Perhaps we might have come here expecting to see a comprehensive list of all the preflop starting hands placed in rank order. The problem is, no such chart exists.
To illustrate, imagine you were given the choice between the following 3 hands in a preflop all-in situation. Which one would you choose?
Perhaps this seems like an easy choice to you, but then again perhaps it doesn’t. All three of these holdings are strong holdings. So what is the correct answer?
It depends on what our opponent has. Let’s run a few equity calculations.
If our opponent has the Th9h, we would prefer the AsKh.
We can see that we are quite a clear favourite here. The interesting thing, though, is that if our opponent holds the 22, we would be an underdog.
So does this mean that 2d2h is the best hand out of all 3? Not exactly. Let’s see what happens if we put the 2d2h up against the Th9h.
If you’ve ever played rock, paper, scissors, you are probably getting a similar vibe here. There is no ultimate best hand out of the 3, each has a weakness.
We could naturally conclude that AKo was probably the stronger hand of the 3 since it had the most decisive victory. But this would involve making a certain assumption; that the strength of a hand is always based on its pot equity. This is an assumption that intuitively makes sense and seems logical, but is actually incorrect.
Before we analyse this in a little more detail, now might be a good time to recap on all the available hole-cards and practise visualising them in a grid.
Notice that the hole-cards grid below is broken into 3 distinct sections. This may not seem overly important now, but it will dramatically improve our hand reading in the future.
The diagonal green line through the centre of the grid represents all pocket-pair holdings. There are 6 combinations of each pocket pair (including suits) for a total of 78 different pocket-pairs.
Over on the right-hand side of the grid, we have the suited combinations of the hole-cards marked in cyan. Each square represents 4 combinations (of suits). There are 72 squares, so this results in a total of 286 individual holdings.
Over on the left-hand side of the grid we have the offsuit combos. Each square represents 12 combinations of hands. There are 72 squares so this results in a total of 864 individual holdings.
Notice that there are 3 times as many offsuit combos of certain holdings compared to suited. This is somewhat important in postflop hand reading. It can be an easy mistake when looking at the above hole-cards grid to consider that each half of the grid represents an equal amount of hands, but this is clearly not the case.
If we were to indicate the strength of a preflop holding very roughly, then typically the further up the grid you go, and the more you go to the left, the stronger the preflop holding will be.
There are huge exceptions to this general rule, however, since we have seen that a hand at the bottom right of the grid (i.e. 22) can be stronger than a hand towards the top-left of the grid.
The strength of our preflop holding depends on the scenario we face, and the many different situations we can find ourselves in. Let’s go over a few examples.
The Situation is Important!
We’ve essentially focused on the strength of one preflop starting hand relative to another preflop starting hand.
The tool that is going to allow us to make the best preflop decisions however is considering the strength of our starting hand relative to our opponent’s range.
There are two things we need to focus on -
Imagine that we are on the BTN facing a 3bb UTG open with 100bb effective stacks . We hold the AhTc
This is actually a very marginal holding in this spot, and the recommended approach is simply to fold.
But what if we play around a little bit with the poker positions and pretend that our opponent is now opening from the cut-off.
A huge mistake players make is to value their hand irrespective of the position they or their opponents are in. So they might say something like “preflop I’m going to defend the top 25% of hands whatever happens”
22+, A2s+, K8s+, Q9s+, J9s+, T8s+, 97s+, 86s+, 75s+, 65s, 54s, 43s, 32s, ATo+, KTo+, QTo+, JTo
(Note that the top 25% of hands looks like this – preflop ranges are sometimes represented in this format so it’s useful to be familiar with it).
The action must be considered also. Let’s imagine UTG makes his 3bb open-raise from UTG and we decide to re-raise (3bet) with AcKd
Our opponents decides to throw in a 4bet. It’s important to realise that many players will not 4bet from UTG without AA/KK. Our AKo is extremely unlikely to be good here despite being a premium holding. It’s a very strong hand in the absolute sense, but relative to our opponents range when we take into account the action, it has been demoted to a marginal holding. The best option is likely to fold here.
But again, let’s play around with the position. This time CO opens, we 3bet, and he throws out a 4bet. Our AKo will be in much better shape against CO’s wider range and the best option is usually to 5-bet jam all-in for 100bb stacks.
The Later, The Better
It isn't just our opponent's position that plays a big role in our decision making. As a rough guide the later the position we are at the table, the wider the range we can play.
This is why we would very typically play a hand like A7o from the button when the pot is unopened but shouldn't instantly fold it from UTG.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that the later our position at the table, the less players there are still to act behind us, and the lower the probability that one of our opponent wakes up with a premium holding.
The second reason is all to do with position. Certain positions at the table have an increased likelihood of being able to play in position postflop. The best example of this is the BTN, where no matter what happens preflop, we will always be in position postflop. So when we say that the “later our position the better”, we are not referring to the blinds here. Although small-blind acts after the button preflop, it will always be out-of-position postflop. For this reason the small-blind is typically considered the worst position at the table.
Our preflop ranges should vary depending on the players at the table also. One general principle is that we can play a little wider when there are weaker players at our table.
For example we are UTG with Ad7d and would usually fold this hand preflop. However we glance at the table and notice that there are two exceptionally weak players in the SB and BB. Even though this hand is not a standard open-raise, we can make an exception in this case in an attempt to exploit weaker opponents.
Another principle to bear in mind is that, assuming our opponent is a huge calling station we prefer high equity hands (Ax, Kx etc) over speculative hands (63s) etc. We won’t be able to get a calling-station to fold very much, but this is not a big deal when our A-high or K-high hand might simply be the best hand. It’s not great to be checking down a 6-high hand against a calling station (we know we never win but at the same time, can’t bluff him), so we tend towards not playing these hands preflop.
Assuming our opponent is actually capable of laying down hands postflop then we typically always prefer the more speculative and higher playability holdings, because we can use these to semi-bluff effectively.
Seeing as it’s impossible to simply create a list of the hole-cards in order of strongest to weakest, we will have to accept that poker is a game of dynamic decision making.
What might be a good preflop hand in one situation will not necessarily be a good preflop hand in another situation.
The important thing is to make sure we think rationally and use logic to the best of our ability when making preflop decisions. If we focus carefully on our position, the preflop action, the stacks sizes and the type of opponents we face, we should be able to make educated guess regarding our preflop range construction.
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