No Fold'em Hold'em Starting Hands (2012 Version)
These starting hand selections are for loose fixed limit Texas Holdem games. For strategy advice and starting hands for other game types see our Articles and Essays section. Also be sure to check out our Current Online Poker Rooms for reviews and pointers on where to play online poker.
A lot has been written about starting hand selection in Texas Hold 'Em poker. It seems like since you are only dealt two cards before the flop, that it should be pretty simple to rank them and almost every Holdem book written starts out with hand rankings. One of the most famous examples of this is in Sklansky and Malmuth's Hold 'em Poker For Advanced Players.
Ok, so what are the best hands to start with when you are playing at a small stakes holdem table? The top 5% of hands (including favorites like AA, KK, QQ, and AK) are great in any kind of game, but when you're against lots of opponents they school together after the flop then we say you want:
- Cards that are designed to build extremely strong hands, like flushes, straights and sets.
- Cards where your foes end up with second-best hands which are strong enough to make action.
- Cards that are easy to fold on the flop when you don't cleanly connect
The bestest cards in the whole wide world
Of course, even without a computer you can probably guess what the best two cards are. These are always the best two cards before the flop in every situation. They are the best in loose games, in tight games, in passive games, in aggressive games. They are the best in a box, and they are best with a fox, and they are the best with green eggs and ham, Sam I Am.
(Aces, Bullets, American Airlines, Pocket Rockets)
What may come as a surprise is what the worst starting hand is (in general). It's not 2c 3h. It's not 5h 3d.:
NOTE: Here, and in general, if two cards are the same suit (Ah Kh) the point is that the hand is suited. If they aren't then the hand is unsuited. So, while above 7c 2h is listed you can trust that 7d 2s is an equally bad investment of your money.
Conventions (not Star Wars, you geek!)
When we show poker cards in the text we use a shorthand to describe the card.
The rank of the card is listed as 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, T, J, Q, K, A and the suit is listed as h(earts), d(iamonds), c(lubs), s(pades). So Ad Qh is the Ace of Diamonds and the Queen of Hearts. Also a shortcut notation for suited vs. unsuited cards is KQo (or just KQ) vs. KQs. In the first case we are talking about any offsuit King and Queen (like Kc Qd, or Kh Qs) and in the second case (KQs) we mean any suited King and Queen (e.g. Kh Qh).
One special case is AXs, KXs, and QXs. These terms refer to suited Aces, Kings and Queens. The X means that any second card applies as long as it is of the same suit as the Ace. So if you have the Ah (Ace of Hearts) then all the following second cards fall into AXs: 2h, 3h, 4h, 5h, 6h, 7h, 8h, 9h, Th, Jh, Qh, Kh.
One final note about hand rankings...
72o (again, an offsuit 7 2) is the worst hand in a multi-way pot (a pot with more than 4 opponents). This is an important distinction. Many hands play "better" in multi way pots and many play worse. In a heads-up match, 32o is the worst hand, but you don't need to worry much about that since you will be involved in very few heads up matches in a low limit holdem game.
This is also a good reason to not overvalue AKo in multi-way pots (although it can and does win and should be played) and to give extra value to AKs because it has a number of ways, beyond just high-card power, to make the winning hand against a lot of opponents.
Likewise KQs, QJs, and JTs are very good multi-way hands and if there are several callers up front you should not be afraid to play these hands even in the face of a raise or two before the flop (especially if the raisers are very loose).
Sklansky and Malmuth, in their book Hold'em Poker for Advanced Players, 21st Century Edition describe eight groups of starting hands. If you want to see what they are, as well as benefiting from a lot of really dense strategy writing, (this is a book you'll need to read more than once and perhaps more than ten times) then you should buy their book.
The ideal poker table for our starting hand selections is a Loose Passive table. You'll make the most money with the least risk at this kind of a table. You can also play at a Loose Aggressive table but keep in mind this will have you only playing cards listed in Group 1 of our starting hands since you can count on three raises before the flop. One of the best places online to find these tables is Bovada Poker, but truth be told the very best place to find these sorts of tables is in live casinos.
The unique nature of low limit hold 'em games makes the strategy listed in much of Sklansky and Malmuth's book less than optimal. That is to say you can still make money by following their instructions (especially the section on playing in loose games), but you may not win as much money as you can, and you will also be subject to some significant psychological stress as best preflop hand after best preflop hand is beaten by the time the river rolls in by the implicit collusion of a loose table.
