The biggest mistake a player typically makes when they first play poker is that they play too many hands. Even if they can to see a flop cheaply, the vast majority of hands either flop poorly or have little possibility of playing well relative to the player’s position during the hand and/or their opponent’s likely holdings. This situation causes such players to find themselves in stressful situations postflop, far too often, where they make too many costly mistakes!
If there’s one tip that can help you instantly reduce your losses and/or improve your win rate, it comes in choosing a better selection of starting hands.
In this article, we will elaborate on starting hand candidates: which hands you should play from the various positions, and why some starting hands are better than others.
POKER STARTING HANDS
Premium Pairs (JJ-AA): The highest pairs are the most the valuable starting hands to have in Texas Hold’em. In almost all cases, you want to raise and re-raise with them preflop, and you should often be happy to get all the money in preflop with them (for 100bb or less). In some instances (versus extremely tight players and usually those in live games), poker hands like JJ and QQ should avoid getting the money in preflop (except versus shorter stacked players who will typically have wider shove ranges). In live play situations, players are usually much more conservative with raises and 3bets/4bets. While high pairs should be played aggressively preflop, use caution on specific wet and draw-heavy boards during post-flop play, as they can easily be outdrawn and defeated. Exercise additional caution with them if you’re in a pot with numerous players, too, as their value goes down dramatically versus multiple opponents.
Middle Pairs (77-TT): Middle pairs have value in the sense that they are frequently playable post-flop in heads-up pots (carrying some showdown value, to begin with) in addition to their ability to flop a well-disguised set. In multiway pots, these pairs will often play like small pairs (see below), in the sense that the bulk of their value will come from when they are able to flop a set. Versus numerous players, they will usually be the 2nd or sometimes 3rd highest possible pair after the flop, and it’s much more likely for any player to have a higher pair. The value of these middle pairs is substantially increased when shortstacked (<20bb), because of the fold equity they can carry from when a player goes all-in, in addition to when they are called, it will more frequently be against a hand like A-K, A-Q, A-J or a worse hand than a higher pocket pair. If playing at standard 100bb stack depths, open-raising with them from any position is acceptable. If someone else has raised before you, usually a call is the most superior play.
- Small Pairs (22-66): Small pairs carry a lot of implied odds value. Whenever possible, they should try to see a flop cheaply because, if they flop a set (three-of-a-kind), it’s then that they will win most often - and win BIG! If they don’t flop a set, they are often going to be very difficult to continue with (and will have to check-fold) because they will usually be the 3rd or 4th highest pair after the flop. For this reason, it’s very difficult to profitably cold call a 3bet with them, as well as play them when out of position (unless you’re getting incredible odds with multiple limpers and/or callers).
Here are some additional tips on how to profitably play small pairs:
In early position, small pockets should usually be folded (or limped in live play, where players will not typically be as aggressive preflop). Yes, you want to see a cheap flop with them, but if the opponents who are acting after you are raising or 3betting you, this makes it difficult and often unprofitable to continue with small pockets out of position versus good opponents.
In mid and late positions, you can open-raise with small pockets
- When facing a raise and you’re in position, usually a call is acceptable, provided you’re deep enough.
When facing a raise and you’re out of position, a 3bet is acceptable versus 1 opponent, if they’re in later position (as their range will be wider). If there are multiple callers after the initial raiser, usually a call is superior.
Usually, you want about 10:1 odds for set mining, meaning if the preflop bet is $10 and you have $100 in your stack, calling is frequently a breakeven or profitable play, assuming you will likely be able to get paid by a worse hand if you flop your set.
You will only flop a set about 1 in 8 times.
Broadway cards are considered any A, K, Q, J or 10 (T). After the best pocket pairs, the highest broadway cards become the next best starting hands in Texas Hold’em. This fact is because they can make pairs and other holdings that are higher than those your opponent (i.e. AK vs 65 on A95, where both players have a pair, but the pair of Aces is vastly superior.)
Furthermore, the higher your two broadway cards are, the more often you’ll be able to “dominate” your opponent’s holdings. (i.e. If you have AK and your opponent has AQ or AJ, and an Ace comes, your opponent will be in a world of hurt.)
The trouble more beginner players often have with playing broadway cards, though, is that they play them to frequently from certain positions. Instead of dominating their opponents, they’ll more frequently find themselves dominated by playing too many combinations of these hands – and playing them in a passive manner (with more calls than raises/3bets preflop, where they’re missing out on additional fold equity).
Suited broadways are only slightly more valuable than off-suit broadways, but being suited will give you much more playability, “barrel-ability” and ways to gain additional equity in the hand. Suited broadway combinations are much better 3bet candidates than their off-suit counterparts because of this playability aspect.
