NL Hold’em Starting Hand Charts One aspect of the game of No‐Limit Hold’em that causes beginning players much grief is deciding which hands to play and which hands to dump. NL Hold’em is much more difficult than Limit Hold’em.Mason MalmuthTwo Plus Two Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 12
- General Guidelines
- Seven Card Stud
- Limit Texas Hold'em
There are five categories of limit hold ’em starting hands that we will discuss: Big pairs, small and medium pairs, two high cards, suited connectors, and big-little suited. Most other hands should be thrown away unless you have the big blind and the pot has not been raised.
A pair of tens and higher is an excellent starting hand. With a high pair, you not only can make an even bigger hand, but also can completely miss the board — your hand does not improve — and still have a reasonable opportunity to win the pot. Obviously, the chances of winning with two aces are better than the chances of winning with two tens. In general, however, all high pairs have immediate value and should be played aggressively.
Small and medium pairs.
In hold ’em, as in seven-card stud, there is a big difference in strength between big pairs and smaller pairs. A hand like the
seldom wins the pot without improvement. Moreover, the odds against this hand improving to three of a kind on the flop are almost 8-to-1 (although you still can flop a straight draw).
Since small and medium pairs rarely win without improving, they have little immediate value and therefore can be classified as drawing hands. And to profitably play these hands, you need several opponents in the pot.
Two high cards.Two unsuited high cards is usually a playable hand but not a great hand. Even though ace-king almost always should be played, a hand like the
often should be folded, especially if someone has raised. In addition, this hand must hit the flop to win in a multiway pot.
If your hand is suited, you should be more inclined to play. But remember the warning given earlier: Don’t overrate the value of two suited cards.
Suited connectors.Hands like the
are only fair at best. And if your hand contains a gap, you cannot play it as often since your straight possibilities have decreased. This type of hand usually should be thrown away in early position, and you should not call a raise even from a late position unless many players are already in the pot.
An ace or a king with a small card of the same suit is similar in value to the suited connectors and should be played as such. Of course ace-little suited is better than king-little suited.
Starting Hand Quiz
1. What hands are you primarily interested in playing?
Big pairs and high cards, especially suited high cards.
2. How do you play these hands?
Aggressively. Almost always raise, and with the better hands, usually reraise.
3. Suppose two players are already in the pot. The first player has raised, the second has called, and you hold two kings. What should you do?
Raise again. You have a strong hand and would prefer to shut out the remaining players.
4. In what situation do small pairs play best?
In a many-handed pot.
5. When you play a small pair, what are you hoping to do?
To make three of a kind on the flop.
6. When do suited connectors play best?
When many opponents are in the pot.
7. You are in one of the blind positions, someone has raised, and there are several callers. What kind of hands should you play?
All of the good hands, plus all pairs and many of the hands that can make straights and flushes.
8. Which hand is better, ace-jack offsuit or eight-seven suited?
Normally, ace-jack offsuit is the better hand. But when a lot of players are in the pot, you would prefer to hold the eight-seven suited. In this spot, don’t overplay a hand like ace-jack.
9. If there is no raise, what hands do you call with out of the little blind?
Texas Holdem Starting Hand Percentages
Even though you can get in for only a partial bet, you still need to be somewhat selective. Routinely playing hands like the
eventually will prove costly. In other words, you still should discard your worst hands.
10. If someone has raised, how does this affect the hands you should play?
Generally, you need to be much more selective. Small pairs and medium suited connectors do not play well against a large pair, and when someone raises, he’s quite likely to be holding a large pair. In addition, a raise makes it doubtful that a lot of players will enter the pot. This means you will not get the implied odds — the amount of money you anticipate winning versus the amount you expect it to cost you — that many hands require to be profitable.
11. When should you play a hand like king-four suited?
When you are in a late position, several players are already in, and the pot has not been raised.
12. When you have a close decision regarding whether to play a hand, what should you consider?
In hold ’em, as in seven-card stud and all other forms of poker, you must take into account how well those opponents already in the pot play. The better they play, the less inclined you should be to go up against them.
Poker Strategy and Other Topics - November 2019
by Carlos Welch
by Robert Samuels
by Kevin Haney
by Kevin Haney
by Ben Saxton
by Bryan Clark
by Felipe Garcia, CFA and Aaron Byrd, CFA
by Nick Willett
by Mason Malmuth
When I started trying to learn how to be a better Texas
holdem player I searched high and low for a list of which
starting hands I could play.
I looked on the Internet and bought book after book looking
for an answer. This was in the early 2000’s so most of the
drivel posted online was poor at best, and there wasn’t as much
out there as you can find today.
A few charts and lists could be found, but once I started
playing more I quickly realized the resources I had were either
wrong or simply suggestions.