A sample poker hand (A low limit holdem tragedy)
To put a face on "significant psychological stress.", let's take our good friend, pocket aces, and play out a hand with it at a typical no-foldem holdem poker table:
You peek at your cards and what do you see? Ad Ah! Pocket Rockets! Yahoo! The first two people have already tossed their three dollar bet in front of them and then you correctly raise.
The next player folds and then there is a re-raise and two more callers. Finally, the person on the button makes the last re-raise and bellows gleefully "cappuccino!" The blinds fold and Everyone else calls (including of course you!). There are now 7 players seeing the flop each with 4 small bets (SB) committed to the pot (28 SB = $84). In addition there is an additional $4 in the pot from the blinds (BB $3 and SB $1) for a total of $88 in the pot before the flop.
The flop (oh so many possibilities)
Not a bad flop for AA, not a bad flop at all. You have a backdoor flush possibility, an overpair and there is no straight possible on the board yet. The first two players check to you and then you check, with the intention of check-raising. Like clockwork the player to your left bets, one player folds, one calls and the dealer raises.
Now here's the first interesting thing. The first two players who checked to you also call this second raise even though they have nothing committed to the pot post-flop.
You re-raise and everyone between you and the player on the dealer button calls. The dealer makes another re-raise, capping the betting on the first round. Everyone calls. There are now 6 players left in the pot and the pot has grown an additional $12 x 6 ($72) in the pot. The pot now stands at $160 on the flop(!)
The turn (almost there)
This isn't a bad card. You still have an overpair. You might lose to a flush on the river but there is a good chance that right now you are winning, and if someone does have two pair you could easily still win if an Ace, Deuce, or Six falls on the river.
It is checked to you, you bet, and EVERYONE calls. For you, that's a good sign because players will often play very aggressively with draws on the flop but not so much on the river. This is a sign that you may very well have the best hand right now.
The pot has grown an additional $6 x 6 (since the bet sized has doubled from $3 to $6 on the turn) or $36 making the total pot $196 on the turn.
Now the moment of truth... The river:
Well, that card looks like a blank but, suprisingly, the first player bets and is then called by the player on your right. Unable to just throw away your aces you also call, one player folds and the dealer raises! Everyone (including you) call.
The first player turns over:
Player 2 mucks their hand and you flip yours up angrily asking how Player 1 could play so badly!
meanwhile the player on the button flips up:
He made the nut straight (with a gutshot draw) on the river which also happens to be the absolute nuts. As for the other players you can be sure they had draws to beat you, either with a pair on the flop (hoping for trips or two pair) or a flush draw, or even (as the dealer showed) a gutshot straight draw.
Also notice that, although these players were making mistakes, they weren't making pot odds mistakes on each of their decisions. For example, when the gutshot straight made his play on the flop (an ill-advised free card attempt on the flop with a gutshot straight and his future calls) there was enough money in the pot to justify it.
In the end the pot gained another $12 x 4 players, or $48 for a final pot of $244. At $3-$6 Holdem this is a monster pot.
Now you are said to be on tilt, and for the next half hour you play really really bad poker and lose a couple hundred dollars.
What is the point? Don't play Aces? Of course not. You should always always play aces and make it expensive for people to try to draw out on you! They will try and what seems worse is that OFTEN they will succeed, but for every card they take they are PAYING you whether you win or lose this particular hand.
Aces are still a strong hand even against a lot of opponents before the flop, but by the end of the hand they are below average against more than a couple opponents if they haven't improved and when they do improve (by making a 3 of a kind or aces up) it will often kill the action at the table unless someone has them beaten! hey can be very hard to fold at any point for any reason. In the long run you'll still make money with AA, but in the short term you can lose large chunks of your bankroll playing them. This is the frustration that many players not familiar with super-loose games feel, especially after they have over-tightened are are only playing hands like AA, KK, QQ and AK.
There are other kinds of hands which aren't especially strong in a tight or short-handed game, but which become very good hands to play when there are lots of enemies at the poker table. That's what this is all about.
Let's look at the hero one more time
Our hero played Aces well at least until the last card, and even then a strong argument can be made to support their actions:
First he got the maximum amount in before the flop when he was a big favorite over all the other hands.
On the flop he check-raised and the betting was capped. This is common in wild or aggressive games, especially when there are obvious draws on the board and isn't necessarily an indication that an overpair is beaten.
On the turn the hero maintained aggression and bet but then only called a raise.
Finally, on the river, there is what is called a "donk bet", which is betting into the person who raised on the prior betting round, and then another player called that bet before the hero even had a chance to act. Now the hero needs to call a strong bet and an overcall to that bet and worse, they are not closing the action, so someone after them may raise, which is exactly what happened. In my opinion this is a mistake, but honestly it isn't a big one because the pot is enormous and is offering almost 40 to 1 on a call (which turned into about 20 to 1 because they also needed to call a raise).
