong hand, so the strength of our hand needs to go up to compensate. If we were to raise UTG at a 9 handed table there are 8 other players left to act. Another way to look at that is there are 16 cards, or nearly 1/3 of the deck in other people's hands so the chances of someone having a good hand is very high!

As we get closer and closer to the button we can start to open up our raising range as we have fewer opponents who can have a good hand behind us. We can raise more suited connectors, more Ax hands, more offsuit broadway hands, more suited Kx, as we move around the table until we reach the button where we will play our widest preflop raising range of around 50-60% of hands.

Try using our texas holdem odds calculator to know any hand's probability of winning. It uses the Monte-Carlo simulation to provide you reliable statistics. Check out our other free poker tools, too.

Gap Concept

The Gap Concept is the theory that we should have a tighter preflop range for calling a raise than we would for raising first in. This is because when we raise ourselves, we have a chance to take the pot down uncontested whereas if we call we lose that opportunity.

Let's look at an example. We hold AT in the HJ at a 9 handed table and we see a 3bb raise from UTG. AT is usually considered a good hand and would be raised if it folded to us, but we know that UTG is going to have the tightest raising range at the table.

When we look at how our AT does against the hands UTG raises, (AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT, AK, AQ, AJs, 99, etc.) it suddenly doesn't seem like such a strong hand. So even though we were planning on raising, we're now folding these Texas Hold'em hands against a raise.

This concept isn't applied as much in the big blind because having already posted 1bb into the pot, the big blind gets a discount to call the raise, compared to calling a raise from another position like the cutoff.

This discount is enough to compensate for the fact that the preflop raiser is going to have a stronger range than us. Also calling in the BB closes the action which means we don't have to worry about being re-raised by another player yet to act.

Preflop Position Strategy

When we're raising from UTG we should only be raising our best preflop hands which should look like:

  • A pair
  • A big ace (AJ+)
  • Suited broadway (e.g. KTs, QJs)

As we get closer to the button, but still in middle position, we can start adding these hands to our preflop range:

  • Weaker suited Ax
  • Suited connectors
  • Strongest offsuit broadway

In the HJ/CO we can add some more playable poker hands to our range:

  • More offsuit Ax (A9+)
  • All suited Ax
  • All offsuit broadway
  • Suited Kx (K8s+)
  • Bigger suited one gappers (hands like J9s that are connected but have a gap between the J and the 9)

On the BTN we will be playing our widest raising range as we add:

  • All offsuit Ax
  • Most suited Kx/Qx
  • Most suited one gappers
  • Offsuit connectors
  • Suited two gappers (hands like 96s that have a two-card gap between the 6 and 9)
  • Offsuit Kx (K7o+)

If it folds to us in the SB we play a wide range, similar to the button, but because we are guaranteed to be playing OOP we take some of the weakest hands from the button's range and just fold them.

suited vs off-suit hands in poker
Suited vs off-suit hands in poker.

Preflop Bet Sizing

Choosing your preflop bet sizing will largely depend on the type of game you're playing, rather than the type of hand you're raising. It's very important to raise the same size as all of your hands. Otherwise, if you raise big with your strong hands and small with your weak hands you will become very easy to read.

If you're playing in online cash games, generally the raise sizes aren't any larger than 3x the big blind and become smaller by position as they approach the button. Players size down as they approach the button because they are more likely to be in position and therefore want to entice people to call where they will be out of position and more likely to make mistakes. 

In live cash games, it's more common to frequently raise larger than 3bb, even up to 6 or 7bb, because your opponents will call with the same range regardless of sizing meaning we can get more value from our strong hands.

In poker tournaments, where stack sizes are smaller, you'll want to raise between 2 and 2.5bb. This is because the chips are so much more valuable in terms of utility, so raising 3bb and having to fold to a 3bet with a 25bb stack is a much worse proposition than raising 2bb and folding to a re-raise.

14% Poker Preflop Raise Chart
Poker Preflop Raise Chart at 14% - a Conservative Preflop Raise Strategy

Limping In Preflop

Open limping preflop is most often done by weak players who feel that their hand isn't strong enough for a raise but can't quite bring themselves to fold it. If a player has limped in front of you, you should tighten up your raising range from that position as you have 1 extra player that can continue against your raise, and you should increase your raise size around 1bb for each limper in the pot.

