Lesson 3 – The Starting Hands

Home Poker School Lesson 3 – The Starting Hands

“The end depends upon the beginning.” I heard that line in a movie recently and it certainly applies to Hold ’em poker, although that’s not what the movie was about. At best, it’s extremely difficult to make a comeback if you enter the pot of a Hold ’em game with a bad hand. I see it all the time and it happens, I guess, because so many people feel about poker like they do about Blackjack; “it’s all luck, anyway, so what’s the difference?” Well, if you’ve studied my Blackjack lessons the least little bit, you know it’s not “all luck” by a long shot. Sure, there is a luck factor that we cannot deny (I prefer to call it “variance”) but making the mathematically proper play for each and every hand goes a long way toward reducing the luck factor in Blackjack and that’s what we call playing Basic Strategy. Unfortunately, playing Basic Strategy alone will not give you an edge over the casino – which is why my Blackjack lessons also teach you how to count the cards – but the proper Basic Strategy for a given set of rules in a Blackjack game will reduce the casino’s edge over you to a minimum; generally 0.5% or even less.

Hold ’em poker also has a “basic strategy” and it begins with the first two cards you’re dealt in the game, your “pocket” or “hole” cards. (I suppose that “pocket” cards is more the poker expression, so I’ll try to use that when I’m talking about a player’s two face-down cards in a Hold ’em game, but forgive me now and then when I lapse into calling them “hole” cards). Anyway, it’s easy to imagine that if you were always dealt a pair of “pocket” Aces, you would win tons of $$$ at Hold ’em. Of course, it wouldn’t be long before no one would play against you, but you get the idea. Great cards in the pocket are the start of a great hand. In poker, as in Blackjack, great hands win most of the time. Not all of the time, mind you, just most of the time. We don’t always win with a hand of 20 versus a dealer’s 6 in Blackjack, nor will we always win with AA (“pocket rockets” in poker slang) in Hold ’em, but it’s still a good way to start.

So, how do you make sure you have a good start for a Hold ’em poker hand? Well, that’s the beauty of the game of poker. If you don’t like your first two cards, you throw them away! It’s somewhat like the surrender rule in Blackjack, except it doesn’t cost as much. If you’re familiar with surrender, you can stop the play by giving up half your bet and, if surrender is allowed in the casino where you’re playing, you should do it whenever the mathematics say you’ll win less than 50% of the time. But 50% is a fairly steep price to pay for getting out of the hand. However in poker, it’s not nearly that much. In most poker games with 8 to 10 players, you’ll have to post a “small blind” and “big blind” bet only about once every 8-10 hands. All of the other hands you’ll get cost you nothing to throw away, so in, say, a $10/$20 game with a $5 small blind bet and a $10 big blind bet, it’ll cost you only $15 for each “round” of 8-10 hands to toss them. That’s a little more that $1.50 per hand and, with a $10 minimum bet per round, the percentage is only 15-20% if you always fold. It would be stupid to always fold, of course, but I want to contrast this with surrender in Blackjack where it would cost you 50% of your total bets if you always did it.

The point I’m trying to make here is that you do not have to play poor cards in a Hold ’em poker game, but most beginners do. The wise player enters the pot on his or her own terms or s/he simply doesn’t play. This takes a certain amount of patience that many beginners seem to lack (“Hell, I’m here to play Hold ’em poker, not Fold ’em poker”) and you can take advantage of that. Just as it takes patience for the count in a 6-deck Blackjack game to get into positive territory, so it is with Hold ’em. Good pocket cards don’t come along on every deal, so you’ve got to fold a lot if you expect to make any $$$ from this game. There’s no arguing that the game of Hold ’em poker is much more complicated than the game of Blackjack, but both use decks of 52 cards and both are subject to mathematical analysis, so it’s actually possible for us to determine which sets of pocket cards are worth playing and which are not.

There are actually EV tables that show the long term statistical results of Hold’em hands. Another site has a copy of this chart, where it ranks poker hands by EV. This gives a numerical value to each hand combination, that easily shows the good vs bad poker hands.

