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Texas hold'em starting hands

A complete guide to proper starting hand selection

When playing poker there is not a single decision you will have to make as often as whether or not to play your hand. And since the key to winning in poker is making the most correct decisions as often as possible, good starting hand selection will be very important. It will certainly give you a head start over your opponents at the nano and micro stakes.

This article will not provide you with a starting hands chart which tells you what hands to play and fold. The aim is rather to give you a greater insight in what makes certain Texas hold'em starting hands better than others and which factors you should take into account when deciding whether to play a hand or not and why. This way you will be able to think for yourself in situations that are uncommon or too complex to be described by a simple chart. Before we dive into the details that will hopefully lead you to selecting your starting hands well, let's first take a look at some of the best and worst starting hands in Texas hold'em and see why they are so good or bad.

Contents of this starting hand selection guide:

The best and worst Texas hold'em starting hands

Top 10 best starting hands in Texas hold'em

Below you can see the top 10 starting hands in Texas hold'em listed (the little 's' stands for suited and the 'o' for off suit or unsuited). What makes these starting hands so great?

  1. AA

  2. KK

  3. QQ

  4. JJ

  5. AKs

  6. AQs

  7. TT

  8. AKo

  9. AJs

  10. KQs

  • They are some of the highest pairs possible and therefore do not have to improve to have tremendous showdown value; they are made hands already. The chance that one of the cards on the board will be higher than your pair and therefore could potentially give your opponent a better hand then yours is smaller the higher the pair. On top of that, the chance of one of your opponents holding a higher pocket pair then yours will be smaller too.

  • The unpaired hands make top pairs when they hit the board and will most of the time have the best kicker with it (AK always gives you the best kicker with your pair). They can make high straights and the suited hands can make the best possible flushes (nut flushes).

  • Because these hands are so strong they do not often give you very tough decisions post flop. You will rarely end up with a second pair or top pair with a worse kicker than your opponent. You can make a lot of money from opponents who are playing weaker high card hands like A7o, K3o and Q6 when you both hit the same top pair.

Some of the worst starting hands in Texas hold'em

The following list shows you some of the worst Texas hold'em starting hands. The best starting hands from the list above are everything that these starting hands aren't:

  1. 72o

  2. 82o

  3. 73o/83o

  4. 26s

  5. 29/39/49

  6. 2To

  7. 59o

  8. 47/48/58

  9. Q3o/K2o

  10. A2o/A4o

  • If you do not improve these hands by hitting at least a pair then your hand doesn't have much, if any, showdown value on the river.

  • Even if you do improve your hand it will be a low pair with most likely several overcards to your pair still on the board. These cards could easily give your opponents a better hand. If you hold 72o and your opponent holds or hits a pair higher than sevens, you already have to hit at least two pair to win. And even when you do, the board only needs to pair up to counterfeit your two pair and give your opponent the best hand again.

  • Most of these hands don't have the added potential to hit straights and/or flushes with both cards. Note that a suited 6-high hand is less bad than an unsuited 7-high hand and a 7-high hand with remote straight posibilities is considered less bad than an 8-high hand without straight potential.

  • The combination of high cards with low kickers will get you in trouble when you hit a strong pair like top pair, but someone else hits the same pair with a better kicker.

As you can see there are several factors that determine which starting hand is better than another: being made, high card value, the potential to make straights with both cards involved and the potential to make (high) flushes are all properties you should be looking for in Texas hold'em starting hands. The most interesting starting hands in Texas hold'em are therefore pairs, strong aces, broadway cards (two cards ten or higher), and suited connectors (cards which are both suited for flush potential and close together for straight potential, i.e. 89).

If you fold all the other types of starting hands and only focus on playing the above mentioned hands in the correct spots, then not only will you save yourself a lot of trouble, but also a lot of money. To find out what the correct spots are to play these types of starting hands we'll have to take a look at the different factors that are of influence on the strength and/or potential of your hand.

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Factors to consider for proper Texas hold'em starting hand selection

Many of the factors mentioned in this section are discussed in more detail as part of the basic poker strategy fundamentals. It is greatly recommended that you follow the links to the separate sections of this strategy article if you haven't already read them.

Important factors when it comes to starting hand selection are the following:

Position and starting hand selection

Position in poker determines how much of an informational advantage you will have over your opponents as well as how likely it will be that someone behind you is dealt a very strong hand. To summarize what is written in the strategy article: if you are closer to the button then the range of hands you can profitably play will be wider and if your opponents raise in early position you should be more inclined to give them credit for holding a strong hand.

