Poker Starting Hands

A Solid Starting Hand Strategy is Key to Profitable Poker

While your big decisions in poker come after the flop – having a solid starting hand strategy is vital for long-term profits. There is more to knowing what hands to play than simply having a list of good hands. Your position at the table, tendencies of opponents and your own playing style all need to be factored in.

This page covers all you need to know about poker starting hands. Here are how things are laid out below:

Poker Starting Hands by Position

As you have seen from the introduction, there are many factors affecting the hands you can play. The list below, covering what hands to open with a raise from different positions at the table is a starting point. You can adjust this based on your opponents, and your own ‘table image’. If you have just had a run of good hands – and opened a lot of pots – you risk being reraised light. This can be out of frustration, or simply because your opponents think you are opening a wide range. On the opposite end of the spectrum, maybe you have been card-dead for a while. Your raises will often get more respect when this happens. Either way, it is not just how you think about the other players which matters – consider how they view you.

Early Position: At a full-ring table of 9 players, the first 3 positions after the blinds are considered to be early. Here you have to decide what to do before many (or any at all if you are ‘under the gun’) players have acted. You need to be more conservative with your starting hands here. You can’t know whether a hand will be profitable without seeing the reactions of your opponents first.

For this reason, the smallest pairs and off suit ace-x hands with kickers jack and below are not playable. You should stick to a starting hand range which looks like this:

8-8+, A-Qo+, A-Js+

This is a tight range for a good reason. If you are called, then you will play the rest of the hand out of position. If you do raise, then the range of hands someone raises with is likely to dominate small pairs and those ace-x hands.

Middle Position: The next 2 spots along are what I call middle position. I the first 3 players to act have folded, you have fewer players yet to act. You can start adding in some more hands here, though not too many. One of the key factors is how often players on the button are willing to reraise. This is a common strategy, and if this happens often you should revert to the early position opening strategy.

Here is a suggested middle position opening range:

5-5+, A-10o+, A2-A5s, A-9s+, K-Q

Note the suited small aces do not include those with kickers between 6 and 8. These hands are added to give your opening range balance. They have the ability to make small straights as well as the flushes. If your table is passive, you can add the other pairs in here, and maybe some suited Broadways. Since so many players defend their button (or cut-off) positions, you can’t go too crazy from middle position.

Late Position: I’m referring to the dealer button, and one position to the left (called the cut-off) here. These places on the table are likely to have position after the flop – acting last on the flop, turn and river betting rounds. If everyone folds to you then these are ideal positions to steal the blinds from too. In cash games these are small, though do contribute to your hourly rate. In tournaments they can be worth stealing.

Since you are opening as a steal from the late positions, you can expand your starting hand selection to the following:

2-2+, A-2+, K-8s+, Q-10o+ and suited connectors 4-5s and up.

This is a huge range, and only made possible by the combination of steal potential and position. Note that opening a wide range here protects the times you open with premium hands. If your opponents see you raise a lot, they might choose to fight back at just the wrong moment.

Starting Hands When Someone Raises Ahead of You

When someone enters the pot from early position, the first thing you need to decide is whether they are aware that position and starting hands are related concepts. If not, they could be opening a wide range of hands – many of which are easily dominated. If they are an otherwise tight and solid player, then you can give them respect for a strong starting hand range.

It is not only the hands you call with that matter when someone enters the pot, it is the type of hand you choose to call or reraise with. For example, your smallest Ace-x hands are not good for calling. They are too easily dominated by exactly the kind of holdings early position players like to open with. Mid-pairs can make sets on the flop, and suited aces can make flushes (or draws to them). Avoid unsuited Broadway hands in these spots.

If you choose to reraise instead of flat calling an early position open, it is important to keep your range balanced. If you call with mid-strength hands, and only every reraise with aces, kings or ace-king – then you will become easy to play against for experienced opponents. Mix in the occasional suited ace to keep yourself from becoming a target.

Your position at the table matters even more when there has been a raise (or raise and call) at the table ahead of you. The only position I recommend playing the most speculative of hands would be the button. Here you can judge how well a flop would be likely to connect with your opponent’s typical opening range – and play with that in mind. If the flop is favourable for a caller (lower cards, more connected), then you might be able to take the pot on a later street.

Calling with speculative hands, and then folding too often to a continuation bet is a big leak among inexperienced players. Make sure that you take this into account when considering your starting hand range after there has been a raise.