Many amateurs and beginners will play far too many AX hands (where X represents any card in the deck). They believe that, because they have an Ace, their hand has a lot of potential and value. However, by playing too many AX combos, you’re just settings yourself up to be crushed by better AX hands. As a result, you need to develop the discipline to know when you should fold your top pair, weak kicker AX combos when strong aggression.
The value of having a suited AX goes up tremendously, as you can make nut flush combinations with these (that have potential to dominate other flushes). AX off-suit, however, has low playability as flush possibilities are eliminated, and factors of domination may very well come into play, depending on how weak your kicker is. Don’t fall into the trap of playing too many AX off-suit hands! Remember that these make up 3x more combos than its suited counterparts (12 vs 4) and don’t play well post-flop.
It should be noted that A2-A5 suited make for good 3bet/4bet bluff candidates because they block some AA/AK combos and have some post-flop playability, too.
Overall, though, avoid overplaying AX combos preflop, and use baby-suited aces to supplement your 3bet range (for bluffs). Additionally, be sure to learn when to let go top pair (Ace), bad kicker when facing significant aggression.
The real value of suited connectors comes from being able to make strong hands like straights and flushes. However, in more cases than not, players will often flop middle pair and/or a weak draw. In these scenarios, you must be okay with ditching your hand and/or exercising postflop pot control.
Because you’re not going to want to bloat the pot out of position with things like second pair, suited connectors will always play better in position. They also do well in being able to win big pots versus early position ranges, like overpairs, because of their ability to make straights and flushes. Therefore, suited connectors are said to be a hand type with good implied odds – where a small amount can be put in preflop to win potentially a big pot postflop.
Other notes on how to profitably play suited connectors include the following:
Because they play better in position, only the strongest of suited connectors should be opened the further you get away from the button.
You should be looking for about 20:1 implied odds preflop if you’re going to call a raise. (It’s much better to play these hands when deepstacked.)
Against one player, including these as part of your 3bet bluff range, in position, is acceptable.
With multiple players having entered the pot before you, it’s better to limp along or call the initial open and try to make a straight or flush against multiple players.
- If you're going to be calling hands like these after a raise and numerous callers, just be aware of any players left to act to your left who could have a high squeeze percentage. After a raise, multiple calls, and a squeeze, suited connectors won’t often be getting the right price to call that 3bet anymore, even if in position.
- Unsuited Connectors: It should be noted while having suited holdings only adds about 2% to the preflop equity of a hand, playing suited cards (like suited connectors vs unsuited connectors) will give you much more “playability” for the hand on future streets, especially if you’re the aggressor. You’ll be able to barrel in more spots as a bluff, while still retaining a decent amount of equity and balancing your range. As a result, unsuited connectors should rarely be played because of this “non-playability” aspect. A hand like T9o may be an acceptable open from late position in an unopened pot. In addition, worse unsuited connectors may be open raises on the CO or BTN, if there are weak fish still left to act after you.
- Suited Gappers: These hands will play similarly to suited connectors listed above. One thing that is advisable is to not 3bet with them in addition to the suited connectors or else you might be over-bluffing relative to the number of value hands you have in your 3bet range. For postflop play, don’t always go chasing gut-shots ‘til the river, and always be okay with folding them if facing significant aggression.
- Suited Non-Connectors: Another trap that newbies fall into is overplaying these in general (like K2s or Q5s), especially after another player has opened the pot. They will get involved in too many dominated situations and have bad reverse implied odds, also. If you play any suited hand just to “chase that flush”, you’re going to burn more money preflop than you could make up in the infrequent times you make a big hand with it. (You won’t get there as often as you need). One of the only times suited non-connectors should be played, is in late-position in an unopened pot (i.e. K2s+, Q5s+ J7s+, etc. from the button), especially if there’s weak fish in the blinds.
- Trash: Some players will play any two cards, and this is arguably the biggest mistake that they can make! (“But, what if I flop two pair?!”) Trash is generally comprised of lower, unsuited, unconnected cards, but can also include some suited combos. If there is ever a time trash should be played, it can be when you raise preflop as a bluff after a few limps before you (i.e. more commonly in a live setting). For example, if 5 players limp, and you look down at 52s in late position, if you think the original limper will fold (and subsequently everyone else will) - and the blinds don’t look too excited about their hands, putting in a healthy sized raise could win you the pot. Do note that the frequency of doing this play should be quite low, and it should often be attempted when in position where a healthy-sized cbet can pick it up postflop if there are any callers.
HANDS TO PLAY FROM VARIOUS POSITIONS
Players will be able to win more money when in position (simply due to the benefits of seeing opponents act first and having the most information when they act, in addition to giving room for their out-of-position opponents to make more costly mistakes, etc.). Therefore, players must have tighter opening ranges from earlier positions to make up for their lack of position later in the hand.
