Guide to Texas Hold'em Poker Hands

There are 1,326 distinct combinations of two cards in Texas Hold'em before the flop. While many of these share the same value because suit differences are unimportant, we are still left with 169 starting hands with unique value.

They are made up of 13 pocket pairs, 78 suited hands, and 78 off-suit hands. That's still a lot to keep track of - how do we know which hands to play in which situations, and why? Read on for a guide to which poker hands are the best to play before the flop in Texas Hold'em.

You can read more about starting hand strategy in our guide.

Pocket Pairs

Everyone likes to look at a pocket pair when they take a peek at their hole cards. It's technically already a made hand, and a pocket pair can turn into a big hand if it flops a set. However, there are 13 different pocket pairs you can have, ranging from 22 to AA, and they have extremely different values in terms of their abilities to turn into the winning poker hand, so it makes sense to sort them into a few buckets: small, mid, and big.

Small Pocket Pairs (22-66)

Pocket pairs under sevens are considered to be "small" pocket pairs because they are the smallest numerically, but also because they are unlikely to be the best hand if they don't improve. That's why most of the time, you are going to be set-mining with them - trying to hit three of a kind on the flop and win a big pot. They are notoriously difficult to play from early position, and you should usually be folding them from under the gun up until about middle position. The exception to this is if you are playing in a very passive game like a live, low stakes game. In this sort of scenario, it can be okay to limp in with this hand if you are first to act.

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 3bet with a small pocket pair, you're usually going to be better off just folding.

Mid Pocket Pairs (77-JJ)

There is some debate over where the cut-off should be for mid pocket pairs and big pocket pairs. Some would consider TT to be a "big pair," while others would scoff at even putting QQ into that category. JJ will very often not be the top pair on the flop though, so we will call it a mid pair.

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. You can call a single raise with them from any position as well, though a lot of times you'll just want to pitch them if you're facing a 3b and you didn't open the pot. This will be player dependent, but most players aren't 3betting hands that are significantly worse than mid pairs, and many will only be 3betting hands that are flipping or much better.

Big Pairs (QQ-AA)

These are the best poker hands you are going to look down at, and because of this, most players experience some level of excitement when they look down at one of these hands. There are some differences between the three hands, mostly because of the fact that AA will always be top pair or better, but KK and QQ can be out-flopped by someone with an over-card in their hand.

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.

As strong as these hands are pre-flop, they are not invincible. It's important to remember that unless you flop a set, you still only have one pair after the flop. Beware of getting married to your over-pairs - you need to be willing to fold them sometimes after the flop if you want to be successful.

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

Offsuit Connectors

These hands are perhaps the most controversial of all poker hands in Texas Hold'em. Some say they are always worth playing, some say they should always be thrown away, and some say that it completely depends on the table, your position, and the particular situation. The most important thing to consider when thinking about playing one of these hands is what your plan is going to be for making money by playing it.

Suited Connectors

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However you feel about connectors in general, you have to admit that suited connectors are capable of winning you some very big pots. However, it's very easy to take things too far with a hand like 67s. It's important to remember that while your hand will connect with the flop a decent amount of the time, it's unlikely to make the best hand with just one pair. The most common situation 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 3bet 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.

The last thing to keep in mind is that when it comes to connectors of all kinds, size really does matter. A hand like T9s is going to be much more valuable than 54s, because it can make much stronger single pair hands, and will be counterfeited far less often.

Suited Gappers

These are the kinds of hands that bad beat stories are made of. And they tend to end with the player with the 74 saying, "yeah, but it was suited!" There's nothing inherently wrong with playing suited hands with a gap between the cards, like T8s or 74s, but you may start to get some weird looks the smaller the high card and the bigger the gap. The key to keep in mind with all suited gappers is that everything from above that applies to suited connectors also applies to suited gappers - just even more so. The times it makes sense to play these hands are the same types of spots as when you will want to play suited connectors. But the immediate or implied odds you need to be getting pre-flop are greater when playing gappers, because they will connect less often than suited connectors will.

Offsuit Gappers

The only thing that really needs to be said about off-suit connectors is that they hit the flop significantly less often than suited connectors, and they will make second best hands so often that it is advisable to fold them in almost all situations pre-flop. The exceptions are in late position if the pot is unopened, and against very weak fields where you can over-limp without getting raised very often. If the pot is unopened and you are in late position, it can be profitable to open these hands since blind-stealing combined with having position will be enough to breakeven or better. Against weak players, you will be able to play this hand more profitably post-flop, and therefore playing it as an over-limp pre-flop will let you get into favorable situations on the flop where you will be able to outplay your opponents.

Broadways

Broadway hands are made up of two cards that are both valued at a T through A (and aren't the same). While it makes sense to group broadways together as a whole, these hands occupy a wide range of strength. JT is extremely different from AQ, and KQ is significantly better than KT. Because of this, it also makes sense to break them down further.

