Premium Starting Hands in Texas Hold’em Poker

“In order to win consistently at poker, you need to understand which hands are profitable to play and which aren’t.” – Poker Author Mike Caro

I have seen the types of starting hands played change in the last five years with the predominance of televised poker, which is not a good thing and leads to more losing hands. Knowing which hole cards are worth playing pre-flop and which to fold is an important skill that can’t be learned by watching televised poker games. Though it is true in Hold’em that, with luck, any two cards can win any given hand, it is not true that any two cards can win consistently.

You should only play less than premium hands under two circumstances: to enhance your table image or to protect your blinds. For now, you should look at the most profitable of the 169 combinations of hole cards available in the standard 52-card deck and the betting strategy you use with them for each of the three positions on the table. When one plays a tight-aggressive style, sticking to the premium starting hands is the first factor to consider. It is common to go one or two rounds without getting a solid starting hand to bet: Patience is the virtue you must possess if you desire to succeed. The game of controlled aggression has turned maniacal at times, with many players playing (or praying) with hole cards that should never see a flop.

I use rankings based on percentages (odds of winning) to determine which cards are premium starting hands. The percentages found in the figures are the probability the listed hole cards would win if the hand should go to the river at a full table of nine or ten players. The probability of having Ace-Ace as the hole cards and subsequently winning increases from 31% with nine opponents to over 85% in heads-up play. The reason for this dramatic difference is that in ten-handed play, any of your nine opponents can win the hand. Taking the individual statistics of each of the nine other hands and adding them together, at best, the sum equals 69%.

“Pocket aces win the small pots and lose the big ones.” – Pokerism

Determining premium hands depends on different criteria. Weak players often take inferior hands too far and lose money as a result. First, we look at the cards themselves. We look at the combined strength of the cards and individual ranks, as well as whether or not they are suited and/or connectors. Second, one must factor table position into the decision process. (See my article on Table Position.) Third, the size of the pot and subsequent pot odds play an important part in the decision process. Fourth, the type of game you are in can change how you feel about your pocket cards. For example, a table full of loose-aggressive players makes many premium starting hands less attractive than in a tight game. Finally, the quality of your opponents can strengthen or weaken staring hands. Higher quality players make fewer mistakes and, therefore, do not give as much value when you have a strong hand. Lower quality players often do not believe another player has the cards they are portraying, and will often pay more to find that they are holding the second-best hand.

I once read an article that showed that a person could make nearly $25.00 an hour playing in a $150.00 buy-in, $1/$2 blinds, no-limit ring game by going All In with only the top four hands. The rationale was that you would double up once every two to three hours and this would make up for any hands where the top four hands were beat. It takes six to eight hours a day, over an extended period of time, to realize these profits, but it appears possible.

Fearsome Foursome

The strongest four hands in poker are called the Fearsome Foursome. Pre-flop, these hands have the greatest chance of winning. You can play the top four hands found in the table below from any position. The proper no-limit bet is a raise of three and one half times the big blind. With pocket Aces, Kings,Queens or suited Ace-King in a limit game, you should raise and re-raise before the flop until you cap the betting.

Hole Cards Rank Percentage

Ace-Ace 1 31.09% King-King 2 26.02% Queen-Queen 3 22.03% Ace-King 4 20.09%

Elite 8

“The proper way to play pocket Jacks is to bet All-in pre-flop and fold after the flop.” – Pokerism

The next four best starting hands round out the Elite 8. Though these are strong hands, you have to be a bit more careful with pocket Jacks and the suited high Aces, but the chances are still huge that you are top hand before the flop. You should raise and try to drive out the drawing hands if there are no raises in front of you. Depending on the style of your opponents, beware of the flop that shows Aces or Kings. If there is an over card on the board and a tight player raises in front of you, your best decision may be to fold your Jacks.

The interesting thing about the strength of the Ace-King and Ace-Queen is that in tournament situations they seem to bust out more players than any other hand. Though they are very strong pre-flop, they are still just drawing hands. Often, high cards are a coin flip pre-flop, and, depending on the flop, can become very weak, very fast. Players always show amazement when a high pocket pair is beaten, but as you can see in the table percentages, they are easily beat when they do not improve on the flop.

Hole Cards Rank Percentage

Jack-Jack 5 19.09% Ace-Queen (S) 6 18.66% King-Queen(S) 7 18.08% Ace-Jack (S) 8 17.47%

The reason pocket Jacks are so vulnerable is that too many players want to see the flop with a Queen, King or Ace in the hole. The odds of a face card hitting on the flop are high, though the odds of your face card hitting are cut by two-thirds. Hitting the higher pair on the flop occurs often enough to destroy the Jacks, further fueling the loose players’ philosophy that any card can win. In the final analysis, holding on to face cards without a strong kicker, especially when you are out of position, is extremely detrimental to your chip stack.

About the author: Daniel L. Cox is the editor of Poker Insider Magazine, an e-zine dedicated to poker. He is also the award-winning author of “Winning Blue-Collar Hold’em: How to Play Low-limit Ring Games and Small Buy-in Tournaments” and three upcoming books on poker. He can be found on Twitter at PokerInsiderMag, where he gives you a daily poker quote or pokerism.