Generally, you should raise to about 3x the big blind (close to a pot-sized raise) when you’re the first player to open, and stacks are ~100bb.
If there are limps in front of you (or posted big blinds after you), you can add 1xbb for every limp in the pot. (i.e. After 2 limps, you should make a 5x raise).
If there are antes involved in the middle, your open raise size should be slightly larger.
If desired, because your early position hand ranges will be stronger than your late position, you could raise to 3.5x or 4x (recommended only for micro stakes online games or low-stakes live games, where many players will call your open raise, regardless of the small adjustment to its sizing).
Because you will be opening a wider range of hands from late position, you can make your raise size smaller here (i.e. 2.25x to 2.5x), to save money when you are 3bet and have to fold.
As you move up in stakes, smaller raise sizes will generally be used preflop.
Regarding the notation found below:
- An “o” refers to off-suit combinations.
- An “s” refers to suited combinations.
- A “+” sign indicates that hand, in addition to any hand better than it. For example, AJs+ refers to AJs, AQs, and AKs.
Here, in written notation, is a guideline for starting hands to open-raise with by position in a 9-handed, 100bb cash game:
Under-The-Gun (UTG/EP 1): 10%:
77+, ATs+, KTs+, QTs+, J9s+, T9s, 98s, A5s, AQo+
UTG+1 (EP 2): 10%:
77+, ATs+, KTs+, QTs+, J9s+, T9s, 98s, A5s, AQo+
UTG +2 (EP 3): 13%:
77+, A8s+, K9s+, Q9s+, J9s+, T9s, 98s, A4s-A5s, AJo+
Lojack (LJ/MP1): 16%
55+, A2s+ K9s+, Q9s+ J9s+ T8s+, 98s, 87s, 76s, AJo+, KQo
Hijack (HJ/MP2): 20%
44+, A2s+, K8s+, Q9s+ J9s+ T8s+, 97s+, 87s, 76s, 65s, 54s, ATo+, KJo+, QJo
Cut-off (CO/LP1): 26%
22+, A2s+, K5s+, Q8s+ J8s+ T8s+, 97s+, 86s+, 75s+, 65s, 54s, ATo+, KTo+, QTo+, JTo
Button (BTN/LP2): 40%
22+, A2s+, K2s+, Q5s+ J7s+ T6s+, 96s+, 85s+, 75s+, 64s+, 53s+, 43s, A4o+, K9o+, Q9o+, J9o+, T9o, 98o
Small Blind (SB): 47%+
22+, A2s+, K2s+, Q4s+ J6s+ T6s+, 95s+, 84s+, 74s+, 63s+, 53s+, 43s, A2o+, K8o+, Q8o+, J8o+, T8o+, 98o
H2: OTHER CONSIDERATIONS
- Stack Sizes: As stack sizes get shallower and shallower, broadway cards are going to soar in value, simply because the value of making a high one-pair will increase significantly. Additionally, suited connectors and small pairs will lose much playability and value because the implied odds they’ll get in a hand will decrease drastically. At 20bb stack depths, you’re often looking for spots to open-jam or 3bet jam with hands like 88+, AQo+, AJs+, KQs (which might vary further depending on the position and tendencies of the opener, along with how many players have since acted).
Number of Players: If there are fewer players at the table, your starting hand ranges based on your position shouldn’t change. If you’re opening CO with 26% of hands at a 9max table, then you should still be opening about 26% of hands at a 4-handed table when first to act preflop. The only reason why your ranges should ever change by position, as the number of players decreases at a table, would be to adjust to the strength and/or tendencies of your opponents.
Create/Know Your Ranges: Study the ranges listed above and/or the suggested preflop charts from a reputable site. Commit them to memory to ensure that you have a solid base range. This strategy alone will clean up your game immensely and allow you to know where you should make small adjustments in your range.
Players Tendencies / Table Dynamics: As aforementioned, after establishing a base range, you can then implement micro-adjustments to that range, if you so choose, depending on how tough, soft, aggro, etc. your table is. These are not dramatic changes, but just adding in or taking out a few combos from the bottom of your range. For example, if the blinds are weak players, you could open up slightly more hands on the button. If your opponents are fit-or-fold post-flop, you can open up even wider in late position with the intention to cbet and take it down a lot of the time. If there are always numerous players in the pot, tighten your ranges to hands that will play well multi-way.
HUD’s: Heads-Up Displays (HUD’s) are software programs used on computers for online poker that help players identify and show the statistics and tendencies of other poker players in an instant and in-game. (PokerTracker 4 and Hold’em Manager 2 are the most common HUD’s.) When trying to identify how you should vary your starting ranges based on the tendencies of your opponents, using a HUD will be the easiest and fastest way to help you quickly identify those tendencies.
