Your starting hand is SO important in every kind of poker, from draw to stud to Texas holdem. People talk and write about how important it is all the time, but it’s one of those subjects that’s important enough that you should always pay attention to.

Beginners often underestimate the importance of having tight starting hand requirements. After all, ANY cards could show up in the later rounds, so your hand can always improve. Shouldn’t you give your hand a chance to develop?

Novice players almost always stick around too long in a hand with lousy starting cards. After all, if the hand didn’t improve on the flop, it might still improve on the turn or the river. That’s how they lose so much money.

Here’s the problem:

When you try to get into a hand with less than good cards, you’re often playing from behind. That’s like starting a foot race (or any other race) while giving your opponent a head start. This is true in real life as well as the poker table. As often as you can, get a head start against your opponents in some respect.

1- Yes, You Can Win More Often if You Stay in Less than Desirable Hands

At the average card table, someone will have a good hand or better almost every hand. If you play all your hands, someone will be ahead of you most of the time. At a standard brick and mortar poker room, you’ll usually have the opportunity to play in about 30 hands per hour.

Of those 30 hands, only 4 to 6 of your hands will be strong enough to play, on average. Of course, you’ll have some hours where you get twice that many playable hands. And you’ll have other hours where you’ll get half that many playable hands. That’s a long-term average.

But  if you play 30 hands per hour (all of them), at least one of your opponents will have an edge over you—a head start—at least 25 times per hour. Yes, you’ll overcome the odds on some of those hands and beat the guy with the head start. But more often than not, at least one of your opponents will have you.

Yes, if you play 6 times as many hands per hour, you’ll see an increase in the number of pots you win per hour. It won’t be a big enough increase to make up for the losses on the increased number of pots you lose per hour, though. Learn to play good hands early, and be willing to get away from them later in the hand if you need to.

2- If You Are Going to Play a Hand, by Golly, Bet and Raise with It

If you are playing a hand, you should play it strongly. A certain amount of your equity in any pot comes from the possibility that all your opponents will fold and you’ll win the hand without a showdown. But your opponents can’t all fold if you’re not betting and raising into them.

Calling, on the other hand, puts no pressure on your opponents. If you’re hand isn’t good enough to bet or raise with, it probably isn’t good enough to call with, either. This is a good rule of thumb to learn early in your poker career. It’s not true 100% of the time, but it’s true often enough that beginners should probably stick with it—especially in the later betting rounds.

By playing aggressively, you’re creating a table image and doing something that can help intimidate your opponents and throw them off their games. That’s a good thing to do. In most lower-stakes games, ABC poker is effective. That’s just simple, no-brainer poker where you bet and raise with your good hands and check or fold with your marginal hands. This approach doesn’t work as well at higher stakes games or with better quality opponents, because they’ll be able to predict what cards you have.

David Sklansky’s Fundamental Theorem of Poker suggests that every time you make a decision that’s different from what you’d make if you could see your opponent’s cards, you lose. That’s true for your opponents, too. By playing predictably, you give them a chance to play their hands as if they could see your cards. Luckily, at lower stakes tables, it doesn’t matter. Many of the players at this level aren’t even paying attention to your playing behavior.

This doesn’t mean you should bet and raise with weak hands for deceptive purposes. You should always have some kind of escape hatch—some kind of possibility of making a hand. If you’re playing low suited trash just so your opponents can’t put you on a hand, you’re doing it wrong.

3- Don’t Worry about the Other Players Thinking that You’re Tight

You almost certainly will have some opponents who notice how tight you’re playing. Don’t worry about that. It’s okay.

Not all your opponents will notice, though. Some of them aren’t paying attention to the game at all. Some of them will think the cards you’re getting are just awful, and they’ll be bummed out for you. Some of them will be pleased to have one less competitor for the pot.

Only about 20% of the players at most tables are paying enough attention to recognize that you’re a tight aggressive player. This means that 80% of your opponents will make mistakes against you. And since you’re only playing good cards, when they make mistakes, you’re going to win money.

4- What Constitutes a Premium Starting Hand in One Game Does Not Necessarily Constitute a Premium Starting Hand in another Game

Everyone knows that the best possible starting hand in Texas holdem is a pair of aces. But if you’re playing Omaha, a pair of aces might only be a marginal hand—it depends on what the other cards in the hole are. (You get 4 cards in Omaha instead of just 2.)

Generally, the more cards you have, the tighter you need to play. This means that your hands need to be that much better to be considered premium. In 7-card stud, a pair of aces is playable, but it’s not as good as 3 of a kind. You’ll see a pair of aces a lot more often than you’ll see 3 of a kind, though. And your kicker is important, too.

When you learn a new poker game, the 1st thing you should do is put together a starting hand strategy for that game. That’s not only the list of starting hands you’re willing to play; it’s also based on what position you’re in, too. You should have starting hand requirements for early position, middle position, late position, and the blinds in holdem games, for example.

You’ll also need to adjust these starting hand requirements based on your table conditions. If you’re at an extremely loose but passive table, it will sometimes make sense to loosen up a little bit in earlier position, because you’ll often be getting pot odds that warrant getting into the hand and hoping to hit. This is kind of like playing bingo, but it makes a certain amount of mathematical sense at some tables.

