Starting Hands

In Texas Hold'em, you start with two of a total of seven cards, and it's these two cards that shape how the hand plays out, as the strength of your starting hand is what determines whether you should play or not. A strong starting hand wins against a weak hand in at least three out of four cases. The reason for this is that the subsequent five cards can be used by all the players. If, for example, a player starts with and his opponent has , the latter either has to hit an , or make a straight or a flush in order to win. If the flop comes , both players would have a pair of aces, making the hands look equally strong. But the player holding will win 90% of the time. Therefore, in order to have the better hand as often as possible, you should only play good starting hands before the flop - a style of play which is known as 'tight'. In addition, it is important to play them consistently and aggressively. This article explains the difference between good and bad starting hands.

Pocket pairs - These are good starting hands, right?

Poker starting hands example with a pair of sevens.

If your hole cards form a pair, it can often mean you have a good hand. Obviously, the quality of your hand also depends on the rank of the pair.

In general there are two ways to win a hand at showdown:

  1. Have a better starting hand than your opponent, and hope their hand doesn't improve.
  2. The board brings a third card of the same rank to give you three-of-a-kind. Example: you are holding and the flop comes .

You can also make a straight or flush, but this rarely happens when you have a pocket pair as your starting hand. The probability of winning the hand without improving your own hand largely depends on the size of your pocket pair. If you are holding , which is the best starting hand in Texas Hold'em, your opponent has to make at least two pair in order to beat you. Even if the other cards don't help you, you have a good chance of winning. In contrast, if you have a small pocket pair such as , you will often lose against a middle or big pair. However, if you hit three-of-a-kind, you have a very strong hand which will win the pot in the majority of cases. Of course, two players can hit a set in the same hand, but this happens very rarely.

Unpaired cards - How are these evaluated as starting hands?

In most cases your starting hand won't be a pair, which makes determining it's strength more difficult. Consider these questions when assessing the strength of your hand:

1.   What rank are my cards?

This is the most important question. The advantage of high cards is that you have a much better chance of winning when you hit a pair. If you have , your opponent has and both of you make a pair, you will definitely win. Also, there's a good chance that nobody will hit anything and you'll win with the higher card (ace-high beats queen-high). It's definitely better to have two high cards because if you hit a pair, you not only have a big pair but a good kicker as well, which can often decide the hand. If you are holding a high card and a low card, e.g. , you have to be careful.

2.   Are my cards the same suit?

If you start with two cards of the same suit, the chance of making a flush is significantly higher. In addition, a flush formed with both of your hole cards is much stronger. If you hold and the board shows , you will probably have the best hand. However, if you are holding and the board is , you are often behind as any spade higher than an 8 beats you.

3.   Are my cards of a similar rank?

This is the decisive factor when attempting to make a straight. You have more chance of making a straight the closer in rank your hole cards are, e.g. . The bigger the gap, the less likely you are to make a straight. With a gap of four cards e.g. , it is no longer possible to make a straight using both cards. Connected cards of high rank are especially valuable. The best starting hand that isn't a pair is therefore ( or , etc). Low and unconnected cards of different suits are particularly weak, with considered to be the worst starting hand in Texas Hold'em. This is because it is two low cards that can not be used together to form a straight or a flush.

Groups of starting hands

This section divides starting hands into four groups and explain how they should be played.

Group 1: Monster starting hands

, ,

These are the best starting hands in Texas Hold'em poker. They should always be played, even from early and middle position or against an opponent's raise. It's advantageous to play these hands very aggressively, so you should definitely raise when you have a monster.

Group 2: Very strong hands

, , ,

These are all very strong hands, but considerably less valuable than the hands in Group 1. You should play and raise with them in the majority of cases. However, if there is a raise and a reraise in front of you, you should be very careful, and generally fold. The raiser or re-raiser could easily have a hand from Group 1, which clearly has you beat.

Group 3: Speculative starting hands

Any pair from to , with a to kicker, any suited ace, two suited cards or higher (e.g. ), , , two cards of the same suit with a maximum gap of two ranks ( and ).

All of these hands have a certain value, but aren't really that strong. In early position you should fold them. By contrast, in late position you should often raise, especially when all opponents in front of you have folded.

Group 4: Weak starting hands

All hands that don't belong to one of the three groups above fall into this category. You shouldn't play them, and fold them consistently.

Conclusion

The first decision in each hand is whether you want to play your starting hand or fold it. A good, solid strategy for this is the foundation for playing successful poker. If you implement the tips in this article and continue to play tight-aggressive after the flop, you will stand a very good chance of winning.