This means for example that when you raise from early position (EP) and someone who you think is positionally aware himself reraises you, then even a hand like AK could become a fold. He knows you are strong in EP and yet he reraises you, what range of hands would he do that with? A very narrow strong range I would think. Also realize the difference between early position starting hand ranges in full ring and shorthanded games.

The action in front of you and starting hand selection

The action in front of you should be of great influence on your starting hand selection. If the pot is still unopened when the action comes around to you, you can take the initiative with a raise. This greatly increases the likelihood of you winning the hand; it gives you momentum and therefore it adds to the strength of your hand. This is why you need a stronger hand to call a raise than to raise with yourself, also known as the gap-concept.

If there is a raise and a re-raise in front of you then you will need one of the absolute powerhouses to continue. This should be a hand you are willing to get your stack in with pre-flop, because one or both of the raising opponents will very likely be prepared to do the same with his or her hand after showing so much strength.

When there are several people in front of you who are just calling the big blind (limping), or there is a single raise with multiple full stacked callers, then you are getting great implied odds. Now you can also play some of the weaker drawing hands like suited connectors which can make strong hands post flop occasionally.

Stack sizes and starting hand selection

As touched upon above, stack sizes determine the upper threshold of your implied odds. The greater the stack sizes, the greater the maximum implied odds, the more hands could potentially be profitable to play. This does not only hold true for the stack size of the players raising in front of you, but also for the stack sizes of the players behind you. You don't want to open with a relatively weak hand when there are multiple short stacked players (with less than ~50 big blinds) to act behind you. If they decide to play you might quickly find yourself in a situation where you are playing for their complete stack with too weak of a holding. Stack sizes are also very important to take into consideration when it comes to correctly set-mining with low and medium pocket pairs.

Player's tendencies and starting hand selection

If you have several opponents left to act behind you who are all good and aggressive players very likely to play back at you before or after the flop, then you should be inclined to narrow your starting hand selection down to strong made hands or strong high card hands (this does not include hands like AT, KJ, QT, etc.).

At the micro stakes you will encounter a lot of players who are loose and passive. They don't charge you enough for your draws and call too much with their weak hands when you hit. Against this type of player weaker drawing hands will now also be very profitable to play and are therefore worth to include in your starting hand selection.

Your own poker skills and starting hand selection

When you are less strict in your starting hand selection (you are playing a wider range of hands) then you will encounter more marginal situations; situations in which it is not very clear whether your hand is the best one or not. If you are good at poker, then you will make fewer mistakes in these marginal situations and you can afford to play a wider range of (weaker) hands. For the less experienced player it will be best to avoid trouble and apply a very strict and tight starting hand selection. Then as you gain more experience and become better you can try to play some more hands or 'open up your game'.

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Different groups of playable Texas hold'em starting hands examined

In the section where the best and worst Texas hold'em starting hands have been presented we already came to the conclusion that the following groups of starting hands could be playable depending on the situation:

In this section we will further explore for each of these groups of starting hands in which situations they would or would not be playable and why. Just picking good hands in the right spots to play them is worth nothing if you don't know how to play them properly. Therefore this section will also briefly tell you what you should be looking for when playing the Texas hold'em starting hands discussed.

Playable Texas hold'em starting hands: pairs

Pocket pairs are usually categorized as low (22-77), medium (88-JJ) and high pocket pairs (QQ-AA).

The high pairs can be opened from any position and are worth a reraise when someone raises in front of you. These hands should and will be your biggest money makers. Don't try to be cute by slowplaying these hands pre-flop, certainly not at the nano and micro stakes. Against multiple opponents even these hands won't win all that often and it will be hard to get away from them when you are beat. Just make your normal raise size and make large enough reraises to deny people the correct odds to set-mine against you. Don't be scared to play these hands post flop and make excessively large raises. This way you will only scare off your opponents except for the most stubborn and clueless ones or unless you 'cooler' them (when they hold KK versus your AA for example).

The medium pocket pairs deserve a little bit more caution in playing them. You can still open them from any position, but when facing a raise you should be less inclined to reraise. Reraising them will only let your opponent continue with hands that have you beat like the highest pocket pairs and maybe AK. You are mainly looking to flop an overpair to the board (low card flop) or a set (three of a kind). Be aware that early position raisers may very well hold a higher overpair and certainly don't take your hand too far with overcards to your pair on the board.

