Choosing Starting Hands in Hold ’Em

Now that you’ve got a handle on how position affects the hands you can play in flop games, we can go ahead and recommend which hands you should play from what posi- tions. We assume you’re playing a fixed-limit cash game, not a tournament.

Playing Hands from Early Position

When you’re one, two, or three seats to the left of the big blind, you’re in early position and need to be very careful about the hands you decide to play. Again, you have to be cautious because there are so many players behind you who could pick up a monster and make you pay at least one more bet for the opportunity to draw to an inferior hand. Table 8.1 lists the hands we recommend playing from early position.

Yes, you will end up tossing a lot of hands into the muck when you’re in early position, but it beats tossing a lot of money you’ll never see again into the pot. If you can handle the extra stimulus and have a good read on how your opponents are playing, check your e-mail, visit a Web site, or read a book while you’re waiting for the next hand. Never play a hand because you’re bored!

Some other authors recommend playing pairs as far down as 77 in early position against average opposition, but we’re not convinced that it’s always a good idea to do so. Lou Krieger, the author of Hold ’Em Excellence (Conjelco, 2nd edition, 2000—a book we recommend highly), lists 77 as a playable early position hand, but he also notes that the starting hand requirements table at the back of his book is probably a bit liberal for a standard game. If you’re in a loose, passive game where four or more players routinely see the flop and raises are few and far between, feel free to call in early position with pairs down to 77 and maybe, maybe, J9 suited and T9 suited. If you’re in a wild game in which four or five players routinely call one or more raises before the flop, tighten up a bit, grit your teeth, and toss TT and 99, QTs and JTs, and KJo. Wait for the good hands to come,

beat your opponents about the head and shoulders with them, and hope they don’t catch a miracle card on the river.

Those are the hands you should call with, but which should you raise with? In early posi- tion, you should raise with any pair from JJ on up, but if you think you can force everyone to fold, you can raise with any pair down to 99. You should also raise with AKs, AQs, KQs, and AKo, but be careful with AKo. All you have is Ace high, after all. That’s still a good hand, though, so you might consider raising only half the time. One hand to be very careful of is AQo. It looks so good sitting there in your hand, but the gap between the cards and their unsuited nature makes the hand harder to improve. The secret to playing AQo is that you want to limit the number of players in the hand so there are fewer opponents around to draw out on you. If you think you can knock some players out, go ahead and raise with AQo, but play carefully after the flop. The hand isn’t as strong as it looks.

If there’s a raise in front of you, re-raise with AA, KK, QQ, and (if you’re up for some risk) AKs. You can call with JJ, AKo, AQs, and KQs, but don’t waste your time or money on any other hands. Give your opponent credit for a hand, unless you know they’re a maniac you don’t mind taking on, and save your bullets for another battle. If you do want to limit the field so you can go after a player heads-up, go ahead and re-raise and take your chances. Use that last tactic with caution, though, because someone yet to act might have picked up AA or KK and will surely re-raise.

If there’s a single raise behind you, we recommend calling with any of these hands. You already have some money in the pot, so it will only cost you another bet to call. If there are two or three raises behind you, you need to decide how likely it is that a player has AA, KK, or AK and give up your hand unless you are willing to take the risk that another hand dominates your hand. By “dominates,” we mean that if you have KQ and another player has AK, you need to hit a Queen and only a Queen to improve your hand without improving your opponent’s hand as well. Plus, if neither hand improves, your opponent has the better high card. The AK is only a 3 to 1 favorite over the KQ, but those aren’t odds you’ll want to tackle very often.

Playing Hands from Middle Position

You have to be conservative when you’re close to the blinds, but when you’re four, five, or six seats from the blinds, you can loosen up a bit and play more hands. Table 8.2 lists the additional hands we believe are playable in middle position if no one has raised in front of you.

In a loose game, you can play TT from early position, so it’s no surprise you can play it in middle position. We cut of the playable middle-position pairs at 55, however, because a Five is the lowest card you can use to create the high end of a straight. In other words, if you have 5♥5♣ and the board is A♠2♦3♣4♥9♠, you don’t have the best possible hand (a Six-high straight is the nuts) but you do have the high end of the straight.

You can play suited Aces with cards lower than a Ten in middle position because it’s less likely that your opponents will raise and force you to pay an extra small bet for a hand that needs to flop a flush draw or two pair to be worth anything. The fact that you’re on a draw from the start is also the reason why you don’t raise: You want more players to call so there will be a lot of money in the pot in case you hit your hand. Be prepared to fold A6s a lot on the flop, though.

