The Ultimate Guide to the Best Starting Hands in Poker

Discover which poker starting hands to play and how you should play them preflop. This article will explain the importance of preflop strategy.
How profitable you are in poker is not only relative to how you play your hands. It’s also initially dictated by which hands you choose to play and from what positions.

This article will help delve into the depths of preflop poker.

We’ll help you uncover which to play and how you should play them preflop.
1.Why Do Starting Hands Differ by Position?
2.Preflop Hand Rankings
3.“Raising First In (RFI)”
4.How to Play “vs RFI”
5.How to Play “vs 3b”
6.Going All-In Preflop
7.Stack Size
8.How to Play Poker FAQ


Part 1: Why Do Starting Hands Differ by Position?
We’ll dive into which hands to play from what position shortly. But first, we must illuminate why we cannot play particular hands from all positions. In short, it rests on how post-flop play operates. Play starts with the first remaining player seated to the left of the button. The action then continues all the way around to the player on the button.

QUESTION TIME: Who has a greater advantage each betting round: the players who are first to act or last to act?
If you said the player who is the last to act, then you are correct! They get to see how all the other players act and choose to bet BEFORE their turn. This viewpoint provides an incredible amount of more information compared to the other players in the hand. These in-position players have a lot of data on which to base their betting decisions.

So, players on the button can play a much looser range of hands than any other position at the table. They have such a great post-flop, positional advantage. To compensate for the lack of post-flop position, other players must play a tighter range of hands. We’ll see this in the Texas Hold’em Chart below.

Part 2: Preflop Hand Rankings
Before getting into the thick of things, let’s consider what makes a good starting hand in poker. As per standard poker hand rankings, you’re going to generally want to play cards with the greatest chance of making strong hands. Say starting cards along the lines of a strong top pair, a straight, or a flush.

To make these hands, you should choose to play cards with the best chance of making good hands
Big Cards: Broadway cards (Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten) are strong cards. They can make solid top-pair hands with a strong kicker. They are still undoubtedly susceptible to being beaten out by stronger holdings, like straights or flushes. But the true value of top-pair hands comes from being called down by missed draws or by worse one-pair hands.

EXAMPLE: Imagine playing Ace-Ten vs Ten-Nine: if a Ten comes on the board, the player with T9 will be in a world of hurt. If he calls down to the river, he’ll most likely be outkicked.

Play Big Cards to Avoid Being Outkicked
Suited Hands: Suited hands only carry 2% more equity than their non-suited counterparts. But the real value in suited hands come in their playability. Flopping a flush draw (either front-door or backdoor) will be enough incentive to continue betting profitably. By betting, you gain fold equity. (You get your opponent(s) to fold and push them off whatever equity they had). Bet your backdoor flush draws with 3-to-a-flush on the flop. Hopefully, you’ll hit that perfectly-suited turn/river combinations to make your ultimate flush). Betting more hands adds to your bottom line when your opponent’s fold to your bet.

Connected Hands: Connected hands can make straights! The more connected your cards are, the better chance they’ll make a straight. For this reason, 3-2 suited is better than 7-2 suited, despite carrying lower preflop equity. The chances of 3-2 making some sort of straight is a lot easier than 7-2 suited.

Hands with Implied Odds: These hands only have to invest a little bit into the pot now. But, if they hit the card they need to improve, they could win a BIG payday. Examples include playing baby pairs, preflop. Often, 2-3 overcards to the baby pair are going to come on the flop and make it difficult for you to continue facing a bet. If you hit your set, specifically against top pairs or overpairs, you’re going to be able to win a big pot.

Part 3: “Raising First In (RFI)”
Now we start getting to the fun stuff – determining which hands to raise from what position. Before revealing the master charts, there are a few considerations to make.

Consideration #1: Limp or Raise
For various reasons, when you’re the first player to enter a pot (action has folded to you), you should raise. This play is the opposite of calling the amount of the big blind (“limping”).

1.You start building a pot.
2.You gain the betting initiative in the hand.
3.You could steal the blinds preflop.
4.You better disguise your hand range (instead of splitting some hands into limps and raises).

Consideration #2: Raise Size:
A standard preflop open-raise size will be anywhere from 2.2x to 3x the size of the big blind. (You’ll see live players go much higher than this as an exploitative strategy. Their opponents defend far looser than they optimally should versus such a sizing.)

・The smaller your raise size, the broader range of hands you can open.
・The larger your raise size, the narrow range of hands you should play.

Consideration #3: “Toughness” of Your Remaining Opponents:
As an exploitative strategy, you must determine your remaining opponents’ capability and aggressiveness. This factor is specifically critical when deciding whether to raise or fold hands that are “on the cusp” of your preflop charts. If we see an aggressive person on the button who likes to 3bet, we’re probably not going to open weaker hands. There is a high likelihood that we’ll face a 3bet (re-raise) and have to fold.

Consideration #4: Rake
The higher the rake, the narrower your starting hand range should be. Your focus should be on winning more big pots. You’ll have to pay the capped rake with less frequency. By picking up lots of small pots, you’ll pay a lower amount of rake but with a much higher frequency.

Smaller pots = more $$$ paid over time
Taking all these factors into account, here is the baseline preflop chart. You should memorise it to use in determining which hands to play from which positions.

HOW TO USE THIS CHART: From UTG, raise all the bluehands. From HJ, still raise all of the bluehands, but also add the pinkhands into the mix. For the CO, raise hands colour-coded by blue, pink, and green, and so on.

Part 4: How to Play “vs RFI”
After another player has raised, the hands that you play should be much narrower. The “gap concept” is a factor here. It illustrates calling with hands better than those in your opponent’s opening range. For example, imagine being on the button facing a raise from UTG. For unsuited AX broadway hands, which ones should you call, raise, and fold?

