Guide to Texas Hold’em Starting Hands
Each hand of Texas Hold’em begins with each player asking themselves the same question: should I play these cards, or not?
There are 169 different two-card combinations in a deck of cards, and some of those poker starting hands are obviously better than others – most players will know that a pair of aces is good and a 2-7 is bad.
But choosing which poker hands you should play isn’t as simple as waiting for pocket aces, as there are other factors you’ll need to consider such as your position at the table, the action ahead of you and the playing style of your opponents.
Let’s walk through everything you need to know to make excellent decisions before the flop and establish a winning poker strategy for cash game play.
Poker Starting Hands Chart
You certainly don’t want to play every hand the dealer gives you, and even good players will fold a lot of their hands, but how can you know which poker hands to play?
With our handy chart you can see which hands to raise, call and fold with depending on your position at the poker table, with at-a-glance advice on cards to be played from early (EP), middle (MP) or late position (LP).
As you can see, the optimal move can vary depending on if you’re the first player to enter the pot (‘Unopened Pot’), if there’s already been one or more callers (calling the blinds pre-flop is known as limping, hence ‘With Limper(s)’), or if there’s already been a raise in front of you.
Just a quick look at this poker cheat sheet shows that a greater number of different hands can be played from late position, compared to early position, and that the number of callers or raises in front of you has an effect on how you should play the hand.
Click or tap this Texas Hold’em chart to save it for future reference, or bookmark this page to help you when playing online.
Understanding Hand Descriptions
Before we focus on starting hand recommendations, let's take a quick look at how poker hands are described. As you can see in the chart above, ‘s’, ‘o’ and ‘+’ are used frequently, but what do they mean?
S– indicates that the two cards are ‘suited’, i.e. both of the same suit
O– reveals the opposite to be true: the cards are ‘offsuit’, i.e. of two different suits
+– shows that all similar hands that rank above it are included
Some examples from the chart above:
- The top row shows the hand ‘QQ+’. Similar hands (pairs) that rank above this would be KK and AA, so the ‘+’ in ‘QQ+’ shows that pocket kings and pocket aces are also included in this row.
- Towards the bottom, we see ‘A8s+’. This represents an ace with a suited 8, 9, 10 or J (AQs has its own entry a little higher).
Starting Hands Based on Position
Looking at the starting hands chart above, three things should be clear:
- The stronger your hand (i.e. closer to the top of the chart), the better
- You should generally be more aggressive with limpers in the hand, and a little more cautious vs. raisers
- More hands can be played from late position than anywhere else
This third point is one of the most useful concepts for new poker players to understand. Acting after your opponents is called being ‘in position’, while acting before them is known as being ‘out of position’. Why is this fundamental to poker strategy? Because seeing what other players choose to do before you act is a significant advantage – so much so that the dealer position changes with every deal, so no one benefits more than anyone else.
Each position at the table has a name, and the image below displays each of them at a typical full ring table (for 10 players simply add an additional middle position player). Meanings of the abbreviations are as follows:
UTGUnder the Gun
The player to the left of the dealer button. They place a small bet before cards are dealt, in order to start the betting action.
The player two seats to the left of the dealer button. They place a bet usually worth double the small blind before the flop.
The player who acts first in a round of betting. It is considered the weakest position in poker, as there’s no chance to observe other players first.
Generally, any position from 4th through to 7th after the dealer button.
The player sitting two seats right of the dealer button. Raising from this position can be seen as a move to ‘hijack’ the pot.
The position directly before the dealer button.
Hands by Position Chart
Now that you know what position is, and why it’s important, you can use the chart below as a basic guide on which poker hands to play from which position. Click or tap to toggle between paired/suited hands and offsuit hands.
Many players open up their range of playable hands in late position, deciding that any hand that is not two bad offsuit cards is fair game for raising an unopened pot. Picking up the blinds in this way can be a useful way to build a stack without needing a decent hand; only a few hands have the strength to be viable to continue beyond the preflop action, but with late position raises you don’t necessarily need a strong holding.