AK and AQ

It is a little misleading to group the two hands together, as they two are actually quite different in strength. The difference between being the best unpaired hand and being the second best is huge. However, in most single raised pots these hands will play quite similarly. Their primary value will come from raising pre-flop, and making value bets when they hit top pair or better. They are reasonably strong from every position, and do not require a significant post-flop edge because they typically play about the same regardless of who you are up against. Both AQ and AK should sometimes be played as a 3bet for value, though AQ will be better played as a flat in tighter games when facing a raise. AK, however, has an additional edge: in most standard games you can 3bet or 4bet it for value, and at 100bb effective stacks you can usually get it in pre-flop for value or as a semi-bluff. This is not true of AQ, since most of the time when people get it all in pre-flop, they will have at least TT+ or AK, and often tighter. This puts AQ in bad shape, so it will usually have to fold to a lot of action pre-flop.

AJ, AT, KQ, and KJ

These hands, though they look fairly different, play quite similarly pre-flop and post-flop. They are good for a pre-flop raise from all positions in a soft game, excluding early position in tougher games. They are usually best played trying to make top pair and bet for value post-flop, or make some kind of draw and be used as a semi-bluff. Because of this, they are all much stronger when suited, and can stand more heat pre-flop when this is the case.

However, 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. With that being said, do not be afraid to bet your value hands post-flop - these hands will often be the best, and can get you a lot of value from players who are playing wider ranges.

KT, QJ, and JT

These hands constitute the weakest broadways, and while they can be played effectively, they should also be played cautiously. Ironically, even though KT appears to be the strongest because it has the K, it is probably the weakest of the three. It is fairly disconnected, so it doesn't make many strong draws. When the K is paired on the flop, it is usually going to be top pair, but the T kicker is not too strong. Similarly, when the T is paired, the K kicker is good, but the pair of tens will not be top pair nearly as often, with any J, Q, or A allowing the possibility of someone making a better pair.

QJ and JT have the same problems, except that they can make better draws a lot of the time since they are more connected. For this reason, they play more in line with the connector hands discussed previously in this article. All of these hands play better suited, and can stand a single raise pre-flop most of the time when they are. They warrant a raise in middle position or later when suited, and late position or from the small blind when they are off-suit. Post-flop, they can be played as strong semi-bluffs when they do make draws, and as a medium strength value hands when they make strong pairs. When they make second pair, they should usually be played more for showdown value than for straight value, as you will often bet all worse hands out by the turn or river if you are betting all the way.

Ax

For the purposes of this article, this category will not overlap with broadways (AK-AT) above, so it effectively encompasses A9 through A2. While A9 might look a lot stronger than A2, and in some contexts it is, these hands will play quite similarly in a full ring game, and even in shorter-handed games they will stay close in relative strength. However, Ax hands play quite differently when suited than they do off-suit.

AX Suited

The power of suited Ax depends greatly on the type of game you are playing. In a typical live game, you can play this primarily for the semi-bluffing opportunity and implied odds. Making a flush draw is usually enough to allow you to continue far into a pot, and making a flush often means a decent payoff. So you'll want to see flops with this hand for relatively cheap. Over-limping or flatting this hand pre-flop is fine, and raising it in late position makes sense as well. In early or middle position, it will usually still be correct to let these hands go though, as you won't be able to make a lot of value just by flopping a weak top pair. In a typical online game, you are less likely to make a lot on flushes, but you gain an additional avenue of profit through 3bet bluffing. The art of 3bet bluffing is worthy of an entire article, but in position these hands can make a good 3bet through the A blocker, and the potential to flop decent draws.

AX Offsuit

It's unfortunate but true: most people play off-suit Ax hands far too often. In live games, there are very few situations where it makes sense to do so, and online, using them as occasional additions to a bluff 3bet range are pretty much their only use. In both venues they can be opened from late position, but folded from just about everywhere else.

They should almost never be over-limped or used for a cold call pre-flop, because they don't make strong top pairs or strong draws very often at all. Even when they flop two pair, they won't always be the best hand, and that's so infrequent as to be effectively irrelevant. In live games in particular, you will find that most players play these hands way more frequently than they should, and end up getting married to a weak top pair when another player holds an obviously stronger top pair type hand. Because of this, it's best to let these hands go in most situations - when you're unsure whether to call or fold, you should lean toward the fold.

72o:

It's no secret that 72o is the worst starting hand in Texas Hold'em. But what is it that makes it the worst? It seems like common sense that it does better heads up against 32o - and that's because it is better than 32o heads up. However, many standard poker equity calculators use the "three random hands" method for calculating equity. 72o does well against 32o because it will inherently win without making any kind of hand, so long as the 32o doesn't make a pair of threes, a straight, or a chop. But if you put 72o against three other random hands, and 32o against three other random hands, you will find that 32o actually has more equity. This is a way to balance the value of high cards (more important heads up) and the value of drawing hands (higher in multiway pots). Regardless, you probably don't want to be playing 72o all that often if you plan on playing poker for a long time!

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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