If the button (or cut-off) raises, and you are in the blinds then their very wide starting hand range gives you additional options. You can ‘resteal’ sometimes, putting in a big raise for value or as a semi-bluff to take the pot down. You also get a discount on a call with hands like smaller pairs, which can make hidden monsters on the flop. Playing post-flop from the blinds can be difficult- especially when there are multiple players in the pot. While you can’t always fold (else you will be stolen from every time), you do need to mix things up once in a while.

Attacking Weak Limpers and Poker Starting Hands

The worst players will open pots by limping instead of raising. This can be done as a trap, with the player re-raising after someone else raises. While this works occasionally, raising with premium hands is usually better. This balances your range when you raise with the bottom part of your starting hands.

More often, limpers are simply weak players. If there is a limp and a call ahead of you, then you know that it is unlikely either player has a premium hand. I recommend raising a wide range to isolate these players. If they call, then you will likely have position after the flop. If they fold, then you have just won a few big blinds.

Moving this idea up a level, if you see a player frequently ‘iso’ (raise to isolate limpers), then you can reraise them – since you know they would do this with a weaker starting hand range!

Starting Hands: Which Hands Play Best Multi-Way and Which Heads-Up

At the lower buy-ins, multi-way pots are common. You will often see 5 people taking the flop! If this is frequent in your game, then adjusting your starting hands can pay dividends.

For example, ace-x hands, even with higher kickers, don’t play well multi-way. There are simply too many random hands around to know whether flopping an ace puts you in the lead. Instead, hands like small pairs, suited aces and suited connectors should be chosen. These hands can flop monsters like sets, or draws to flushes, straights or both.

If you get a premium starting hand like aces or kings, keep in mind that the ideal scenario is to play a big pot against a single opponent. Make sure you don’t get tricky with them at a loose table. Raising and reraising to thin the field will make you the most money over time.

How to Assess an Opponent’s Starting Hands?

You have three main ways of getting a read on your opponent’s starting hands. Actively doing this will improve your game. If you are playing at the micro buy-ins, most opponents will only be considering their own hands. By thinking about what they hold, you give yourself an immediate (and potentially very profitable) edge.

Here are some ways to put your opponents on accurate ranges:

  • Estimate: Starting with a default hand range by position, you can take a guess at what opponents are opening with. This is obviously the least resilient method, though a lot better than nothing. If you see an opponent opening a lot from every position, assume they are not ‘position aware’ and assign a wider range. Tight opponents might be waiting for premium hands in all positions. When you do this, remember to compare any hands shown down – you can use this to refine your estimates later in the game.
  • Take Notes: By taking notes on what hands each player opens with (along with the position at the table), you can get a far more accurate range. Over multiple sessions, this can narrow down the kind of hands individual players open, those they call with and those they 3-bet. Remember to note how they continue with each type of hand, including the flop texture. While taking notes can be time consuming, it really will pay dividends in the long run. Sometimes, you will pick up on betting patterns which show you when an individual is weak or strong – and can adjust your own starting hand selection based on this.
  • Poker Tools: Two tools can be used at most online poker sites to keep track of your opponents. These will watch and record every hand – building up a big database of both your own hands and those of opponents. Tools like Poker Tracker and Hold’em Manager display stats on opponents next to their avatar on the table. This will show you exactly how often they open from each position at the table, how often they 3-bet, continuation bet, see showdowns and more. This is valuable information and a must-have for anyone seeking to make long-term profits in the games.

Final Thoughts on Starting Hands: Always Be Adjusting

A starting hand strategy will be profitable at the lower buy-ins – though it is not enough on its own as you climb the buy-in levels. The reason is that your opponents will figure out what you open with, and adjust their own play based on this. As you move to the bigger buy-ins, you’ll need to ensure your play is balanced. You can do this by playing hands differently to your default strategy a small percentage of the time.

For example, if you only every reraise pre-flop with ‘value hands’ like aces, kings, queens and ace-king – this becomes easy to play against. Throwing in the occasional semi-bluff with a strong, though not premium, hand will keep your opponents guessing. You can also consider flatting on occasion in these spots when you do have premium hands – especially if there is an aggressive player behind you that might try to squeeze.

You also need to adjust to your opponents. If someone is opening any 2 suited cards from early position, their money will not last long. If you stick to a default starting hand range, you might be folding too often to take advantage of this easy money. Adding in hands to isolate them with can help.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a player might be super-nitty. When they do open, you can consider flatting with starting hands you might otherwise fold (small pairs for example). If you do hit a monster flop, you can build a big pot with someone who probably thinks their aces are good!