The first thing you learn in poker is the standard ranking of hands. For most people, the 2nd thing you learn is how to play 5 card draw.
But Texas holdem isn’t far behind.
Once you’ve mastered the basics of playing—how the deal works, how the bets are handled, and so on—you start learning about the strategic concepts behind winning the game on a consistent basis.
And the first of these concepts is tight preflop play.
I’ve read that at most Texas holdem games, you can break even just by having strong play preflop. Even if your play after the flop is only mediocre, if you’re playing right before the flop, you won’t lose any money in the long run.
But some players take being tight preflop to the extreme.
And they often confuse being tight with being passive.
Yes, you’re only going to play good hands preflop. But most of the time, you’re not going to try to play them cheaply.
You’re going to gamble with them. You’re going to bet and raise with them.
Don’t forget that even though poker is a game of skill, it’s still gambling. You can’t win at gambling without, well… gambling…
Here are the top 10 starting hands in Texas holdem along with some suggestions for how to best play them. You can (and should) play other hands preflop, but these might be the most important hands to play preflop.
1. Pocket Aces
It’s hard to go wrong when playing “rockets,” or “bullets,” as a pair of aces if often called. After all, a pair of aces is easily the most powerful starting hand in the game. Even if you mis-play this hand, it’s so strong that you’ll often win lots of money anyway.
But how do you get the most money out of this hand?
If you’re playing in a no-limit game, if you’re in early position, it might make sense to limp with pocket aces. Your hope is that someone following you will put in a raise with a pair of kings or queens. When the action gets back to you, you can re-raise and make your opponent play for his entire stack.
If you’re in middle or late position, you should raise with aces. There’s no reason to be tricky here. You don’t want to give a substandard hand a cheap way to draw out on you.
If you’re playing limit, you should raise regardless of your position. You don’t have the ability to make someone play for all her chips, so you have to thin the field as soon as you can.
Your goal with pocket aces is to get heads-up with someone as soon as possible.
Some players get irritated when they get their aces cracked. They also get irritated when they get no action. You can’t have it both ways, though—if you get action, sometimes you’ll lose.
Most of the time, you’ll want to play the aces strong after the flop, too—regardless of what cards are there. You need to be sure you have a good read on your opponent and she has a monster before folding aces after the flop.
2. Pocket Kings
Before the flop, you should play “cowboys” just like you’d play pocket aces. The only difference is that you might not limp hoping for a re-raise opportunity in a no-limit game, like you would do with aces. (And even that move is one you should only use occasionally.)
Playing pocket kings after the flop isn’t much different, either.
But you do have one thing to worry about:
What if an ace hits the flop?
The first thing to think about is not giving away your hand. It’s natural to be bummed when the 2nd best starting hand in the game suddenly looks inferior.
But you don’t have to look downcast and give away your hand to your opponent. Keep a poker face.
Everyone loves high cards in Texas holdem. If an ace hits on the flop, it’s possible that your opponent just got a bigger pair than you have.
Does this mean you should automatically fold those cowboys?
Obviously, I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t warn you about maintaining your poker face.
The number of players still in the hand on the flop is a big deal. If you’re heads-up with an opponent, you should stay in the game, but maybe slow down with your betting. He might be trying to represent that ace, or he might not. I think you should gamble here unless you have a good read on your opponent.
On the other hand, if you’re in the pot with 3 or 4 other players, your kings are no good. There’s almost no chance at all that with 3 or 4 opponents none of them has an ace. You have no choice here but to fold.
This illustrates how important it is to play kings aggressively preflop. If you get as much money into the pot as you can while you’re still the favorite, you’ll likely do well in the long run.
3. Pocket Queens
If you’re dealt “ladies,” you have the 3rd strongest possible starting hand. And since this is a big pair, you’d prefer to play with fewer opponents after the flop. This means that betting, raising, and re-raising is the right strategy preflop with pocket queens.
Your goal is to get heads-up with one of your opponents before the flop ever hits.
You can only do that by playing aggressively.
Now you have to worry about whether you’re going to see an ace or a king on the flop. Playing pocket queens isn’t too different from playing pocket kings after the flop; you’re just more likely to have to slow down a little bit.
If you’re acting first, and if you’re only facing a single opponent, you must bet here. You want to try to win the pot without a showdown if you can.
But if you get re-raised, you’ll probably have to give up and fold.
Sometimes, you’ll wind up in a hand with pocket queens and 3 or 4 other players. Remember what I said about pocket kings in this situation. If you’re dealing with that many other players, someone is bound to have an ace or a king.
You’re going to have to fold in that case.
4. Pocket Jacks
The problem with pocket jacks is that it’s a trouble hand. It’s stronger than most hands, but there are still a lot of things that can go wrong. Some players hate playing pocket jacks.
You don’t have to hate this hand, though. It’s still a great preflop hand. You just need to learn how to NOT overplay it.
This means you’re going to pay attention to your position and to how the other players play their hands. After all, they like big cards, and the queens, kings, and aces have to be somewhere. If they’re not in your opponents’ hands, they’re in the deck, which means they’re liable to come up on the flop and scare you.
If no one in front of you has bet or raised, you should bet with the jacks. In a limit game, you don’t have to decide how much to bet, but in no limit, you do. Some players always make the same preflop bets in terms of size to disguise the strength of their hands. That’s a valid approach, and if that’s you, great.
But if that’s not you, bet a little less with pocket jacks than you would otherwise. Almost any flop is going to be scary if you go into it with a pair of jacks. Any queen, king, or ace could kill your hand.
