Top Ten Poker Starting Hands for No Limit Hold’em
The Tip Top Fox examines the top ten best poker starting hands for No Limit Texas Hold’em
The top ten best starting hands in poker are highly debatable. While players usually agree on the top five, some rate hand strength differently when it comes to the top ten. This is often a reflection of a player’s skill level and playing style.
Knowing what hands to play from which position is one of the first things newcomers need to learn in order to succeed. Understanding relative hand strength – the strength of your hand versus your opponent’s perceived hand – is a key skill when you are first starting out in poker.
The Best Hand?
Pre-flop, this is an easy answer, with pocket aces being a big favourite over every other hand in the game. However, even the worst hand in poker, 7-2 offsuit, will still beat aces roughly 12% of the time.
The huge amount of variables in poker is one of the things that keeps players coming back for more. While some hands are undeniably huge favourites over the rest of the field, the best hand at any given time can change from the flop to the river.
However, in general, the stronger your starting hand, the higher your chances of winning the pot. Good players always play the odds.
That’s why the Tip Top Fox has compiled a list of the top ten premium poker starting hands to provide newcomers building blocks with which to construct a solid poker game. These have all been calculated using the free online poker equity calculator ProPokerTools – a great resource if you are just starting out in the game.
Top Ten Starting Hands:
These are the top ten poker starting hands, from a statistical point of view. They have been picked on two factors; one their equity versus a random hand; two how well they play versus the other top ten hands.
These hands can be played from the majority of positions. One important caveat to remember, however, is the lower down the list you go, the less well the hand plays to a re-raise. Your position at the table in relation to the button is also important. The earlier your position, the harder your post-flop decisions will become. This means starting hand strength and position are two of the most important factors in poker, especially when learning. When we refer to a hands’ equity, we are talking about the percentage chance it has of beating another hand.
1. Pocket Aces (A♠A♥)
The premium starting hand in poker, pocket aces are a big favourite over every other starting hand. How big? Against a random hand, aces are an 85% pre-flop favourite, although these odds decrease slightly depending on the exact cards you find yourself up against. Aces are an 80% favourite over all other pocket pairs, meaning you should (in theory) win four times out of five versus another pair. The hand with the best preflop equity against aces is either 7-8 suited or 6-7 suited – although aces are still a 77.5% favourite. The more players in a hand, the lower the chances of aces holding up. The probability of aces winning versus two opponents decreases to 73.5% and drops to 64% versus four players. Your chances of getting dealt pocket aces preflop are 221/1.
2. Pocket Kings (K♦K♣)
The second best starting hand in poker, pocket kings – or Cowboys – are an 82% favourite over two random cards, only trailing to aces. With the odds of big pairs winning at showdown in NLHE being so high – even if they don’t improve – it is almost never correct to fold them pre-flop. Even against aces, kings still have a one in five chance of winning. Although this is a less than ideal situation to find yourself in, the odds of it happening are 21-1 – roughly 5%. Kings have close to 70% equity against any hand containing an ace, improving to between 83-85% versus ten-jack and queen-jack respectively, climbing to 90% against other non-ace Broadway hands like king-queen and king-jack. The appearance of an ace on the flop, something which happens 22% of the time (roughly one time in five), can often be cause for concern, but if you play cautiously you won’t lose all your chips.
3. Pocket Queens (Q♠Q♥)
The third best starting hand in poker, queens are close to an 80% favourite over two random cards. Pocket queens only trail to aces and kings pre-flop, so should be played aggressively with a raise or a re-raise. Queens are also a slight favourite over ace-king suited, with 54% equity, improving to 56% against the offsuit version. Like aces and kings, queens dominate all smaller pairs as a 4-1 favourite, and have close to 70% equity versus any other ace-Broadway combination. They can be tricky to play post-flop with a 42% chance of overcards hitting but are also easier to fold than the other two premium pairs to sustained aggression on bad boards. Queens are also big favourites over drawing hands, with between 62-63% equity versus flopped flush and straight draws respectively.