ANSWER: Say, a standard UTG range in 6-max has ATo+ (AT, AJ, AQ, and AK). You shouldn’t call ATo from the BTN. It wouldn’t be dominating the other AXo hands in the UTG’s range. But calling with AQo would be acceptable because you currently beat ATo and AJo. 3bet bluffing some baby suited Aces becomes advantageous. You can fold out some better AX hands. Also, you have great playability post-flop with the ability to make wheel straights or nut flushes.

Another tactic to have in your poker arsenal should be SQUEEZING. This scenario is where one player raises with one or more callers after them. A squeeze would be where you come over the top with a re-raise. You’re looking to take down the pot with a high frequency. Squeeze-raises are great to use, especially if you think the open-raiser’s range might be particularly loose or weak. Or if you have a fishier or shortstack player who called after them. The opener is likely to fold to your 3bet. The cold caller probably would have raised (3bet) themselves if they had a particularly strong hand anyway. So, they’re also likely to fold.

Part 5: How to Play “vs 3b”
Here are a few baseline considerations to make when facing a 3bet:

Ranges Narrow: Versus a 3bet, continuing ranges start to narrow significantly. You should look to fold all your junky hands. Continue with hands that are pretty strong or have good potential to improve (i.e., most pairs, suited broadways, some suited connectors, etc.). Only 4bet the very best hands in your range. (Just remember to include a few select 4b bluffs, as well!)

Table Positions: Remember that players table positions in the hand affect continuing ranges. An UTG open-raise is already pretty narrow. So, a 3bet from the HJ should be done with a much narrower range than from the BTN.

IP vs OOP: A big factor in continuing in a hand is whether you’re in position or out-of-position vs the 3bettor. In other words, will you be first or last to act preflop?
・Have position on your opponent? You can peel and see a flop with many more speculative (usually suited) hands.
・Out-of-position, it’s better to either 4bet (taking the initiative) or call vs 3bet with a tighter range than otherwise. This strategy enables you to make up for your lack of position post-flop.

4betting Considerations: If you are looking to add 4betting to your arsenal, be sure to check out this comprehensive article of ours on this topic:

3betting Based on Table Positions

Part 6: Going All-In Preflop
It’s recommended that going all-in preflop is only done with your strongest of hands. i.e. –
・Pocket Aces (AA)
・Pocket Kings (KK)
・Ace-King Suited (AKs – “Big Slick”)
・Ace-King Off-Suit (AKo)
・Pocket Queens (QQ)

If you’re in later positions, it can also be acceptable to shove hands like JJ and TT. Players do 3bet and 5bet jam with AQo as a bluff. Though, it should be noted that this shouldn’t happen with full frequency. Make sure that your all-in ranges include more than 1-2 holdings. Say you’re deep-stacked (250bb+) and are only 5betting a hand like AA.

It’s advisable to call vs the 4bet with all your holdings, including AA, for a few reasons:
・You help protect/strengthen your range for call vs 4bets.
・You don’t have to worry about balancing the split between hands to 5bet and hands to call vs 4bets.
・You won’t have an imbalanced 5bet range that’s easy for your opponent to read/counter.

Part 7: Stack Size
As mentioned in the last section, stack sizes will play a significant role in starting hands in poker. The deeper you are, the more you should look to play hands that could win BIG pots. (For example, pocket pairs could turn into sets. Ax suited hands could become nut flushes).

The above hands have implied odds, meaning that you can play them more aggressively. When they hit, they can pay huge dividends. But some hands have reverse implied odds. Trouble can occur with the smallest of pocket pairs, if especially deep. Set-over-set situations can be very costly. Or Kx suited hands that could make flushes but lose to an even better flush. You could even be out-kicked in simple “one-pair” scenarios.

Stack Sizes and SPR

Part 8: How to Play Poker FAQ
Q: Should I raise or just call the big blind when I’m the first player to enter the pot?
A: The first player entering a pot should ALWAYS raise. (The only exception would be if you are playing a mixed opening strategy from the small blind.)

By raising-first-in –
1.You build the pot.
2.Gain initiative.
3.Help disguise your holding better than if you had raising and limping ranges.

Q: How should my table position impact which hands I play?
A: The further you are from the button, the tighter your hand ranges should be. This strategy compensates for the possibility of being out-of-position. postflop.

This position can also affect subsequent hand ranges for the rest of the hand. 3betting and 4betting ranges will be much looser for something like BTN vs SB than for UTG vs HJ.

Q: What are the three power traits you can have in a hand, preflop?
A: Position, Range Advantage, and Initiative
Position: Position is incredibly powerful to have in poker. Being last to act in each post-flop betting round gives you the most information before making any decisions on how to continue.
Range Advantage: Usually, the last preflop aggressor will have a range advantage for postflop play. They’ll typically have all the high pocket pairs (i.e., QQ+) in their range. So, the last aggressor’s range is uncapped. But the caller’s range is “capped” because they cannot have the strongest preflop holdings.
Initiative: Ever heard of the phrase “check to the raiser”? Often the last aggressor from the previous betting round will have a range advantage. Thus, it doesn’t make sense for another player to bet out first. Having the initiative as you move through a hand is advantageous. You can cbet more frequently, giving you fold equity. You’ll be adding more money to your bottom line each time your opponent(s) fold.

Summary – The Bottom Line
Poker is a complicated game. But with study and practice, you can certainly develop your skills. It all starts with what you do preflop. So, it’s essential to strengthen this part of your game to help you succeed.

For the next step in your poker learning, we recommend checking out this preflop strategy article. You’ll get more info on how to play (and profit) through preflop gameplay:

Until then, good luck on the felt!