In an especially loose holdem game you may want to overcall on some hands because people will call with next to nothing often, but don't be the second or third overcaller unless you have a very strong hand. If there are people left to act after your overcall that just means your hand needs to be even stronger still.
Finally, the action on the river is more conservative than previous streets. There are no more draws and people either made their hand or they did not. It is very rare for someone to raise on the last card without a minimum of two pair.
A big part of being able to win at low level hold 'em is to be able to figure out when to let go of your hand. You were winning until the river, yes, but this isn't a six card game and when you are obviously beat you need to be able to let it go.
Three tips in very loose Texas Hold'em games...
- Do not get attached to "big" cards after the flop.
- Do not get angry when you are outdrawn (easier said than done!).
- Be able to fold when it is obvious you are beaten.
As far as Aces go, in a loose game you'll win about a third of the time with them against a full table of opponents. That means, for one thing, that you will lose about two thirds of the time! This is GOOD. If 8-10 people are throwing in money to see the next five cards and you win a third of the time you are making money. In fact you are making more money than you will with any other hand.
But enough about Aces. Play them, raise them EARLY (before and on the flop ESPECIALLY). The more cards that are dealt the worse it is for you, so be very disinclined to raise on the turn and especially on the river unless you do improve (which you will not the vast majority of the time).
I can see the review of this page now: "The author of this page on strategy makes the bold step of suggesting players raise when they get Aces!" The point that's being made is that it's not just Aces but strong hands in general that get paid. Lets look at it this way:
Before the flop, EVERYONE IS PAYING THE BEST HAND, and what's more important is that EVERYONE BUT THE BEST HAND IS PAYING THE SECOND BEST HAND (there is an exception to this--see dominated hands) and so on. So, statistically speaking, if you can play tighter than the table average (that is at least half of the hands are paying YOU) then you will make money in the long run if you don't make mistakes after the flop (especially since your opponents WILL make mistakes after the flop).
There is only one problem with this simple strategy and that is this: variance.
In low limit hold 'em you are going to need power to win. Many many pots are won by straights or better, your goal is to play starting cards that can turn into monsters.
Your starting hands suck and I hate you.
Since www.lowlimitholdem.com started in the summer of 2000, we've gotten a lot of comments. People either love it or hate it which is fine by us. After you play poker for a long time you tend to get some pretty strong opinions and some of what we say goes against that, so it's natural that not everyone is a fan.
When folks do complain, the top complaint is that our starting hand recommendations are far too loose and that we're going to lose all our money and all your money. We've even had challenges to play so-and-so "heads up" using our starting hands for some insane stake, and that we should put our money where our mouths are.
We, of course, decline.
The starting hand suggestions you are about to read are too loose in many typical games, especialy online. These starting hands are for extremely loose holdem games where 5 or more people see the flop every hand and then often continue past the flop with bad draws. Or, to put it another way, just about the exact opposite of a heads up game.
In a typical medium or high limit 9 or 10 person game, you will undoubtedly lose money using these suggestions. Heads up you will lose money with these suggestions. Short handed, on even a loose table, you will lose money with these suggestions.
Ok you almost have me sold. How else will I lose money using your strategy and also…
Most of the hands on the following list are designed to flop a monster, and if they do not, you need to be able to lay them down on the flop. Not on the turn or the river, but on the flop. That means, for example, that if you are playing A3 suited in early position (which we support strongly on a table where you will almost always get several more to see the flop) and you flop an Ace that you are able to check and fold if there is a bet and more than one caller (* Assuming that none of your flush cards hit. With even a backdoor draw and an Ace you would want to continue to the turn)
Sometimes you will be laying down the best hand. That's a problem with kickers, but that loss in expected value is more than compensated for by the pots you will drag when you flop something bigger (like, say, the nut flush or a draw to the nut flush) and everyone else is calling with inferior hands.
|Group 1 Hands (Play in ANY Position)|
|Suited||AXs, KTs+, QJs, JTs|
|Group 2 Hands (Play in Middle or Late Position)|
|Suited||AXs, KXs, QTs+, J9s+, T8s+, 97s+, 86s+|
|Unsuited||AT+, KJ+, QJ, JT|
|Group 3 Hands (Late Position Only)|
|Suited||AXs, KXs, QXs, J9s+, T8s+, 97s+, 86s+, 75s+, 64s+, 53s+, 42s+, 32s|
|Unsuited||AT+, KT+, QT+, JT|
Using This Starting Hands Chart
Instead of creating eight groups of starting hands like Sklansky and Malmuth, we simplify the groups into three categories which you should play depending on if you are in early, middle, or late position. Also, the hands themselves are targeted specifically to holdem games which are very loose.
