Poker Starting Hands

Knowing the best starting hands preflop is essential. Learn the starting hand groups (pairs, offsuit, suited, trash hands) and how to play them right.

Your hole cards are the foundation of every Hold'em hand. Indeed, hole cards are the starting hands every player base their entire preflop strategy on! There are 169 distinct starting hands in poker, and you need to be selective if you want to be profitable.

But how do you decide which starting hands to play, and which are the best?

Starting Hand Range Notation

Poker hand range notation is a standardized shorthand used to describe poker hands and ranges. A range is any collection of hands that you or an opponent could be holding based on position and action.

You can write out poker hands in long-form - Ace of Hearts, Jack of Clubs, Two of Diamonds, etc. But this is time-consuming, especially if you want to describe a range rather than just individual hands.

Standard poker notation makes things much easier. Here is a quick overview of the basics:

  • A, K, Q, J, T = the Broadway cards (Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten). E.g. AA is a pair of Aces
  • 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 = the number cards. E.g. 77 is a pair of Sevens.
  • s = the hand is suited. E.g. AKs, where both the Ace and King are of the same suit. Used after the cards to distinguish it from the notation for spades.
  • o = the hand is offsuit. AKo, where the Ace and King are different suits.
  • c, d, h, s = the four suits. Each is represented by its first letter. E.g. AK is the Ace of clubs with the King of diamonds. Used after each card to distinguish it from the notation for suited. E.g. AK or AKss would be the Ace-King of spades, but AKs would just be any suited Ace-King
  • + = used to depict all hands that rank or higher. For e.g., QQ+ is any pair from Queens to Aces  (QQ, KK, AA). 22+ would be any pair at all. This isn't restricted to pairs - 98s+ is all the suited connectors from 98s upward (98s, T9s, JTs, QJs, KQs, AKs).
  • - = shows where a range of cards starts and finishes. 98s-QJs would include 98s, JTs, and QJs. 55-77 would be 55, 66, and 77.

You can then link these concepts together. For example, [JJ+, AKo, 76s-T9s] would be made up of JJ, QQ, KK, AA, AKo, 76s, 87s, 98s, and T9s.

Evaluating the Strength of a Starting Hand

When you first start playing poker, it's best to stick to pre-flop charts like the ones below. However, really you need to get used to using your own judgment to assess the strength of the hole cards you are dealt. There are a number of factors you should take into account. Eventually, it will become second nature to assess the strength of your starting hand - but until then, don't be ashamed of using a chart.

Your Position

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Position is king in Hold'em. Position dictates what cards you should play - the later your position, the wider range of cards you can play profitably. There are two reasons for this.

First, the earlier you act pre-flop, the more players there are to act after you, and therefore the more likely someone will wake up with a great hand.

Second, if you have to act first post-flop, it makes playing certain types of hands much harder than when you are in position and act last.

For example, suited connectors tend to realize their equity slowly, often needing to see all five cards to make a straight or flush. Being out-of-position makes it much harder to do this.

Type of Hand

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There are three main types of starting hand: value hands, speculative hands, and trash hands.

Value hands are hands that have a mathematical advantage over your opponents that you are playing for value - the obvious example is pocket Aces. You are putting money into the pot because you think you are ahead against the range of hands your opponent might have.  

Speculative hands are small pairs, suited connectors, and low-suited Aces. You don't expect them to be ahead of your opponent's range unimproved, but they have the potential to make monster hands such as sets, straights, and flushes.

It is extremely hard to hit a monster though, so it's not the main reason to play speculative hands. There are two more important reasons - the first is to steal the blinds, as it's not the end of the world if you get called.

The second is to widen your range and improve your board coverage - if you only played premium pairs you would be extremely easy to exploit, especially on certain board textures. You can think of speculative hands as semi-bluffing hands.

Trash hands are hands you should avoid playing - pretty much any hand that isn't a value or speculative hand. However, in late position you may still be able to use them as blind stealing hands. Unlike speculative hands though, you are usually in bad shape if you get called.

Stack Size

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Effective stack size is often overlooked but of critical importance. Always consider your stack size and the stack sizes of players in the hand before deciding whether to get involved.

There is no point calling a short stack's preflop raise with a speculative hand like a small pocket pair or suited connector, simply because you cannot win enough money to make up for the long odds of actually making a set, straight or flush. If you are short-stacked - for example in the later stages of a tournament - then ditch the speculative hands and go for hands that can make big pairs.

Conversely, when you are playing super deep, that is 200bb+, then pocket Aces become less valuable, and speculative hands are much more valuable.

Playing Styles

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There are plenty of ways to play poker. Some people like to play loose and aggressive, and others like to keep it tight. The player's style is a huge influence on the overall playing strategy, dictating what hands should be played and how.

If you are not comfortable dealing with marginal situations, then be picky in your starting hand selection. Stick to value hands and avoid speculative hands, especially out-of-position.