If you want to play a hand preflop you should be raising it. There are a couple of scenarios where you can have a limping range but those are in tournaments with a certain stack size from certain positions.

The first scenario would be if you have around 10-20bb on the BTN in a tournament. Players have started limping playable hands like 87 and J10 on the button at this stack depth as it allows them to see more flops in position, whereas if they raise and face a re-raise they would have to fold.

The second scenario is if it folds to you in the SB in tournaments. Considering there are antes and you have half the big blind out already, you're getting a great price to call in the SB so people have been limping more hands to take advantage of this.

Limp Re-Raise

If a weak player is limp/re-raising then that is usually an indicator of a very strong hand and you should proceed with caution, even if you have a good hand yourself.

If we're deciding to limp a lot of hands in the SB when playing tournaments, we're going to want to have some limp/re-raises in our range. This is to stop the big blind from being able to liberally raise our limps and put pressure on us because if we have hands that can re-raise the big blind, it forces them to play tighter. 

We're going to want to choose our strongest hands to do this as well as some bluffs which will include some of our A2-A5 offsuit hands, some suited Kx and Qx - hands that have a blocker to our opponents strongest hands but can also flop some equity if called.

How to Play Pre-Flop

We've covered a lot of the theory around how to play preflop, so let's break things down and look at how we play different hand types in the various preflop scenarios you're likely to encounter.

Preflop With a Premium Hand

Our premium hands are our very best preflop hands, e.g. AA, KK, QQ, JJ, and AK.

Folded to us

We'll be raising these hands from every position preflop.

Facing a raise

Against a raise we will be 3betting these hands against every position, we want to start building a pot and get as much money in as possible while we still have the best hand.

Facing a re-raise after raising

If we face a 3bet after raising with these hands we're going to be 4betting the majority of the time against every position, again intending to get as much money in preflop as we can with these hands.

Facing a raise and a re-raise

If we're facing a raise and 3bet in front of us we will be 'cold' 4betting (we call it 'cold' 4betting as we're making a 4bet without having previously invested money into the pot) every time. The common theme with our premium hands is we want to get the pots as big as possible. These are our most profitable hands and we make money with them by building the pots preflop.

Preflop With a Strong Hand

Our strong hands are hands like AT-AQ, suited broadways such as KQ, JT, and our medium pairs 66-TT.

Folded to us

We will be raising these hands from pretty much every position, the exceptions being our weakest hands like ATo which may not be raised UTG.

Facing a raise

These hands can be called or 3bet depending on the style you play, I would advocate 3betting these types of hands against a raise from most positions. Be aware that the earlier position your opponent raises from, the tighter range they have so we need to be tighter with our 3bets accordingly.

Facing a re-raise after raising

The majority of these hands play well as a call when facing a 3bet, especially when we will be in position. If we're going to be out of position then some of our offsuit Ax hands can be 4bet as calling with them becomes less attractive (hands like ATo, AJo, and AQo specifically).

Facing a raise and a re-raise

Against a raise and a re-raise, we will mainly be looking to 4bet or fold. I don't recommend cold calling 3bets as it caps our range (meaning our opponents will know we don't have our strongest hands as we would have 4bet those instead of calling) and makes it easier for our opponent to play against us post-flop. 

We can use hands like ATo/AJo/AQo as preflop 4bets, with AQo being a 4bet bluff in earlier positions and a 4bet for value the closer we get to the blinds. I would also 4bet TT/99 for value if the first raise is from late position - i.e. the cutoff or button.

Preflop With a Marginal Hand

Our marginal hands are going to be the suited connector/gapper hands, the offsuit broadway, our weaker Ax hands, K8s+, and our weakest pairs 55-22.

Folded to us

We'll be raising these hands from most positions but will mostly be folded from the earliest positions.

Facing a raise

Again depending on your style of play these can be called or 3bet if you decide to play them against a raise. However, I would only recommend continuing if you are facing a raise from middle/late position as these hands do not do well against early position ranges.

If you play a calling style, I would only call these hands if you are on the button or in the big blind against most positions, if the raise is in late position then calling in the SB becomes more reasonable.

