We all know which are the best starting hands, but not necessarily the ‘properties’ they have in terms of how they perform relative to other hands and in this or that situation. Are Aces, for instance, as invulnerable as we might think? How strong is AK, and how does it fare in a match-up against 77?

Let’s look at the best starting hands with a view to becoming better acquainted with a few useful characteristics that help better understand certain implications experienced in playing them.

(N.B. All-in Match-up percentages are approximate)

AA

Pocket Aces, of course, is the strongest starting hand in NLH. As such, in a standard 1 v 1 match-up, AA is a favourite against any other holding, with varying levels of expectancy. Given that there’s a 0.45% probability (220-1) of being dealt Aces, it’s important to make the most of the opportunity when it comes along.

Against a random hand AA is a mighty 85% favourite, while AA dominates KK roughly 80:20. A hand like 76 suited has around a 23% chance of causing an upset, which is slightly better odds than JT suited (21%). This is because AK and JT are close enough to share helpful cards.

It follows, then, that when we get dealt AA we should be exploiting the situation at this stage of the hand when our advantage is more clearly defined – compared to offering on a plate the potential myriad of additional possibilities afforded our opponents by the Flop. A sound strategy is to be aggressive and get chips into the pot pre-flop, thus forcing the opposition to pay a premium for coming along for the ride.

KK

Pocket Kings (’cowboys’) enjoy a similar mathematical dominance as Aces, with the albeit significant difference that, apart from running into AA, there’s a possibility we could be overtaken by someone holding an Ace.

KK is an 82% favourite against a random hand, 80% versus a lower pair and has slightly more than a 78% chance of surviving intact against a holding such as 98 suited. Returning to the scenario in which an opponent holds an Ace, in the match-up of KcKd v As6s, for example, the cowboys are 68% favourites.

QQ

With pocket Queens the hierarchy continues… However, I often remind beginners that when I was first getting into poker and watching top players on TV, one of them referred to QQ as a ‘small’ pair. Of course he was being ironic, but at the same time he was making a sobering point because it’s comparatively more vulnerable than the top two hands. Consequently, it presents a good example of the importance of no-nonsense, aggressive pre-flop play in order to minimise the risk of slipping on a proverbial banana skin as the situation grows more complex.

Against a random hand it’s an 80% favourite, with similar chances to AA and KK when facing the likes of 76 suited. In an all-in fight with AK, QQ has a 57% chance of coming out on top.

Just remember that with QQ we’re another rung down the ladder, which means that there are more potential overcards lurking in the depths, ready to put us into an awkward position. Nevertheless, this is in itself something we can exploit when opponents use the presence of an Ace, for example, to (semi) bluff. Be positive, but tread carefully post-flop.

JJ

Obviously, pocket Jacks is a strong hand, but it’s universally known as a ‘trouble’ holding because it’s far enough down the pecking order to be not that far ahead of so-called middle pairs.

Nonetheless, JJ deserves to be in the royal household of poker hands. Indeed favouritism against a random hand is a pretty impressive 77%, and it’s around 69% against an overcard. One of the interesting match-up percentages is 56% favouritism against two overcards, and this is one of the important elements to bear in mind given how many times our JJ will come up against such a combination.

However, as with QQ, this is a holding that we should look to play aggressively pre-flop. It’s when we hesitate, unable to make our minds up whether to properly commit, that it can indeed be a trouble hand.

AK suited

It might be a little counter-intuitive to place AK suited above TT (which would be next in the list) or, indeed, any pair. After all, this is – for the moment, at least, just Ace-high! But it’s not as simple as that.

Given that there’s a 48.7% chance of Big Slick, as it’s known, hitting a pair by the River with any two cards, we can see how strong a hand this can be. We’re also going to catch (at least) a pair on the Flop almost a third of the time and, when that happens, whether it’s an Ace or a King that arrives, we’ll have top pair, top kicker. Throw in the nut flush possibilities, and AK suited starts to look like the strong hand that it is.

AKs has a 67% chance to win versus a random hand and is a close 48% against 66 etc. and 68% versus A6 suited.

Apart from when coming up against AA or KK, AK suited fares well all-in, being almost 50-50 against other pairs and a favourite against non-pairs. The hand’s strength lies chiefly in the likelihood that it will turn into (at least) a pair by the River essentially half the time and, as such, justifies considerable pre-flop aggression – including a willingness to commit our stack.

Have fun!

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About the Author

AngusD

AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

Latest changes

The last changes of the page “No Limit Hold’em: Top 5 Starting Hands” was made by AngusD on January 21, 2021