Guide to Texas Hold'em Starting Hands

hands to start with

Texas Hold'em: a game in which it is easy to learn the basics, but considerably harder to master. For now, let's cover a basic part of the game - starting hands.

Why is this fundamental to poker strategy? Because being dealt a hand is where the game begins, yet there are thought processes that are important here too. You certainly don't want to play every hand the dealer gives you, and even good players will fold a lot of their hands.

You Have Two Cards... Now What?

Two cards

Where then do we begin? Let's assume we have just been dealt our two hole cards. Our first question is, "Should I play them?" (See also What % of starting hands should I play?)

Sure, every hand could be a winner, but every hand can be a loser too. Only a few hands have the strength to be viable to continue beyond the pre-flop action. Another important factor is your position. The later you get to act in each round, (i.e. the more people who are forced to make decisions before you), the more aggressive you can be in your pre-flop actions.

Example

Why? Because you can see what many of your opponents are doing before you act. Each decision made by the players at the table before it is your time to act can provide very useful information that should not be overlooked. This doesn't mean you should play 7-2 off suit each time the action is folded around to you when you’re on the button but a slightly stronger hand can be enough to make a move and likely take in the blinds for free.

Solid ABC Poker: Your First Hold'em Lesson

Like all things in poker, this advice is relative. The better you get at pre-flop concepts and post-flop play, the more hands you can add to your armoury. Because you are just starting out, it is advisable to stick to the basics.

That means we are going to raise with big hands when we are in early position (when we are the first or second to act), and increase the hands we play as we get closer to late position (nearer the dealer position). Being in late position (LP) is good as it affords us lots of information from the other players: have they folded or made weak limps? Can you exploit those weaknesses with a cheeky raise?

In this page we are going to consider full-ring games (those with 9 or 10 players at the table). If you are playing with fewer players simply subtract from the earliest positions to get your correct position. We will also focus on raising, rather than calling. Calling is a weak play that leaves you vulnerable and allows people to enter the pot cheaply after you have acted. A single raise may win you the pot outright.

Understand the Hand Descriptions

Suited cards

The "s" refers to suited cards (of the same suit)

off-suit cards

The "o" refers to two cards that are off-suit.

or better

The "+" indicates that all of the hands that rank above that stated hand are included

Before we look at the starting hand recommendations, let's review poker hand notation. There are some new symbols used to describe ranges of hands. The annotations "s" and "o" are pretty straightforward. The "s" refers to suited cards (of the same suit). The "o" refers to two cards that are off-suit. If both the "s" and "o" are missing, then it does not matter if the hand is suited or off-suit.

The "+" indicates that all of the hands that rank above that stated hand are included. For example, "55+" includes a pair of fives, and any pair that ranks higher than that, all the way up to a pair of aces. The only pairs excluded would be 22, 33 and 44.

When it comes to connectors and one-gappers, the "+" indicates that similar hands using higher cards are also included. For example T9+ would include T9, JT, QJ, KQ, AK - all the connectors above T9.

for example:

10

9

10

J

Q

J

K

Q

A

K

There can also be combinations of the symbols, but you should be able to figure those out.

Learning the Basics of Position

Many advanced players will argue that position is the single most important factor in playing Texas Hold'em, even more than the cards you hold. The image below displays the positions at a typical full ring table. For 10 players simply add an additional middle position player. Meanings of the abbreviations are as follows:

Position
  • SBSmall Blind
  • BBBig Blind
  • UTGUnder the Gun
  • MPMiddle Position
  • HJHijack
  • COCut Off
  • BTNButton
Poker Starting Hands Chart

Starting Hands: The Main Groups

With our handy chart you can see what hands to raise, call, and fold with depending on your position. The range of hands will differ depending on how many players are at your table too. Remember that raise/call ranges will differ between tournaments and cash games, and also the dynamic of your table. Download a pdf copy here - Poker Starting Hands Chart

Pocket Pairs

Pairs always look great, but often in one-on-ones you may be no more than a 50-50 shot to win the hand. Premium pairs should always be raised pre-flop, but 'set mining' with smaller pairs in Early Position (EP) can be good if the pots are small.

