Poker is easy to learn but difficult to master, which I love!
Players with well-thought-out and in-depth strategies are rewarded with easier decisions and a better bottom line. However, the complexity of poker also leads to many opportunities for potential mistakes.
Since pre-flop is the most played and important street in poker, I think it would be helpful to lay out 12 pre-flop mistakes that beginners (and even some pros) consistently make.
I see players making these mistakes all the time, but almost all of them can be rectified with some simple adjustments.
Prefer watching to reading? Check out Ryan’s video version of this article by clicking here or scrolling to the bottom of the page.
Preflop Mistake #1: Limping
Open limping is when a player just calls the big blind pre-flop, and is the first player to enter the pot. This is a very bad strategy to use for a number of reasons.
- You can’t win the pot pre-flop by open limping.
Unlike raising, open limping is a passive action that does not give you an immediate opportunity to win the pot. There is already dead money in the pot from the small blind and big blind, but by calling you make no attempt to claim it for yourself.
- Open limping makes your opponents’ lives easy.
Open limping puts the players behind you into a very good spot. With an extra big blind in the pot, they are incentivized to at least call (or worse, raise) and play a pot in position against your weaker range.
As the number of players in the pot increases, your hand’s equity to win the pot decreases. This is obviously not a situation you want to be in.
On top of this, your limps will likely face aggression from players acting after you, who either want to exploit your perceived weak range or extract value with a hand that they would have raised with anyway.
Even if you attempt to balance your limping range to counter this by including strong hands, those hands will have a lower expected value as a result. Rather, you want to squeeze as much value as possible from your strong holdings pre-flop, whereas electing to open limp strong hands for the sake of balance will usually end up backfiring.
Note, however, that limping behind may sometimes be justified. It is acceptable to limp behind another player who has limped when you have a hand that is too weak to raise but too strong to fold. Given that you are incentivized to call, it is worth taking the opportunity to limp behind with hands that play well in multiway pots, and which are capable of making big hands post-flop.
Preflop Mistake #2: Lacking Positional Awareness
The second pre-flop mistake I often see players make is failing to consider the relationship between position and range. Your position in a hand should influence the range of hands that you are willing to play.
The more players to act behind you, the tighter your range should be. This is because the likelihood of coming up against a strong hand increases with the number of players left to act. Also, you are more likely to play a hand out of position when opening from early positions, making it more difficult to profit with marginal hands.
If you open too wide from early positions, you will not be able to profitably defend your range and can be easily exploited. Instead, your range should widen as you move closer to the button. Late position players also have the benefit of positional advantage against the blinds, who most often call late position opens.
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Preflop Mistake #3: Playing Too Passively Against Raises
Playing too passively against opens by just calling and rarely 3-betting may be the biggest and most common mistake I see in low stakes games.
It is hard to believe how frequently players flat opens with strong hands as opposed to 3-betting. Whether it be to trap an opponent, or a fear of playing large pots, choosing not to 3-bet your stronger holdings is a mistake for several reasons.
- Flatting opens leaves value on the table
By 3-betting opening raises with strong hands, you will extract more value from your opponents by increasing the size of the pot early in the hand.
- 3-betting prevents hands from going multi-way
As demonstrated in the Aces example above, the equity of strong hands sharply decreases when there are multiple players in a hand. By 3-betting your strong hands, you are often able to isolate the original raiser and see a flop heads-up.
Consequently, the equity of your hand is preserved, and you increase the likelihood of having the best hand at showdown. Take AKo/AKs for example:
In a multi-way pot with four players, AK has only a 30% chance of winning at showdown. But what about a heads-up pot?
Against just one player, AK is a solid favorite with 60% equity versus a player who raised and called a 3-bet from MP2. This illustrates the benefit of isolating opening raisers with 3-bets, and why passively calling pre-flop is problematic.
There are a couple things to be aware of when 3-betting pre-flop. First, it is important to make sure your 3-betting range is comprised of more than just value hands. 3-betting only strong hands is predictable, and will make you easy to beat by allowing opponents to fold all but their strongest hands to you. By adding some bluffs to your 3-betting range (using hands with good equity versus your opponent’s calling range), you make it difficult for your opponents to counter your strategy.
Second, be sure to keep in mind the relationship between position and strength of range when 3-betting; be wary of how strong your opponents’ ranges are, and determine whether you can 3-bet for value against them.
Flatting opens with a wide range can sometimes be reasonable from later positions, especially from the button. More on that in Mistake #7 below.
Preflop Mistake #4: Playing Too Tight in the Big Blind
Many players do not call enough from the big blind, in particular versus opens from the small blind.