Facing a re-raise after raising

We will be folding the worst of hands when we face 3bets and mainly calling our suited connectors and our pairs. If we are going to be in position we can widen that calling range to some suited Ax hands and some of the suited Kx if we raised in late position.

Facing a raise and a re-raise

Against this preflop action, we will be folding all of these hands, except A2s-A5s and some of the weak suited Kx that can be 4bet as bluffs. However, I would recommend only doing that when the action starts in late position.

Preflop With a Weak Hand

Weak hands will encompass all the hands we haven't mentioned in a previous category. The only hands from this range we're likely to play are some offsuit Kx and Qx, the rest of our offsuit Ax, and our suited 2/3 gappers.

Folded to us

We will be folding these hands from most positions except the button and the small blind.

Facing a raise

With these hands, against a preflop raise, I would recommend folding unless we are in the big blind as these hands are too weak against a raising range.

Facing a re-raise after raising

If we've raised the button or small blind with any of these hands we will be folding most of them to a 3bet. We can call some of the suited two gapper hands when we're in position as they play similarly to suited connectors, but all other hands should be folds.

Facing a raise and a re-raise

Every hand that we would consider weak should be folded when facing a raise and re-raise.

Preflop Charts

Preflop range charts show every possible hand preflop with pairs running from the top left to bottom right diagonal, the suited varieties of hands being above that diagonal, and the off suit varieties below. Using these charts is a great way to visualize ranges and get a handle on what your preflop ranges look like.

How poker hand charts work
How poker hand range charts work!

Top 10 Poker Preflop Tips

Here our our best preflop tips for poker players:

  1. If you're going to play a hand when it folds to you, raise instead of limping.
  2. When raising, raise a consistent size for your whole range.
  3. Be aware that your position should change your preflop raising range.
  4. Play your widest raising range from the button.
  5. Play your best hands very aggressively preflop.
  6. Don't call 3bets with marginal hands when you're going to be playing out of position.
  7. Raise more suited hands than offsuit as they flop more equity.
  8. Avoid calling preflop raises from positions that aren't the button or big blind.
  9. Increase your preflop raise size if there are preflop limpers.
  10. Don't be scared to deviate your strategy based on how your opponents are playing!

Preflop - FAQ

Answers to common questions poker players have about playing before the flop.

How tight should you be preflop?

This is highly dependent on both your position and the players you're playing against. The earlier position you're in the tighter you should be, however, if people are folding too much you can start to widen your range. Conversely, if people are calling too much you want to focus on playing your strongest hands to get value from these opponents.

What are the least playable poker hands?

The least playable hands in poker are low cards that aren't suited and have no connectivity (meaning you cannot make a straight with both cards). For that reason 72o is considered the worst starting hand, 82o and 93o have similar negative qualities.

What is statistically the best preflop hand?

Statistically, the best preflop hand is AA. It has 85.2% equity against a random hand, it has 81.95% equity against the second-best preflop hand (KK) and the lowest amount of equity it has is 77.5% against 65s.

What is the difference between a continuation bet and a slow play?

A continuation bet is an aggressive action made post-flop after being the preflop aggressor. A 'slow play' is an action where a player takes a more passive action than would be expected with a strong hand to disguise its strength, this can occur pre-flop or post-flop.

Should you slow play pocket pairs before the flop?

The EV of raising preflop with your pocket pairs will be higher than slow-playing them the majority of the time. Slow playing preflop allows opponents to realize equity on the flop which is bad for our vulnerable pairs (22-99). There may be certain situations, with strong reads on your opponents, where you can slow play your big pairs but you should mostly be raising.

What are connectors in poker?

Connectors in poker are hands where the cards are sequential in value, e.g 7s8s or Jc10d. The two cards don't have to be suited to be connectors. There are other types of connected cards called 'gappers' where there is a gap in the sequence, e.g 5s3s and 7h9d.

Should you re-raise with a strong hand pre-flop?

You should as you will make much more money, in the long run, re-raising preflop with these strong hands as it allows you to put more money in with what's likely the best hand. You should only slow play in specific circumstances where you have either a good read on your opponent or a specific stack size dynamic.

Now that you have your preflop ranges nailed down you've laid the foundations upon which you can build your winning strategy, and are ready to start raising and re-raising your opponents with confidence.