Small Pocket Pairs (22-66)

When facing limpers in middle position, late position, or the blinds, you're usually going to want to over-limp, rather than raise. This is because one raise will usually not fold everyone out of the pot, and it's difficult to flop any kind of hand with a small pocket pair if you don't flop a set. Small pairs also usually tend to be second, third, or even fourth pair on the flop, so they will be in bad shape against most hands that have connected with the flop.

When there is already a single raise, small pocket pairs will usually be good hands to fold against good players. Again, they just don't hit the flop often enough to play very well. Hitting the flop isn't everything in poker, but good poker hands are ones that connect with a lot of flops, or make up for not connecting by already being strong on their own. Small pocket pairs do neither.

However, if there is a single raise and a couple callers, you can often call with these hands, hoping to flop a set and win a big pot. With more players in you have better pot odds, and a better chance that someone will flop something they will put money in with against your set. But if you're ever facing a 3-bet with a small pocket pair, you're usually going to be better off just folding.

When To Raise: LP (unraised pot)

When To Call: EP to LP

When To Fold: To re-raise/4-bet

Medium Pairs (77-TT)

You should follow a lot of the same guidelines with mid pairs as you do with small pairs. The goal a lot of the time will be to hit a set, and you usually won't be able to play a big pot post flop if you don't hit one, but mid pairs have a lot more flexibility.

Mid pairs inherently have a lot more strength than small pocket pairs, because they effectively gain another way that they win the pot at showdown: unimproved. This alone means you can play mid pocket pairs from any position, and you'll want to be coming in for a raise with them if you're opening the pot.

When To Raise: MP to LP (unraised pot)

When To Call: EP

When To Fold: To re-raise/4-bet

Premium Pairs (QQ-AA)

Premium pairs get dealt rarely, but they should be used to raise unraised pots, or re-raise pre-flop (3-bet/4-bet etc) wherever you are at the table.

In most cases these hands will play themselves before the flop. In most games you'll want to raise with these hands regardless of what the action is pre-flop, and be willing to put your stack all in before the flop if you're able to (assuming 100 big blind or smaller effective stacks).

There are tighter games, and especially online you won't always want to get all in with QQ pre-flop, and in many live games, people won't be 3betting very wide, so you won't necessarily want to keep re-raising it. But most of the time, 4betting or 5betting all of these hands will be the best play. You can sometimes trap with AA pre-flop, by not 4betting when normally you would, but it's usually better not to do that with KK or worse. This is because AA is much less vulnerable after the flop as compared to KK or QQ.

When To Raise: EP to LP

When To Call: N/A

When To Fold: N/A

Hand Names:

Everyone knows that Aces are Bullets and Kings are Cowboys, but there are more hands with strange names than you might think! You can read more about hand nicknames and rankings in our guide.

  • Bullets/Rockets
  • Cowboys
  • Ladies
  • Fish Hooks
  • Snow Men
  • Hockey Sticks
  • Sail Boats
  • Crabs
  • Ducks
  • Big Slick
  • Big Chick
  • Blackjack
  • McDermott
  • Dead man's hand
  • Little Slick
  • Canine
  • Cutie
  • Computer hand
  • T.J. Cloutier
  • Jack Daniels
  • Jackson Five
  • Doyle Brunson
  • Big Brother
  • Nut Low

Other Premium Hands (JJ, AKs, AQs, AKo)

Jacks play well pre-flop but if you get out-drawn on the flop they can be tricky. Play them strongly in LP, and - depending on your table - re-raise in EP too. However, don't be afraid to let them go post flop against pressure with overcards on the board.

Big Slick (AK) is a good LP raise or re-raise but can be murder on a dry flop.