Most playable hands tend to fall into one of the following categories, however: pairs, aces, other premium hands, connectors and gappers.
Let’s explore these different hand types a little further, starting with pocket pairs.
Pairs always look great, but there’s a big difference between ‘premium’ pairs like QQ, KK or AA, medium pairs like 77-TT, and small pairs like 22-66, with some hands much stronger than others.
- Premium pairs should generally be raised preflop, to protect your strong hands from being outdrawn by weaker ones. In most cases you’ll be looking to build a big pot before the flop, or even going all-in, as it’s important to press your advantage when you have one. Simply calling a preflop bet to set a trap is an option, but isn’t advisable with anything but pocket aces (KK and QQ, if slowplayed to set a trap, are easily undone by a single ace on the flop).
- Medium pairs play similarly to small pairs, in that much of their value comes from those moments where you flop a set (a concealed three-of-a-kind). These pairs are also capable of winning a pot without improving, however, making them worth a mid- to late-position raise in an unopened pot.
- Small pairs can win big pots, but they usually require some help in the form of a third card to make a set. Raising an unopened pot from late position with a small pair is a move similar to a bluff, in that you’re not hoping for a caller. However, if you do get called, you have the slim chance to improve to a set – a very strong hand. Preflop limpers can make calling with a small pair a much more attractive play, as the extra chips in the pot give you better pot odds to hit that third card and make a set. This is known as ‘set-mining’. Facing multiple preflop raises, however, makes this play too expensive to be worthwhile, so fold if you encounter significant aggression.
Other Premium Hands
This category includes hands like JJ, AKs, AQs and AKo, which are certainly attractive but not quite as strong as premium pairs.
Raising from late position is wise, as you will often have the best hand preflop with the potential to hit an even stronger hand on the flop, and depending on your table you may consider raising or re-raising from other positions too.
However, these hands can be easily undone by the ‘wrong’ flop, so don’t grow too attached to them. JJ is strong preflop but once an overcard falls it’s not a hand in which you can have a lot of confidence. Similarly, AKs, AQs or AKo is often the strongest hand preflop, but if it doesn’t connect with the flop you’re left with only a high card and can be beaten by the smallest pair.
These attractive hands can be difficult to let go of, but if you don’t connect with the flop and face serious aggression, you need to get real about your chances.
Here we’re talking about non-paired and non-premium aces, such as A2-AJs or any offsuit ace other than AKo.
Without a strong kicker, one of the main dangers facing a non-premium ace hand is, ironically, flopping an ace. This is because any other aces out there will likely have a higher kicker, resulting in your hand being dominated and ending up a loser.
Suited aces have more appeal, given the possibility of making the nut flush, but you should consider these as drawing hands and aim to see the flop cheaply, without committing too many chips.
These are cards closely connected by rank, such as 34, 78 or 9T, which are of the same suit. The strength of these hands lies in the potential they have when it comes to making a straight or flush, but the most common situation, aside from flopping absolutely nothing, will be flopping some sort of small piece like a pair or a gutshot draw. It’s rare that you’ll flop a big hand with suited connectors, and you may end up with a weak flush or straight that will be hard to fold.
On the flipside, when you do make your hand with suited connectors, you will often have a well disguised hand that could win you a lot of chips.
Because of the above considerations, suited connectors are best played when it’s cheap to do so. Preflop raises and 3-bets are hard to call with drawing hands like these, unless the effective stacks are deep and you believe you have an 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, a raise from early position isn’t recommended. And while we generally don’t encourage too much preflop calling (if the action is folded to you and you have a hand you want to play, you should generally come out raising – if you don’t think your hand is good enough to raise with, just fold), suited connectors may actually be a hand worth limping with.
