You don’t have to play Texas holdem for long before you start doing a little reading about the game.
One of the first things you’ll learn is that you need to have starting hand requirements.
You can find various charts and tables for this sort of thing, but you’ll also learn quickly that you have 169 possible starting hands.
The best of these is pocket aces, and the worst is 27 offsuit.
But how do you rank the starting hands in-between?
You’ll find plenty of quality and insightful advice regarding Texas Holdem when searching online, but here’s some information presented in a way that it should be easy to absorb and remember from the professionals.
How to Play Pocket Pairs Preflop
One of the first books I read about Texas holdem was co-written by Phil Hellmuth, and it was titled Play Poker Like the Pros.
He has a top 10 starting hands list that consists of any pair of 7s or higher, along with ace-king and ace-queen.
He suggests that if you’re new to the game, you play super-tight and limit yourself to these hands.
So, obviously, pocket pairs are important pre-flop in Texas holdem.
But how do you play them?
You start by subcategorizing these hands:
- Huge pairs – aces or kings
- Big pairs – any pair of 10s, jacks, or queens
- Medium pairs – any pair of 7s, 8s, or 9s
- Little pairs – all the rest – any pair of 6 or lower
How to Play Huge Pairs Preflop
It’s hard to lose money when you have a pair of kings or a pair of aces pre-flop in Texas holdem. These hands can often win unimproved. It doesn’t matter what kind of game you’re in – passive or aggressive, loose or tight, huge pairs practically play themselves.
These hands are easy to play pre-flop, especially when playing Texas Holdem online.
Bet with them, raise with them and re-raise with them.
Here are the huge pairs in list format:
How to Play Big Pairs Preflop
Big pairs are still great hands, but not as great as aces or kings, obviously.
But like the huge pairs, you can often win just on the strength of this pair alone. And a big pair plays well in any kind of game, too.
The only time you wouldn’t re-raise with a big pair like this is if you’re acting after multiple raisers and re-raisers. In that case, you should consider the possibility that your opponent is ahead.
The correct play here gets trickier. It might make sense to call a raise and a re-raise here if you know the other players’ tendencies and see what happens on the flop. If you’re against a tight player, it might make sense to just fold in the race of multiple raises.
Here are the big pairs in list format:
How to Play Medium Pairs Preflop
If you can reduce your competition to just a couple of people, these pairs play well – but mostly if those players are loose and probably have weaker hands than you do.
If you can get into a pot with 5+ other players, you have an opportunity to win big on the occasions when you flop a set. With 5 players in the pot with you, someone almost always has a pair, and they’ll usually play it aggressively.
Limping from early position is appropriate, and raising from late position is also appropriate, but only if you’re trying to thin the competition. If multiple players have already limped, you should limp to so that you can get more people in the pot.
This hand is strong enough that you can afford to call a single raiser and try to hit a set on the flop, but you need to be ready to fold if you don’t – especially against tough opponents.
Here are the medium pairs in list format:
How to Play Small Pairs Preflop
It’s hard to win a hand with a small pair unless it improves on the flop, turn, or river. The profits from this category of hand come from the occasional sets and full houses.
Your goal should be to get into the hand as cheaply as possible and with as many opponents as possible.
If the game is loose enough, you’d be justified calling a raise pre-flop, although multiple raisers and re-raisers are trouble. Position matters a lot when playing in person or at online casinos.
Some players are going to put a lot of money into the pot regardless of what happens on the later rounds, so even if you can’t get into the pot with 5+ players, these are playable hands.
Just don’t overplay small pairs. And be ready to let go of them when you miss the flop.
Here’s a list of the small pairs:
How to Play Suited Cards Preflop
Suited cards are cards of the same suit. They can be great hands, mediocre hands, or lousy hands, depending on the ranks of the suited cards.
How to Play Suited Broadway Cards
The strongest suited cards are the broadway cards. These include the ace with a king, queen, jack, or ten. This category also includes king-queen suited and king-jack suited.
You can win multiple ways with this category of starting hands. The most common way you’ll win with these cards is when you hit a big pair with a strong kicker. You can also often hit a flush with a big card.
Instead of automatically raising with these cards as you would with the big pairs, though, you should usually only raise if you’re the first one in the pot. If you have raisers in front of you, let your opponent’s tendencies guide your decision. Against a loose player, call. Against a tight player, at least consider folding.