When To Raise: MP to LP

When To Call: EP

When To Fold: N/A

Playing Aces (Suited/Unsuited A2s+, Ax offsuit)

In a full-ring game, A2 plays almost the same as something like A9. If they are suited, even better, as they can provide semi-bluffing opportunities. Making a flush draw is usually enough to allow you to continue far into a pot - especially if you use your ace as a blocker - and making a flush often means a decent payoff. So you'll want to see flops with this hand for relatively cheap.

If you have something like AJs or ATs, these hands will often be dominated when facing 3bets, so without reads it will usually be best to fold them to a lot of aggression. It's also important to keep in mind that when playing these hands after the flop, the top pair that you make will not usually be the best one pair hand possible, so occasionally you will have to be willing to give up your top pair good kicker.

A lot of people, meanwhile, overplay Ax offsuit. They are terrible hands unless you 3-bet bluff them pre-flop. Always pay attention to your table dynamic before doing this, though. Often, Ax hands won't make strong ace pairs on the flop and you may well end up being outdrawn. We advise a fold in most spots, especially to tight players who are playing more premium hands.

When To Raise: MP-LP (unraised pot)

When To Call: N/A

When To Fold: EP-LP

Suited Connectors (98s, 76s, T9s)

Photo Credit - www.wikimedia.org

The most common situation with suited connectors, aside from flopping absolutely nothing, will be flopping some sort of small piece like a pair or a gutshot. After that comes the chances of flopping some sort of stronger draw like an open-ended straight draw or a flush draw. Significantly behind that are the chances of flopping a big hand such as two-pair or better.

Another consideration is that you will occasionally have reverse implied odds with this hand, when you make the bottom end of a straight or a weak flush draw. It's hard to fold that kind of hand, but sometimes you'll have to do it if you want to be able to play these hands profitably. But for the most part, when you make your hand with a suited connector, you will be good to go, and often have a fairly disguised hand.

Because of the above considerations, suited connectors are fairly constrained by the immediate odds you are getting before the flop. For example, you are almost never going to be able to stand a 3-bet with this kind of hand unless the effective stacks are fairly deep, and you think you will have a decent edge on your opponent. Suited connectors also play much better in position than out of position, so while it makes sense to open-raise them from late position, you will likely want to muck them from early position. And even though they can be raised first into the pot, you'll usually want to flat-call or over-limp if there is action in front of you.

When To Raise: LP

When To Call: MP

When To Fold: EP, against all re-raises

Offsuit Connectors (T9o, 98o, 54o, JTo)

Some players love to play connected cards, hoping for that miracle straight. That's great if it's disguised on the flop, but this happens so rarely (comparatively) that you will be counting the cost long before it pays off. We advise a range of JToin late position if there has been one raise and no other callers. You can sometimes semi-bluff them strongly, especially if there is a draw on the board or you hit top pair. If you hit second pair, carry on for showdown value.

Some pros advise a LP raise with unsuited connectors like 87obut they should be added to your range against weak tables, not used as premium holdings.

When To Raise: LP (soft table)

When To Call: LP

When To Fold: EP-MP

Suited Gappers (97s, T8s, KJs)

Suited one-gappers can be nice hands to play post-flop, and are generally good for a pre-flop raise for all positions in a soft game. Again, ALWAYS PAY ATTENTION TO TABLE DYNAMIC, and don't be afraid to let them go if you get re-raised. After the flop, bet them for value.

Some players advise raising suited three-gappers even (96s, for example) for added value.

When To Raise: EP-LP (on soft tables)

When To Call: LP (call a raise)

When To Fold: To a re-raise

Understanding Table Dynamics in Hold'em

What to hold, what to fold, and when to raise are all key things to learn as you improve as a Hold'em player. But every table is different. You might be a tight-ish player who discovers his table is also very tight. If this is the case, you can start expanding your hand ranges.

Conversely, if you are a tight-ish player on a very loose table, tighten up even further and watch out for getting six callers to your raise. You will not only have to change your starting hand selection but also the size of your raises.