AXs means any Ace and any other card that are of the same suit and similar logic applies to KXs and QXs -- these are your flush powerhouse hands especially the AXs variety can account for a lot of your winnings in no-foldem games where other lower flushes will not only pay you off but often pump up the pot
When a plus (+) appears after a hand, it means that hand and all hands better than that. For example 99+ means a pair of nines and all higher pairs. KT+ means KT, KJ and KQ.
These starting hands are designed to flop big (either a made hand or a reasonable draw). That means that often you should be prepared to dump on the flop when you did not flop the intended hands.
Suppose you are playing the following hand (Ad 3d) under the gun (UTG)...
And you the flop is:
You have flopped a pair of aces with an extremely weak kicker against an entire table of opponents. If there is action on the flop you should let go of this hand very easily. The same advice holds true for the suited Kings and Queens that you can play in later positions. Do not commit a lot of money to a top pair-horrible kicker hand with no redraws. You will find it VERY tempting to continue on to the river only to be beaten time and again by a A K or Q with a higher kicker.
Just a Tiny Change
If you have the same Ad 3d starting hand and instead of a heart the six is a diamond on the flop (giving you what is called a backdoor draw to the highest possible flush if two more diamonds come on the turn and river) then you will almost always want to see the turn card. Based on how much action you saw on the flop you can then decide what to do on the turn but usually if you don't improve with either a diamond or a 3 then you'll usually let your hand go there.
Flop a Monster
Every single hand listed can turn into the nuts with a non-ridiculous flop (flopping 3 more of one of your cards gives you quads even with 7 2 offsuit, but that only happens about once in every 20,000 flops), on the other hand AXs will turn into an excellent hand (or at least draw) about once in every 7.5 flops, and even if you don't flop a flush draw you can win other ways with AXs, especially if your second card is fairly high.
Getting action (rooting for your adversary to have the second best hand)
Your ideal flop is going to be something very strong. Some of the strongest flops for action are:
- Gapped straights since no one will believe you have 75s or T8s and will gladly re-raise especially if they have top pair (or better).
- Suited Aces, Kings and Queen flush draws (other flushes will chase to the river with you, and often bet and raise themselves)
- Small and medium pairs when you flop a set, especially when there is also an Ace on the board
In low limit hold 'em, raising is a tricky issue because in most situations you want to see a flop for a single bet. The few hands where you can make a raise for preflop power (AA, KK, QQ and AK) you will be giving up too much information if you raise with only those hands. There is also the consideration that your raises can turn a passive table into a wild table. A table which is passive preflop is much better for these starting hands than one that is wild, and wild tables have huge variance and will often eat all your chips before you can win your first monster pot.
For the most part you should restrict your pre-flop raising to a minimum and at many low limit tables it can be correct to avoid raising pre-flop entirely. Your goal is to get to see the flop cheaply, see if you flop something very strong, and if not get out.
When calling raises pre-flop you have some things to consider...
- Who is raising? (Is this a person who will raise with anything or a tighter player who probably has a strong hand)
- What position are they in?
- Will their raise affect the number of players in the pot (if everyone has called already and the dealer raises chances are that almost everyone will call that extra bet, on the other hand if the person under the gun raises they may well get some people out of the pot)
- What is the chance that someone will re-raise the raiser after you have called (sometimes you get between two maniac players who bounce raises between each other--you want to avoid this situation unless you hold a premium hand)
In general, for each raise in front of you upgrade your starting hand groups by one, of course always at least call with group one (and re-raise with AA, KK or AKs)
Obviously this is a simpler approach than the one outlined in S&M and the starting hands are much easier to memorize.
All of the hands suggested can turn into powerhouses on the flop, but it is important to be able to get away from them when they don't.
Why are suited connectors such a big deal?
Suited connectors are valuable because they can play in a large number of hands, and BIG suited connectors (AKs, KQs, QJs, JTs) can play in even more because of their big card value (making a very strong one pair or two pair hand). Take AKs for example.
It can participate in the highest possible straight, the highest possible flush, the highest possible straight flush, and it can easily win if either an Ace or a King appears on the flop as well. With this hand you will see the turn quite often, and when you are drawing and make your hand you will have the nuts.
Good luck at the tables!