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starting poker hands

Best Poker Starting Hands | How to Play Poker

Let’s take a minute to talk about the value of various poker starting hands. While there’s a lot that happens in the game once the cards get on the table, we’re going to put those more complex poker hands to the side for just a moment. Instead, we’re going to focus specific poker starting hands and how they match up against other poker starting hands. 

Yes, this means that we’re going to talk about statistics.

If you’re playing in Texas Hold’em poker tournaments, you need to understand how to put your opponent on more than one hand. A great way to figure out how to do this is to start looking at the odds. You need to know what’s more likely to happen in any pre-flop confrontation, and you’re going to learn fairly quickly.

Poker Starting Hands

Luckily, this isn’t something you need to memorize – it’s just something that helps. Plenty of poker players get through their games with only a hazy knowledge of the odds, and you can do the same. If you want to get an edge, though, it’s helpful for you to start by knowing the basic odds when it comes to poker starting hands match-ups so you can better craft a winning poker strategy. 

Poker Starting Hands: Pair Matches

The best poker starting hands are usually pair matches. While there’s a lot of difference between a pair of threes and a pair of aces, you can feel pretty good any time that you have a pair in the pocket. Below are how the odds will shake out if you or an opponent have a pair to start the game. The short version is this, though – you really want a pair in your poker hand. 

Pair Against Pair

poker starting hands: pair vs pair

This one is actually pretty simple, and it makes sense even if you don’t really care about math. The higher pair of cards is going to win about eighty percent of the time, so long as you discount a number of other variables like potential suiting issues or the likelihood of a straight given the particular pair. The easy way to look at this, though, is that the bigger cards tend to win. 

Pair Against Overcards

pair vs overcards

This one is really, really tough. If you’re looking at the math, the pair has about a ten percent advantage over the overcards, winning about fifty-three percent of the time. This is a very slight lead, and it’s also an incredibly common set-up to see at the end of a tournament. When it comes to poker starting hands, this match-up is about as even as you’re going to find. 

Pair Against Undercards

poker starting hands - pair vs undercards

As you might imagine, the pair takes this one in a landslide. A pair is going to beat most undercards about eighty-seven percent of the time, or at a five to one rate. The math here is a little fuzzier than elsewhere, though, as there are quite a few potential variables at play. Undercards that share a suit or that are connectors might have slightly higher odds against the pair, but things still don’t look great. 

Pair Against Overcard/Undercard

poker starting hands: pair vs overcard and undercard

Again, you’re looking at a situation where the pair has a really strong ability to win against the other hand. The pair is generally favored with seventy-one percent odds, but things can change rapidly depending on what particular outs the pairing of the overcard and undercard give the other player. 

Pair Against Overcard and Matching Pair Card

poker starting hands: pair vs overcard and one matching pair card

This one is a little on the weird side. You’re not really seeing the odds go up for the unpaired side, but you’re seeing the odds go down for the side with the pair. The odds of the paired hand winning are going to go down by about ten percent, still giving that player a very healthy lead but not by quite as much. What you’re honestly looking at here is the elimination of possibilities for the stronger hand while not actually adding all that much for the weaker hand. 

Pair Against Undercard and Matching Pair Card

starting poker hands: pair vs undercard and matching pair card

This isn’t a great position if you don’t have a pair. This is about as painful as things can be for a player, because he or she is going to be counting on getting a lucky flush or straight draw to win. If you’re the player with the pair, you’re going to walk away as the winner nine out of ten times. You really don’t get better than ninety percent odds when it comes to poker starting hands. 

Pair Against Lower Suited Connectors

starting poker hands: pair vs lower suited connector

In other words, this is a pair against a desperation hand. You’ll see this fairly often when a player is trying to survive but isn’t quite out of the game yet, and it does work – just not all that often. In terms of math, it comes down to the exact connectors. You’re not looking at a good set of odds, though. 

Pair Against Higher Suited Connectors

starting poker hands: pair vs higher suited connectors

Given that a pair can usually feel confident against a set of lower-suited connectors, you’d think that the odds would be relatively similar for higher-suited connectors. Unfortunately, that’s a mistake that hits plenty of poker players right in the wallet. If you’re in this match-up, the odds could go either way. High-suited connectors will typically beat a smaller pair, while the bigger pair tends to take out the connectors half the time. 

