The 20 Best Starting Hands In Poker

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Playing Texas hold’em, you have been dealt two holecards. Now you must make the most important decision: whether or not to invest in this starting-hand. I always teach my seniors poker classes to use the Hold’em Algorithm. That makes the decision much easier – and less stressful.

I thought our readers might be interested in the odds against being dealt the best possible starting-hands. Mike Caro’s Hold’em Starting Hand Distribution Chart is described in his book, “Caro’s Most Profitable Hold’em Advice” (Cardoza Publishing; www.cardozapub.com).

The 20 best starting-hands in sequence are in the box to the right. Caro presents the odds against being dealt each of these hands, or a better hand. I will add my assessment of these three main groupings.

The odds shown refer to the probability (likelihood) of being dealt those holecards – or better. For example, you can expect pocket Aces, pocket Kings, or pocket Queens in the hole, once every 73 hands dealt. With 30-35 hands dealt per hour that will occur (on average) about once every two hours of play. Patience!

It is noteworthy that all of the 20 best holecards listed satisfy the Hold’em Algorithm criteria for all positions, including early position; and hence are playable preflop. Caro’s chart goes well beyond these first 20 to all 169 possible different starting-hands. There are many other playable combinations depending on position and other factors. Rather than trying to memorize these, it’s so much easier to use the Hold’em Algorithm, and quickly add up, in your head, the score for your holecards to easily decide if they are playable.

I regard the top three – A-A, K-K, and Q-Q – as “made hands” preflop. They could win the pot even without further improvement. Playing these preflop, your best action is to raise to thin the field to (preferably) three opponents staying to see the flop with you. (More than three opponents would make your A-A an underdog.)

The next nine listed (J-J down to A-J suited) are “semi-made hands.” With luck, they might survive to take the pot; but more likely they need to improve. It’s best to play cautiously until your hand improves enough to warrant getting aggressive or deceptive to build “your” pot.

The last 10 hands (A-10 suited, down to Q-J suited) are “premium drawing hands.” Almost certainly, they must improve to win the pot. Usually, it’s best to limp along, hoping for a multiway pot (three or more opponents staying to see the flop) with no raising (the minimum investment for you). If the flop doesn’t help this hand consider mucking those holecards. (The same applies to other playable drawing hands that satisfy the Hold’em Algorithm before the flop.)

A Short Cut

For those unsuited holecards not listed in the chart, when there is one honor card among your two holecards, an easy way to make your play-or-fold decision is to use the Hi-Lo concept: One honor card and one low card – 7 down to 2. Such hands are best mucked unless you are one of the blinds, and there are no raises.

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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