Home Poker Starting Hands in No-Limit Hold’em: An Introduction

Starting Hands in No-Limit Hold’em: An Introduction

by Paul Hewson
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No-Limit Hold’em

Poker sure looks complicated once you get far enough into the weeds.

Here you are playing No-Limit Hold’em at a full-ring table, and you’re on the turn with two black Fours after opening under the gun; the big blind called, the flop was 4-3-2 with two Diamonds, he checked, you bet, he called, and now the turn is the Six of Diamonds. What the heck are you supposed to do here?

You could spend a good portion of your life trying to figure out this spot. But here’s the truth: You probably shouldn’t have been in this pickle in the first place. Opening baby pairs from early position is generally a bad idea in No-Limit Hold’em.

Sure, you’ve been dealt a Pair of Fours – and as they say, it’s hard to make a Pair in Hold’em. Why wouldn’t you open-raise from under the gun? At the very least, you can “set mine” and see if you can flop Three of a Kind. If the stacks are deep enough (ideally at least 20 times the size of your bet), this is a golden opportunity to speculate, and maybe felt someone. Right?

Wrong. Maybe if you had suited connectors like Seven-Six or a bigger pair like Pocket Eights, this would be a lovely spot to throw a few chips into the pot and see what happens. But opening pocket Fours here invites all sorts of trouble – like the spot you’re in right now.

This is why “pre-flop” is the most important betting round in Hold’em. There might not be a lot of money in the pot at this stage, but the decisions you make with your two hole cards will put you on the path toward heaven or hell. You have to get these decisions right if you want to win at any top-rated online poker room.

What Starting Hands Should I Play in Hold’em?

Here’s the good news: Pre-flop is also the easiest street in Hold’em to figure out. Thanks to solvers, and math wizards like John Nash, we can cobble together a sound pre-flop strategy with relative ease. The streets that follow (flop, turn and river) are still going to be complicated, but significantly less so when you start the hand with the right cards.

The tricky part to building your poker strategy is to wrap your head around exploitive (aka “exploitative”) vs. unexploitable (aka “balanced”) play. Think about tic-tac-toe for a moment; if you solved this game as a kid, you figured out that you can place your Xs and Os so the worst possible result you’ll get is a tie. If your opponent isn’t as smart, and gives you a pathway to victory, all the better.

Unexploitable poker strategy works the same way – and so do the solvers. They take a somewhat simplified version of poker and use it to crank out recommended “Nash equilibrium” plays, depending on which cards you have, the size of everyone’s stack, and which moves people have made thus far.

If you make the “game-theory optimal” (GTO) play as recommended by the solver, the worst result you can expect in the long run, meaning if you played this same hand a zillion times, would be to break even. And you would only achieve the worst result possible if you sat at a table filled with GTO wizards like Ike Haxton. Just like tic-tac-toe, the easier your opponents are in poker, the more often you’re likely to win.

When Should I Change My Starting Hands?

As you play more hands with your opponents and get better reads on them, you can start exploiting them by expanding or contracting your starting range – and/or by changing your bet size. For example, if your opponent is a “calling station,” you can expand your starting range and open some weaker value hands than you normally might, while betting bigger with your stronger hands.

You also might want to open more hands if you’re in a friendly game and you want to generate more action. Limping (that is, calling instead of raising when you open) isn’t usually recommended in Hold’em, and we won’t be doing any limping in this series – not even from the small blind. But limping in from any position with speculative hands like small pairs and suited connectors has its time and place.

Ultimately, you should be willing to open from any position with any two cards, if only to keep your opponents on their toes. But if you’re relatively new to poker, or you’re just starting to take it seriously for the first time, I highly recommend sticking for now with the starting hands I’ll show you in this series.

Get these into your system first, get comfortable with them, and start exploiting later on down the road. I’ll see you soon with our first and most important starting hand: pocket Aces.

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Paul Hewson
Paul Hewson (not that one) is a poker player/writer from the Pacific Northwest, appearing on the World Poker Tour, MILLIONS Tour and the WSOP Circuit series. Hewson is the senior writer for the Bodog Poker family; Texas Hold’em is his specialty, with side hustles in 8-Game and Badugi. He’s an Abe Limon Guy.

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