Starting Hands in Hold ‘em

You should now know the basic rules of hold’em and the poker hand rankings. We’re now going to step it up a notch and talk about what starting hands to play before the flop – and whether to hold’em or fold’em.

There are 169 different two card starting hand combinations in hold’em poker. This number assumes, for the sake of argument, that AK is the same as AK, or any other suited combination. If you are not dealt a pair, then your starting hand will either be suited or unsuited, and either connected or unconnected (gapped). This means your starting hand will fall into one of the following five categories:

• Pairs – e.g. AA, 99, 33
• Suited connectors – e.g. AK, JT, 76
• Connecting cards – e.g. QJ, T9, 54
• Suited unconnected cards – e.g. KJ, T8, 95
• Unconnected cards – e.g. QT, 97, 62

[Note: T = 10]

Remember that unconnected cards might be one, two, three-gapped, or more. The bigger the gap, the less chance you have of hitting a straight. For example, if you hold 73, then you’d need a flop of 456 for the straight. But holding T8, you could flop a straight with 9JQ or 679. With connected cards such as 67, you can get a straight with 89T, or 345. However if you have AK then there’s only one straight possibility, with TJQ. The same applies for A2, which could only have a straight when combined with 345.

The Best Starting Hands in Hold’em

The value of starting hands varies according to the betting variation being played, and other factors which we’ll get to later in this lesson. We’re going to focus on the game of no limit hold’em, and we’ll start by talking about the best starting hands, which are often referred to as ‘premium hands’. There is some disagreement amongst poker players as to which starting hands are the best, but few would dispute the value of the first of our three main groups, Aces and Kings.

Group 1: AA, KK

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These two starting hands are the major players in hold’em. It’s not often you’ll get dealt Aces or Kings. In fact you get either Aces of Kings once in every 110 hands, so it’s not nearly as often as we’d like. Aces are by far the best possible starting hand in hold’em, closely followed by Kings. However, you should be aware that even Aces or Kings can get cracked, and they don’t play too well against multiple opponents. This means you should definitely be raising pre-flop to narrow the field. Extra caution is necessary when playing Kings, because if an Ace falls on the flop then you’re losing to anyone who has a single Ace in their starting hand. So while they are very strong hands which most players love to get, they are certainly not unbeatable.

Group 2: QQ, JJ, AKs

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Queens and Jacks are great starting hands, and with either of these, you can usually be confident you have the best starting hand. Of course they are dominated by Aces and Kings, but they’re a favourite against all other starting hands. While Queens and Jacks will occasionally run into a player holding either Aces or Kings, it doesn’t happen too often. Play these cards strongly, and always look to raise with them.

AK is known throughout the poker world as Big Slick, and when suited it’s often called Super Slick. While it isn’t a ‘made hand’, unlike a pair, it offers great potential. It’s only a big underdog to Aces and Kings, and even pairs like Queens and Jacks are only slight favourites. The beauty of AK (suited or unsuited), is that it dominates so many other hands like AQ, AJ, AT, and so on. These types of hands are the ones that players usually end up pushing all-in with late in a tournament.

Group 3: TT, AK, AQs, AJs, KQs

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This next group of starting hands is also a strong bunch. You should definitely be looking to raise pre-flop with any of these hands too. We’ve already talked about the power of AK, but starting hands like AQs, and AJs, are also very strong and often run into weaker Ace-X combinations. Even though these are all strong starting hands, and most of the time you’ll be winning pre-flop, you have to be careful – particularly a hand like KQs, which you can easily fold to a re-raise.

Playing Non-Premium Starting Hands

Why not fold all your hands and just play the best starting hands? Well, hold’em is structured so that you have to play. If you just wait for the top premium cards, then you will lose money posting the blinds while you wait – they don’t come around very often. In fact, here is a list of odds against being dealt certain starting hands:

Any pair: 16-to-1
Aces: 220-to-1
Aces or Kings: 110-to-1
Aces, Kings or Queens: 73-to-1
Big Slick (AK): 82-to-1
Super Slick (AK suited): 330-to-1
Suited Connectors: 27-to-1
Unsuited Connectors: 7.5-to-1
One or more Aces: 6-to-1
Two suited cards: 3-to-1

We’ll expand on the theme of odds and statistics in the next lesson, but these odds should help with your discipline and patience to acknowledge that the top premium hands just as Aces, Kings, and Queens, aren’t expected to be dealt frequently. Since you’ll have to play more than just premium hands, here are some things of the things you should consider in your starting hand selection.

