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Pre-flop Strategy – Starting Hand Rankings: Groups 0 to 2

One of the most difficult and yet crucial decisions you will make when playing no limit Texas holdem will be whether to even play your hand. This decision should not be made haphazardly. Hitting your card on the flop only to end up with the second best hand can be very costly. Playing mediocre cards can cost you if you are not able to let them go later in the hand. So, first of all, you should only be looking to play the best hands possible. David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth, co-authors of Hold’em Poker and Advanced Holdem Poker, were the first to apply rankings to the starting 2-card hands, and place them in groupings with advice on how to play those groups. This is a great starting point to help with your decision on which hands to play. We absolutely recommend that you read Advanced Holdem Poker, and keep it as a reference that you can refer back to you.

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There is group of folks at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon that developed a Texas holdem computer simulation and tested Sklansky’s hand rankings. They created multiple table environments, ranging from extremely tight to loose and crazy, and let them play millions of hands. They’ve suggested some alterations to Sklansky’s hand rankings and groupings.

You can check out this document here:

However, both rankings and grouping are based on the game of limit poker. I believe there are further adjustments to these starting hands for the game of no limit poker. This is because of the implied odds of hitting certain hands, particularly hitting trips or better when holding a pocket pair and hitting flushes (the nut flush in particular). The cost of playing these hands is very cheap compared to the potential pot and payout. For example, at the tables I play, I can see a flop for $.50 when the average pot size can be $20. This means that you can play more hands in more positions, but you must still be cognizant of the fact that all your chips could be at stake on any one hand, and you must still play very disciplined after the flop to let go of weaker hands.

So here is a summary of the playable hands:

Group 0: AA KK

I’ve pulled out these two particular powerhouses and put them in their own group. These two hands are by far the strongest hands possible, and have the best odds of beating any other hand. These are hands you should feel comfortable going ALL-IN on pre-flop, however that usually isn’t the best way to play them since the other players will be likely to fold, leaving you with just the blinds ($.75 at the tables I play).

I also recommend that you do not slow-play these two hands, in whatever position, in hopes of keeping more players in. There seems to be a lot of debate on this particular subject, but I can only speak from my own experience, and clearly raising with these two hands is a must in my strategy. I personally prefer winning a smaller pot with reduced risk than potentially losing a larger pot by accepting more risk. Not to mention, if I lose AA to a junk hand, I could go on tilt which would adversely affect the rest of my play.

The amount of the raise depends on my position, the number of players already in (assuming no raises yet), and the general table environment (loose, tight). Ideally, I like to play these hands against 2-3 opponents. So based on all that information, I’ll try to make a raise that is likely callable by 2-3 opponents. In practice, that ends up being a raise of $2.50 – $5.00, possibly more in late position if there are already several callers and I know the table to be loose. If the pot is raised prior to my turn, I will look to re-raise the pot by a margin larger than what it was raised. If the pot is then re-raised back to me, depending on how much money I have or my opponent has, I will possibly go all-in.

However, the situation does arise where my KK may be up against AA. Yes, this happens more often than you would think (when you play multiple tables online, you come across every situation routinely). Up to this point, I have not yet successfully laid down my KK against AA pre-flop, I’ve lost that particular scenario a handful of times. However, I’ve also never laid down my KK against QQ, JJ, or TT pre-flop that have been played similarly. So, overall, I think you stick with your KK unless you really think you know a player has AA – ie. – a tight, conservative player goes all-in for $50 preflop, it probably isn’t worth the call.

Group 1: QQ JJ AKs

These are the next three strongest hands (in order). I will also raise with these hands, call raises with these hands, and maybe re-raise once. I will also consider folding them pre-flop if I sense I am beat – ie. – A player raises $2.00. I re-raise another $2.00. If I am then re-raised huge, like $15 or all-in, I’ll possibly let my QQ go, and probably let my JJ, AKs go, depending on the opponent and what I know about his play.

The situation above, folding QQ pre-flop, is obviously rare. I have, on two occasions, folded QQ to a better pocket pair pre-flop (AA, KK).

Sometimes, it becomes obvious your opponent has AA or KK. They are normally tight, conservative players but are re-raising or going all-in pre-flop. They appear to have no sense of fear of losing the hand. In that scenario, you should consider folding your hand. AA vs. QQ or JJ, you are a 82% to 18% underdog, AA vs AKs, you are even worse at 88% to 12% underdog. Sklansky also rates these top five hands in this same order.

Group 2: TT AK AQs AJs KQs

The Carnegie Mellon group ranks AK above KQs in overall power. This is a slight change to Sklansky’s rankings.
I further moved AK above AQs and AJs. I believe AK plays stronger than these suited hands in the
no limit arena. And, clearly, AK is a dominating hand over AQs, AJs, and KQs heads up.

Again, I raise with all the Group 2 hands, usually between $1.50 – $3.00 depending on the action, my position, and the table environment. My raises tend to be a little less when I am in early position. I am very sensitive to re-raises with these hands. Depending on the player and the size of the re-raise, I will usually call, sometimes fold, and rarely re-raise.

These are the top ten starting hands and I look to raise with each and every one of them from all positions.

Go back to our main starting hand groupings to see how these groups fit in with the others.

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