Poker Starting Hands: Non-Pair Matchups

What do you do if you don’t have a pair? That really depends on what those non-paired cards are. Note that we’re not going to engage in the type of speculation that would require us to do really difficult math. All of these match-ups are for theoretical pairs, not specific pairs. Know that the poker odds will shift when the non-paired cards are suited or connectors, as those give the players more outs. 

Two High Against Two Undercards

two high cards vs two lower cards

The math gets a little fuzzy here due to issues like whether the cards are suited or whether they are connectors, but you’re generally going to see the higher-value cards walk away with the pot. Higher-value cards win about sixty-five percent of the time, which isn’t nearly enough to be comfortable but it is definitely enough to put the odds back in your favor. 

High/Low Against Two Middle

high/low vs two middle

It’s always better to have a high card than to be stuck with something that is mediocre. It’s not even as sure a thing as having that pair of two high cards against two low cards, of course, but it’s something. You’re going to see the hand with the high card taking the pot about fifty-four percent of the time in this situation, basically a toss-up.

High/Middle Against Lower/Low

starting poker hands: high/middle vs  lower/low

Again, the better hand is the one that has the higher card. The math starts to get a little wild when that middle card is actually the third highest card in play, as bumping up the value of the winning hand by about five percent. This combination is going to go to the high/middle player about sixty-two percent of the time, making it one of the most valuable of the non-pair poker starting hands. 

High/Match Against Match/Low

starting poker hands: high/match vs match/low

This is just down to positioning and cards. The player who has the higher card is the player who’s going to take the pot almost every time, but it’s not exactly the strongest position to be in. You really have to factor in things like potential flushes and straights to figure out how this one will shake out, but the higher card is usually the winner at about seventy-five percent. 

High Kicker vs. Low Kicker

starting poker hands: high kicker vs low kicker

The card with the kicker wins, and does so most of the time. The better the kicker, the better the chance that the winning player is going to end up with something amazing. This is why Ace-King is a preferred hand, after all, and why there are many people who play starting poker hands based entirely on having that kicker. This is the kind of hand that sees a lot of play at the end of tournaments. 

Final Thoughts

This is really meant to give players an edge when they’re thinking about basic heads up match-ups. You don’t need to know the exact numbers to be able to play, though admittedly having those numbers can be nice for those who have the right kind of mindset. It’s better to know that something’s close to an even split than to know that the odds are 49.9 vs. 50.1.

starting poker hands: heads up

The important thing here is that you know what it means to have certain cards. When you’re just looking at starting poker hands, you can rule out very few possibilities based on that information alone. After all, most of what you need to know is still yet to come and that doesn’t even get into the issues surrounding how other players choose to play.

To be honest, plenty of players totally ignore the odds and do fine. That’s not recommended, mind you, and not the kind of play that we’re trying to encourage here. What it does mean, though, is that you can relax and try to have a little fun while you play. Keep the poker math in the back of your mind but don’t be a slave to it. 

If you remember nothing else, try to remember this – the odds are so weighted against both players having pocket Aces that you can always feel comfortable with that starting hand. The odds of someone else getting the same hand as you are very low, so try to feel confident knowing what it means to have whatever you’ve been dealt. If you can do that, you’ll be able to play from a position of strength and be able to use your knowledge to increase your odds of winning. See you at the WSOP!

♠ pokerjournal.org

Poker Starting Hands – FAQs

Q: How many poker hands do you start with?

A: I’m not really sure what you’re asking on this one, but there are 1,326 possible combinations for staring hands in Texas hold’em poker.

Q: What are good starting hands in poker?

A: Good starting poker hands include: pairs of AA-55, AK, AQ, and AJ. Those are the best starting hands, but you need a wider range than that, which can include other Broadway cards, suited connectors and suited one-gappers.

Q: Which hands should you play in poker?

A: The cards matter, but the hands you should play depend on your position and the players at your table.

Q: How do you find the probability of poker hands?

A: You can just use a Texas hold’em odds calculator. There are many of them out there.

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