With low pocket pairs you are looking to see cheap flops or steal the blinds from late position. In very passive games (mainly at the nano and micro stakes) limping with small pocket pairs is fine. Make sure that you know how to set mine correctly (with the right implied odds). Be willing to let your hand go if you don't improve your hand by flopping a set and are facing aggression from another player, even if the cards on the board are all low.

Playable Texas hold'em starting hands: strong aces

These are the aces with a jack kicker and higher. In full ring games AJ is already a relatively weak hand to raise with in early position. With many players left to act behind you it is too likely that you will get in trouble because someone holds a better ace or high pocket pair. Calling early position raises with hands like AT, AJ and maybe even AQ is also kind of tricky in full ring games. Realize that going all-in pre-flop with a hand like AK against your average passive micro stakes player is generally not a very good idea.

The money you make with these types of hands will mostly be coming from outkicking your opponents; flopping top pair with top kicker against the top pair medium kicker of your opponent and extracting his chips. Be aware of the fact that other broadway hands like KQ, QT, QJ etc. are often plaid by your opponents. It is therefore important to not overvalue your top pair hand on boards that contain two or even more broadway cards (cards ten or higher).

Playable Texas hold'em starting hands: (other) broadway hands

The highest straight from ten to ace is called broadway. Therefore any non-paired hand that contains two cards ten or higher is a broadway hand. Hands like KQ, KT, QJ are excellent hands to open the pot with in middle to late position by raising.

Be very reluctant to play these hands from early position. They also become very tricky to play with an early position raise in front of you. Hands like KQ, QT, QJ etc. are all smoked by hands that are in an early position raiser's range like AK, AQ, AJ and high pairs; they are easily dominated. Calling early position raises with these starting hands is therefore generally not a good idea, even though you have a positional advantage.

For the same reason calling a raise with multiple callers already can also be very tricky. As long as you keep in mind that in such a situation hitting only a top pair is not very strong and are looking to hit at least two pair or better before committing a lot of your stack, than calling pre-flop can be fine. If there are multiple limpers in front of you then these starting hands are very playable either for a raise or a limp behind.

Playable Texas hold'em starting hands: suited connectors

These starting hands are playable in multi-way pots in which you can see a cheap flop and have high implied odds. With suited connectors you are looking to flop two pair hands, pairs with a strong draw or even combo-draws (straight + flush draw, pair + straight or flush draw or both). Be wary of higher flushes if you hit a flush yourself and also realize that one pair hands with suited connectors are not the type of hands to invest a big part of your stack in.

Limping these hands in early position is not a good idea, because you are likely to be faced with a raise. You won't be able to profitably call this raise being out of position and only flopping the hands you are looking to flop approximately 12.5% of the time (also see further reading). And even then you are often still just drawing.

Instead, you should mainly be looking to play these hands in position after several limpers or after a single raise with multiple callers. If you are first to open the pot pre-flop in late position you can try to steal the blinds with a raise, but be less inclined to do so with the lower suited connectors versus very loose opponents who don't let go of mediocre hands easily. Against these players you need hands with more showdown value like medium and higher pairs and broadway cards and big aces for strong top pair hands.

If you include suited connectors in your starting hand selection, be sure to understand pot odds and be able to correctly assess the value of your draws (in particular don't overestimate the number of outs you have).

Texas hold'em starting hand selection - conclusion

Proper starting hand selection in Texas hold'em requires you to be aware of the situation at the poker table and it requires you to be patient (good hands don't come along all that often, let alone a good hand in the right situation). Good starting hand selection is not something you'll learn from a simple chart, and probably not even by just reading this rather long article.

Proper starting hand selection is something you'll have to develop a sense of by playing a lot of hands and hopefully the knowledge you gained from this article will speed that process up a little. It would be advisable to start with a very strict and tight starting hand selection and as you learn and develop your game to slowly widen the range of hands you play. This way you will stay out of trouble as much as possible and hopefully steadily grow that bankroll into something substantial. Select well!

Further reading at First Time Poker Player:

Further reading across the internet:

Tired of reading and anxious to finally practice your newly acquired poker skills online? PokerStars is an excellent room to play online poker at for everyone. European players have more choice when it comes to online poker rooms and they might find some easier games at Everest Poker or Ladbrokes. Have fun!

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