Offsuit connectors play similarly, but worse. A call or raise from late position may be appropriate if the cards are fairly high (e.g. 89o+), the pot is small and opposition is weak, but proceed with caution.
Gappers almost connect in the way that connectors do, but have a gap between the cards. Hands like 79s and TQs are referred to as ‘one-gappers’, given that the cards have a gap of one rank between them, and can make for good, disguised hands when they hit. The bigger the gap (e.g. 96s would be called a ‘two-gapper’), the more the hand is disguised, but remember that you’re not going to connect with the flop in a meaningful way too often.
Nevertheless, when gappers do hit the flop they can make some unexpected and unpredictable hands, so it’s worth considering playing them if conditions are right. As with connectors, you are looking for a situation where the cards aren’t too low, the price isn’t too high, and ideally you have position. And just like connectors, having them suited is a big plus.
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, and the hands you decide to play should always take the general table dynamic into consideration.
A table might be fairly passive, with lots of preflop limpers and multiway pots. Or, conversely, it might be filled with loose-aggressive players whose frequent raises and 3-bets discourage limpers and lead to big pots, contested by fewer players.
When you first sit at a new poker table, whether live or online, it’s always worth taking some time to read the temperature of the table in this way. Once you understand the overall feel of the game – the table dynamic – you can adjust your own play to exploit the situation.
To this end, we generally recommend playing a little tighter than average at a very loose table, and a little looser than average at a very tight table.
The former puts you in a position to maximize value with good hands, so you should focus on the top end of your range and not invest too much in pots with hands like gappers or low connectors. The latter helps you pick up a lot of small pots and blinds, as you are unlikely to face as much resistance at a tight table, so you can add more suited connectors, gappers and bluffs to your range.
Starting Hands FAQs
What are good starting hands in Texas Hold’em (what hands should I play in poker preflop)?
The best hands to play in poker preflop will always be big pocket pairs (such as Ace-Ace, King-King and Queen-Queen), followed by big suited connectors such as Ace-King, as well as medium pairs. Your position heavily dictates how strong your hand is, which is tables such as the one above divide many hands into whether they’re playable from early, middle or late position.
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. After the flop, the action starts with the first player still in to the left of the button.
How many different starting hands are there in poker?
There is a total of 169 non-equivalent starting poker hands in Texas Hold’em, comprising 13 pocket pairs, 78 suited hands and 78 unsuited hands. Any one of these hands can win, however we recommend that beginning poker players play a tighter style – if you play the right hands you’ll win more pots.
What does ‘preflop’ mean?
Preflop refers to the phase after big blind and small blind have been posted but before the flop has been revealed. Players have their pocket cards and place bets during this initial phase (also referred to as the preflop betting phase).
How much should I raise?
This depends heavily on your position and the stack sizes at your table. From early position you tend to need a stronger hand to raise with, so a minimum raise may be enough to be taken seriously by your opponents, while raising from the button is a common move (to ‘steal the blinds’) so a larger bet may be in order. Middle position is trickier, but as a baseline we’d recommend raising three times the big blind with hands like 22+/AT+/KJ+/89s-JQs/A2s-A5s – around 15.5% of hands. If we have tight players on our left we can start to raise with hands like 56s-78s and QJ/A9s/K9s/KTs/QTs/J9s, opening up our range even more.
What hands should I play in poker preflop?
The hands that should be played preflop 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 call; position refers to where you are in relation to the button.
In general, the best hands to play preflop will be big pocket pairs (Ace-Ace being the best), other premium hands and big suited connectors.
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 in Texas Hold’em is 1 in 30,940.
Deciding how and when to play each of the possible poker hands preflop is an art, but using these guidelines will give you everything you need to perfect it. The reality is that many decisions will be opponent- and situation-dependent, and experience will certainly help when it comes to recognizing opportunities and avoiding mistakes. Remember that even the best players lose more hands than they win, and try to make the best decisions whenever you have the chance. Ready to start playing online? You can check out real money poker sites here.