In Texas Holdem, you make your first and perhaps most important decision based on your hole cards. Should you invest and enter the pot or throw away your hands? Understanding the factors that come into play, and the specificities of the cards you hold will give you a significant advantage over your opponents!
The playability of the different texas holdem starting hands is affected by factors like position, opponent’s playing style, your image at the table, and any previous action. These factors should be considered when you decide whether to enter the pot and, if so, how to proceed. To better understand how these factors influence preflop decisions, you can check out the tutorial on texas holdem preflop strategy.
Naturally, the first thing most players focus on is the strength of their starting hands. Everybody dreams of looking at his hole cards and finding a pair of Aces! Hand strength is fundamental, especially in preflop all-in situations. However, deciding if and how to play your starting hands is not so trivial. Each hand has different qualities and should be played accordingly. This tutorial will help you understand the nature of starting hands, and show you how to play them under specific conditions to embrace a winning preflop strategy!
Keep in mind that, even if there is an optimal way to play specific hands, you should occasionally vary your play. This way, your opponents will not be able to read into your betting patterns. Let’s take a look at the different starting hand types and see how you can play them in various situations.
Pocket pairs, in particular big ones, are great starting hands! How you play them varies greatly on their rank. Naturally, the bigger the rank of the pair, the better! Let’s break the pairs into three categories.
premium pairs (AA, KK, QQ)
These premium pairs are great starting hands! These pairs are often strong enough to win without improving against few players. Be careful, though. Even if they play great against a few, they are not as solid as one might think in against many opponents. If you have KK, about 23% of the time, an ace will hit on the flop, and if you have QQ, about 42% of the time, an ace or king will come on the flop. But an overcard is not all that you have to worry about. Particularly in multiplayer pots, even aces often get you in trouble. A common mistake beginners make is not letting go of their premium pairs when the situation strongly indicates that they are losing.
Another mistake some beginners make is limping in too often with a premium pair. By slowplaying your big hands, you are giving your opponents a cheap way to enter the pot and outdraw you, and this can cost you in the long run. As a general guideline, you should be raising or reraising with them to narrow the field.
middle-high pocket pairs ( JJ, TT, 99, 88, 77)
These pairs are undoubtedly strong enough for you to raise from middle or late position if you are first to open the pot. JJ, TT, and 99 are also good enough for you to raise in early position in most cases. Keep in mind that, even if these hands are strong, in most flops, one or two overcards will come. It may not be easy for you to know where you stand, and, therefore, these hands can be challenging to play out of position.
small pocket pairs (66, 55, 44, 33, 22)
The lower pairs are much more vulnerable, as most flops will bring two or three overcards. As they are significantly weaker, you must only play them under the proper circumstances. Avoid playing them out of position. With two to three overcards after the flop, even against a single opponent, you will be trying to figure out where you stand. If you are first in, they can be good enough for a raise from late position, and in some cases, from middle position, with the added equity of picking up the blinds.
Another profitable way to play smaller, or middle pairs, is to try to limp in cheaply from middle or late position in multiplayer pots to try to make a set. A set is a very powerful hand! Starting with a pair in your hole cards, you will make a set or better on the flop about 12% of the time. When you make a set, the strength of your hand is less apparent than if you had made, for example, a flush on a flop of the same suit. As the strength of your hand is less obvious, you can get a big payoff in multiplayer pots!
Most of the time, about 94%, your cards will be unpaired. When evaluating their strength, there are three basic things to consider; how high your cards are, whether they are suited and whether they are close in rank between them. Let’s take a look at these factors.
In general, the higher your cards are, the better. Be careful, the rank of both cards matters. If you have two high cards, it is more likely that you hit top pair, but also that when you do, you will have a good kicker to go along with your pair! A common mistake beginners make is to overvalue A-high or K-high hands with weak kickers. For example, raising from an early position with A7 type of hands is a bad idea. Too often, you will get a call from someone having an ace with a better kicker, and you will lose money when you pair your ace.
High cards, like AJ or better, or KQ, when they connect with the board, are often strong enough to win a showdown against one or two players but may not be strong enough in a multiplayer pot. As a general guideline, you should raise with these hands to try to limit the field. From early positions, play mostly high cards. Then from middle, and particularly from late positions, you can start raising with more hands, as the probability that someone behind you has a stronger hand decreases, and the chance of picking up the blinds increases.
Suited means that both of your cards are of the same suite. If your hole cards are suited, they go up in value, as they have higher chances of making a flush. Therefore, suited cards do slightly better in all-in preflop situations. Having suited cards can add about 2-3% to your winning chances. However, the real value of suited cards comes from the fact that they can make flushes or flush draws more often. Making a flush in multiplayer pots can be very profitable.
When you make a flush using two hole cards, it is less likely that someone else also has a flush, as he would need to have both of his hole cards of the same suit. Furthermore, when you make a flush on a board that has three cards of the same suit, the power of your hand is less apparent, and you have higher chances of getting paid off!
For example, in a board like Q♠J♥8♥6♥2♥, if you have the Q♥, you have a Q-high flush. However, it is likely that someone has the A♥ or the K♥ and has you beat. Even if you had the A♥ for the nut flush, it would be hard to get a lot of action on such a scary board. Now imagine a board like Q♠J♣8♥6♥2♥, and you holding Q♥9♥, a Q-high flush using your two hole cards. This situation is much more profitable! It is much less likely that someone has a bigger flush, and also more likely that you will be able to extract some bets from your opponents.
Having connected cards means that your cards are close in rank so that they can both be part of a straight. The closer your cards are, the higher the chances of making a straight. For example, 98 can make four different straights: 98765, T9876, JT987, QJT98. If the remaining community cards are unrelated, three out of the four straights are the nut straights, as QJT98 is loosing to KQJT9 and AKQJT. Cards with one gap between them like 97 can make three straights, two of them being nut straights. Cards with two gaps like 96 can make two straights, one of them being a nut straight, and cards with three gaps like 95 can only make one non-nut straight. This demonstrates that the added value of your cards being connected goes down as their gab increases.
Starting hands have specific characteristics that affect their playability. Understanding the quality of the different starting hands will help you to play them optimally in different preflop situations and gain a big advantage over your opponents!
Do you have any questions about starting hands? Or more tips to add to this post? Let us know in the comments section below!
Once you feel ready, you can test your skills with our Basic Poker Strategy Quiz 🙂