If you enjoy post-flop play and think you can outmaneuver your opponents, then loosen up and get involved in more pots.

Dynamic Around The Table

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Poker is a dynamic game where you have to pay careful attention to what is going on around you at the table and adjust your play accordingly.

For example, if you are playing against a table of nits then you want to widen your ranges considerably, whereas if you are playing against a bunch of calling stations you want to tighten up and go for value. And if you are playing in a game where the whole table gets involved in every hand then speculative hands that can make monsters become very useful.

Poker Starting Hand Groups

There are 169 different starting hands you can be dealt in Hold'em. There are 13 ranks, and you can have any combination of each as your hole cards: 13 x 13 = 169.

These 169 possible hole hands can be broken down into three categories:

  1. pocket pairs (13 kinds),
  2. suited hands (78 kinds), and
  3. offsuit hands (78 kinds).

Taking into account the four suits, there are 1,326 different combinations of hole cards.

CategoryNumber of eachCombos of eachTotal combosFrequency
Pocket Pairs136785.9%
Suited Hands78431223.5%
Unsuited Hands781293670.6%
All Starting Hands169-1,326100%
The possible starting hand combinations in Hold'em.

Pocket Pairs

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A pocket pair is two cards of the same rank - pocket Aces being the strongest hole cards you can be dealt. They are necessarily different suits since poker is played with a single deck of cards.

There are thirteen different pocket pairs (one for each rank) and six different ways of making each. For example, AA, AA, AA, AA, AA, AA.

This makes a total of 78 combos out of 1,326. This means you have a 5.9% chance of being dealt a pocket pair. The chance of being dealt a specific pocket pair (such as Aces) is much lower at less than 0.5% (6 in 1,326, or 1 in 221).

Pairs will usually be your biggest source of profit in Hold'em as it is the most common poker hand.

Premium Pairs

Premium pairs are generally considered to be pocket Jacks or better. In standard notations, that's JJ+ (JJ, QQ, KK, AA). Some people include Tens as well.

They are the strongest starting hands in poker and should be played aggressively from any position, either open-raising or re-raising preflop. Three-betting with a premium pair is definitely common although some people love to slow-play pocket Aces.

Premium pairs will be generating most of your profit in Hold'em.

Example - AA. Pocket Aces are hands down the best starting hand in Hold'em. That doesn't mean you are entitled to win every time you get them! They are just a pair, after all. Pay attention to the board texture and action.

Middle Pairs

The middle pairs are pocket Sixes up to pocket Tens (66, 77, 88, 99, TT).

Although they have good equity against most ranges, it can be difficult to reach showdown to realize that equity when overcards come on the board. If you hold 88 and the flop comes AKQ, it takes some nerve to get through three rounds of betting - especially if you are out-of-position.

Middle pairs are usually profitable, but nowhere near the level of the premium pairs.

Example - 77. Pocket sevens have good equity against most ranges, but there's a 92% chance of an overcard on the flop, increasing to 99% by the river.

Low Pairs

The low pairs are two cards of the same rank, Fives or lower (22, 33, 44, 55).

They are best used as set mining hands, where you try to make a set on the flop. This makes them more useful when deep-stacked or in multiway pots.

You may find you are breaking even with low pairs, if not losing money with the lowest ranks.

Example - 22. Deuces are a pair, but they are in bad shape against most ranges unless they hit their set. Even when they are the best hand unimproved it's very difficult to get to showdown because there is a 100% chance of an overcard on the board. They are a pretty marginal hand and can end up costing you money over the long run.

Suited Hands

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Suited hands are when both hole cards are of the same suit. They are more common than pocket pairs, making up just under a quarter of the hands you will be dealt. There are 78 different suited starting hands, and 4 ways of making each - that's a total of 312 combinations.

Suitedness improves a starting hand's equity - the exact amount varies depending on the type of hand and the number of opponents in the hand with you, but the average improvement over unsuited is around 3 percentage points.

This may not sound like much, but poker is a game where small margins count over a large sample size.

Premium Suited Hands

The premium suited hands are generally suited combinations of the top four highest ranks (A, K, Q, J) - although really only AKs, AQs, AJs, and KQs are profitable from any position.

They have great equity due to their high ranks but also have the ability to make straights and flushes. They also have blocking effects - that is, you holding AK makes it 50% less likely your opponent holds pocket Aces or pocket Kings. Premium suited hands should account for a large percentage of hands for you to play.

Example - AKs. The best non-pair hand. It never has kicker problems, can make the nut flush and nut straight, and it should be played extremely aggressively preflop because of its blocking effects.

Suited Connectors

Suited Connectors are suited cards of neighboring rank. Everyone loves playing suited connectors but remember that apart from the premiums (AKs, KQs) they should be considered speculative hands and you need to be careful.

