Starting Hands in Limit Texas Hold’em
Published on September 30, 2018
The starting point for any effective poker strategy, limit or no-limit, Texas hold’em or any other game, is starting hand selection. All poker games start with an initial hand. After that, you have later rounds of play, but the first (and possibly most important) decision you must make is whether to play the hand at all.
This post focuses on starting hands in limit Texas hold’em. These are guidelines and a way of thinking about these hands. They’re not iron-clad rules, and you’ll find other advice that’s equally as good as the suggestions in this post.
I’ve categorized the hands by type, but first, a word about position—which my friend Wes claims is the weakest part of my game.
In Texas hold’em, you need stronger hands from early position than from late position.
What does that mean?
Position refers to when you get to play your hand. If you’re in “early” position, you play your hand before most of the other players at the table. If you’re in “late” position, you play your hand after most of the other players at the table.
Why would that matter?
When you’re playing Texas hold’em, you’re deciding among the following options.
If you’ve seen what most of the other players are doing with their hands before deciding what to do, you have more information with which to decide. For example, if you have a pair of 7s, and 3 players before you have bet, raised, and re-raised, you can be confident that at least one of them—maybe more—have a higher pair than you do. You should fold.
On the other hand, if everyone has called, and you’re the last one to act, you can call, too. After all, you have a chance at hitting another 7 on the flop, turn, or river. If you do, there’s lots of money in the pot to be won because of all the players. You will lose with this hand most of the time, but when you do win, you’ll get paid off enough money to make it worthwhile.
For purposes of this post, I’ll only look at whether you’re in early position or late position. Poker writers often also look at middle position, but I think that distinction is unnecessary in low-limit games and with beginners. Since these are just guidelines or “training wheels” anyway, it won’t make much difference. You’ll deviate from these suggestions just because that’s what you’re supposed to do anyway.
You have 169 possible starting hands in Texas hold’em. 13 of those possible hands are pocket pairs, so I’ll start the discussion with those hands. That’s about 7.8% of all your possible hands.
The rank of the cards in your pocket pair is the most distinguishing characteristic to think about. For purposes of discussing them here, I’ve organized them into huge, big, medium, and small pairs.
A pair of aces is the best starting hand in Texas hold’em, regardless of position or limits. In fact, these hands are so powerful that they more or less play themselves preflop. All you need to do is bet and raise with them.
I read Super/System years ago, and I remember that Doyle Brunson wrote a section about no-limit hold’em where he suggested limping with pocket aces if you’re in first position. The goal was to get someone to raise behind you so that you could put them all in.
Since this post is aimed at limit hold’em players, I’ll suggest that this advice doesn’t apply in limit games. My buddy Wes insists that it’s bad advice in no-limit, too—he says you should always raise with pocket aces or pocket kings.
Some people think that you’re in big trouble if you wind up in a pot with a lot of other players when you have one of these hands. That’s not exactly true. With more players, you’ll win less often.
But you’ll also have more money in the pot, so you’ll get paid off when you win. Pocket aces and pocket kings will both win more pots on average than most other starting hands, even if there are so many players in the pot that they won’t win 51% of the time.
These are great starting hands, too, but not as great as aces or kings. They can still win even if the hand doesn’t improve in the later rounds, but they’re not as likely to do so. Some players get scared when an ace or a king shows up on the flop.
Sometimes it’s right to fold when that overcard hits, but it also depends on how your opponent plays.
You won’t play these pairs as aggressively as kings or aces, but you should almost always raise with them from any position if no one else has raised. In fact, even if you face one raiser in front of you, you should probably re-raise with any of these hands. You should only slow down in the face of multiple raises and re-raises. (Those aces and kings are out there somewhere.)
Even then, it’s probably right to call with this hand, because if it improves, it’s hard to beat.
The best situation with a medium pair is to get into a pot with multiple (5+) opponents. You’re hoping to hit a set and win a big pot in that situation. When you have that many opponents in such a pot, someone is going to have a pocket pair besides you. If you’ve hit your set on the flop, that other player is often going to be betting and raising even though she’s behind.
This often runs the other players out of the pot, which is fine, because now you have dead money in the pot. Even if they stick around, though,the size of your payoff when you win warrants the risk.
But a pair of 7s, 8s, or 9s can also win unimproved if you’re playing with a small number of passive, loose players.
With all the pairs I’ve discussed so far, you can sometimes (or even often) win without your hand improving.