Let me give you a crystal clear example: Which pocket pair do you think will win more, KK or 22? Hopefully the answer is obvious. A pair of deuces can be beat by any other pair out there but a pair of Kings can only be beaten by a pair of Aces. Of course, both are beat by two-pair, a set of Trips, etc. so a pair of anything isn’t necessarily an automatic winner when all five community cards have been dealt. But it’s actually fairly easy to determine which pocket cards will win in the long run and which won’t. It’s not exactly like determining how much we’ll make with a 20 versus a dealer’s 6 in Blackjack, because your position at the poker table, the cards that come on the flop, the turn and the river (Unfamiliar with these terms? See lesson 1.), the other players’ cards, how much is in the pot and a variety of other factors will ultimately determine the value of a starting hand.

But, believe it or not, we can assign some average values to all of those variables and come up with a nice list of playable pocket cards, which I’ll present below.

But before I do that, let me explain my “grand scheme” here. What I intend to ultimately present to you is a Hold ’em Poker Basic Strategy Matrix, which is very much like the matrix I use in teaching Basic Strategy for Blackjack. But the Hold ’em matrix is going to be a bit more complicated because it will take into consideration your position at the table, the number of players that called the bet before you, any raises, etc. Complicated? Yes. But remember that I’m teaching you how to play Hold ’em poker at online poker rooms, so you won’t have to memorize anything! Just print out what I show you and keep it by your computer as you play. Of course, if you are willing to do some memorizing, then the process of evaluating a hand will proceed more quickly, plus you might want to use this information in a brick-and-mortar casino where using a “cheat sheet” may not be appropriate.

Like any other matrix, mine will be built in layers that hopefully have some sort of rhyme and reason about them. But I definitely know where to start and that is to give you a list of the minimum hands you should play. What I mean by that is this: Your pocket cards can only be one of three types: pairs, suited cards or unsuited cards. Obviously pairs cannot be suited; there is only one King of spades in a deck; get two King of spades as pocket cards and there’s a definite problem. Back in the Old West, you’d probably get shot for that. But to continue along, besides pairs (cards of equal “rank” but different suit), you can get suited cards (different rank but same “suit”) or unsuited cards (different suit, different rank) and that’s it. Within all of those various permutations of cards, there are 1326 different two-card combinations that can make up the pocket cards in a Hold ’em game. Play long enough and you’ll get all of them, but there are only about 250 or so that you should bet on. Except for the pairs, each set has one card that is higher in rank than the other and that’s what forms the basis for my minimum starting hand list. For example, you might be dealt 10c7d (10 of clubs, 7 of diamonds) so the first thing you do is look at the card of the highest rank, which is the 10 of clubs. If the lower card of the two is equal to or higher than the minimum I list, the hand may be played. I say “may” because as we go along, you’ll see that your position at the table, the number of raises you may have to call, etc., will all have an effect on whether or not you play the hand. But if the lower card of the two is outside the “minimum”, you’ll just fold the hand, regardless. So, I guess this isn’t so much a list of hands to play as much as a list of hands to not play.

Let me amplify my example with the 10c7d hand. The absolute minimum hand you should play where the 10 is the high card is 10-7s. This means “10, 7 suited”; in other words, the two are of the same suit, like spades, hearts, diamonds or clubs. Remember that this is the minimum hand, so it’s okay to play 10-8s or 10-9s, because they are “above” a 10-7s. What about a 10-Jack, you ask? Well, that falls under the Jacks hands, because we always work off the higher card, so don’t get confused. Okay, what about 10 and something unsuited? The minimum hand there is 10-8o (10, 8 offsuit). I’m using a small “o” to represent unsuited (“off-suit”) only because that’s the way it’s done by most poker writers. I think it should be “u”, but they got here before me, so I’ll do it their way. Okay, so now we know that the minimum hand with a high card of 10 where the cards are not suited is 10, 8. This means it’s okay to play 10-9o, but not 10-7o. The cards would have to be suited for that. Obviously, 10-5, either suited or unsuited is outside the range, so it should never be played, period.