However, the lower-suited connectors have the advantage of making pairs and two pairs that are unlikely to be dominated (out-kicked), particularly in 3-bet pots.

Suited connectors have great playability - they can make a lot of different hands (one pair, two pair, trips, straights, flushes, full houses) and it's usually easy to see where you are post-flop and leave the hand, if necessary.

Suited connectors realize their equity gradually. That is, it's very rare to flop a straight or flush. Instead, you'll often need to see all five cards. This means you want to be in-position when you play them.

And make sure the effective stack size is deep enough to make playing them worth your while!

Example - 87. One fun fact about 87s is that it has the best equity against pocket Aces of any hand. Before you start calling all-ins though, be warned it's still only 22.5% v 77.5%.

Suited Gappers

Suited Gappers are like Suited Connectors but instead of being neighboring ranks there is a gap between them of one, two, or three ranks - they contain two cards to a straight, just not next to each other.

This makes it much harder to make a straight as you need to hit specific cards on the flop rather than making the top or bottom of a straight.

However, the advantage is that you don't make the idiot end of the straight - which can be very expensive - and it's much harder for your opponent to put you on hand.  

They are speculative hands, with the exception of AQs and AJs.

Example - T6. To give you an idea of the impact of the gap, T9 will make a straight about 9% of the time if you see all five cards, whereas for T6 it's less than 5%.

Unplayable Suited Hands

Just because suitedness gives a small equity advantage over unsuited, that doesn't mean you can get away with playing trash just because it's suited. This is a rookie error. If you wouldn't play a hand when it is unsuited, you need to think long and hard before playing the suited version.

Example - Q7s, T5s. They might look pretty, but just fold these pre-flop hands unless you're blind stealing or defending your big blind against a probable steal. Your bankroll will thank you.

Offsuit Hands

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Offsuit hands are every starting hand that isn't a pair where both cards are different suits. They are by far the most common poker hole card category you'll get, and for the most part you should be folding these weak poker hands.

There are 78 different offsuit starting hands, and 12 ways of making each of them, giving a total of 936 combinations out of 1,326 total combinations. That's over 70% of starting hands you'll be dealt.

Premium Offsuit Hands

Premium offsuit hands are few and far between. The best offsuit hands are AKo and AQo, and they can be played from any position.

AJo and KQo are more borderline and not worth playing from early position in full ring, although usually okay in 6-max. The later your position, the more you can start expanding into other unsuited Broadway combinations, like ATo and KJo. Beware of being outkicked though.

Example - AQ. Ace-Queen offsuit can be a tricky hand to play. Daniel Negreanu nicknamed it "1.4" after the 1.4 million dollars it's cost him. AQo is too good a hand to fold but it's in very bad shape against premium hands like AA and AK. Be very wary about calling early position raises - if an Ace comes on the flop, it's hard to tell where you're at.

Offsuit Connectors

Offsuit connectors are hole cards that are next to each other in rank but of different suits. It might seem like a good idea to play unsuited connectors - after all, suited connectors are playable and the unsuited kinds only have a few percentage points less equity. But this is the wrong way to look at it.  

The fact is suited connectors are already very speculative hands and you are only making your life harder by expanding into the unsuited variety.

As mentioned earlier, you want to include speculative hands in order to widen your range, improving your board coverage, and making you harder to read and exploit. But including offsuit connectors as well as suited connectors will widen it too much. Being loose and aggressive is very risky so tread lightly.

Remember that for every suited hand, there are three times as many unsuited versions (4 v 12 combos). Every single suited connector is 3.9% of possible card combinations - but every offsuit connector is 11.8%!

Aside from the Broadways, this category of hands are best used from the button as a blind-stealing hand.

Example - 87. This hand is okay to steal the blinds with but you don't really want to be called!

Offsuit Gappers

Offsuit gappers are unsuited hands that are one, two or three ranks apart. They are even worse than offsuit connectors. Offsuit gappers are harder to make a straight with and there's a whole lot more of them.

Example - T6. Remember how T6s makes a straight nearly half as often as T9s? Well T6o is just as bad - and it's chances of making a flush are significantly lower too.

Trash Hands

Trash hands are hands that you just shouldn't play. Most offsuit hands are trash, with the exception of the absolute premiums.

Example - 72o, the worst hand in poker (WHIP). This is only true multiway - heads-up the worst possible hand is 32o. These hands are terrible in every sense of the word. You will never make a profit with them over the long run.

Poker Starting Hands Ranking Chart
Classification of Poker Starting Hands (Groups & Types)

Starting Hand Charts

Calling is more complicated, but always remember the Gap Concept: it takes a stronger hand to call an open-raise than to make an open-raise. Just how much stronger depends on the relative position and how loose the open-raiser is. The fact is, calling will never be as profitable as being the aggressor.

