How should I pick which to Texas Hold'em starting hands to play with?

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Answered by: Patrick, An Expert in the Poker Strategy for Beginners Category
Texas Hold'em Starting Hands: Picking the Winners.

by Patrick Turbiville

     As a Texas Hold'em beginner, one of the first issues you must tackle, after learning the basic rules, hand rankings, and some fancy terminology, is how to select which starting hands, also known as “hole cards,” are acceptable to play. With every round of play, you are faced with the question: “Should I pay to play, or fold before putting my chips at risk?” While there are a number of factors at play, and volumes of statistics and opinion have been published in books and posted on message boards, it is most advisable for beginners to start simple. Unfortunately, simple can be somewhat complicated when it comes to starting hands. While you might think that a pre-determined list of acceptable starting hands would do the trick, it could be detrimental to your game to choose from a list without understanding when and why certain starting hands are acceptable. Because of this, we will begin with some basic theory behind the selection of starting hands.


     For starters, a player must choose a playing style. A playing style is comprised of either "tight" or "loose" hand selection and of an "aggressive” or "passive" betting style. A player who uses tight hand selection will play far fewer hands than a loose player, but play higher quality hands. An aggressive bettor will bet larger amounts to increase the size of the pot up for grabs or to scare his opponents into folding before having to test the true value of his cards. A passive bettor, on the other hand, will either build up the pot by stringing opponents along with a series of small bets, or call a series of small bets hoping to land a big hand on the turn or the river. While developing betting style is important, choosing a the proper playing style first will ensure that your betting style is more profitable.

     For a Texas Hold'em beginner, choosing a playing style is easy. Some may say to begin with the style that seems most natural to you, but this could be a shortcut to a dwindling bankroll. For most beginners, it feels natural to play as many hands as possible. After all, who isn't curious to see if 7-3 suited will hit that long-shot straight draw, or even a flush? It may seem like you lose to players with similar hands all the time, but the fact of the matter is loose players will lose with hole cards like these more than they will win. Playing with a tight style simply stacks the odds in your favor. After all, folding most hands costs you nothing but patience, and in poker, you should build up your patience before worrying about building up your bankroll.

     What about a loose style for selecting starting hands? A loose hand selection style is a viable playing style, but should be considered more advanced. A player who plays with more low quality starting hands is obviously at a statistical disadvantage to the player that plays only higher quality hands, even though a loose player has many more opportunities to win. So, how does a loose player come out on top? It's all in the betting. Loose players rely heavily on several betting strategies, both before and after the flopthe , in order to coerce or even trick their opponents into making misguided plays. They also pay close attention to betting patterns of their opponents to avoid losses. While the book on starting hands may consist of a few volumes, the book on betting and post-flop play is downright encyclopedic. To put it another way, if you don't already have a great foundation of knowledge and experience to base it on, using a loose style may be unwise. Being very selective with the hole cards you choose to play with is a great way to minimize the effects of errors made throughout the rest of a hand.

     If a tight playing style doesn't come naturally, it will still be beneficial to start your Texas Hold'em adventures with this type of hand selection. As you become more comfortable with beginning and advanced betting techniques, you can transition into a looser playing style, or even better, you can learn to throw off your opponents by “switching gears” between loose and tight playing styles.


If we have determined that you should start with a tight hand selection style, how do we know what tight hand selection is? When choosing starting hands, there are four two-card combinations we are looking for: Connectors, Gappers, Pocket Pairs, and High Card. All but Pocket Pairs can be either suited or unsuited.

Connectors and Gappers


Connectors are cards that fall next to each other in rank. For example, the hands King-Queen and 8-7 are connectors. Gappers are cards that do not fall next to each other in rank, such as King-Jack, or 8-5. Connectors have a distinct advantage over Gappers because they provide the highest probability of making a straight. For example, if you have the Connectors 4-5, there are four card combinations that can be dealt to the board to create a straight: A-2-3, 2-3-6, 3-6-7, and 6-7-8. However, if you have the Gapper combination of 7-3, only one combination of community cards will create a straight: 4-5-6.

Of course, the higher ranked your cards are, the more valuable the starting hand is. However, it is important to note that the highest ranked connectors have fewer combinations for making straights, despite the high value of each card. For example: A-K can make a straight with only two card combinations: 10-J-Q and 2-3-4-5.