4. Pocket Jacks (J♦J♣)
The hand players love to hate, pocket jacks are one of the trickiest premium hands to play. While jacks have a sizable 77% equity versus two random cards, they are crushed by aces, kings, and queens. There is also a 57% chance of overcards to the jack hitting the flop, meaning they can be tricky to play post-flop over half the time you get them. Like queens, jacks enjoy between 54-56% equity versus suited ace-king and ace-queen and the offsuit versions respectively. Like all premium pairs, jacks play worse the more hands they find themselves up against, especially with the increased chances of overcards flopping, so should be played aggressively pre-flop to thin the field. However, it pays to be wary if there has been significant action such as a raise and a re-raise (3-bet). You don’t want to be committing a 100 big blind stack pre-flop in a situation like this as at best, it’s a coinflip and at worst you are a 1-4 underdog.
5. Pocket Tens (10♠10♥)
A hand that plays similarly to jacks, pocket tens have 75% equity versus two random cards but are a significant 4-1 underdog to the four other premium pairs. Like queens and jacks, tens are a slight favourite versus ace-king and ace-queen, with 54-57% equity versus the suited and offsuit versions of these hands respectively. The same equity applies against most other Broadway hands, with tens slightly weaker than jacks against hands like king-jack and queen-jack suited. While tens are a slight favourite against all Broadway holdings, you should be wary of committing your whole stack pre-flop on a potential coin flip. Essentially, tens play like jacks, with an increased 70% chance of overcards hitting the flop. Just like jacks, it can often be correct to fold tens pre-flop if there has been some heavy betting action.
6. Pocket Nines (9♦9♣)
While many players would rate pocket nines below hands like ace-king suited or ace-queen suited, they are technically a better hand. This is because they are already a ‘made’ hand as a pair beats unimproved high-cards at showdown. Nines have 72% equity against a random hand, which is 5% more than the big suited Broadway combinations. Pocket nines also have 52.76% equity versus these hands, making the pair a slight favourite. Of course, nines get crushed by the five larger premium pairs so need to be played cautiously. They play better the later your position as there will be overcards to nines on the flop around 80% of the time, meaning they can be tricky to play post-flop.
7. Ace-King Suited (A♠K♠)
The best starting hand in poker that isn’t a pocket pair. While some would rate ace-king suited as a top-five hand, it is in essence a drawing hand. With 67% equity versus two random cards, all the top five premium pairs and pocket nines have better equity both against two random cards and against ace-king suited itself. Ace-king suited – or Big Slick – has around 46% equity against all big pairs except aces and kings, where it has 12% and 34% equity respectively. Ace-king suited’s greatest strength lies in its huge dominating ability on ace or king-high flops versus all other Broadway hands – unless they have flopped two pairs of course – often with added nut flush and overcard redraw potential. Pre-flop, ace-king suited is a 73% favourite over all other ace-high hands. It is the latter stages of tournaments where ace-king suited really shines. While you should not be committing 100 big blinds with it pre-flop in a cash game, it is great for shoving 20 big blind stacks in a Sit and Go or tournament as it dominates other ace-high and Broadway hands and is flipping versus most pairs.
8. Ace-Queen Suited (A♥Q♥)
While it is dominated by ace-king, ace-queen suited just pips ace-king offsuit in the power rankings with 66% equity versus two random cards. The fact it is suited with more draw potential also gives ace-queen suited more equity versus pocket pairs – aside from the top three premium pairs. Big chick has 46% equity versus jacks, and this increases as the value of the pocket pair drops, reaching 50% versus pocket twos. Ace-queen suited’s worst match up is against aces, where it has just 12.5% equity. It is also an underdog to ace-king with 28-30% equity versus the suited and offsuit versions respectively. Against kings and queens, ace-queen suited has 32% and 34% equity respectively. Just like its bigger brother ace-king suited, big chick dominates all other Broadway hands –barring ace-king – as a 70% favourite.