If there are limpers you should just open a bit bigger - 1bb for each limper is the standard, but really the goal is to actually give them a decision to make as to whether to continue. However, it's usually best to tighten up a bit - weak players can show up with pretty strong hands anyone else would have open-raised.

The way the charts work is that they are additive - Early Position plays the tightest range of hands, then Middle Position plays all of those plus a few more, and so on.

These charts are for when you're opening the action. Don't use them to figure out your calling!

6-Max Starting Hand Chart

6-Max Starting Hand Chart
6-Max Starting Hand Chart

This 6-max chart should be used as a general starting point. You don't have to play a hand just because the chart says you should - and it's not the end of the world if you play looser than it suggests. Tailor your approach based on the stack sizes, table dynamic, and your own comfort zone.

The main takeaway is that you need to play tight from an early position, playing mainly with value hands, and loosen up as you get closer to the button by introducing more speculative hands (and even using borderline trash as stealing hands).

Full Ring Starting Hand Chart

Full-Ring Starting Hands Chart
Full-Ring Starting Hands Chart

Full-ring poker is tighter than 6-max from the early and middle positions. This is because there are three extra players to worry about. You will find full-ring is a tighter game where players show up with stronger hands more often. It requires more patience and attracts nittier players. The most prevalent styles in full-ring tables are tight-aggressive and tight passive poker.

Poker Starting Hand Ranking

There are many ways to rank starting hands in NLHE. The most common is to look at the hand's all-in equity against 1-8 random hands.

Heads-Up Starting Hand Ranking

Here are the best starting hands in poker based on the average all-in equity against random hands in heads-up:

#HandAll-in Equity v 1 Opponent
Top 10 Starting Hands By Average All-In Equity Against a Single Opponent

Full-Ring Starting Hand Ranking

Here are the best starting hands in poker based on the average all-in equity against eight random hands:

#HandAll-in Equity v 8 Opponents
Top 10 Starting Hands By Average All-In Equity Against 8 Opponents

These are okay as a starting point, and helpful when you are thinking about shoving when short-stacked - but it's not so helpful most of the time.

Theoretical Equity vs Real Action

The fact is people don't play random hands, and you don't always see all five community cards. You can make a slightly better list by looking at all-in equity against a more realistic range of "playable hands" that you are more likely to come up against, but the problem is still that you rarely see all five cards.

In other words, hands might have great equity in theory - but in practise it's very hard to actually realize that equity.

When you get down to it, you want hands that can make good pairs (because pairs are the most common way you'll win a pot in Hold'em), hands that can make the nuts, and versatile hands that can connect with the board in different ways.

Here is our top poker starting hands list based on pair potential, nut potential and versatility:

RankStarting Hand
Top 10 Starting Hands in Hold'em Poker

Remember this is a more a matter of opinion than an exact science - so don't be annoyed if your favorite hand isn't on there!

Poker Starting Hands: FAQ

Answers to the most common questions about starting hands in Texas Hold'em poker.

How many possible starting hands are there in poker?

There are 169 different possible starting hands - but when suits are taken into account, there are 1,326 possible combinations.

What are the best starting hands in Texas Hold'Em?

The best starting hands in Texas Hold'Em are the big pocket pairs: Aces, Kings and Queens. The best starting hand that isn't a pair is Ace-King - especially if both cards are the same suit.

What are the trickiest starting hands?

The trickiest starting hands in poker are the "trouble" hands - they look good but can get you into trouble. For example, KJo looks like a good hand, but can get you into kicker trouble if you flop a pair.

Many players find Pocket Jacks to be a tricky hand - after all, you'll face an overcard 76% of the time if you see all five community cards.

How to win with a bad hand in poker?

There are two ways to win with bad starting hand in poker - either get very lucky with the community cards, or use aggression to bluff your opponent and make them fold.
Both of these strategies can work out very expensive. Trying to make a good hand will bleed you dry slowly, while bluffing can cost you a lot all in one go.

What are the best 6-max poker starting hands?

The best 6-max starting hands are Pocket Aces, Pocket Kings, Pocket Queens and Ace-King suited. You should always play these hands aggressively when you're dealt them, no matter what position you are in.

What is a premium hand in poker?

A premium hand in poker is one that you can play from any position. These include the big pairs (Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks) as well as the big Aces (Ace-King and Ace-Queen).

Are pocket Aces better than suited AK?

Pocket Aces are better than suited AK, especially if they are up against each other - Aces win 87% of the time. AKs has to make a flush, a straight or trip Kings to come out on top. However, AKs is still a premium hand - partly because you holding it makes it 50% less likely that your opponent is holding a pair of Aces.

Poker is a complex game, and the first step to mastering it is understanding pre-flop play. You should use poker starting hand charts as you learn the ropes - and soon enough you'll be able to trust your own judgement when choosing what starting hands to play and how to play them.