K9s is a hand with which you can build a good flush or a straight if you can catch the three cards (TJQ) to fill it in, but what do you do if you catch a King on the flop and an- other player bets into you? Your Nine is a lousy kicker, particularly against players who called the flop from early position. Whether you give up the hand when you flop top pair with a lousy kicker is one of the big decisions in poker, online and otherwise. You’ll need to use your experience and observation of your opponents to make the best choice. Be- lieve us, we’ll have a lot more to say about that type of situation in Chapter 9. The other hands in this group suffer from the same defects, so be ready to make a straight or move on to the next hand.

If you’re the first player in, you can raise with most of the suited or paired hands you’d play in early position, plus TT and 99. We probably wouldn’t raise very often with KTs un- less we thought we could get everyone to fold, but KQs is a very good raising hand when you open the betting from middle position.

Playing Hands from Late Position

As you have probably guessed, if no one has raised in front of you, you can play a lot
of hands when you’re last or next to last to act. You can also raise a lot with the goal of stealing the blinds, but you have to be on the watch for players who will defend their blinds aggressively. It’s one thing to call $10 with 8♥7♥ when you’re the first to come in, but it’s another thing entirely to raise in an attempt to steal the blinds, only to have one of the blinds pop you back and make you decide if you want to put in a total of $30 on a

marginal hand. When you get re-raised, you have to use your judgment to decide when to stand and fight and when to give it up without throwing any more gas on the fire.

Table 8.3 lists the hands we recommend playing from late position.

These are the speculatin’ hands, folks. You want to flop a set, flush (draw), straight (draw), or two pair. If you don’t flop something good, get out of the way and let the real hands take over.

If everyone passes to you, you should strongly consider raising with any pair of Eights
or better, ATs or better, or KTs or better. Your raise will either push the blinds out of the pot or make them put in more money to defend. Your raise also camouflages your hand a bit. The remaining players will figure you have something, but they’ll have no idea exactly what. Of course, you have no idea what they have, either, but you do have one big advan- tage: position. You get to act last during every betting round for this hand, so you can go after the pot aggressively.

Playing the Blinds

When you’ve put in money as either the small or big blind, you have a lot of leeway in deciding which hands to play. If you’re the big blind and no one has raised, you get to play for free. You can raise, of course, and should with a big hand such as AA, KK, QQ, or AKs. We don’t recommend raising with JJ, AKo, or AQs or lower because of the danger of overcards hitting on the flop (in the case of JJ) and because AKo and AQs and worse don’t play well against a large number of opponents, unless you catch a good flop. It’s not that AKo and AQs aren’t good starting hands, because they are, but they’re the sort of hand you want to play against two or three other players so there are fewer hands com- peting to draw out on you.

When you’re the small blind, you have to determine whether to put in the rest of a full bet. If you’re playing $15–$30 and the small blind is $10, calling that additional $5 is usually a

no-brainer. Sure, you don’t want to play hands such as 72o or 93o, but when you’re in for most of a bet, hands such as Q7s, which you would normally never play if you had to put in a full bet, become playable. If the small blind is only $5 in a $15–$30 game, however, you’re in a more difficult situation. Remember: You must act first in each subsequent bet- ting round, so you should guard your extra two-thirds of a bet closely. We recommend calling with any hand you would normally play in late position, but to fold everything else.

If you’re facing a raise in the blinds, you have to decide whether the player who raised is trying to steal the blinds with what is probably a weaker hand than someone would nor- mally raise with or has a legitimate hand and wants a call to get more money in the pot.
If you believe the raiser is bluffing and wants to steal the blinds, you can either call with any playable hand and try to catch a flop, or re-raise and try to pick up the pot right there. When you’re in the big blind and the small blind has folded, we recommend re-raising with any hand you would play from early position and calling with any hand you would play from middle position. If you’re in the small blind, we also recommend re-raising with TT or a higher pair, AQs or above, or KQs, but we only recommend calling if you could normally play the hand from middle position. Lower-ranked cards, suited cards with gaps between them, and small pairs need multiple opponents in the pot to make your draws lucrative enough to play, and when you’re against one other player the money just isn’t there to shoot at.


Ed Hutchison, someone you’ll hear a lot about in the next two sections, has a system for evaluating Hold ’em starting hands that takes a lot of the memorization out of choosing which cards to play and which cards to toss. We think his system is a bit conservative, but it’s a great bit of thinking and research. You can find his work online at

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