As you go through the list, keep in mind the rationale for most of these choices. Pairs can be improved in many ways and high pairs (Aces-Jacks) can often win on their own. Two suited cards of different rank can win by turning into a Flush, a Straight or a Straight Flush, or by improving to Two-Pair, Trips, etc. Two pocket cards of different rank and suit are not likely to turn into a Flush, and while they might make Two-pair, Trips, etc., they’ll most likely either make a single Pair or, if all goes well, a Straight. Generally you’ll see that the “bottom” card is at or near the low end of a Straight Flush for the higher card. For example, the minimum hand for a Queen is Q-8s (Queen, 8 suited) because the 8 is the lowest card that will make a Straight or Straight Flush with a Queen. If the Queen and the other card are not suited, the minimum hand is Q-9o. This makes sense, because you’re giving up some “flush power” with this hand; it’ll take four cards of whatever suit the Queen is in to make a Flush and somebody else may have the King or Ace and beat you. Just so we’re clear on this, if the higher card is a Queen and the lower card is of the same suit, Queen-8 is the minimum hand which means it’s okay to play the hand with a suited 9 or 10, also. But if you have, say, a suited 7 (or lower) with the Queen, the hand should be folded. If they’re offsuit, then a 9 is as low as you should go; not even an 8 should be played, let alone a 7 or lower.

Make sense? I hope so, but if not, don’t hesitate to e-mail me your questions. I always answer my mail personally and I try to do it within 2-3 days at the most. You’ll find my address at the end of the lesson.

Okay, so here’s my list of minimum starting hands. Remember that s = suited and o = offsuit or unsuited. Oh, yeah “x” means any card. By the way, this list is for Limit Hold ’em; No-limit starting hands would be quite a bit different.

Minimum Starting Hands for Limit Hold ’em Poker



Notes and comments:

While it’s best to memorize this chart, until you do just print it out and have it near you when you’re playing. You can see that as the higher card goes down in rank, the spread between it and the lower card gets tighter. That’s mainly because the only hope you have with a starting hand like 7-6o is to make a Straight and more Straights can be made when there are fewer “gaps” to deal with. For those of you who are Video Poker players, you know exactly what I mean; in fact, I found my experience at playing VP very helpful in recognizing playable situations.

Now look at the minimum hands for the mighty Ace. If the lower card is of any rank and is suited, the hand is playable, but if it’s unsuited, it should be no lower than a 10. As you’ll find out, most players will cling to A-xo until the bitter end. And you’ll most certainly lose some nice hands to something like A-6o, but in the long run, it shouldn’t be played. To draw an analogy to Blackjack one more time, folding A-6o is like hitting A-7 versus a dealer’s 9; not everyone does it, even though it’s the proper play. It may not “feel” right, but you’ll make more $$$ in the long run if you’ll do it. Math does not have room for “feelings”. Cold, perhaps but that’s how it is.

Pairs: No pairs are listed on here because all of them are playable at one time or another. Just remember that this list (and the pairs) is not a license to play these hands at any time, under any set of circumstances. For example, you’d be crazy to play 10-7s in an early position after 3 players have raised behind you. As I said earlier, this list is as much about what not to play as it is about what’s playable. So stop calling with those Q-3s hands and be patient until I show you the entire matrix. That will incorporate this list and the pairs into a complete strategy that takes into consideration your position, how many bets you have to call and so on. In the meantime, I have some homework for you and that’ll wrap it up.



  • A lot of the work that goes into deciding which hands are worth playing and which are not is derived from simulation. While a “sim” is not as precise as strict mathematical anaysis, if the simulation encompasses a large number of hands, it can come very close. I do these sims on my copy of “Turbo Hold ’em” by Wilson software, which I mentioned in a previous lesson.
  • Print out the List of Minimum Starting Hands, right now while you’re thinking about it and place it by your computer so you can refer to it as you play.