Eventually I learned that no list or chart could possibly
offer more than a suggestion. Each Texas holdem game is
The games are made up of different players who each have
different playing tendencies and abilities and stack sizes. In
addition, an opponent often changes the way she plays from one
hand to the next or one hour to the next.
All of this leads to one of the most important points you
need to learn to start winning more at the poker table.
Winning Texas holdem poker players adjust their play,
including their starting hand selections, based on the current
Here’s an example.
When you play in a game filled with loose aggressive players
you should play tighter than the other players. You can afford
to only play your best hands because loose aggressive players
will play against you with hands that rank worse than yours and
pay you off more than usual because they play them too
Here’s another example.
If you’re sitting at a table where everyone is playing
tighter than normal you should loosen your starting hands
selections up to take advantage of the situation. In this
situation if a few of your opponents are decent players they’ll
start seeing what you’re doing, so you need to watch carefully
so you can adjust your play as needed. But until they do you can
win many small pots and blinds by simply being aggressive.
I realize I just spent a great deal of time explaining why a
chart or list won’t work, but I’m going to give you some
guidelines based on the different positions at the table that
includes some specific hands.
|Outs||Turn||Odds||Turn & River||Odds|
|20||42.6%||1.4 to 1||67.5%||0.48 to 1|
|19||40.4%||1.5 to 1||65%||0.54 to 1|
|18||38.3%||1.6 to 1||62.4%||0.6 to 1|
|17||36.2%||1.8 to 1||59.8%||0.67 to 1|
|16||34%||1.9 to 1||57%||0.75 to 1|
|15||31.9%||2.1 to 1||54.1%||0.85 to 1|
|14||29.8%||2.2 to 1||51.2%||0.95 to 1|
|13||27.7%||2.6 to 1||48.1%||1.1 to 1|
|12||25.5%||2.9 to 1||45%||1.2 to 1|
|11||23.4%||3.3 to 1||41.7%||1.4 to 1|
|10||21.3%||3.7 to 1||38.4%||1.6 to 1|
|9||19.1%||4.2 to 1||35%||1.9 to 1|
|8||17%||4.9 to 1||31.5%||2.2 to 1|
|7||14.9%||5.7 to 1||37.8%||2.6 to 1|
|6||12.8%||6.8 to 1||24.1%||3.2 to 1|
|5||10.6%||8.4 to 1||20.3%||3.9 to 1|
|4||8.5%||10.8 to 1||16.5%||5.1 to 1|
|3||6.4%||14.7 to 1||12.5%||7 to 1|
|2||4.3%||22.5 to 1||8.4%||10.9 to 1|
|1||2.1%||46 to 1||4.3%||22.3 to 1|
One of the problems new players have is they don’t know how
to get a feel for the game and have no idea how to adjust their
starting hands to take advantage of the current situation. Sadly
the only way to learn this is by playing, but if you study and
learn the concepts laid out below you’ll be able to grasp what
you need faster.
The reason starting hands are so important is because the
person who starts the hand with the best starting hand wins more
often than the person who doesn’t.
This may sound simple, but most players ignore it by playing
Every hand in every position in every situation is either
profitable or unprofitable in the long run to play.
The problem is you have to decide which hands to play and how
to play them without all of the information you need to make a
You also need to be aware that any starting hand can win or
lose the current hand. What’s important is how it performs over
100 of the same situations.
Some hands are easy to determine while others are almost
You can play pocket aces or kings from any position in any
game profitably in the long run. You’ll find that you should
play them certain ways to have the best chance to maximize your
profits, but you can play them almost any way and still turn a
long term profit with them.
On the other hand you can’t play 7 2 in any situation
profitably in the long run.
The secret is figuring out all of the hands between the best
and the worst in every situation.
Don’t Play Too Many Hands
When I help Texas holdem players I never need to tell them to
play more hands. They’re always playing too many hands.
It’s easy to get bored at the table waiting for a decent
hand. When poker players get bored they start expanding their
starting hand selections and justifying it in their mind. If you
haven’t played a hand in what seems like an hour and you look
down to find 6 / 4 of diamonds, you start thinking you could hit a straight or
While it’s true that you could hit a straight or a flush, it
won’t happen often enough to pay for all of the times you don’t
and when you hit a flush it may not be the best flush.
If a flush is possible are you willing to bet all of your
money that your flush is best with nothing higher than a 6 in
your hand? This isn’t a good bet.
I see many players seeing over 40% of the flops. Even the
ones that think they’re playing tight often see over 30%.
Truly tight Texas holdem players see 20% or less of the
In some games a winning player can see as few as 15% of the
flops. Though it’s rare in a Texas holdem game, I’ve played in
numerous pot limit Omaha games where you could see 10% of the
flops and show a strong profit.
I want to make a couple clarifications before moving on.
