This article makes a couple of initial assumptions. First, you know how to play poker, and you have a basic understanding of Texas Hold ‘Em. Second, that you are interested in improving your level of play. Third, that the majority of readers will play low limit ($3-$6 up to $10-$20) hold ’em games more frequently than no-limit, million-dollar pots covered on ESPN. This advice from this website is meant to be both useful and practical.

A lot has been written about the hole cards in Hold ‘Em, because there aren’t that may combinations, at least not compared to the rest of the game. There are strict guidelines as to what hands to stay on, what hands to raise on, and what hands to fold on. This is both good and bad. The good news is that everyone who can read knows that the best starting hands are as follows: AA, KK,QQ, JJ, AK suited (IN THAT ORDER). The bad news is that a lot of people share identical information, which takes away the edge one might have.

Hold ‘Em is a game of deception. You try to convince your opponents that your hand has a different value to its true value. You need to know the true value of your hand if you’re going to play this game well, and then you need to disguise that value. If your opponents fold when you have the nuts it is as great a loss to you as when they call your bluff, or you finish second. That’s a lesson not many people appreciate. You must maximize your wins and minimize losses. Everyone understands the second part. They tell you of their bad beats. But the reality of a lot of losing sessions is that you didn’t pull in big pots when you did win. Sometimes, that’s not up to you. Everyone might fold and leave you with no one to play against. But often it is up to you, and knowing which hole cards to play, and how to play them, is crucial.

Part 1: Ranking All Starting Hands

We’re going to rank every starting hand by grouping them. Like most decent poker writers we are indebted to the work of Sklansky and Malmuth. We suggest you buy their books immediately!

The earlier your position (the closer you sit to the big blind) the fewer hands you should play. We recommend playing hands in the first 3 Groups, regardless of where you sit. Use judgement though. If you’re sitting in a no-limit game with KQ suited and you’re raised all in by a good, aggressive player, it is probably best to fold. If you’re on the button you should usually play all the hands in the first 5 Groups. All hands are ranked in descending order of value:

First Group: AA, KK, QQ, JJ, AKs (s=suited)
Second Group: TT, AQs, AJs, AK, ATs
Third Group: 99, KQs, JTs, QJs, AQ

Fourth Group: KJs, 88, T9s, AJ, KQ, 98s, KTs
Fifth Group: 77, A9s, 87s, KJ, QJ, 76s, JT, 65s, AT

If you do not have a starting hand shown and you have poor position you should fold. Obviously if you have 66 and you’re sitting in the big blind you can play, unless there has been more than one raise in a limit game. You must know these groupings before we can proceed to analyze starting hands more rigorously.