Suited Cards

     Both Connectors and Gappers have greater value if your cards are suited. The reason for this is simple. When you start your hand with two suited cards, you have a head start toward making a flush. These are much more valuable than flushes created with 4 suited community cards because it is highly likely that others at your table will have a flush in this situation. Flushes are also more valuable when one of your suited hole cards is high ranking. A flush with 3-2 is far less valuable than a flush with J-10, especially if the cards in your starting hand are not suited.

Pocket Pairs

     Pairs are exciting hands to start with, however, it is easy to be over-excited. As with other starting combinations, the higher the card rank of your pair, the better it is. If you start with a pair like A-A, K-K, or Q-Q, you may have the winning hand before the community cards are dealt. Even with a pair like 2-2, you could have a big winner when a third 2 is dealt to the board. It is important not to marry yourself to these hands, however. If you have J-J, Q-Q, or even K-K, an Ace is dealt to the board could be fatal to your hand. If you have A-A and pair of any rank has been dealt to the board, it isn't unlikely that your opponent has you beat with three-of-a-kind. Any hand from 2-2 to A-A is a good hand to start with, but it is important to know when you are more than likely beat in order to avoid a painful loss. Your opponents betting behavior, before and after the flop, will be your best clue about the value of your Pocket Pair.

High Card

     Sometimes, you get a very attractive Ace or King along with another, not-so-attractive hole card. These hands may be acceptable to play if the price isn't too high. If someone has raised before the flop, then you are likely outmatched and may want to fold. Unless your opponents are showing significant weakness, you should be quick to fold if you don’t have a pair or better after the flop is dealt.

Trash and Rags

All other hands are referred to as “trash” or “rags.” These hands are usually unsuited and can be Gappers with four or more card ranks between them (impossible to make a straight), or any unsuited cards of low rank (i.e. 3-2, 7-4). It is definitely possible to win chips with a trash hand, but this relies primarily on polished betting skills and secondarily on luck. Playing these hands is not a profitable strategy for beginners.


     Although, the basics of choosing combinations of Texas Hold'em starting hands have been covered, having an elementary understanding of position and pre-flop betting is absolutely necessary for our good choices to become profitable ones. Position is determined by when you act in relation to the player with small blind. Before the flop, the player to the left of the small blind acts first and has the worst position. After the flop, the player with the small blind acts first and has the worst position. The later you act in each round of betting, the greater advantage you receive from observing your opponents. How does a player use these observations to create an advantage? Here is an example: If you are the last player to act, you will have seen if anyone else likes their cards enough to put more chips on the table. If you have 6-7 suited in the hole, and someone has bet, or raised another player’s bet, then you can estimate that your cards aren't very valuable in relation to theirs. If you have the same cards and several players have folded, or simply called the big blind (the minimum initial bet), your hand might be competitive against your unenthusiastic competition.

     So what does this mean for your starting hand? It means, if few players act before you, your starting hand is less valuable and you should consider folding weaker hands. While cards like A-K suited my retain it's value regardless of position and pre-flop betting action, unsuited connectors, low pairs, or a high card may not stand up against a pre-flop raise. Making a habit of playing these sorts of hole cards in early position is a good way to lose several minimum bets during a game and can wipe out a large portion of your chip stack. However, playing these cards in late position, when players ahead of you have folded or limped in by calling the big blind, can keep you from missing out on winning hands. As you gauge the playing styles of your opponents, you can determine what cards you can get away with playing from early position. If you are playing at a table with several active bettors, you may rarely see the flop without having to call a raise. This isn't worth the risk with a non-premium starting hand.


     When using a tight selection style for your Texas Hold'em starting hands, you will spend a majority of your time at the poker table doing one thing: observing. This is your greatest opportunity to learn the basics of Texas Hold'em and the playing styles of your opponents. Be patient and try not to feel left out when you are folding most of your hands, because that is the very feeling that will lead you to a smaller bankroll. Playing a hand for the sake of playing is an unwise strategy, even for seasoned poker players. As a beginner, folding should be your default action. Always consider your two card combination and your position, and remember: don't search for reasons to play, identify reasons not to fold.

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