Texas Holdem Starting Hands

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Knowing what to do with the cards you are dealt is basically the game of poker in a nutshell. The first decision in Texas holdem comes after you have been dealt two cards and have to decide whether or not to play. Well, you are in luck. Here is what to do with them:

Pairs:

  • With AA, KK, QQ JJ you are willing to raise and to reraise.
  • With TT, 99 and 88, you are willing to raise one or two previous callers (plus you would raise with TT and 99 if you are first in). If there is a raise before you, you are willing to call.
  • With 77 down to 22 you would throw the hand away in early, while in middle position you might try a raise with 77 down to 55. With 44 and 33 you can try a raise in late position if no-one else wants to play. With all these hands you are basically looking to flop a set against several opponents, or perhaps beat a single opponent who does not improve his starting hand to a pair.

Suited hands:

  • With AKs you are willing to raise and reraise. AQs and AJs are less friendly, but you need to play them aggressively pre-flop. Sometimes you will have to shut-down or even fold post-flop, even when you improve.
  • ATs and A9s are raising hands from middle position onwards. You can call a single raise if there are several other callers. If you fail to hit your flush, these hands test even the experienced player. Be prepared to lay down top pair if there is raising and reraising going on.
  • A8s down to A2s are trouble hands. You are looking for two-pair or a flush, nothing less. If you flop just a pair, you can “test the water” on the turn if it is checked round on the flop. Chasing with these hands to the end on just top pair is a guaranteed long-term losing strategy.
  • KQs and KJs can also get you into trouble if you just flop top pair, but they have good top straight and flush potential. I’m happy to raise with these hands if I am first in (i.e., no players in front of me have called) although KJs under the gun can be a trouble hand. If there is a raiser in front of me in early position and no-one else has called, I advise throwing these hands away. You are too likely to be dominated.
  • KTs and K9s can be serious trouble. Call in middle and late position with a lot of players. But always proceed with caution. These hands have a habit of being second-best, and we know that second-best is the worst thing to be in poker.
  • K8s and K7s are limping hands in late position and completing hands in the small blind.
  • K6s down to K2s are deeply dangerous hands. Only come in if you are in a loose and passive game. Walk away from anything less than two-pair
  • QJs and QTs can be nicer than KJs and KTs, mainly because they are less likely to be dominated. With one or two callers in front of me I am prepared to raise with these hands in late position, but I would not do so every time. If you flop anything attractive, you can push these hands and often cause hands that are beating you to fold.
  • Meanwhile if you do flop a monster, you will often get called by ostensibly good hands that are now beaten. The classic example is a flop of AKJ to your QT. You will often find yourself up against naked Aces, two pair Kings and Jacks, AQ (which stays in for the possible straight) and so on.
  • Q9s and Q8s are far worse because they do not have such straight possibilities and they are not called so often when you hit. They can also get themselves into trouble on flops such as JT8 or JT9. However, they are worth playing cautiously in a loose game.
  • Q7s down to Q2s aren’t really playable, except in the loosest and most passive of games, and then only on the button or to complete an unraised small blind.
  • JTs is a hand that, like QTs can win a lot of nice pots. But be careful when you flop just a pair of jacks.
  • J9s can also generate some nice results. Play the hand in middle-to-late and be prepared to raise with it against looser opponents. When you hit your two pair or straight, you are usually called down, winning you a nice pot.
  • J8s is more of a trouble hand. It looks nicer than it is. I would only play it in late position in a passive game.
  • J7s down to J2s are horrible. Walk away.
  • T9s and T8s are two more hands that can have the pleasant results associated with JTs and J9s, but with less frequency. They have the advantage of being dominated less often by other raising hands. So, while I would throw away K8s in the Big blind to a single raise I would call with T8s. This is because T8s fares far better against AK than does K8s.
  • T7s is just on the margin. I might play this once in a blue moon. Only to be played in late, and then with much caution. Not a hand for novices to go mad with.
  • T6s down to T2s are hands for mugs. Even if you hit your flush you might lose.
  • 98s, 97s, 96s 87s, 86s, 85s 76s, 75s 65s, 64s 54s, 53s 43s all belong to the “can I get in cheap” school. If you are in late position and it looks like you will be able to get into for a single bet against a number of opponents, all of these are playable. You are looking for a straight, a flush, or a full house. Even your two-pairs can be beaten (and are, with depressing frequency).

Offsuit Hands
It must be emphasised that suited hands are considerably more powerful than unsuited hands. This is because the suited factor is “money for free”. Suppose you had an unsuited hand that won 16% of the time that you saw a flop (QJ would be a good example). Make that QJs, and it would win 20% of the time that you saw a flop. You can either think of it as four points better, or 25% more likely to win a hand. The latter interpretation is the most important.

  • AK off is worth considerable aggression pre-flop, suited or not. Usually you will continue the aggression post-flop, no matter what the board. The chances are that, even if you are behind, you have six outs.
  • AQo is far more dangerous. I abhor raising with AQ in the blinds, because you can get yourself into terrible trouble and, even if you are ahead, the size of the pot means that chasers are getting pot odds to call. AQ is a hand that improves as you move up in levels and fewer people see flops. I would raise one or two limpers, but not three. I would also reraise a potential blind stealer (someone who raises in late position when no-one else has yet entered the pot) if I were in the small blind. This is done with the aim of forcing out the Big Blind, not with the aim of building the pot! If you think that the Big Blind is going to fold anyway, just call.
  • AJo, ATo and A9o are hands that are raising material in tight high-stakes games and can be chucking material in low-stakes loose games. Rarely will you know where you are with these hands, which means that experience in playing them counts for a lot. As a novice, be careful. There is no shame with pitching AJo under-the-gun. It’s a better play than limping. These hands, if you play them, are must-raise hands unless you are in the blinds. You want few opponents, position, and a chance of winning the pot through betting hard, even though you are behind (say, to AQ or AJ on the flop of an Ace)
  • A8o down to A2o are hands for losers. You (I hope) will be taking money from people who play these hands. The only exception is that you might choose to complete the small blind, Even then, you might find yourself flopping a hand that gets you into big trouble.
  • KQo, KJo, KTo are hands that look pretty and which can get you into big trouble. Throw them away in early, but consider raising with them in late (if there are few previous callers). These can be tough hands to play post-flop. At the beginning, err on the side of caution.
  • K9o is known as the sawmill because, if you play it often enough, that is where you will end up working. Normally I would throw this hand away without hesitation and, while you are learning, I advise you to do the same.
  • K8o down to K2o are garbage hands. Dump it.
  • JTo, J9o and T9o are speculative cards that you would very much prefer to be suited. However, in loose games, if you think that you can get in cheap, they are worth playing for their two-pair and straight potential. And, occasionally, the singletons can win the flush. You really want a loose game with a lot of callers to be prepared to play these hands.

Everything else is rubbish. Just throw it away.
Beware of trap hands

As a novice, I advise you to pay most attention to “get into trouble” hands. A9o and KTo often find themselves being a “good second-best”. Having a good second-best hand is the worst thing to happen to you in Texas Hold’em. You lose far more money than if you have rubbish.

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