Given that you are last to act pre-flop, and will often be offered very good pot odds to take a flop, you can play much looser from the big blind than from other positions. Let’s look at a specific case:
$5/$10 Cash Game, $1,000 Effective Stacks
Hero is in the Big Blind
folds to sb, Small Blind raises to $25, Hero ???
Against this 2.5x open, we are getting 2.3-to-1 on a call, which translates to about 30% raw equity needed to continue. Considering that we’ll also have a positional advantage against the small blind, we can (and should) defend the big blind at a high frequency.
Preflop Mistake #5: Raising Too Wide (or Too Narrow) of a Range on the Button
The button is an highly valuable position in poker. You are guaranteed to act last post-flop from the button, which gives you an informational advantage over your opponents. You are also able to put pressure on the blinds when action is folded to you, and can often steal dead money in the pot. However, many players tend to either raise too many hands on the button, or to not raise enough.
Given that modern poker strategy prescribes aggressive pre-flop play from the blinds, raising too many hands on the button can cause you to be exploitatively 3-bet by players in blinds. A leak such as this one can slowly but continuously damage your win rate, so be cautious to not over-raise from the button. (Note: This is more of a problem when playing online, as live players are typically less aggressive from the blinds.)
Conversely, some players are too tight from the button. Because of the positional advantage you have on the button, as well as the opportunity to take any dead money that’s in the pot, both opening from the button or 3-betting an original raiser are generally very effective. Failing to capitalize on these circumstances will certainly hurt your win rate.
An optimal percentage of hands to raise is probably between 40% and 70%, depending on the tendencies of the players in the blinds. The looser and more likely to 3-bet the blinds are, the tighter you should open. If the blinds are nits unwilling to play pots, ramp up the aggression and steal that dead money!
Preflop Mistake #6: Playing Too Tight from the Small Blind When the Action Folds to You
When it folds to you in the small blind you should often be raising. Many players fail to do this because of the unfavorable post-flop position the small blind is in. However, there are two main reasons why raising from the small blind is a valuable strategy:
- You have a good chance of stealing the dead money in the pot(1.5BB), and by using a small opening size (approximately 2.25-2.5BB) you can attempt it for a cheap price. And you can do this at a high frequency until the big blind starts to aggressively 3-bet you. Live players will especially benefit from this strategy due to how tightly live players generally play.
- You decrease the likelihood that you will have to play a hand out of position, which would put you at an informational disadvantage.
Many players choose to either limp some hands or play very tight in small blind versus big blind confrontations. These can be reasonable adjustments against some opponents, but raising often is a more effective baseline strategy.
Preflop Mistake #7: Not Flatting Often Enough on the Button
Many players also have a tendency to fold the button too frequently. Because of the value of acting last post-flop, you can justify taking a flop with a wide range of hands when given the right price.
This is especially relevant to live poker, as live players generally do not play so aggressively from the blinds.
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Preflop Mistake #8: Regularly Flatting Opens from the Small Blind
Playing too passively in the small blind is a very easy mistake to make. While it might seem reasonable to just call from the small blind because of improved pot odds, making it a habit is bad for a couple reasons:
- You commit yourself to playing out of position versus an opponent with a stronger perceived range.
- The big blind can exploit a small blind caller by squeezing, as the small blind’s range appears ‘capped’ to medium strength hands.
The player in the small blind should want to 3-bet their entire value range to build a pot and isolate the pre-flop raiser. By calling, they are basically announcing that they have weak/medium strength holdings. For this reason, you should try to avoid calling in the small blind in most instances, and choose instead to 3-bet when appropriate.
When constructing your small blind 3-bet range, be sure to include some lighter hands (like suited connectors) to prevent the big blind from exploitatively folding their medium-strength holdings to your 3-bets. Employing this aggressive strategy has several benefits:
- 3-betting puts a lot of pressure on the pre-flop raiser, particularly if they opened from late position with a wide range of hands that will be difficult to defend against 3-bets.
- Having a well-constructed 3-bet range from the blinds will discourage your opponents from going for steals against you.
- 3-betting discourages the big blind from seeing a cheap flop, which would lower the equity of your holdings.
Preflop Mistake #9: Overvaluing Offsuit Broadway Hands
As Tony G once famously told a player that he had just knocked out of a tournament, “If you read my poker strategy, I tell everyone, ‘never overplay king-jack.’” Of course, he also said a few other less-appropriate things.
While that is a drastic oversimplification, Tony has a point. Players often overvalue weak, offsuit broadway holdings. This is especially dangerous from middle positions, where players raising before you can be expected to have a tighter range, and therefore stronger broadway holdings than you.