In a typical tight tournament, where there may be a lot of folds in a hand, you can exploit your position at the table by opening up your range. While we recommend suited 1-gappers in some spots, some pros advocate adding suited 2-gappers or 3-gappers to your starting hand range which can add value on some flops.

To add to your starting hand range (tight table): 9-6 suited, 8-7 suited, 8-7 offsuit, K-Q offsuit, A-J offsuit, 10-7 suited etc.

Tournament Example: Call, Raise, or Fold?

This first chart below is going to represent the hands that you should be raising when you are folded to in a full handed game in consideration with where you are sitting at the table:

With Folds or Calls in Front

  • Position

    Raise when folded to
    Raise with limper(s)
  • Under the Gun

    2

    2

    +

    ,

    A

    Q

    +

    N/A

  • UTG +1

    2

    2

    +

    ,

    A

    J

    +

    2

    2

    +

    ,

    A

    J

    +

  • Middle Position

    2

    2

    +

    ,

    A

    10

    +

    ,

    A

    J

    +

    ,

    K

    Q

    +

    2

    2

    +

    ,

    A

    10

    +

    ,

    A

    J

    +

    ,

    K

    Q

  • MP 1

    2

    2

    +

    ,

    A

    10

    +

    ,

    Q

    J

    +

    ,

    K

    Q

    +

    5

    5

    +

    ,

    A

    10

    +

    ,

    Q

    J

    +

    ,

    K

    Q

  • Hijack

    2

    2

    +

    ,

    A

    9

    +

    ,

    K

    10

    +

    ,

    Q

    J

    +

    ,

    J

    10

    +

    ,

    A

    8

    +

    ,

    7

    7

    +

    6

    6

    +

    ,

    A

    9

    +

    ,

    K

    J

    +

    ,

    K

    8

    +

    ,

    Q

    J

    +

    ,

    Q

    8

    +

    ,

    J

    10

    +

    ,

    10

    9

    +

  • Cut Off

    2

    2

    +

    ,

    A

    2

    +

    ,

    A

    6

    +

    ,

    K

    9

    +

    ,

    K

    8

    +

    ,

    Q

    10

    +

    ,

    Q

    8

    +

    ,

    J

    10

    +

    ,

    J

    9

    +

    6

    6

    +

    ,

    A

    9

    +

    ,

    K

    J

    +

    ,

    K

    8

    +

    ,

    Q

    J

    +

    ,

    Q

    8

    +

    ,

    J

    10

    +

    ,

    10

    9

    +

  • Button

    2

    2

    +

    ,

    A

    2

    +

    ,

    K

    2

    +

    ,

    Q

    7

    +

    ,

    J

    8

    +

    ,

    10

    8

    +

    ,

    5

    6

    +

    ,

    6

    4

    +

    ,

    7

    4

    +

    2

    2

    +

    ,

    A

    2

    +

    ,

    A

    8

    +

    ,

    K

    8

    +

    ,

    K

    9

    +

    ,

    Q

    8

    +

    ,

    Q

    10

    +

    ,

    J

    9

    +

    ,

    J

    10

    +

    ,

    10

    9

    +

  • Small Blind

    2

    2

    +

    ,

    K

    J

    +

    ,

    A

    8

    +

    ,

    Q

    J

    +

    ,

    7

    8

    +

    8

    8

    +

    ,

    A

    8

    +

    ,

    A

    9

    +

    ,

    K

    9

    +

    ,

    K

    10

    +

    ,

    Q

    10

    +

    ,

    Q

    J

    +

    ,

    J

    10

    +

  • Big Blind

    N/A

    10

    10

    +

    ,

    A

    J

    +

    ,

    K

    Q

    +

So does all of that make sense? Can you see how we are adding more hands as we occupy a later position?

We aren't always in a position where we want to raise. When someone raises ahead of you, you definitely don't want to raise with the same hands we just listed. You also don't want to call with all of them, either. This next table is going to go through what to do when someone raises in front of you, and which hands you might want to raise or call with to stay in the pot.