Playing Medium and Small Suited Connectors

If a player randomly calls with a hand like 67, he will, over time, lose more than he wins. In order to profit from hands like this you need to play them as cheaply as possible (e.g. no raising before the flop), and you must have a reason to believe the players are going to call your bet(s) when you do get that miracle hand. The real danger of playing suited connectors like 67, is that you may not have the best hand. If the flop comes 89T, you have the what is called the ’sucker’ straight (6789T). Someone could easily have the JQ or even 7J and beat you like a donkey that will not move. Likewise if you get a flush, you have to be careful and watch out for a player who could have a higher flush. Suited connectors take experience to play because there are so many consequences associated with them. All the graphs, charts, live hand data, and computer simulations from literally billions of hands indicate medium and small suited connectors are marginal hands at best but we seem to love to play them.

The Kicker Problem

The word ‘kicker’ means the smaller of your two cards. Some players play a hand if it contains an Ace with any other card (such as an Ace with a 3 kicker), and this type of play ultimately cost players money and tournaments. For example, let’s suppose a player calls with A6 and the flop comes A83. What does the player do? bet? call? raise? call a big raise? go all-in? What if the flop comes Q63? The player has middle pair – which is very hard to play. Hey, the flop could come A6X – the player has two pair, Aces and sixes but this happens only 1 out of 49 hands (2%). Until you learn when and how to play ace junk (AX) go slow with it. One good thing about A junk and K junk, is that you do not need to play these hands to learn when they may be profitable. Let experience from other hands and study be your teacher.

Because They Were Suited!

You’ll often hear novice players responding to questioning of why they played a particular starting hand with the line “well, because they were suited”. Don’t get me wrong, some suited cards are worth playing and it’s certainly better to start with suited cards than unsuited cards. However, in general you shouldn’t play below A7s or K9s (s means suited) because you will only flop a flush 1 out of 118 hands (0.8%) with two suited cards, and only make a flush after the river 6.5% of the time. Don’t fall into the trap of playing any two cards just because they happen to be suited – it doesn’t make a big enough difference to make junk hands valuable.

Table Conditions

So far we’ve focused on the cards, but hold’em starting hands can be a complex subject because every situation is different. Even professional poker players, after playing hundreds of thousands of hands, frantically pondering whether to play a hand or not. That’s because which starting hands to play varies from hand to hand and so only a fuzzy guide can be given. If you were to ask a professional poker player, “should I call, raise, or fold this hand pre-flop?” his response would almost certainly be “it depends!”. Here are some of the reasons why “it depends”:

The Number of Players

The value of certain starting hands is very dependent upon the number of players at the table. Certain starting hands are always going to be under threat against a table of nine or ten players, but the value of these same hands increases when there are less players. A starting hand like KJ might be vulnerable against a full table of players, but is considered a strong hand if there are just a few other players.

Position

Your position on the poker table will be a major factor in deciding which starting hands you should play. The value of certain hands increases when you are in a late position (such as on the “button”) – because you get to act after other players. How to play position can elude us at first because it is a part of poker that lends itself to be exploited through experience. Until a player has a feel or grasp for positional play, just believe and follow some of the suggestions on the subject. We’ll talk more about the value of position in the next module, but here is a brief example of how position can affect play; if you are the first player to act, consider only playing the top ten hands. If you’re last to act and everyone has called, you can play up to 70% of your hands. What a difference!

A Raised Pot

Whether or not a pot has been raised should be a very important factor in your decision to play a particular starting hand. Your selection of starting hands should change when the pot has been raised by a reasonable player. If there has been a raise and a re-raise before you’re due to act, then you should only consider playing with a very strong hand. Of course this will also depend on the personality types of the other players and the whether the game is very loose or passive.

Conclusion

It’s true that in hold’em most of the money is made after the flop has been dealt. If you want to learn and gain experience, then one way would be to play a lot of different starting hands, and push the envelope by playing selectively loose. However, we wouldn’t recommend this “learn by doing” plan, as it’ll cause you to potentially lose a lot of money. Just because professional poker players can play many different hands successfully, doesn’t mean you should look to emulate them when you’re starting out. Since loose, promiscuous play will get you into trouble, we recommend you be selective and play only quality starting hands. When you gain more poker playing experience, you can start to open up your range of starting hands.