If you have a pair of 6s or lower, though, you’ll rarely win unless your hand improves. This means you must play small pairs much more cautiously than the other pairs discussed so far.
You’re hoping for a bunch of other players putting money in the pot so that you’ll get paid off when you hit your set. If you have fewer than 4 players in the pot, these hands are hard to make money with.
You also want to get into hands with these cards cheap. If you’re facing bets and raises, you can’t really justify getting into a pot with such hands. If there are 5 or more players and several of them have called a single raise, it can make sense to play in hopes of getting that set.
But you absolutely must have the discipline to get away from these small pairs on the flop if you don’t improve. Only in the loosest, most passive games will you continue with such a hand on the turn.
In fact, you’ll usually want to fold these hands preflop from early position, but that depends on the nature of the game. In most limit hold’em games, chances are you either won’t have enough players in the pot or someone will raise preflop.
In either of those cases, your small-sized pair is a bummer.
Only if you’re playing in a loose, passive game where almost everyone limps in preflop on almost every hand should you risk limping from early position.
If you have a raise, you can call it, but if you get a raise and a re-raise after that, you should fold before the flop.
When you’re evaluating other starting hands in Texas hold’em, whether the cards are suited is a big consideration. Some players think that since being suited only improves your chances of winning by 6%, being suited isn’t that big a deal. Such players are wrong.
A 6% increase in your winning percentage is a big deal. Compare that to the kind of edge that card counters in blackjack get excited about. They’re thrilled to put money into action when they have a 1% or 2% better probability of winning.
This doesn’t mean that suited cards are always playable or that they’re monsters. In fact, you can have a lot of fun trolling online poker tables by talking about how your hands shouldn’t lose so often because they’re suited. That can be a lot of fun.
Suited cards, like pairs, also change in value based on the ranking of the cards in your hand. I’ll discuss them from biggest to smallest.
For a hand to fall into this category, the high card must be either an ace or a king. Any other hand wouldn’t qualify as a “big suited” starting hand.
The other card in the hand should be ranked 10 or higher, too. If you’re a blackjack player, you might recognize any of these hands as being great, because they’ll total 20 or 21.
Any suited ace and 10 or higher is a big suited starting hand—that includes A-10, A-J, A-Q, and A-K. Of course, the higher the cards, the better the hand. Ace-king suited is on most starting hand charts right along with pocket queens or kings. Ace-queen suited is also a huge starting hand.
If the higher card is a king, the other card should be a face card—a queen or a jack.
These hands can make top pair with a solid kicker, but they also often hit a big flush or sometimes a straight. You can do well with big suited cards regardless of how many players are in the pot with you.
Like big pocket pairs, these are appropriate hands to raise with from any position. It’s not a mistake to limp from early position with a hand like this, though. This is a strong enough starting hand that you’d like to see some action.
On the other hand, if you’re facing multiple bettors and/or raisers, you need to start thinking more about your hand. Ace-king suited and ace-queen suited are still no-brainers to raise or re-raise with, but the smaller hands get trickier. If you think you can get into a pot with multiple players, call, but avoid getting heads up with these cards if you can.
This is a situation, too, where it pays to have paid attention to your opponents’ tendencies. Some players are loose and aggressive, so it’s okay to play these hands strongly against that guy. Other players are tight and only raise when they have the goods. If you face such an opponent, there’s no shame in folding big suited cards and waiting for another opportunity.
I should mention big, unsuited cards here, too. The following cards are big enough to play speculatively even if they’re not suited.
You can make a strong pair with a strong kicker with any of these hands. You can play them like suited cards in this category, although you might be more cautious with them and less aggressive.
This category consists of suited cards that are still 10 or higher. They have solid pair potential, but they’re also suited and connected, giving you straight and flush possibilities.
Q-J and J-10 suited are examples of medium suited cards that are “suited connectors.” They’re stronger than most suited connectors.
K-10 suited and Q-10 suited are also examples of medium suited cards. They’re “suited connectors” with a single gap.
You can often get a high pair with such a hand, but you still need to be careful because a lot of your opponents will have a stronger kicker.
Your hope with such a starting hand is to get into a pot with a lot of other players so that you get paid off when you get lucky. In most lower-stakes games, you can justify limping in with these hands from early position. Such games are usually loose and passive, so you’ll often get paid off when the flop hits you hard.
