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Recommended Starting Hands

By Greg Mallon

The following guidance (holdem tips) is for new players who have either never played for money, or are having a hard time making a small profit. This is a tight aggressive strategy that fairly easy to understand and implement.

Small Pairs (Money Makers in No Limit)

Believe it or not, the small pairs will give you one of your best opportunities to make money. They are especially great for a beginner because the rules are relatively simple. It is hard to get into trouble with these hands if you follow my simple guidelines. What you are going to do is try to limp into any pot (meaning simply "call the blind") any time you get a small pocket pair. Your goal is to simply see the flop as cheaply as possible. What that means is that you will ONLY call a SMALL RAISE and NO MORE. Let's assume you are playing NL 25 at Party Poker and you are in early position (generally not a good position in poker). The blinds in this game are .10/.25. You are looking to see the flop for a MAXIMUM of .50. You want to call the big blind, and if necessary, call a small raise to .50. Now if it goes beyond that, if the bet is .75 or more, the HAND IS OVER for you. As an aside, there is a reason why you would want to call the small raise. If your opponent raises with AK and happens to flop a King while you flop your set, you may actually be able to win his entire stack. The raise indicates some strength on his part, so it he hits top pair you can expect him to aggressively go after this pot. Your job is easy. If you don't hit your "set" (your 3-of-a-kind), your folding at first opportunity.

Lets take a look at an example:

Your Hole Cards:
The FLOP...

Notice a couple of things about this flop. First, the flop came down Ace, Nine, Four with three separate suits. Poker players will typically say the flop came down "Ace, Nine, Four rainbow" ("rainbow" meaning three different suits). What's nice about this for you is that there is little chance for a flush. This is just one attribute of this particular flop, and it is part of what poker players call the "texture of the flop". As you progress in you study and play, your ability to notice what "draws" are out there, what has helped you, and what may have potentially helped your opponents, you will begin to improve. The ability to quickly analyze "flop texture" will help you make more correct decisions.

Secondly, the flop is "spread", meaning that there is a pretty good separation between the Ace and the Nine, and the Nine and the Four. If you think about it, a high straight that includes the Ace goes from Ten to Ace (and our next card is a nine). So hopefully you get the idea. The flop is spread pretty well meaning that any straights are unlikely.

Another way to think about "Flop Texture" is by thinking "what kind of hands does this flop help". For example, if the flop came down with three hearts, you should be concerned that someone may have flopped a flush. If the flop came down with two of one suit, you should be concerned that someone may have picked up a "flush draw" (meaning one more of that suit on the turn or the river and they have a "made hand"). [Texture will be discussed more in another article].

So returning to our example, you should like this flop because you have a powerful set (powerful mostly because it is hidden). You should be happy to see the Ace in this situation because anyone who flopped a pair of Aces is most likely to lose some money to you. They are probably feeling pretty confident right now, for many of the same "flop texture" reasons we discussed earlier.

Examples of Possible Post Flop Play
Post flop play will be discussed in detail in other articles, but here are a couple ways you might approach your post-flop play with a SET:

  • If you are at a table with a number of aggressive players (ie, those who frequently raise on the flop to take the pot, you could check (if you are in an early position) and let them take the initiative). That is, you let them be the aggressor, then maybe check-raise on the turn.
  • Generally speaking though, you do not want to slow play a set. It is a great hand and it would be a shame to have this pot "checked around" with no bets and no opportunity to check-raise. So if you are not reasonably sure one of your opponents will go after it - BET. Don't "over-bet the pot". Just make a reasonable bet, maybe half the pot and hope you get a couple who call. If you are lucky, someone flopped a pair of Aces and will raise you. If that happens, I suggest you re-raise, going ALL-IN if you feel the opponent is aggressive enough to call.
  • Now if you DO NOT FLOP YOUR SET, You FOLD upon the FIRST BET. You must adhere to this. The bottom line is that you will only hit a set, on average about 1 out of every 8 times. What that means is you can't afford to be chasing, looking for that 3rd card. If you do that repeatedly, the small pocket pairs will become a hand that you LOSE money with over time. [ Now think about what I just said because it is one of the most important concepts you will ever learn. If you "chase" in this situation, you may get lucky and hit your set on the turn or river, BUT YOU WILL LOSE MONEY IN THE LONG RUN! It is a "losing" proposition to chase when the odds are not on your side - so if you want to be a good player - maintain your discipline. ] The cool thing is that if you hit you SET, you are most likely in a pretty dominant position - and the best part is that your opponents don't know it. So you YOU STICK TO THE PLAN. Remember, I've been saying that being a winner an no limit texas holdem takes discipline and patience. Well this is exactly what I mean. It is hard to take a pair, even though it is bottom pair, and toss it away for only .75. But you must - for if you do not - you will have added a LEAK to your game (meaning you are "leaking money from your bankroll"). Most poker players, good ones anyway, have spent alot of time trying to eliminate these leaks. So, since you are just starting out, don't start with them, don't learn the hard way. Take my word for it. There is a classic saying in texas holdem... "No Set, No Bet". That is your credo in this situation. That is discipline and when you add discipline to your game, you are really on your way to becoming a good player. [ I think I beat that concept into the ground ]

    AA, KK (from Sklansky Group 1)

