The strategy behind starting hand selection is one of the first things new players read about after learning the rules of poker
. That makes sense too, considering the first decision you make in a hand of poker is whether or not you will play the hand you have been dealt. The cards you select at the beginning of the hand ultimately determine how the hand will end
Why starting hand selection matters
Some starting hands are just better than others. There's an old saying in poker that goes something like any two can win. That saying is correct, but it is not something a profitable poker player would ascribe to. Weak staring hands can win pots occasionally, but they don't win often enough make up for all the times they lose.
Strong hands perform much better in the long run because they win more than their fair share of pots. These hands show a profit because they end up winning more money than it costs to play them. If you care about making money in poker, you need to have a solid starting hand strategy.
Choosing strong starting hands
There are three things that should be considered when choosing which hands to play:
- Your position at the table
- The potential of the hand
- Table circumstances
Position is the first thing you should consider when choosing which hands to play. It is always easier to play hands profitably from late position than it is in early position. This means you need to be very selective about which hands you play from early position. In late position, you can ease your standards a little because you have an information advantage over your opponents who are in early position.
The more opponents you have to act behind you, the more important it is that you play premium hands only. Hands such as AA, KK and AK do well in all positions because they are all powerful hands. Hands such as 67s can be played in certain circumstances, but they should be avoided from early position. You want that big card strength in early position to help overcome the disadvantage of early position.
In late position, you can play a wider variety of hands. You now have the advantage of being able to see what the rest of the table does. You know exactly how much it will cost to enter the pot and you'll be able to play a more informed postflop game. Hands such as low pocket pairs and suited connectors can be played for a profit in late position.
Don't forget to also consider your relative position at the table. Sometimes you will have to make adjustments to your starting hand selection based on your position relative to other players at the table. For example, if you have a couple of maniacs sitting to your left, you can only consider yourself in late position when you actually have the button.
The potential of the hand should also be considered when choosing starting hands. Some hands have more potential than others in certain areas. For example, hands like AK and AQ have the potential of hitting big pairs and winning medium-sized pots. Hands such as 33 and 67s have the potential to hit hidden monsters such as sets and low straights.
Other hands have little potential to hit anything at all. For example, hands like K7 need a lot of help to turn into winners. Barring a miracle flop, a hand like K7 is too disjointed to hit a straight, three of a kind or flush. Hands like AK, however, can hit strong pairs and straights much more frequently.
Hand strength is all relative. A strong hand in one set of circumstances may be complete garbage in another. For example, a hand like AQ is generally considered to be a strong hand. However, that hand turns into complete garbage if there has been a raise, a reraise and an all-in push before the flop.
Other times, you can get away with playing weaker hands than you normally would. If the table is extra passive and rarely raises before the flop, you can play a wider range of hands and try to catch something powerful. Tables that feature lots of preflop aggression require a tighter selection of starting hands.
Preflop raises should also have a major affect on which hands you decide to play. Any time an opponent raises before the flop, it is a signal of strength. This means you should tighten up your starting hand requirements. Your opponent has indicated that he has a strong starting hand and you need to be careful about adding your money to the pot.
Finally, the number of players in the pot should be taken into consideration. Some starting hands do better against multiple opponents, others do better against solitary opponents. Big hands such as AA, KK and AK can win most pots against a single opponent but they have trouble in multi-way pots. Drawing hands such as 67s do better in multi-way pots because they can hit big hands and get paid off nicely.
Types of Starting Hands
Starting hands can be organized into four basic categories:
- Premium hands
- Big card hands
- Drawing hands
Premium hands consist of AA, KK, QQ, AK and sometimes AQ. These hands do well from all positions and can be played in nearly all situations. With these hands, your default play should be to come in with a raise and get value for your high-percentage hand. There are no guarantees you will win with these hands, but I can guarantee that you will win more than your fair share of pots with these hands.
These hands should be raised before the flop 90% of the time. The more money you can get in the middle, the more you will profit in the long run. These hands win more often than other hands, and you get value for them by raising. You also want to charge your opponents to try to outdraw you.
Big Card Hands
Big card hands consist of hands like KQ, AJ, AT and so on. These are also called Broadway hands. These hands are stronger than average but they have to be played with extreme caution. These cards can easily make top pair but they can also be easily dominated.
For example, if you have a hand like AT and an opponent has AK, you can consider yourself dominated. The problem here is that if you hit your Ace, you will stand to lose a lot of money. Your opponent will also hit his Ace but he will have a better kicker. Your only chance is to catch a 10 or hit some sort of miracle hand.
These cards can be played from middle and late position if nobody else has already raised the pot. You should come in with a raise with these hands so you can take the pot down easily after the flop. This also helps weed out all the other hands that may be trying to draw against you.
Drawing hands are fun to play but they should only be played when in late position and when a couple of other people are already in the pot. These hands don't win often, but when they do win, they can win big. Drawing hands consist of hands such as suited Aces, suited connectors and low pocket pairs.
The best way to play these hands is to get in cheap, look for an opportunity and be quick to fold if things don't pan out. These hands are easy to play if you take a fit-or-fold mentality. The danger in these hands comes from getting caught up in pots in which you chase a draw too far or have some kind of random pair.
Trash hands consist of just about everything else. Hands like K7, 72, Q8 and so on should be discarded without much thought. The only time these hands should be played is when your cards don't matter. For example, you can play trash hands when you're stealing the pot from a super tight player.