If someone raises before you, though, you have to decide how many players will stay in the pot. You don’t want to wind up heads-up with medium suited connectors. Your goal is to get into a pot with 5 or more players and hit a big hand.
You can also play some unsuited cards that qualify as “medium” strength. These cards include the following.
If you’re a blackjack player, you’ll also notice that these are all solid blackjack hands, too. This is a testament to the strength of high-ranked cards in poker.
These are possibly the most speculative hands in the game, by the way. Play them cautiously from later position if you can get lots of action from passive players (5 or more players). Folding them from early position is often correct.
I talked a little bit about suited connectors before, but most of the suited connectors you’ll see won’t have a lot of big pair potential. Any 2 cards that are adjacent in rank and share the same suit are classic suited connectors. You can also play suited connectors if there’s a “gap,” although those hands are weaker, for obvious reasons.
So 10-9 suited is at the top of this list, while 5-4 suited is at the bottom of the list. (If you have a 2-3 or 3-4 that’s suited, it’s probably not worth playing. The rank is just too low.)
Any suited connector with a single gap is also worth playing down to 6-4 suited. J-9 suited is at the top of this list.
If you have 2 gaps, you start to tighten up. Q-9 suited is at the top of this list, but you don’t go below 9-6 suited.
Q-8 suited and J-7 suited are also playable.
If you want to see that in list format, here’s how it looks.
As you can see, there are 17 possibilities in this category, which means you’ll come across these starting hands more often than pocket pairs or big suited cards. Since it’s easier and more common to see such cards, they’re not as strong as the other hands we’ve talked about so far.
You should note that the rank of the cards is a major factor, too. 10-9 suited is FAR better than 5-4 suited.
These hands don’t win unless they improve later in the round. Your goal is to make a flush or a straight, although you’ll rarely catch a 3 of a kind. Small pairs hit now and then, but your hand in such a situation is usually pretty weak—even if you catch a pair of 10s, you’re often out-kicked.
What you’re hoping for with these hands is a lot of loose and passive action. Plenty of callers and no raises is the order of the day.
You’ll want to be careful when catching part of a hand. An open-ended straight draw is great, and a flush draw is even better.
But an inside straight draw is a disappointment.
You should never get into a pot with one of these hands if there’s been more than one raise preflop. These are also hands that are tough to play from early position. At the same time, they’re often easy to get away from on the flop. You either hit your hand or you didn’t. It’s not hard to figure out where you’re at when you have suited connectors.
These are the most speculative hands of all. To qualify for this category, you must have an ace or a king, along with a smaller card of the same suit. These hands include the following.
These hands are good if you’re playing with loose opponents. You’re hoping for 5+ players in a pot so that you can get paid off when you hit your flush. Like suited connectors, you shouldn’t get involved in pots with such hands if you have more than one raiser.
How big your kicker is matters here, too. A-9 suited is FAR better than A-2 suited, even though the latter has some straight potential. And K-9 suited is far better than K-2 suited, too.
You have some top pair potential with these hands, and when you do hit your flush, you’ll usually have the best possible flush because of the size of your big card.
This is another example of how being suited is such a big opportunity. Many low-limit Texas hold’em players will often play any ace they get, regardless of whether it’s suited or not. If you stick with suited aces, you’ll be ahead of those players in those situations.
Also, the suited big-little aces are far stronger than the suited big-little kings. They’re all weak and speculative hands, though.
You should just avoid any hand that doesn’t fall into one of the categories above.
Many of your opponents WILL be playing such hands. They’ll sometimes—and it will seem like often—win with such hands.
If you have tighter starting hand requirements, you’ll dominate them in the long run by having an edge.
Examples of non-starters that weak Texas hold’em players often play include big-little cards that aren’t suited—like the ace and 9 or a king and a 9. They also include connectors that aren’t suited, like 8-9 or 9-10.
Those are hands you should fold even if you’re in late position. The only chance you have with such a hand is from late position with a naked bluff before the flop. Even then, you need to be facing really weak players to try that move.
It’s easier for me to learn starting hands in limit Texas hold’em by putting them into categories. Here’s a reminder of the main categories I use.
Then I can subcategorize them, as follows.
I know a lot of players who are visual and have a lot of luck memorizing starting hand charts. That’s never worked for me. I need to categorize information into buckets before it makes sense to me.
I’ve used that approach in this post to explain these starting hands in Texas hold’em limit games. I hope this way of looking at the starting hands makes sense for you, too.