It’s important for any player of any skill and experience level to determine the strength of his or her poker starting hands from the get go. After all, strong starting hands will defeat weaker starting hands in 3 out of 4 instances - at least. You can’t argue with those odds!
Despite the rather epic detail some people go into when trying to breakdown the best poker starting hands, it’s actually quite easy to decide which hands to keep and which to muck. There’s no need to over-think it; we've got the goods on how to best guarantee your odds by simply being adequately selective with your starting hand (i.e. your hole cards.)
Follow this step-by-step guide to shaking off the rubble and playing the gold.
Step 1: Know Your Poker Hand Rankings
If you want to know if your starting hand has any merit, first you've got to know which poker hands bestow esteem. Familiarize yourself with poker hand rankings before slipping into any game. Pretty basic, right? You bet.
Let’s move on then...
Step 2. Determine Rank
The higher rank your hole cards, the better your chances of winning the hand (or the game).
The best ranking hole cards you could possibly have are pocket pairs. Pocket Pairs (two of the same card) offer a good start, though of course the higher your pair, the better your chances. Finding two Aces in the hole, for example, is every poker player's dream. If you land pocket aces in the hole, your opponent will need at least 2 pair to knock you out. A pair in the hole also means you stand a reasonable chance of landing a third card of identical rank on the flop, turn or river. Just keep in mind that a small value pocket pair does not always pan out. Your opponents still have plenty of opportunity to score a sweet addition to their hole cards. For example, if you have a 3♦, 3♥ and your opponent held hole cards of 6♠ and J♣, he or she would simply need to land a six or a jack in the community cards to win.
As a rule, we don't recommend raising early on unless you have at least a pair of nines (or higher), Ace-Queen (or higher). If your table is smaller (i.e. 6 max), a King-Queen partnering in the hole is a solid bet too.
As odds have it, you will only be dealt pocket pairs about 1 in 16 hands, so you don't want to rely on these little miracles.
Having two high cards is also advantageous because they provide a good 'kicker' (i.e. the card used in the event opponents have the same hand. The 'kicker' determines who will win.)
Sklansky hand groupings are often used to rank starting hands. Here, the lower the number in the chart, the better the hand. Hands without numbers are considered the weakest.
So, what do we want to look for next then?
Step 3: Determine Suit(s)
In general, it is better to have cards of the same suit than to have connected cards. This is because as far as poker starting hands go, suited hole cards have a better chance of making a flush. What's more, holding two hole cards of the same suit will give you the upper hand when it comes to a board full of the same suit. Here' what we mean:
If you have 6♦, 7♦ as your hole cards and the board shows A♦, 5♦, 6♠, 9♦, chances are you will have the winning hand. If you're holding 6♦, 8♠, however, and the board shows A♦, 5♦, 2♦, 9♦, your luck may not hold because any diamond higher than a 6 will best your hand.
Step 4: Look for Similar Ranking
Any go-to guide on poker starting hands is not complete without talking a little bit about consideration for cards of close rank. This is an incredibly important element of landing a straight. By 'close rank' we mean: how close are your cards in their poker-given ranking?
Again, let's look at an example: If your hole cards are 9♦, 8♣, you stand a much better chance of making a straight than if your cards are 10♦, 5♥ since the 4 card gap makes it impossible to use both your cards to make the straight. Same suited, high rank, consecutively ranking hole cards are particularly desirable (e.g. A♥, K♥ or A♣, K♣, and so on). Still, remember that when it comes to poker starting hands, even these powerful hole cards won't beat a small pocket pair. It is a hand that requires some building to gain a solid footing.
If you get low, unconnected, not-same suited hole cards, you are going to want to muck your hand without another thought (e.g. 7♣, 2♥). Neither flush nor straight is in your future, my friend. Leave your fight for another day.
This said, there are a couple notable exceptions to this rule:
1. Blinds. Blinds are the forced bets placed by the 2 players to the immediate left of the dealer. The small blind (1st to the left) places half the full bet and the big blind places the full bet. Example: in a limit game of Texas Hold’em where the stakes are $2/$4, the small blind would place $1 and the big blind would place $2. Blinds exist to drive money into the pot and encourage betting by sweetening the pot.
So, have you already bought your way into the action on a blind - particularly a big blind? If you've already paid your dues and no one has raised, then it won't cost you anything to check and see what the flop holds. This is also true if you are the small blind, though to a lesser extent. Some poker starting hands ride walk that blurry line between possible and total crap, so it can be a tough call to decide whether to pony up the remaining portion of the full bet when you are the small blind. Our advice? First consider steps 1 through 4 again, then consider your existing stack. Is it stocked well enough to tolerate a little loose play? Next, consider your competition. Who's in the game, or who's left in the game? If the game has just started and you're still looking at a full table, then it will be hard (if not impossible) for you to make this call; there are too many different players, too many different playing styles and as such, too many variables. However, if you are one of the last players standing, you may have a solid handle on your opponent(s) playing style and, as a result, be able to gauge the kinds of cards he or she considers playable.
2. If you are playing a Hi-Low game, where the highest and lowest ranking hands both split the pot. Just keep in mind you want the lowest hand – not just a low hand, so keeping middle of the road poker starting hands isn’t going to bode well for you here. Your hand has to be positively abysmal (e.g. 2♠, 3♥).
And there you have it! A simple, comprehensive guide to how to play poker starting hands in four easy steps. No muss, no fuss, just tight, consistent play to maximize your chances of winning from the very first deal.