With a Raise in the Front

  • Position

    Re-raise (3 bet, 4 bet)
    Call bet
  • UTG +1

    Q

    Q

    +

    ,

    A

    K

    2

    2

    -

    J

    J

    ,

    A

    Q

    ,

    A

    J

    +

    ,

    K

    Q

  • Middle Position

    Q

    Q

    +

    ,

    A

    Q

    2

    2

    -

    J

    J

    ,

    A

    Q

    ,

    A

    J

    +

    ,

    K

    Q

  • MP 1

    J

    J

    +

    ,

    A

    Q

    +

    2

    2

    -

    10

    10

    ,

    A

    J

    ,

    K

    Q

  • Hijack

    J

    J

    +

    ,

    A

    K

    2

    2

    -

    10

    10

    ,

    A

    Q

    ,

    A

    J

    ,

    K

    Q

  • Cut Off

    J

    J

    ,

    A

    K

    +

    2

    2

    -

    10

    10

    ,

    A

    Q

    ,

    A

    J

    ,

    K

    Q

  • Button

    10

    10

    +

    ,

    A

    Q

    +

    2

    2

     

    9

    9

    ,

    A

    Q

    ,

    A

    J

    ,

    K

    Q

  • Small Blind

    Q

    Q

    +

    ,

    A

    K

    9

    9

    -

    J

    J

    ,

    A

    Q

  • Big Blind

    Q

    Q

    ,

    A

    K

    8

    8

    -

    J

    J

    ,

    A

    Q

Starting Hands FAQ

What are good starting hands in Texas Hold'em?

Pocket Aces (Ace-Ace) and other big-pocket pairs (like King-King) are the best starting hands in any position in Texas Hold’em. Big-suited connectors such as Ace-King and King-Queen come in next and unsuited big connectors are the least favourable. Your position heavily dictates how strong your hand is. There are a number of tables available that show the strength of your hand relative to your position, so be sure to check out our guide on Starting Hands Percentages for a more in-depth breakdown.

Who is the first to bet in Texas Hold'em?

The player directly to the left of big blind is the first to place a bet, with betting continuing in a clockwise direction.

How many different starting hands are there in poker?

There is a total of 169 non-equivalent starting poker hands in Texas Hold’em, which is composed of 13 pocket pairs, 78 suited hands and 78 unsuited hands.

What is pre-flop?

Pre-flop refers to the phase after big blind and small blind have been posted but before flops have been revealed. Players have their pocket cards and place bets during this initial phase (also referred to as the pre-flop betting phase).

What hands should I play in poker pre-flop?

The hands that should be played in pre-flop can be determined by looking at three main concepts: Equity, implied odds and position. Equity refers to how much your hand is worth in comparison to other players' hands. Implied odds refer to the potential winnings for that hand versus the amount you need to make the next call (meaning that even though you are dealt a less than satisfactory hand you still have a chance at a decent hand as the game goes on). Position refers to where you are in the betting line, so, the closer you are to the dealer, the less information you have when placing bets. Looking at all these factors will give you an idea of the best hand you can play in pre-flop.

In general, the best hands to play in pre-flop will be big pocket pairs (Ace-Ace being the best), big suited connectors (like Ace-King) and unsuited connectors such as a Queen of Hearts and a King of Diamonds (King-Queen).

Which is the best hand in poker?

The best hand in poker is a royal flush which is composed of the Ace, King, Queen, Jack and 10 of a single suit. The chances of being dealt a royal flush is 1 in 649,739 (or a 0.000154% chance).

Conclusion

Deciding how and when to play each of the possible poker hands pre-flop is an art, not a science. A ton of it will be opponent- and situation-dependent, and much of the skill that is required to make those decisions only comes with experience. But by using the guidelines laid out in this article, you can't go too far wrong, and you'll be well on your way to honing your skills and making better pre-flop decisions with your poker hands in Texas Hold'em.

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