Blinds are compulsory stakes (or fractions thereof in the case of the small blind), which two of the players must put into the pot for each round in order to keep their place at the table. The players in the blinds must put in these stakes without having seen any cards – hence the name – they are “blind”.
Only the two players immediately to the left of the dealer button must put in the blinds. The player closest to the left of the dealer button is the “small blind” and must contribute a fraction (usually half) of the amount of the “big blind”. The amount of the big blind is always the minimum amount allowed in the round. So, for example, if the big blind is GC 2 then the small blind would usually be GC 1.
Why are there blinds in Texas Hold’em?
The point of the blinds is to stimulate action at the table – to ensure there will always be a pot for the players to win in any given round. Having blinds also incentivizes players to play because if they don’t, eventually they will lose all their chips simply by paying the blinds. Once the blinds are on the table, the dealer deals the hole cards to the players.
In Texas Hold'em, each player at the table is dealt two cards face down. These are known as “hole cards” and are the only “private cards” that players receive. In other words, they’re for your eyes only. All the other cards dealt during the round will be dealt face up and are for all players’ use. These are known as the community cards. All the players can use the community cards to make their best hand.
First round of action
During the first round each player has the option to either fold, call, raise or (with the exception of the small blind) check. The small blind cannot check as they would need to contribute at least the minimum amount for the round (GC 2 in our example above).
The sum total of your decisions during the first round is probably the most important factor in whether or not you are a winning or losing Texas Hold'em player. Your decisions in the first round should be determined by two main factors: the strength of your hole cards (also known as your “starting hand”) and your position in the order.
Position in order of play
The order of play in the first round is different from the order for the second, third and fourth rounds. In the first round, it is the player immediately to the left of the big blind who acts first and the player in the big blind position who acts last. In each subsequent round, it is the player in the dealer position who acts last and the player in the small blind position who acts first.
Early vs late position
Acting first during a round is not a good thing. Acting early means that you have less information about the strength of your opponents’ hands, as implied by their behavior. The player immediately to the left of the big blind must decide whether or not they want to invest their chips in the round based solely on the strength of their starting hand.
The next player to act has the benefit of the preceding players’ behavior and therefore knows what that player wants to say about the strength of their hand. For example, in the first round, if the player immediately to the left of the big blind calls, it suggests they have a hand worth playing from an early (i.e. weak) position in the order of play, but not one they want to invest heavily in. (If they had a really strong hand they would probably raise the pot, not just call.) Each subsequent player then has the benefit of all the previous players’ actions, calls, checks or raises and can make their decisions accordingly, which gives an advantage.
In the first round, the last player to act is the player in the big blind position. For this round only, the big blind is in the strongest position because they can check, raise, bet or fold with knowledge about the behavior of every other player on the table.
Position and starting hands
A simple rule can be derived from the relative strengths of the positions for the first round, although the principle is applicable to all the betting rounds. That is, the earlier in the order you are, the stronger your starting hand ought to be in order to merit calling or raising. If you’re later in the order, you may (though it’s by no means certain) have gained more confidence that a typically mediocre hand is worth investing in for that particular round.
But then the question we need to ask is, “What is a strong, mediocre or weak starting hand?”
The best approach to starting hands, especially when you’re still finding your feet in Texas Hold'em, is to keep it simple. There are 169 different, two-card starting combinations in Texas Hold'em but learning how to play them is not as complicated as you might think.
When to play different categories of starting hands
The first and most important thing to learn is the relative strength of starting hands and what that means for the different positions in the order of play. Some starting hands can be played confidently from anywhere in the order. For example, you would always want to play a pair of Aces pre-flop, no matter your position.
Some hands are suitable to play in a middle or late position but not an early one – e.g. Ace Nine. Some hands are only suitable to play in late position (assuming the behavior of your opponents gives you the necessary confidence to do so) – e.g. King Six. And some hands are simply “unplayable” from anywhere. That is, you would be taking a significant risk by playing them, even late in the order – e.g. Jack Four.
None of this means that you can never win with an “unplayable” hand or that you should never play a mediocre hand in early position. However, you should know that if you play outside of these general, well-established guidelines, you are taking a significant risk, because better hands are probably already on the table. Therefore your percentage chances of having the best hand are low.
Of course, right now you could be thinking, “Yeah, but what about bluffing?” Yes, poker players bluff all the time. However, there are two things to bear in mind.
- Bluffing is about assuming your opponent has a certain hand, and presenting your hand as being better, by your playing behavior – how you raise, check, etc. And in live poker especially, being deliberate about your physical behavior is an important part of a successful bluffing strategy.
- Bluffing should be considered a valuable tool in a poker player’s tool box, but it is not the only one or the most valuable one. The most valuable is simply understanding the primary drivers of risk in each round, namely, your position in the order of play and the strength of your starting hand.