Starting Hands Strategy - What hands to play and when


The first step towards improving your game starts Pre flop. Usually, beginners like to see a lot of flops and be in the mix of the action. I can't blame you for that; folding isn't fun. But choosing the wrong hands to play pre flop can compound into multiple mistakes post flop and result in a big loss. For example, let's say UTG raises and you decide to call with K8o in UTG+1. The board runs K high and you are facing bets on all the three streets. What do you do? You have top pair but with a bad kicker. You call and the villain shows you AK. This was a classic case of running into a dominated hand. Calling with a weak K or weak Ace is one of the most common beginner mistakes.

So what should a solid starting hand strategy look like? Let's find out.

Hands we should play with

1. Pairs (AA-22)
The odds of being dealt a pocket pair are 1 in 17 times or 5.88% chance; pocket pairs are rare. You can not go wrong with playing with these hands. But a word of caution - if you are facing raises and 3bets in front of you, it is OK to let go of the bottom of this range (22, 33 etc.). This is because, small pocket pairs will quite often not win at showdown. And the chances of them making a set are not good enough to justify a call given bad odds.

2. Broadway Hands
Broadway Hands are any two combination of A,K,Q,J,T (AK, QJ, JT etc.). These hands make decent top pairs and two pairs. They have good playability post flop given that you can bluff on different run outs having blockers in your hand. The same word of caution as above - facing huge action in front, it is OK to let go of some of the offsuit on-two gapper varieties of the lower part of this range (KTo, QTo)

3. Suited Connectors
Suited connectors like 78s, 9Ts, 67s are great hands to play because of two factors:
- They don't run the risk of being dominated by a better kicker often.
- They also do well to balance your range. It keeps your villains guessing what you might actually have and they can't exploit you easily.

4. Suited Gappers
Hands like 79s, 9Js are decent hands to play because they make concealed straights and flushes. So, it is often easy to extract value. But remember to not go overboard with them and choose the situations carefully.

5. Medium suited Aces
Medium suited aces can be decent hands to play. Just be careful that you are not getting value-towned by a better ace. Also, when facing a lot of action in front, fold some of the lower part of this range (A2s, A3s, etc.)

Hands to avoid

1. Dominated Hands
Hands like weak unsuited Aces (A6o, A7o etc), weak Kings both suited and unsuited are bad hands. They make weak hands post flop and run the risk of being dominated as we discussed earlier.

2. Unsuited Connectors/Gappers
Hands like 78o, 9To, 79o, 86o look like decent candidates to take a flop with. But remember that the odds of making strong hands with these are quite low. In the long run, you will lose more by putting in the money pre flop than you will win when you make a strong hand postflop.

3. Two-Three Gappers
8To, K9o, 7To, etc. - these are bad hands to play with. They don't make strong hands often enough and a lot of the times, you will lose a bet or two on flop/turn trying to make a hand with them.

4. Rags
28o, J5o, T4o - these are hands you just shouldn't play. If you've understood the logic for the hand selection so far, this should come intuitively to you. These hands make good hands very rarely. And when they do, it is hard to extract value. 

I hope this helps improve your game. Leave your comments and questions below.

NOTE: This article is just a starting point for beginners and is by no means the only correct way to play. The hands that you play with will and should change based on different factors: opponent types (are they tight or loose), stack sizes, table dynamics, position. Most of all, it depends on how good you are at playing them. As your game improves, you can add more hands to this selection.

This article was written by Mayank Jain. Mayank is a writer who plays poker for a living. He writes at on mindfulness, travel and art, among other things.