5- Watch Out for Selective Memory

A lot of poker players have never read a book or even an article on the internet about how to play well. Their entire approach to the game is informed by their experience at the tables. They might have a vague idea about which starting cards are better than others based on that, but they might easily have some preconceived notions that are just foolish.

That’s because the human brain, especially when it comes to memory, is notoriously fallible. You might lose often enough with AQ suited that you start to think it isn’t a good hand.

6- Don’t Stress Out about Losing with a Great Starting Hand

The thing about poker is that element is a big component of the game. If it weren’t for that, it would be like chess. The best player would win, period. You wouldn’t make much money playing in such a game, either. No one would play with you.

The beautiful thing about poker is that often, the worst hand will turn into the best hand later and win. This is frustrating when it happens, but it’s also the reason you can make money from weaker players. You need to adjust your attitude and your thinking about this and accept that you will often lose even when you started with a better (or best) hand.

In the long run, if you’re sticking with premium starting cards, and if you’re willing to let them go if the hand doesn’t go your way, you’ll profit. In the short term, anything can happen. If you don’t understand that, poker will just frustrate you. And you’ll probably lose money, too, because you’ll tilt and start playing less-than-premium hands. God forbid you accidentally win with one, too. Then you’ll think your approach makes some kind of strategic sense.

7- Poker Is Hard, and This Is One of the Main Reasons Why

Poker requires you to make almost constant decisions that fly in the face of your instincts. This is because you’ll often lose money when you make the right decisions. You’ll also often win money if you make poor decisions. It’s tough for the human mind to run counter to its programming of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

There’s a certain amount of pain associated with folding hands preflop. You go to the cardroom to play poker. How often have you said to your buddies, hey, let’s run up to the Winstar Casino and fold a few hands tonight? Probably not often. On the other hand, let’s go play some poker is probably something you’ve said frequently and heard frequently.

It’s contrary to a gambler’s programming to go play poker and do nothing. That inaction, though, can be one of your most powerful weapons against some of your less sophisticated opponents. But there’s even more pain associated with folding a hand that was a premium hand preflop but missed the flop entirely. As a result, many poker players take their hands too far in holdem and lose money.

Bonus Tip! Starting Hands and Win Rates in Texas Holdem

If you’re playing a pair preflop in Texas holdem, you have at least a 51% chance of winning heads-up against another random hand. That percentage goes up the higher the rank is of your starting pair. A pair of 2s is obviously the weakest starting hand, with a 51% win rate, while pocket aces have an 85% win rate. (These are percentages for heads-up games. With more players in the pot, these percentages change.)

This means that most pocket pairs are legitimate starting hands, but the difference in value changes dramatically based on their ranking. The values of these hands go way up at a pair of 9s or better, but they go way down with a pair of 8s or lower.

Any hand with an ace, king, or queen in it also has a higher win percentage than 50%. The best of these kinds of hands is AK, and the worst is Q2. These are playable in a lot of situations, too, especially if the cards are suited. You want to watch out for situations where these cards are NOT suited, though. And again, the higher the cards rank, the better your chances of winning are. Aces play well with most other cards, but kings play better when combined with a card of 8 or higher. Queens tend to work better when combined with a 10 or higher.

Suitedness and connectedness matter a lot, too. If 2 cards are both suited AND connected, they have multiple ways of hitting a hand. The higher the rank of the cards, the better, because you start adding the possibilities of getting high pairs.

For example, a QJ suited is a far better starting hand than a 78 suited, although both of them are playable hands.
The other factor to keep in mind is position. From early position, you only want to play the best of all possible hands. High pairs like aces, kings, or queens. High suited cards like AK and AQ. You might loosen up depending on how the other players play.

I like to think of starting hands in terms of categories:

  • Pairs
  • High cards
  • Suited cards
  • Connected cards
  • Suited connectors

You can subdivide most of these categories, too. Pairs can be divided into high, medium, and low pairs.

Steve Badger likes to talk about starting hand charts as if they’re training wheels for a bicycle player. Poker is such a situational game that if you play strictly according to the starting hand charts, you’ll never become as good a player as you could be.


It’s a no-brainer that you’ll win at poker more often if you only play premium hands preflop. Why then is it so hard to find players who actually follow through on this simple strategy? Mostly it’s because of the difference between simple and easy. Sometimes it’s hard to do the simple things, like folding hands that aren’t good and betting hard with hands that are.

If you can master your own psychology in such a way that you can think of poker in more of a long-term way, you can put yourself on track to becoming a winning poker player. The first step is learning how to  stick with only premium hands in the early betting rounds.The next step, of course, is learning how to let go of those premium hands when they don’t develop well. Pocket aces in Texas holdem are a good example of a hand that plays well both preflop and after the flop, even if it misses.

AK suited, on the other hand, is a strong hand preflop, but if you get a flop without an ace or a king, and without cards of the same suit, your hand is pretty much dead at that point. If you don’t have too many opponents, you might be able to pick up a pot by bluffing.

But a lot of times you’ll have to fold that AK suited, and that’s one of the strongest hands in the game. Making quality decisions starts with choosing cards to start with that give you a head start over the other players.

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