No Limit Texas Holdem Rules
You don’t have to be extremely tight or see fewer than 20% of
the flops to be a profitable poker player. When you’re starting
out and as you learn to be a better player you should play
tight. This gives you the best chance to win because playing
better starting hands than your opponents helps cover up many of
the other mistakes you make as a new player.
As you improve your game you have the option of playing a few
more hands in certain games, but many winning players stick with
20% or so of the flops.
The players who are able to win while consistently seeing 25
to 30% or more of their flops are almost always exceptional
players, particularly after the flop. Don’t make the mistake of
playing too many hands until you’ve mastered the other areas of
your Texas holdem game.
By the time you become a profitable player in the other areas
of your game the odds are you’ll be able to recognize when you
can profitably play more hands.
Until this happens, give yourself the best chance to win by
playing fewer hands.
No Limit and Limit
The most popular variation of Texas holdem is no limit. Most
of the starting hand advice below is written with no limit play
in mind, but the majority of it is also good for limit holdem.
I suggest playing even tighter in limit play than in no limit
because the opportunity to make up for playing with an inferior
hand is less in limit play. To put it another way, in no limit
you can often get paid off in a big way when you do hit a long
shot like a set so you can make up for the many times you miss
your hand. In limit play you can only win a set amount so it’s
harder to get paid off at a high enough rate in limit to allow
play of speculative or trap hands.
Examples of the types of hands that are less valuable in
limit play are medium and small pairs and medium suited
Medium and small pairs almost always have to improve to a set
or better in order to win. Suited connectors, cards that share
the same suit and are one gap or less apart in value like 8 / 9 of spades or
8 / 10 of spades, can win numerous ways but they don’t hit often enough to
show a profit in many limit games.
As I mentioned above, every poker game is unique so all of
the suggestions need to be compared to your current game
conditions and adjusted accordingly.
Full Tables vs Short Handed Tables
The advice I listed above about flop percentages and the hand
suggestions included below are based on full ring game play.
If you play shorthanded tables, usually 6 handed, you need to
play slightly more hands than at full tables. Don’t make the
mistake of playing too many extra hands though.
It’s easy to go overboard. Tight play is still the easiest
way to give yourself a good chance to win.
From a mathematical standpoint, if you should play 20% of the
hands at a 9 person table, you should play 30% of the hands at a
6 person table.
Just like everything else on this page, 30% is a rough
estimate and you should adjust it based on the current game
Early position is the first two places to the left of the big
blind. The blinds have their own section below so they aren’t
The main reason you need to play so few hands from early
position is because you play the entire hand out of position.
You’ll almost always have to face a player or players who get to
act after you must make a decision. This places you at a
distinct disadvantage for the entire hand.
These starting hand suggestions for early position are going
to seem extremely tight to most players, but until you’re a
consistent winner simply fold everything not on this list.
I also suggest folding the ace queen suited unless you hit a
strong draw or top pair top kicker on the flop and getting away
from the ace king hands as soon as an opponent shows aggression
after the flop if you haven’t improved.
When you play a pair of queens you should be cautious with
any flop that contains an ace. I usually make a continuation bet
after the flop if an ace lands, but if anyone calls I’m usually
done with the hand at that point. Kings on the flop aren’t as
scary as aces to a pair of queens.
You should play all of these hands with a raise to thin the
field and help build the pot with the players who remain in the
One of your goals as a poker player is to get more money in
the pot when you have the better hand and minimize the amount
you put in the pot when you don’t. With these hands you’ll
almost always have a better hand than your opponents before the
flop so the more money you get in the better.
As your play improves and you get better at reading your
opponents and their hands you might consider adding some of the
following hands in certain games. Don’t feel like you have to
add them at any point. The truth is that as you become better
and more profitable you’ll start recognizing the times when you
can play the following hands without reading about them on a web
Until you’re a pro, play every hand from early position with
a raise. If it’s not good enough to raise with from early
position you should fold. When you raise with any of these
second tier hands and are re-raised you should probably fold.
The only exception is if you know enough about the other player
that you still think you’re ahead. This is rarely the case.
Middle position is from the third seat to the left of the big
blind to the second seat to the right of the button. In a 6
handed game it’s the second seat to the left of the large blind.
Middle position can be tricky because you can play a few more
hands than you can from early position but you still run the
risk of being out of position the rest of the hand if a late
position player enters the pot.
This is the main reason I like to raise most of my hands from
middle position. I want to give the late position players a
reason to fold and if they call a raise it gives me an idea of
the strength of their hand moving forward.
In addition to both sets of hands listed in the early
position section the following hands can usually be played from
You should fold most of these hands if an early position
player has raised.
