This article has been updated. Click here for the new list of starting hands.
Much has been written about starting hand selection in Texas Hold 'Em poker. Since you are initially dealt two cards it is fairly simple to rank them and almost every Hold 'em 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.
Of course, even without a computer you probably can guess what the best two cards are. By the way these are always the best two cards. They are the best in loose games, in tight games, in passive games, in aggressive games. They are the best when playing poker with dogs 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.
Also note the convention used for listing cards in the text (and widely accepted on the internet). 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 with the Queen of Hearts. Also a shortcut notation for suited vs. unsuited cards is KQ and KQs. In the first case we are talking about King and Queen offsuit and in the second (KQs) we mean King and Queen suited.
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...
7 2 is the worst hand in a multi-way pot (a pot with more than 4 opponents seeing the flop). This is an important distinction. Many hands play "better" in multi way pots and many play worse. 3 2 is the worst hand in a heads up match, 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 game.
This is also a good reason to not overvalue AK unsuited (although it can and does win and should be played) and to definitely value AKs because it has a tremendous number of ways to win. Likewise KQs, JTs, and even 9Ts 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).
Having said all that and seeing the obvious best and perhaps not-so-obvious worst hands, let's take a look at what Sklansky and Malmuth say are the best hands to start.
[Details of Sklansky and Malmuth Starting hands removed at the request of 2+2 publishing]
Sklansky and Malmuth, in their book Hold'em Poker for Advanced Players, 21st Century Edition describe eight groups of starting hands. We suggest if you'd like 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) that you buy their book.
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 hand after best hand is beaten by the implicit collusion of a loose table.
Let me describe what I mean by "significant psychological stress." Let's take our good friend, the best possible starting hand, and play out a hand with it:
You peek at your cards and what do you see? Ad Ah! Pocket Rockets! Wahoo! The first four people have already tossed their three dollar bet in front of them and you raise!
The person to your left folds and the next person re-raises, there are two more callers and the dealer re-raises again shouting out gleefully "cappuccino!" Everyone calls (including of course you!). Then the flop:
Not a bad flop for AA, not a bad flop at all!. You have a backdoor flush possibility, an over pair to the board. Plus there is no straight on the board. It is checked to you and 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 four players who checked to you call this raise.
You of course re-raise, are called, and the dealer caps the betting on the first round. Everyone calls.
Now the turn...
This is not a bad card. You still have an over pair. You might lose to a flush on the river but there is a good chance that you are winning, AND if anyone 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, EVERYONE calls. Now the moment of truth... The river:
It looked like a dud, but the player in seat one bets. The next two players call! Unable to just throw away your aces you also call, one player folds and the dealer raises! Everyone (including you) call.
Player 1 turns over:
Player 2 and 3 muck their hands and you flip yours up angrily asking how Player 1 could play so badly!
meanwhile the next player mucks and the dealer flips up:
He made the nut straight on the river which also happens to be the absolute nuts. As for the other players you can be sure there was a Ten a Queen and a Flush Draw out there waiting to beat you.
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. Always always play aces and make people PAY 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.
Lets look again. Our hero (you) played Aces pretty well (until the River). First he raised and was re-raised twice on the flop. Every person in the hand is statistically paying you with lesser hands when they raise and call with anything other than two aces.
On the flop Aces were still the best hand and everyone paid you for their draw. On the turn it might have been reasonable here to re-raise but because of the danger of two pair or a set it was also reasonable not to. Every person is still paying for your aces. The Queen, the Ten, the straight draw, and especially the Seven Deuce offsuit.
Now, on the river the first player bets, and is called twice before you and you still call. This is the first mistake. In an especially loose 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. Also on this particular hand the dealer has been showing strength (even though it turns out to be unjustified until the river) so it is reasonable to expect the possibility of a raise behind you (which happened) and then everyone (including you) makes the mistake of calling the raise.
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. When you are obviously beat let it go.
Do not get attached to "big" cards.
Do not get angry when you are outdrawn.
Be able to fold when 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.
Before We Go Further...
During the year or so that this web site has been available we've received numerous comments. So far people either love the site or hate it which we feel is good. The number one complaint is that our starting hand recommendations are far too loose and we've received several challenges for us to play person X heads up using these suggestions.
Of course we decline.
The starting hand suggestions you are about to read are too loose. In a typical medium or high limit 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.
The starting suggestions below are for low limit games where you have several (5 or greater) opponents who are willing to pay to see the flop. That is they are suggestions for multiway pots where your opponents will often play any two cards. Most of the hands are designed to flop a monster and if they do not (it's repeated before and after here but we'll say it one more time) 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) and everyone else is calling with inferior hands.
Having Said All That
So, our starting hand recommendations for a typical low-limit game are:
Group 1 Hands (Play in ANY Position)
AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT, 99
AXs, KQs, KJs, KTs, QJs, JTs, T9s
Group 2 Hands (Play in Middle or Late Position)
AXs, KXs, QJs, JTs, T9s, 98s, 87s
AK-AT, KQ, KJ, QJ, JT, T9
Group 3 Hands (Late Position Only)
AXs, KXs, QXs, JTs, J9s, T9s, T8s, 98s, 97s, 87s, 86s, 76s, 75s, 65s, 64s, 54s, 53s, 43s
AK-A9, KQ-KT, QJ, QT, JT, J9, T9, T8, 98, 97, 87, 86, 76, 75
(A printable page to this chart is provided here)
Instead of creating a large group of starting hands like S&M, we simplify the groups into three categories which you should play depending if you are in early, middle, or late position. Also, the hands themselves are targeted specifically to low limit hold 'em games that is to say loose (passive or aggressive) games.
Also note that these starting hands are designed to flop big (either a made hand or a reasonable draw). That means that there are some flops that you should be prepared to dump on the flop or on the turn if you did not flop their intended hands. For example As 3s could be played under the gun, but if you flop Ac Tc 6h you should be prepared to let go of it if there is heavy betting on the flop. The same obviously goes for Kx and QXs in later positions. 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.
On the other hand, if you have As 3s and flop Ac Ts 6h then you would want to continue because of the added benefit of your backdoor (nut) flush draw, and of course if you flop Ac Ts 6s then you want to get as much money as you can in the pot.
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 you can win other ways with AXs, especially if your second card is fairly high.
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 7 5 or T 8 and will gladly re-raise especially if they have the top pair (or better). Other strong money making flops are AXs draws (other flushes will chase to the river with you, and maybe even bet and raise themselves), and small pairs when you flop a set.
In low limit hold 'em, raising is a tricky issue. 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)
With the exception of the few big card hands (the large pocket pairs like JJ, QQ, KK, AA and the big cards like A9, KT) your goal is to get to see the flop as cheaply as possible. Your goal is to flop a monster or a monster draw. For AA and KK always call and then re-raise before the flop (if someone else raises). Almost always start with a raise with AKs and AQs, and randomly raise with any suited ace and any pocket pair.
Obviously this is a simpler approach than the one outlined in S&M. All of the hands suggested can turn into huge huge hands, but it is important to be able to get away from them if 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. 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 make your hand you can be sure it is the absolute nuts.