Pre-Flop Starting Hands in No Limit Hold'em Poker

Why do you need to get your starting hand selection right?

Poker is all about maximising your gains from big hands (and bluffs) while minimising your losses when you’re behind.  However, regardless of how well you play through the post-flop period of your game, it is your pre-flop hand selection which will determine how successful you will be.  

The pre-flop sets up your play for the rest of the round similar to how a first serve in a tennis match ets up the rest of that point. If you make poor hand selection in no limit holdem pre-flop then it’s very likely that the rest of your game will suffer and you’ll be caught out in awkward situations.

With regards to hand selection, a number of professional poker players such as David Slansky, Phil Hellmuth and Dan Harrington have all proposed their own starting hand charts based on your table position.  However each of these strategies differs slightly since the playing style of each of these players differs.  Dan Harrington is one of the most well known TAG tournament poker players, whilst Phil Hellmuth tends to mix up his game between TAG and LAG.

Premium Hands – AA, KK, QQ and AK

These top four hands (AA, KK, QQ, AK) are the best 2% of pocket cards that you can be dealt in No Limit Holdem.  Whenever you’re dealt these hands you’ll want to raise them up or be happy committing your entire stack into the pot pre-flop.
The chances are that you’ll be ahead of your opponent pre-flop with any of these hands.  This means that you’ll want to built the pot as large as possible pre-flop and get rid of any limpers who’re trying to see the flop cheaply.  If you’re first to act then make an open raise of around 3-4 BBs however if someone has already raised in front of you then you’ll want to re-raise them around 3x their opening raise.  Bear in mind that if you have a premium pair such as KK and get called by a lower pocket pair (e.g. 55) then you’re still an 80% to 20% favourite.

Mid Pocket Pairs (77 – JJ), Broadway Cards and High Suited Connectors

Mid pocket pairs (77 – JJ) and high suited connectors (e.g. JQs/KQs) are very strong hands especially in 6-max cash games however because they are not as strong and can easily be dominated by premium hands listed above you’ll naturally want to play them a little slower.

From late position, pocket pairs including JJ become excellent 3betting hands.  The value of these hands increases in late position (e.g. LP/CO) since you can recognise weaknesses and get maximum information/reads at the table.  You’ll also have a positional advantage in all of the future betting rounds since you will be last to act.  

These hands are also excellent hands to semi-bluff with early on since they are strong enough to get called with, have good implied odds for hitting a monster on the flop, but at the same time they are weak enough for you to be satisfied with everyone folding around and giving you the blinds.  Although you can raise/bluff these hands from late position, I personally recommend limping with them from early position since they are much harder to play from EP – MP.

Low Pocket Pairs, Suited Aces and Suited/Non-Suited Connectors

These are your “marginal” sets of pre-flop hands.  Low pocket pairs (22 – 66), suited aces and non-suited connectors are essentially limping hands with some 3bet value from position.  They are also excellent hands for 3betting light with.  Of course they are not very strong in totality, but the implied odds from these hands gives them a lot of value on weak tables where you get to regularly see the flop cheaply.
The advantage of playing non-suited/suited connectors such as 56o is that these middling cards tend to hit a lot of flops.  You’d be surprised by just how often you’ll hit mid-pair or a straight draw with a hand like 109o or 56s in no limit holdem.  By exercising good pot-control with these types of hands you’ll have a good deal of success with them.  
With regards to calling 3bets with these hands I would be very inclined to fold them.  The majority of the time these types of hands require favourable pot-odds to be profitable to play (meaning 2 or more players in the pot with deep stacks behind them).  If you get re-raised with these hands then you’re better off folding (unless you’re short-stacked in a tournament in which case you’ll just want to shove all-in).

Junk Hands – 72o/58s/92o etc…

Any hands not already covered will be considered junk hands and you’ll want to throw them away.  For new players in particular, it’s really important that you don’t both limping with junk hands such as 72o since the odds will always be against you.  Sure, you might be able to catch a flop such as 772 but the chances of this happening means that in the long term you’ll be bleeding chips and diminishing your bankroll playing these sorts of hands.