Poker Lesson 09

What constitutes a good starting hand?
What then does a good starting hand look like, to continue from the previous lesson?

The first decision you have to make in a hand of Texas hold'em is this: Are your cards good enough to call with in order to enter the pot, or even preferrably good enough to raise with?

Yes, this often-quoted truth applies: there are no good or bad cards in poker, only good or bad situations. Sure, there are times when you can bluff successfully with two really lousy cards in hand; and it is correct that no matter which cards you start out with, the flop can give you a full house or four of a kind.

But reality works like this: with two good starting cards in hand, you create a situation in which your chance of winning the pot increases. Winning poker thus requires that you apply certain standards – make demands, in short – to your cards in order to enter the pot. In fact, the most common beginners' mistake in poker is to enter the pot too often, with chancy or inferior cards in hand.

So what constitutes a good starting hand in hold'em? In total, which may be interesting to know, there are 1326 different two-card starting hands which you can be dealt! But theoretical and empirical analysis of hold'em has resulted in a ranking list. Different poker experts may have slightly different opinions as to the exact order, but here is what is generally accepted to be a list of the ten best starting hands, in order from highest and on down:

A-A; K-K; Q-Q; A-Ks; J-J; 10-10; A-K; 9-9; 8-8; A-Qs. The term "A-Ks" refers to an Ace and a King of the same suit, for example spades. Such a hand is usually referred to as "Ace-King suited". The term "A-K" without the s means that the Ace and the King are in two different suits, generally called "Ace-King offsuit".

Forming the basis for this ranking order are "the usual circumstances": 7-10 players at the table and a moderately "tight" play, meaning that about half the players fold during the first betting round. The ranking order is not identical to the pure mathematical chances the hands would have if facing off with each other, since factors such as position and a number of others must also be accounted for.

Thus, the above list reflects those ten starting hands which on average generate the most money in the long run.

A-A, a pair of Aces, is the undisputed top starting hand; but expect to pick up such a pair only once every 221 hands, on average! Your total chance of picking up A-K, whether suited or off-suit, is 1 in 83. Altogether your chance of starting with one of these top-ten hands is about 1 in 20, since they form a total of 68 combinations out of the 1326 possible starting hands.

Naturally, there are also a number of other starting hands which are usually playable, depending on the circumstances. More on this subject in other lessons to follow!

And which starting hand is then the WORST possible you can be dealt in hold'em? At a full table, meaning between seven and nine opponents, it is 7-2 offsuit (= in two different suits). Not only are the cards as such fairly low in value, but they are also "un-coordinated": they minimize the chance of hitting either a straight or a flush. If you are to win with this starting hand you have to hope for a miracle hit on the flop, such as 7-7-2 – which is rare indeed...