No Limit Hold’em starting hands; the Next Generation

by ~ October 27th, 2008. Filed under: General poker strategy, Instructional posts.

* Modified June 15th, 2010 *

I wrote a post long ago about starting hands to play in No Limit Hold’em,
No limit Hold’Em; another beginners strategy. Part 1: Preflop hand selection. It was as simple as I could make it, and gave basic guidelines for a beginner.

Once you get a feel for playing those hands, there are more hands that are worth playing, in certain situations. This post is about the next range of hands to consider playing and when to play them. Don’t try adding these to your game too much until you really have the basic starting hands down, as well as some good post-flop playing experience.

Middle/low pocket pairs:

These hands may be the best hand preflop, and even at showdown if higher cards have missed the board. Against AK, 22 is a 52/48 favorite, but once the cards come out, 22 is a 91/9 dog against 54 if either the 4 or 5 has paired the board. So the lower the pair, the more difficult they can be to play postflop.

When/how to play middle/low pocket pairs:

  • From the SB or late position, if the pot is unopened, raise to try to take the blinds. If called, evaluate the flop for likelihood that it hit the caller and if not, c-bet and represent a hand. You may in fact have the best hand.
  • At a weak table, from early/mid position open limp. Try to set off a chain of limpers and hope to hit a set. Against good players, this can be a transparent play. In most cases, fold unless you hit a set.
  • In a tournament, when you have 10 BBs or less, push all-in and hope that at worst you get in a race against overcards. As a big stack, you can also call short stack shoves and hope that they are pushing any two big cards.
  • At at cash table, against a loose player, and either he or you have short stacks, when he raises preflop, try to get him all in for the same reason as above.
  • When faced with a raise and both you and your opponent have fairly deep stacks, call their preflop raises and hope to hit a set. This is called “set mining” as basically you are hoping to flop a set, and you hope to get paid off big when you do. Note that this is only applicable when the stack sizes are at least 50 BBs each. Because the odds are 7.5 to 1 against flopping a set, you need implied odds to get enough return on the times that you do flop a set. Standard minimum effective stack size requirement is 12 to 1; both players need to have 12 times the bet size (the extra from 7.5 to 12 is to cover the times we hit the set but don’t win a big pot), meaning around 50 BBs since the PFR will be about 3 or 4 BBs. Again, if you miss the set, most of the time you just fold.
  • Against decent competition, open raise any pair from any position. Again, you’re going to steal the blinds, or c-bet any flop that you think your opponent missed. Best case scenario is when you flop a medium or low set and your opponent catches a high pair. The other purpose of doing this is to balance your play, so that an early position raise is not always the top 5% of hands and so a 962 flop does not always mean that you missed.

Sometimes you will miss a set but the flop will be a lower than your pair. Or, you flop an OESD. Or it’s a dry flop with only one overcard and you suspect that your opponent who raised preflop might have missed the flop as well. There are definitely situations where you miss the set but decide that it’s worthwhile to call one bet or to lead out and hope to win a small pot, but that’s material for an entire separate post.

Suited connectors

Suited connectors were Doyle Brunson’s favorite hand, but since publication of his Super System book some who have read it tend to overvalue these hands, both preflop and on the flop.

Suited connectors (ie. 8s7s) can be played very similarly to medium/small pairs. There are some dangers in these hands that are different from pairs.

  1. If you catch one pair (ie. a 842 flop) you may have the best hand, but you may be behind an overpair or be dominated by someone who has a better kicker. Often you will catch middle pair which is even more difficult to play.
  2. When you get two pair (ie. Q87 flop) those two cards often give someone else a straight draw. You have to play this situation very fast and charge anyone to chase. It gets worse if the flop may have already given someone else the straight, such as a 987 flop.
  3. Similarly if you flop the bottom end of a straight you need to play this fast (ie. JT9 flop) as anyone with a Q can outdraw you, but be careful because again you may already be behind KQ for a bigger straight.
  4. If you flop a flush you can’t play it too slow either as your flush is vulnerable to anyone who holds only the A of the suit, and again you may already be behind a bigger flush.

These dangers are what make suited connectors somewhat more difficult to play than pairs. It’s often less obvious when you have the best hand, and even when you have a big hand it can be vulnerable to being already behind, or to being outdrawn.

How/when to play suited connectors:

  • From the SB or late position, if the pot is unopened, raise to try to take the blinds. If called, evaluate the flop for likelihood that it hit the caller and if not, c-bet and represent a hand. Unlike pairs, you likely do not have the best hand if you missed the flop, but when you do hit it’s well disguised. Just calling from the SB is also an option, because when you hit a hand it can be so well disguised that you have a chance to win a larger pot, if the BB catches something or wants to try to bluff you off.
  • At a weak table, call behind limpers. I’m less inclined to open-limp suited connectors because unlike pairs it can be difficult to determine how good your hand is. It’s easier when you are in late position rather than early position.
  • In a tournament, when you have a big stack suited connectors can be good cards to call small stack shoves. Because they are so rarely dominated by the type of hands that a short stack will likely shove with you are rarely drawing dead. Against overpairs they are 80/20 underdogs, but against two higher unpaired cards they are 64/34 underdogs, and against underpairs they are 52/48 underdogs. Obviously not as good as pairs, which is why they are better for big stack calls rather than short stack shoves. This is often where I see players overvalue suited connectors by openshoving, believing that they are as good as a small pocket pair.
  • When faced with a raise and both you and your opponent have fairly deep stacks, call their preflop raises. Again suited connectors are deceptive and rarely dominated, especially against the big (most commonly open raised) hands.
  • Like pairs, you could open raise suited connectors, but do so judiciously because there are so many combinations of them that if you raise every time you have them you will be raising often.

Some further notes about suited connectors.

  • 45 through to TJ can make 4 different straights. 34 and JQ can only make 3 straights, 23 and KQ can only make 2 straights (though obviously KQ that paired the flop is much stronger than 23 that paired). Similarly any one-gap connector (T8/97 ect) can only make 3 straights, and a 2-gapper (T7, 96 ect) can only make 2.
  • a pair with an OESD (ie. 87 on a T97 flop) has 8 outs to a straight, 2 outs to trips, and 3 outs to two pair if your opponent has a lone overpair. That’s 13 outs, or 55/45 underdog.
  • a pair with a flush draw (8s7s on Ks8c4s) is a 53/47 underdog against an overpair
  • a pair with and OESD and flush draw (9s8c6s) is 64/36 favorite over an overpair
  • an OESD and flush draw (KsTs9h) is a 53/47 favorite

These odds to draws are somewhat simplified, as they do not take into consideration the times that your opponent may have a draw to the same straight or to a bigger straight or flush.


Adding middle and low pocket pairs and suited connectors to your preflop hands of choice will give you a lot more hands to open your tight arsenal of opening hands, but these extra hands are ones that have value if you use them in the proper situations. But use them properly. Don’t just add them as hands to play from all positions in all situations or you’ll be spewing chips almost badly as as the fish who plays Kh 4h because it’s soooted.

Note that between the list of starting hands and then adding these hands, there’s still no place for KTo, A6o and the like, hands that are very rarely going to dominate a flop but hands that are easily dominated. These are fine for stealing blinds (in fact any Ace hand or gapped connector is good for blind stealing) but are just garbage for less experienced players who will get into trouble with these kinds of hands.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Reply