Poker Starting Hands: The Difference Between Good and Great

Starting hand selection is a basic strategy that every player should know. David Sklansky was the first to lay out a proper starting hand selection based on your position at the table. Other books have taken the theory a bit further; Phil Hellmuth coined his phrase “top 10 hands” in his book. Starting hand selection, like everything in poker, has a lot to do with the situation you’re in at the time.

There’s no sense discussing the top 10 hands very much. These hands are usually good to play in any position, regardless of the tempo of the table. They consist of A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J, A-K, A-Q, A-J, K-J and A-10. The last two are a bit dangerous in early positions, but if the game you’re playing isn’t aggressive, those hands can be played early on. For novice players learning the game, these hands are all they should be playing. For players that are a little more experienced, many other hands can be played, depending on the situation you’re in at the time.

Suited connectors are hands that can be played from any position if you think there won’t be a raise after you act. It’s not recommended that you call too big of a raise with these hands because you will be dominated by any big pair you run into. If you flat call the blinds and the raise is too big, you’ll have to give away what you called without seeing a flop, and that’s essentially giving away chips. Against two big cards your chances are pretty good, so if an opponent makes a small raise, and you feel like gambling, you can try your luck and see the flop. Suited connectors are great cards to have in late positions because they present limping and raising opportunities, depending on the tempo of the hand.

Suited aces are a lot like suited connectors in strength, but they carry a different danger. With suited aces it’s easy to get into kicker trouble if you hit your ace. Calling a raise with these hands means that you pretty much have to hit your flush or two pair. And even two pair can be vulnerable if there’s another big card that a player with a big ace may have hit for a bigger two pair. Try to limp into pots with these hands, unless you’re on the button and no one has forced the action, then you can raise it up.

Small pairs are good hands to play if the pre-flop action isn’t too aggressive. Like the suited connectors, it not a good idea to call, only to have to relinquish what you threw in there after someone makes a big raise. These hands are best played pre-flop with a raise, so you can find out what you’re up against. If you can’t force everyone out pre-flop, you’ll pretty much need to hit your set. Any big cards on the board could be trouble, and you’ll usually be out of position. A continuation bet is ok post flop if you have position and your opponent/opponents haven’t bet out.

Any other hands shouldn’t really be played unless you’re in a short table situation or you’re in a blind position.