If you play too many offsuit broadways, you’ll often watch the dealer push a chunk of your stack away from you as a result of having an outkicked top pair. For this reason, it is better to play a hand like 98s over KJo in these situations; suited connectors will rarely be dominated, and can make nutted hands capable of winning big pots.
Preflop Mistake #10: Calling Extremely Large 3-Bets
This problem is more prominent in live games, where large opening sizes lead to excessively large 3-bets that get as big as 18–20BB (compared with the 10–12BB seen online). Calling in these spots may also be an ego-related problem that happens when a player does not want to be perceived as weak at the table.
Against huge 3-bets, you are getting terrible pot odds to call. Check out the pot odds calculation against a standard 10BB 3-bet after we opened to 3BB:
We have to call 7BB more to win our raise (3BB) + their 3-bet (10BB) + dead blinds (1.5BB), which comes out to 32.6% equity needed.
Now let’s look at the same calculation against an 18BB 3-bet:
We have to call 15BB more to win our raise (3BB) + their 3-bet (18BB) + dead blinds (1.5BB), which comes out to 40% equity needed.
That’s nearly 8% more equity needed to continue. Couple that with the fact that most live players 3-bet with only their strongest hands and it becomes clear why calling in these spots is so troublesome.
A good strategy to use against excessively large 3-bets is to fold all but your very strong hands, and 4-bet only your strongest hands.
Also, if you observe a player making the mistake of calling large 3-bets too often, you should consider exploiting that player by implementing the large 3-bet into your game.
Preflop Mistake #11: Having No Plan
All of the above mistakes culminate in the mistake of having only a loosely constructed plan for the hand, or having no clear idea of what to do pre-flop at all. The first step to playing winning poker is to work out pre-flop strategy ahead of time. Before heading into your next session, make sure you have an answer for these pre-flop questions:
- What hands will you open-raise when it is folded to you from each position?
- What hands will you raise? Limp?
- With what range of hands will you continue when a player in front of you raises?
- Once you open-raise, how will you respond to 3-bets from each position?
Most players don’t have great answers to these questions. So, thinking about potential weaknesses in your pre-flop strategy and working them out ahead of time will give you a leg-up on the competition.
Preflop Mistake #12: Making a Play for the Sake of “Mixing it up”
Arbitrarily ‘mixing up’ your play is an even worse pre-flop mistake than having no plan at all. I see many players do this and often get punished later in the hand for their silly pre-flop decisions.
Granted, adjustments are important. We strive to remain balanced while occasionally varying our game to exploit our opponents’ tendencies. But we make adjustments with a purpose. We never call with [AA] pre-flop, for example, just to mix up our play. Sure, you will probably deceive players who didn’t expect you to just flat Aces pre-flop, but that doesn’t make the play any good.
What it comes down to is the math. Even though you may trick some players, you aren’t making up for the value you would extract by simply 3-betting. In the long run, you make so much money by re-raising [AA] pre-flop that it is nearly impossible to recoup that value through deception of flatting.
If we decide to mix up our play, it will be because we have considered the options presented to us. We should never make a play just for the sake of doing weird stuff.
12 Common Preflop Pitfalls
To reiterate, it is important to make sure that your pre-flop game is free from mistakes, as having a solid strategy at the beginning of the hand will set you up for more favorable opportunities post-flop. Below is a quick reminder of all 12 pre-flop mistakes we just discussed and how to resolve them:
- Limping– Avoid open-limping and raise instead!
- Lacking positional awareness– Always consider the ways in which your opponent’s position impacts their range.
- Playing too passively against raises– Develop a well thought out 3-bet range, and be careful not to flat too many opens.
- Playing too tight in the big blind– Take advantage of great pot odds and see a flop—you just might hit it!
- Raising too wide (or not enough) on the button– Aim to open between 40% and 70% of hands depending on the tendencies of the players in the blinds.
- Playing too tight from the small blind when the action folds to you– Raise a fair number of hands and steal that dead money.
- Not flatting often enough from the button– Take advantage of your position and call with a wide but playable range.
- Regularly flatting opens from the small blind– Punish openers, deny the big blind a cheap flop, and prevent squeezes by 3-betting most of your continue range from the small blind.
- Overvaluing offsuit broadway hands– Approach hands like KJo and QJo with caution. Consider how likely it is that you are dominated before continuing.
- Calling excessively large 3-bets– Fold all but your strong hands, and 4-bet with only your strongest hands.
- Having no plan– Think through your pre-flop strategy before your sessions.
- Arbitrarily mixing it up – Always have a have a specific purpose for each play.
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Preflop Mistakes to Avoid (Video)
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