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by Barbara Connors

Everybody has to start somewhere. For poker players, just as for readers, the journey begins with ABC. Literally, of course in the case of readers, while aspiring poker players cut their teeth on a style of play known as ABC poker.

As the name implies, ABC poker is about building-block fundamentals. It’s poker played strictly by the book. But ABC poker can be best described by what it is not—it is not creative, it is not deceptive, it doesn’t make adjustments for your opponents’ playing styles, and it’s often not the most profitable way to play a given hand. And if all that’s not unappealing enough, because ABC poker dictates that you play by the book—following somebody else’ script— there’s little sense of personal satisfaction or accomplishment, even when you win.

Yet ABC poker has its place in the game. Before we can become poker virtuosos with a good sense of when to bend the rules and when to break them wide open, we first need to know what the rules are to begin with, and that’s where ABC poker comes in. Say you’re sitting at a full table, holding K-J suited in middle position, and the player sitting under-the-gun puts in a raise. The ABC play is to fold because it’s just too likely that the raiser has K-J dominated, in which case hitting a pair on the flop is only going to get you into trouble. Not to mention all those players still to act behind you and your bad position relative to them. In the absence of any other useful information, such as knowing what range of hands this particular opponent raises with UTG, the ABC play is usually the best play.

And that’s rather the main point of ABC poker. It’s the default play when you don’t have enough information to do anything more sophisticated. Information is gold in poker, and the lack of it is a major handicap. If, in the above example, you know the UTG player is a maniac who raises with all kinds of garbage from any position, K-J could be worth a call or even a raise, especially if you know the players yet to act behind you are nits. But when you don’t yet have a clue how your opponents play —how aggressive, how tight, how loose, how bluffable —because you’re just meeting them for the first time, ABC poker gives you something to fall back on.

Similarly, in low-limit games where most of your opponents are liable to be simpletons who never pay attention to anything beyond their own cards, an ABC strategy can be profitable. One of the main drawbacks of playing ABC poker is the lack of deception—sometimes it can feel as if you’re playing your cards face-up—but against opponents who are either too lazy or too stupid to notice what you’re doing, this is not so much of a concern. That said, never lose sight of the fact that ABC poker is eminently exploitable by any skilled opponent. So the moment you find yourself in a game against players who actually pay attention, it’s imperative to step things up and add some deception and sophistication to your game. Otherwise, playing a straight ABC game is likely to get you killed.

A solid understanding of ABC poker can also help guard against fancy play syndrome—the tendency of some poker players to get carried away with making sophisticated plays purely for the sake of making sophisticated plays. Yes, it’s fun to get fancy and make a squeeze play with Q-4 offsuit, but if it turns out you misjudged the strength of either one of your opponents, or didn’t realize they would be priced in to call, that’s one expensive (and very brief) moment of fun. The boring, plain-vanilla ABC play, to simply fold and wait for a better spot, is often the way to go.

Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at

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