9. Ace-King Offsuit (A♦K♣)
Close to a percentile behind to ace-queen suited, and 2% behind its suited counterpart, ace-king offsuit has 65% equity versus two random cards. While it is comparible in power to it’s suited counterpart, that 2% deficit does add up in the long run. However, aside from lacking solid nut flush draw potential, ace-king offsuit still enjoys most of the same benefits, dominating all other ace-high and Broadway hands. It also performs 2% less well against all other pairs, where it’s equity ranges from 43% versus queens, down to 47% against twos. Against aces it’s equity is halved, with only a 6% chance of winning. It performs 4% less well than it’s suited counterpart versus kings, with 30% equity, improving to 43% versus queens.
10. Ace-Jack Suited (A♦J♦)
Similar to ace-queen suited versus ace-king offsuit, ace-jack suited just pips ace-queen offsuit in the power rankings. Ace-jack suited has 65% equity versus two random cards, 1% more than ace-queen offsuit. In fact, ace-jack suited has a negligible 0.07% edge over ace-king offsuit versus two random cards. However, the fact it is dominated by four other big ace-high hands puts ace-king offsuit slightly higher in the rankings. This makes it a tricky hand to play. It does not play well to a re-raise and it can find itself dominated on ace-high flops. However, nut flush draws combined with high cards are strong holdings. Ace-jack suited still has solid equity and dominates all other lower Broadway holdings, crushing ace-ten with around 70% equity, and has 58% equity versus most of the rest. While a decent starting hand, ace-jack suited should be played with caution.
Other strong starting hands that play well but did not make the top ten cut include:
Ace-Queen Offsuit (A♦Q♣)
Similar in power to ace-jack suited – which it dominates – ace-queen offsuit has the same perils and pitfalls as ace-king offsuit. Ace-queen offsuit is at a slight 2% disadvantage in equity versus its suited counterpart. This comes with the added disadvantage of being dominated by two big ace-high hand combinations. However, ace-queen offsuit is still a strong starting hand. It boasts 64.43% equity versus two random cards; around 70% equity versus all smaller aces, and 43%+ equity versus jacks or lower.
Ace-Ten Suited (A♦T♦)
With 64.60% equity against two random cards, ace-ten suited actually performs slightly better than ace-queen offsuit. It is also a percentile above ace-jack offsuit in equity. However, it is dominated by all other ace-high Broadway hand combinations, which can often be its undoing. It is usually better to hit top pair, top kicker, with the ten than the ace in that regard. Ace-ten suited has 13% equity versus aces – slightly better than ace-king, ace-queen, and ace-jack suited. It boasts 32% equity versus K-K – J-J, improving to 34% versus T-T. Ace-ten suited plays better against lower pocket pairs; with 47% equity versus nines and improving the lower the pair.
Ace-Jack Offsuit (A♦J♣)
While ace-jack offsuit has 63.56% equity versus two random cards, it does not perform as well as the rest of the ace-high Broadway combinations, other than ace-ten offsuit. It has all the problems of its suited counterpart, with fewer benefits. It does, however, dominate the rest of the Broadway hand combinations. Ace-jack offsuit has 42% equity or higher versus pocket pairs T-T and lower. Should be folded to sustained aggression pre-flop as it doesn’t perform well against the range of hands opponents will re-raise.
Pocket Eights (8♠8♥)
With 69.16% equity versus two random cards, pocket eights – or Snowmen – perform better than all of the ace-high Broadway combinations. However, eights are dominated by six other pocket pairs. Combine this with the chance of overcards on the flop 87% of the time, and you have a hand that is tough to play post-flop. Plays better the later your position.
King-Queen Suited (K♥Q♥)
While technically behind to any ace-high hand pre-flop, king-queen suited fairs better versus two random cards, with 63.40% equity. Again, it comes down to the power of the suited Broadway overcards. While dominated by big ace-high Broadway hand combinations, it’s a lot easier to fold king-queen to a big raise than it is some of the other previously mentioned hands. King-queen suited has 46% equity versus all pairs J-J and below, improving the lower the pair. It has 17% equity against aces; dropping to 13% against kings; with a chance to beat queens a little over 1 time in 3 with 35% equity.