Heck, even if you have an overpair in this situation, you can’t be confident you’ll win.
In some respects, pocket jacks are the same as smaller pairs. You really have to hit 3 of a kind to win a big pot with them.
Take into account how your opponents play, too. Just because an opponent bets or raises doesn’t mean he has a big hand. This is especially true in some of the lower stakes limit games that I specialize in.
5. Ace-King Suited
“Big slick” is one of my favorite hands to play. I’ve seen it rated higher than pocket queen or pocket jacks by some poker writers, in fact.
I’ve seen some players and writers complain that ace-king suited is hard to play. I don’t agree. I think it’s easier to play than pocket jacks, for sure. (In fact, I’m not sure why I didn’t reverse their order on this list.)
You should bet or raise with ace-king suited preflop. If you’re raised or re-raised, you need to think about how that player has been playing. Against a savvy, tight player, your ace-king suited is probably going to lose to pocket queens, kings, or aces. Against a maniac, though, or a novice, you might still be ahead.
The size of the raises and re-raises matters, too. If you’re playing limit, calling here makes more sense than risking your whole stack in a no limit game.
The good news is that when you see a flop, you have a 1/3 probability of getting an ace or a king. This gives you top pair or top pair with the best possible kicker. If you get one or 2 suited cards on the flop, you also have flush possibilities.
In this case, it’s time to play strong. Bet and raise.
If you have a lot of opponents and a flush draw, it might be worth it to continue if you can play cheap. With multiple opponents, you stand a chance of winning a big pot with the flush when you hit.
On the other hand, if you miss the flop entirely, you have to give this hand up.
6. Ace-Queen Suited
I’ve seen ace-queen suited called the biggest trouble hand in poker. I know that I overplay it often.
Yes, this is one of the best possible starting hands, but it’s hard to know where you’re at with it. As a result, maybe the smartest thing to do is pay close attention to your opponents’ play when you have this hand.
If you’re in early position, you can play it really aggressively, understanding that if you get raises and re-raises from the other players, you’re almost certainly dominated.
On the other hand, if you’re playing with lousy players who are too loose and aggressive, you might still have a shot.
If you’re in late position and there’s a lot of action before you, it might be best to fold AQ suited preflop.
And don’t make the mistake of thinking that ace-queen offsuit is just as good as ace-queen suited. It’s not even close. That hand didn’t even make the top 10.
7. Pocket 10s
Pocket 10s are pretty speculative. Even though they’re a top 10 hand, you still need to hit the perfect flop for this hand to hold up.
My goal with pocket 10s is to get in cheap and see how the flop develops. If I don’t hit another 10 on the flop, it’s easy to get away from this hand.
Even if the flop comes up with all undercards, I’m still afraid someone has a bigger pair in the hole. Those jacks, queens, kings, and aces are somewhere.
Unless the pocket 10s improve on the flop, or unless the other players are demonstrating a lot of weakness, I’m getting away from the hand on the turn if it hasn’t improved. The higher bets at that point make the hand almost worthless.
But don’t forget to get a read on the other players at the table. Your equity in a hand is always a combination of how likely it is that you have the best hand and how likely it is you can get your opponent to fold.
Ace-king is a strong hand even when it’s not suited. Most of what I said about how to play this hand still applies, but not being suited is a bigger drawback than you think. Sure, you’re only going to hit you flush 6% of the time with suited hole cards, but 6% is huge.
That being said, this is an easy hand to get away from if you miss the flop.
But a lot of the time, you will hit a big pair on the flop. When you do, you prefer fewer opponents.
So betting and raising with ace-king preflop makes sense.
Getting out of the hand after the flop is also an easy decision.
9. Ace-Jack Suited
You’re getting into some speculative hands here. Ace-jack suited is better than Ace-X suited, but not by much. The bigger the cards, the better, but a jack is almost a medium card.
Keep in mind that ace-jack offsuit, while playable, is not a premium hand. In fact, many writers don’t even consider ace-jack suited to be a “premium” hand.
It’s playable, though, because of the possibilities after the flop:
- You could flop a flush or a flush draw.
- You have straight possibilities (and straight flush possibilities).
- You have the potential to get a pair of aces with a reasonably good kicker.
The problem with ace-jack suited is that it’s easier to get a 2nd-best hand with it than with most of the other hands on this list. A pair of jacks with an ace kicker is all right, but what do you do when your opponent has queens?
I think you have to play this cautiously preflop, try to get into a pot with a lot of opponents, then hope you hit a monster flop that fits perfectly so you can get paid off.
If you have position on everyone, and if your opponents are tight enough, you might try bluffing with this one preflop. If someone plays back at you, get really cautious, though.
10. King-Queen Suited
Some writers put a pair of 9s in this spot, but others put king-queen suited. I prefer king-queen suited, so that’s what I went with.
Playing king-queen suited isn’t much different from playing ace-jack suited, though. They’re both speculative hands, and you’re going to want to hit a reasonable flop with it.
This means trying to get in cheap before the flop and hitting your hand on the flop.
Starting hands in Texas holdem are half the battle. Everyone knows that you’re supposed to limit yourself to the top 20 or so starting hands. This post only covers half those.
The other half of the possible starting hands, though, are easy enough to play. They’re just like the lower ranked hands on this list—only more so. They’re all speculative, so you want to try to get into pots cheap with lots of other players and clean up when you hit your hand.
It’s easy to overplay a reasonable starting hand in Texas holdem, but you really should only be playing about 3 hands preflop per hour. If you’re playing more than that, you’re in trouble.
And even with those 3 hands, you need to be cautious with most of them.