VPIP / PFR: Two of the most crucial statistics you should be concerned with are VPIP (voluntarily put money in pot) and PFR (pre-flop raise). Usually, for 6-max games, a normal VPIP/PFR will be around 24/22. In 9-max, it could be around 19/17 (to accommodate for the tighter opening ranges when in early position). If these numbers are far apart (i.e. 31/5), the player is weak passive and limps more often than not. If these numbers are higher than usual (42/37), the player is typically a loose-aggressive player. These two latter options are both types of fish to which you should adjust your ranges accordingly.
Flatting vs 3betting: If there is already a player who has raised before you and you wish to enter the pot, you must determine whether it is better to flat (smooth call) or 3bet (re-raise). If (1) your hand plays well multi-way, (2) there are fish in the blinds you also want to keep in the hand, and/or (3) you think your hand is ahead of the range of the opener but too weak to re-raise for value, a call is acceptable. (i.e. Usually small to medium pairs and certain broadways (AQo vs MP open) are suitable for flatting.) The purpose of a 3bet is to usually isolate an opponent (especially if they’re weak) and/or put more money in the pot for value/protection of your hand. Acceptable candidates in many situations (depending on position) would be high pairs and higher suited broadway cards (for value). You should mix in some low suited aces in late position (which block AA and AK hands) and suited connectors as bluffs. If there is a raise and multiple callers, it might be superior to just flat these baby AXs and suited connector hands, as the immediate pot odds and implied odds are good. Also, they can flop decently well multi-way, if they pick up a flush draw. (If you don’t get a strong draw, you can just play straightforward and fold.)
Defending in the Small Blind: Some players advocate that all hands played in the small blind should be 3bet versus an open Because, after flatting, you’re giving the big blind a better price to call preflop and/or if he chooses to squeeze (3bet). If you have both a raising and a flatting range in the small blind, you’re almost always going to be too weak to call his raise, especially out of position, if the initial raiser folds. 3betting from the small blind is especially common versus late position opens, where ranges are wider. You can usually gain more preflop fold equity from 3betting. In lower stakes games where the big blind won’t often squeeze, in addition to pots that are already very multi-way, it can be acceptable to flat from the blinds. Just remember – it will be very difficult to play profitably post-flop in many situations when out of position and without initiative.
Defending in the Big Blind: Because you’ll be getting great odds versus a raise that’s between 2xbb and 3xbb (potentially higher in low stakes live games), you should be defending a wider part of your range, preflop, in the big blind - provided you can play well post-flop. Versus a 3x raise, you will have to put 2 additional big blinds into the pot to win 4.5bb (remember about the small blind) in a heads-up pot - meaning you will have to have about 30% equity versus the opener’s range to continue profitably. Yes, out of position, it is more difficult to realise this equity (perhaps by about 5-7%), but, still, it is vital to defend widely from the big blind to not be overfolding and exploited. Keep in mind that playing from the blinds will virtually always be –EV in the long-term. The key is to minimise your losses from these positions to boost your overall win rate.
- A Reminder of the Power of Position: Stepping aside for a moment from the hand charts and everything else this article has illuminated, always remember the power of position.
Most of your money will come from button play in Hold’em:
- Your decisions will be much easier when you’re in position
- Your opponents have potential to make greater mistakes when out of position.
Always remember that position is power, so be sure to use your positional advantage against specific opponents (especially weak ones) to boost your profits!
TOP 10 POKER STARTING HANDS
- Pocket Aces (AA)
- Pocket Kings (KK)
- Pocket Queens (QQ)
- Ace-King Suited (AKs)
- Pocket Jacks (JJ)
- Pocket Tens (TT)
- Ace-King Off-suit (AKo)
- Ace-Queen Suited (AQs)
- Ace-Jack Suited (AJs)
- King-Queen Suited (KQs)
COMMON POKER STARTING HAND NICKNAMES:
- Bullets/Rockets: AA
- Cowboys: KK
- Ladies: QQ
- Fishhooks: JJ
- Snowmen: 88
- Walking Sticks: 77
- Sail Boats: 44
- Crabs: 33
- Ducks: 22
- Big Slick: AKs
- Blackjack: AJ
- Canine: K9 (because of the phonetic sounds of “K” and “nine” put together)
- Doyle Brunson: T2 (won both of his WSOP Main Event titles with this hand)
- Computer Hand: Q7o (50% vs any random hand)
COMMON POKER MADE HAND NICKNAMES
- Broadway: A-K-Q-J-T straight
- Wheel: A-2-3-4-5 straight
- Steel Wheel: A-2-3-4-5 straight flush (any suit)
- Four Horsemen: K-K-K-K-X
- Mighty Ducks: 2-2-2-2-X