Texas Hold’em poker is a game of strategy and skill with an element of chance. There’s no knowing what cards you’ll be dealt nor what the flop, turn and river will reveal. Experienced players exploit every scrap of information they can get, from their opponents’ preflop leaks to their reactions to the board’s texture. Beginner players, on the other hand, often struggle to understand exactly what it is they are doing when they play online poker.
The frustration of being crushed round after round without knowing why can be so intense that some players are tempted to give up. But with some basic strategy, beginners can improve to the point where they’re regularly winning hands — or not losing them as often. It all begins with your starting hand. Some hands you should always play, others you should fold. Knowing which hand you have can make all the difference to your play. Let’s take a closer look at starting hands in Texas Hold’em.
The Worst Hands in Texas Hold’em
Let’s get the bad part over with and focus on the worst hands you can be dealt when you’re playing poker. The characteristic of a truly junk hand is that the cards offer very little value because they are unsuited and they’re too far apart in sequence to have any valuable drawing potential.
If asked to rank hands in poker from best to worst, most players would immediately identify the worst offender: 2-7. Why? Let’s count the ways.
First, you can’t use both cards in a straight (they’re too far apart,) making it easy for an opponent’s straight to dominate it.
Second, the value of both cards is low. If the board has two pairs and your cards pair with one of them, you have a low pair and a bad kicker either way. With a low pair, there’s a good chance that your paired card will have overcards. In other words, an opponent probably has a stronger pair.
Third, even if you have two-pair, one of them will often be counterfeited. This happens when a community card doesn’t change the value of your hand but makes it easier to beat. For example, you’re holding 7-2 and the flop comes ace-7-2. Two-pair with an ace kicker — not bad. Then a queen hits the turn, leaving you with a pair of queens, a pair of 7s and a 2 kicker.
Fourth, even if you’re holding 7-2 suited and you make a flush, chances are it’ll be dominated by a stronger flush on the river.
To sum it up: 7-2 is a junk hand. From a hand strength perspective, you should fold it every time.
Other hands that are junk for the same reasons are 2-6, 2-8, 2-9, 3-7, 3-9 and 4-9. They’re marginally stronger than 2-7, but the margin is so thin that they’re not worth bothering with. They have no value. Unless you’re a master bluffer, muck these hands too.
The Best Texas Hold’em Hands
Now for the other side of the coin. What makes for a strong starting hand? It has cards that can create a high-ranking straight or flush or repeat cards with the potential to connect with a double, triple or full house. Strong hands also typically contain matching cards such as pairs or high-ranking suited cards that are close together.
Based on these criteria, the best Texas hold’em hands to be dealt at the start of a round are premium pocket aces, ace-king suited, ace-queen suited and jack-jack.
Ace-ace is universally acknowledged as the strongest starting hand in Texas Hold’em. But that doesn’t mean it’s invincible. The more players enter the pot, the more vulnerable your aces become. Any two-pairs will beat your pocket rockets, so keep an eye on the flop.
King-king and queen-queen are also strongly favored but lose their strength if the flop reveals an ace or (for queens) a king.
Ace-king is an equivocal hand that looks good (“Big Slick”) but really has nothing unless you connect with a pair or flop a flush or straight draw. One advantage that ace-king enjoys over the premium pocket pairs is the potential to draw a nut flush (the ace is the high card) or even a royal flush.
Similarly, ace-queen (“Little Slick”) has the potential to make a nut flush, royal flush, straight or high pair, but if you don’t hit your draw, you have exactly nothing.
Coming in sixth on the list of best starting hands in Texas Hold’em is jack-jack. Also known as “fish hooks,” this hand has all the advantages of the top three pairs — unless an ace, king or queen turns up on the flop! Jack-jack also happens to be one of the most important video poker hands (think of “Jacks or better”) but that’s another story.
Maximizing Value, Minimizing Risk
It’s often said that being dealt a bad hand (such as 7-2) can actually be valuable because it won’t lose you any money — provided that you junk it as you should. Paradoxically, beginner players often lose money because they have an unfounded belief in the strength of their starting hand. The fact is that a starting hand is just the start. Two low-pairs will crush pocket rockets every time, so if Big Slick doesn’t connect with the board, all you’ve got is a high ace. That said, these starting hands demand to be played, so play them. If you don’t, you’ll lose value outright and won’t even understand why. Play them, but if your plays happen to lose, make a point of finding out why. After all, it takes dedication and training to improve at poker. It’s much more than the luck of the draw.
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