Even though these are strong hands, they’re still drawing hands. You won’t often win unless your hand improves on the flop, turn, or river.
Here’s a list of the top suited broadway cards:
But not all suited broadway cards are premium starting hands like the big ones listed above.
Queen-jack suited, king-ten suited, queen-ten suited, and jack-ten suited are also broadway cards, but they’re considerably weaker. They’re harder to win with because it’s easier for your opponent to have a stronger hand.
Your goal is to win against weak opponents or to hit a really big hand and win a large pot with a lot of opponents. You’ll win those pots when you hit your occasional straights and flushes.
These are good hands to limp in with, and you can raise with them in late position if everyone in front of you limped.
These are good hands to limp in with when playing at real money online casinos, and you can raise with them in late position if everyone in front of you limped.
If someone raises, though, make sure you can get multiple players into the pot with you before calling. It won’t usually be profitable to get heads-up with a small suited broadway hand.
Here’s a list of the smaller suited broadway starting hands:
Big-little suited hands are any suited ace with a 9 or lower or any suited king with a 9 or lower.
The bigger the kicker is, the better. The aces are far stronger than the kings, too.
But even if you pair the king, you have a lot to fear when an ace shows up on one of the later rounds.
Your goal with a big-little suited hand, though, is to get into a pot with a lot of other players cheap and hit a flush.
Here’s a list of big-little suited hands:
These are hands starting with 10-9 suited and going down from there, with or without gaps.
Suited connectors without gaps, for example, are 10-9 suited, 9-8 suited, 8-7 suited, 6-5 suited, and 5-4 suited.
Here’s a list of playable suited connectors without gaps:
(You’ll notice that 32s isn’t playable.)
Suited connectors with one gap, on the other hand, are jack-9 suited, 10-8 suited, 9-7 suited, and so on, down to 6-4 suited.
Here’s a list of playable suited connectors with one gap:
(Notice that 53s isn’t playable.)
You can also have suited connectors with 2 or 3 gaps like queen-9 suited or 9-6 suited (or in between), or queen-8 suited, and jack-7 suited.
The list of playable suited connectors with 2 gaps is shorter:
And the list of playable suited connectors with 3 gaps is even shorter still:
Regardless of which suited connector you’re looking at, it’s a hand that needs to hit hard on the flop to bet worth continuing with. In other words, you want to get in before the flop for a minimal investment and with multiple opponents.
Otherwise, suited connectors aren’t really worth playing pre-flop.
Also, you’ll notice that this category doesn’t include suited broadway cards, as they’re played a little differently.
Unsuited Cards Before the Flop
The only time you’ll play unsuited cards pre-flop is if they’re both broadway cards.
These hands play the same as the other speculative hands. Get in cheap with a lot of other players so you can win a big pot. Be ready to fold them.
Here’s a list of playable unsuited cards:
Unplayable Starting Hands
If you’re running a naked bluff – which I don’t recommend to beginners, anyway – any 2 cards might do. If you notice how many starting hands are included in the lists above, you’ll see that you have 66 playable hands in these admittedly somewhat arbitrary categories.
You have 169 possible starting hands in Texas holdem, which means that I’m recommending you only play the top 39% of the possible starting hands.
But this doesn’t mean you should always play any of these hands.
When you account for the folding you’ll do when you have less than a premium holding, you’ll more likely play between 15% and 25% of your starting hands, depending on table conditions.
Where to Get More Guidance About Starting Hand Categories
I leaned heavily on Ed Miller’s book, Small Stakes Holdem when writing this post.
But you’ll also find Phil Hellmuth’s book, Play Poker Like the Pros helpful – especially when it comes to starting hands for no limit players.
Doyle Brunson’s Super/System also has excellent insights into how to play various starting hands in no limit holdem.
Holdem Poker for Advanced Players, by Mason Malmuth and David Sklansky, has a grouping of starting hands by category that might also prove useful.
Finally, check out this blog on preflop Texas Holdem Poker strategy.
The easiest way to get started playing well in Texas holdem is to put your starting hands into categories. Most new players play too many hands pre-flop, and they don’t fold often enough when their hands miss the flop.
You’ll know better than to make those mistakes now.
But starting hands are just the start of Texas holdem wisdom.