    I probably don't have to tell you that AA and KK are great hands. Some starting hands in texas holdem appear to look good but can get you into alot of trouble. AA and KK are what they appear to be, great starting hands. That said, you don't want to take this idea too far. As a beginner, you'd still like to win this pot quickly until you ability to "read flops" improves. When the flop hits, you will most likely be in the lead and you will want to make a strong bet to hopefully win the pot right there. For most post flop play, you will want to consider the so-called "pot odds". This will be discussed in a separate article, but the over-riding concept that you want to remember is that these hands, while strong, may not stand up all the way to the river. You do not want to give your opponents "free cards" to beat you (with say two pair). So, assuming the flop is decent (eg, not three hearts with you having a spade and a club), you'll want to make a pot-sized bet and try to win it right there. Again, while it is true they are powerful starting hands, they can be beaten. Your goal on the flop is to make it "expensive" for someone to try to "draw out on you". One other thing, let's assume that you have KK and the flop comes with an Ace. Well that's a bit unfortunate. But if you raised preflop, and were not reraised, you should make a "continuation bet" (3/4 of the pot might be appropriate). You want to maintain your aggression. Now if your flop bet is called, it is likely that your Kings are beaten, or someone is making an incorrect play trying to draw out on you. If you raise, and are reraised, your Kings are most certainly beat (or you are playing with a moron, but assume the obvious here - you are beat). As one of my favorite players wrote in his book Harrington on Holdem, Vol 1: Strategic Play, author Dan Harrington notes "most bets mean what they appear to mean". That may sound a bit simplistic, but a common mistake the new players make is expecting that their opponents are constantly setting setting traps. But your opponents, especially at the stakes we are focusing on, do not typically play that way. So this is excellent advice for the beginner and you would be well served to remember it.

    In fact, if you are looking for ONE BOOK that will educate you more than any other, it is Dan's book on Strategic Play. It's so clear and just brilliantly written. In addition, Dan Harrington recently came out with Volume 2 of the series which focuses on later tournament play when the number of players are reduced, chip stacks have hopefully grown and you are looking to get to the final table. I have read some of that book as well (just came out in July 2005) and it is quite good with many insightful practice hands to teach you how to deal with later stages of tournament play. You may pick up a copy of Dan's new book, Harrington on Holdem, Vol 2: The Endgame, by clicking here. - also Highly Recommended!

    Greg's Unpaired High Card Starting Hands

    There are some unpaired high card hands that offer great potential in no limit holdem. Make sure, however, that you read the section below on "Trap Hands" since not all unpaired high cards are created equal. Some can make you alot of money, and some, while they look attractive, can get you in alot of trouble (meaning you might lose alot). Let's take a look at some of the best unpaired high cards that you should want to play (in no limit holdem):

    Ace-King SUITED:  
    Ace-King OFF SUIT:  
    Ace-Queen Suited:  
    Ace-Jack SUITED:  

    Middle Pairs

    Not too much different from the small pocket pairs. For the beginner, they are actually a bit more difficult to play because it is not as simple as "No Set, No Bet".

    Trap Hands (They look pretty, but...)

    One of the most important things you should learn is that there is a big difference between "Limit Holdem" and "No Limit Holdem". Hands that might be great in "Limit Holdem" can lose you alot of money in "No Limit". The reason for this is a concept called "domination". We will expand this section on trap hands, but the most important thing to understand is the concept of domination, which takes place when two players have a card of the same rank, but one player "second card' if higher than his opponents. Let's take a look at an example:

    Your Hole Cards:
    Your Opponents Hole Cards:
    The FLOP:

    You can see here why your opponent may be in a great deal of trouble. His KJ is a very hard hand to get away from. He has top pair with a high "kicker". Unfortunately for him, you have him dominated. You both have top pair with Jacks and he is likely to lose alot of money to you. He is considered "dominated" since another Jack will not help him. Only a King will help him, which reduces his "number of outs" to three (the three remaining kings in the deck). And again, unfortunately for him, he does not know this. He may suspect it, but it is still a very difficult situtation to be in. Most players in this situation will call anything you throw out there. Heck, he might even raise you.

    Now in "limit holdem", this might not be such a horrible thing for your opponent, since the bets are restricted. He might be able to afford to continue playing and may even hit his King by the river. Even if he loses, his losses will be somewhat restricted by the limits. But "no limit" is a different story. You can put some serious pressure on him, in the form of some big bets and he will probably have to call. This points out a fundamental difference between the types of hands you should play in "limit" versus the types of hands you should play in "no limit". In no limit, hole cards that may look nice may actually be "trap hands", hands that might cause you to lose a great deal of chips/money.

    If you are a new player, we recommend not playing these hands until your ability to "read flops" (flop texture) improves and you are more comfortable. There will come a time, when you are a very good player, that you will "lay down" the KJ knowing that your opponent has you beat with AJ. That takes a bit of experience and a feel for the game, but that is where you want to be heading - not becoming a wimpy player, but an "aware" player. I've included a couple of examples of hole cards that are easily dominated. You should think about these and why you could get into trouble.

    Our example above: As described above, here we are easily dominated by Ace-Jack.
    King-Queen: Here you are dominated by Ace-King, Ace-Queen
    Queen-Jack: Here you are dominated by Ace-King, Ace-Queen, Ace-Jack

    < to be completed >

    Trash Hands

    The majority of hands you will be dealt will be hands that you will want to fold. Texas holdem is considered a "high card" game and you would prefer to play premium cards in most situations. There are some exceptions, such as the low and mid-range pairs described earlier since they have great potential ("implied odds") if you hit your set. In general though you will want to play AA,KK,QQ,JJ,TT,AK,AK-suited,AQ suited and off,AJ-suited and possibly AJ offsuit. You will want to play all other pairs looking to hit a set. Some of the middle pairs require a bit of experience to play well and not get into trouble. In general, as a new player, you will want to throw most everything else away until you have studied more and gain an understanding of how to play suited connectors, and how you position affects all the holdings described. Until then, the hands we have described here are relatively safe for the new player to play.

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