Be aware that medium pairs, including the eights and sevens,
should generally be played for a set from middle position. You
can play them aggressively at times, but mostly they’re trap
Notice that almost all of these hands need to improve to win.
Don’t overcommit to the pot with any of these hands because none
of them are strong enough to win big hands without improving.
The medium pairs can be profitably played against early
position raises if the player has a deep stack and they show a
willingness to get most of their money in the middle after the
flop. You call their raise and try to get all of their money
when you hit a set. When you miss on the flop you have to fold
to a continuation bet.
As you’re learning how to play don’t feel like you have to
play many hands in middle position. If you only played the hands
listed in both parts of the early position section you won’t
make many mistakes. As you get more comfortable add in the hands
in this section.
Late position includes the button and one seat to the right.
The button is superior to the seat to the right, but often with
a raise from one off the button you can get the button to fold,
creating a situation where you’re the new button.
All of the hands listed in the last two sections can usually
be played profitably from late position. Some of them are still
weak enough that you should consider folding them against a
raise, but even against a raise you can play many for a long
The exception is when an early position player who you know
is a good player raises.
You should fold most hands against this type of raise. A good
player is one that only plays their best hands from early
position and is smart enough to be able to get away from trap
hands without risking their entire stack in most situations.
It doesn’t do you much good to hit a set against an early
raise unless you can extract a large portion of your opponent’s
I’m not going to give you a list of late position hands to
add to the ones already listed. You can play smaller pairs and
suited connectors in many games from late position because you
get to act after everyone else for the rest of the hand, but you
still need to be smart to avoid losing money.
Small pairs can be trap hands because sometimes when
you hit a set another player will hit a higher one. This usually
leads to a large loss and is enough to make many pros avoid
small pairs. I’ve seen Doyle Brunson fold small pairs in ring
games on television many times. I’m sure he has and does play
them from time to time, but for the most part they’re dangerous.
I can’t remember who the professional player was, but I read
about a game a pro played in on a weekly basis that he could
play any hand from the button for a long term profit. You may
find this hard to believe, but depending on the level of the
competition, I believe it’s possible. I’ve never played in a
game where I could play every hand from the button, but I’ve
played in some where I could play most of the button hands. When
I say most I mean 75 to 80%.
Often late position play is as much about your opponents and
knowing how to play against them as the cards you hold. This is
what the pro was taking advantage of in the game mentioned
The blinds are where many players lose a great deal of their
money. They think that because they can get into the pot for a
half bet or by calling a small raise that the pot is offering
such good odds that they can play almost any hand.
I’ve even played against people who simply refused to fold
their blinds unless they faced an all in pre flop. Needless to
say, I love when these players are seated at my table.
My rule of thumb is to fold anything from the small blind
that I wouldn’t play from late position. I also fold anything in
the big blind to a raise that I wouldn’t play in early or
sometimes middle position.
I’ve found that if I have any question in the blinds the most
profitable long term strategy is folding. In many games I fold
everything from the small blind that I wouldn’t play from middle
position. I found that playing anything else, even for a half
bet, was costing me money in the long run.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking the money you put
into the pot in the blinds or anywhere else is yours once it’s
in. Once you place the bet it’s not yours any more. So you don’t
need to defend your blinds or the pot. If you have a good hand
then enter the pot, but if you don’t you need to fold.
After the first round of betting the blind are the worst
position for the rest of the hand. When you see the flop and it
doesn’t give you a strong hand or very strong draw simply check
and fold to any bet. Don’t get fancy and throw away your money.
Texas Holdem Starting Hands Chart
Tournament starting hand play is entirely different than ring
I cover it in more detail on the tournaments page, but for
the most part you need to focus on hands that give you the best
chance to win big pots and fold everything else.
In order to win most tournaments you have to double your
starting chip stack multiple times. While enough small pots can
help you increase your stack, a single bad decision can end your
While it may seem like medium pairs would be good because you
have a chance to double up when you hit a set, the truth is you
don’t hit a set often enough to make them playable for set value
in most tournaments.
The hands you can play from early position listed earlier are
the best ones for tournament play, especially early in the
As you build your stack you can expand your starting hand
selections a little, but you still want to play tight.
If you start getting short stacked you may need to make an
all-in move. Try to pick a hand with an ace, a pair, or two face
cards and move all in and hope for the best.
The following summarizes the important strategy points from
- Tight starting hand play increases your chances to show
a long term profit.
- Every Texas holdem game is different and requires a
unique starting hand selection.
- Position is important and needs to be considered with
every single starting hand decision.
- Some hands can be played from any position and some
can’t be played from any position. How you play everything
else is directly related to your long term profit at the
- Tournament starting hand requirements are different than
ring game play.
- Just because you can get in for half a bet doesn’t mean
any hand is playable. Many hands are losers in the long run
even for half a bet.