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Playing Texas Hold 'em

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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Assessing Your Table Position and Starting Hand

Two of the most critical concepts in playing winning Hold ’em are understanding table position—the position of every player at the table in relationship to the dealer button—and learning how to evaluate your two pocket cards, or starting hand. In Hold ’em, you often need both seat position and starting hand selection working in your favor to win pots. If you play weak cards in a weak table position, you’re less likely to win pots, and you expose yourself to the potential of being raised by players still left to bet their cards. Knowing how to evaluate your seat position and starting hand help you risk the least amount of money and win the biggest pots—the goal of all poker games.

Evaluating Your Table Position

Table position is most often divided into three categories: early, middle, and late position. Early position is commonly viewed as the first three seats to the left of the button (dealer position), which include the small blind and big blind bet positions. Middle position is the next two (or perhaps three) seats going clockwise around the table, and late position is the last three seats to act (including the dealer position). Your table position changes as the dealer button moves around the table with each hand.

The impact of table position on your betting strategy is simple; the later you are to act on your cards, the more information you have to decide whether your cards are worth playing. When you are in early position, only play hands where you would be prepared to call multiple raises, because you have to assume that with the rest of the table left to act, you might be raised one or more times.

Generally speaking, the later your position at the table, the more leverage you have when deciding whether to bet on your hand because you can first evaluate what the majority of other players have chosen to do. If everyone acting before you folds their hands, in most cases your cards are more valuable regardless of what they are. If three people before you decide to raise the pot, you have to look at your cards pretty closely to determine if they have enough starting value to play.

The worst scenario you can find yourself in is being the first to bet with a weak hand. If the three players after you raise, you will essentially have to throw the hand away—along with the bet you made because you played marginal cards in early position.

Evaluating Your Starting Hand

The better your two-card starting hand, the more likely you are to win the pot. It is just that simple. Like in any sport, you want to give yourself the best possible chance of doing well. In golf, you wouldn’t consciously use the wrong club, and in baseball you would not pick up a bat that is too short or too heavy for your frame. The same is true in poker. You must choose to play hands that you believe will help you win more pots than your opponents. Learning to evaluate starting hands and play them in relation to your table position is probably the most critical skills you can acquire early on in playing Texas Hold ’em.

Couple a premium hand with good table position and you can not only maximize your chance of winning the hand, but also maximize your chance of winning a big pot to go along with it. This has been proven by calculating the odds of hands beating other hands using computer simulation. Professional poker players (and very good amateur poker players) know the value of starting hands and work hard to memorize the relative strength of every possible two-card combination you can be dealt in a Hold ’em game. Included in a tear-out sheet in the back of this book is an extremely valuable power chart showing the statistical strength of every possible two-card starting hand in Hold ’em. The portable chart is an excellent reference tool to help guide your decisions about which starting hands to play, and in which position to play them.

There are exactly 169 2-card starting hands in Texas Hold ’em that can be made from a deck of 52 cards. For simplicity’s sake, I have divided these 169 card combinations into one of five categories:

  • Pairs—Two cards of the same rank (A,A; K,K; Q,Q; J,J)

  • Connected and suited—Two cards that fall next to each other in sequence and are of the same suit (A♣,K♣; K♥,Q♥; Q♠,J♠; J♦,10♦; 10♣,9♣)

  • Connected and unsuited—Two cards that fall next to each other in sequence, but are of two different suits (10♣,9♥; 7♥,6♠; 5♦,4♠)

  • Unconnected and suited—Two cards that aren’t in sequence, but share the same suit (A♠,Q♠; K♣,J♣; Q♥,10♥; 9♦,7♦)

  • Unconnected and unsuited—Two cards that are out of sequence and of different suits (A♣,Q♠; K♠,J♥; 10♣,7♦; 8♥,5♦)

There are a few well-known systems for evaluating starting hands, some using as many as 14 categories. To keep this explanation simple, let’s divide starting hands into just four categories: premium, good, marginal, and trash.

Premium starting hands are just what the word implies—extremely valuable. Premium hands include high pairs and face cards such as A,A; K,K; Q,Q; A,K; A,Q (either suited or unsuited). These are the cards you can play no matter your position at the table, and the cards you will most likely use to raise the pot. You get premium cards fairly infrequently, so when you do get them, you want to make sure you profit from them and play them to their maximum value.

Good starting hands are still valuable—just not as good as premium hands. These are cards you have to evaluate carefully and play in just the right table position. You can profit from these cards, but they are a little trickier to maneuver and can sometimes be costly if they do not carry you through the hand. Examples of good starting hands include

  • A,J; K,Q; K,J (either suited or unsuited)

  • Medium pairs such as jacks, tens, and nines

  • Two cards above eight that are in sequence (connected) and suited, such as 10♣,J♣.

Marginal starting hands are the hardest to play. In the right situation with the right table position, marginal hands can be played but they remain high-risk cards. As a beginner, you should focus your attention on premium and good starting hands and then slowly incorporate marginal starting hands into your game as you gain more experience. Examples of marginal hands include low pairs such as 4s and 3s and cards that are close in sequence, such as J♥,9♣ (also known as gapped cards).

All other two-card combinations besides those discussed above are trash, plain and simple. Being able to toss starting hands considered trash elevates your play for these reasons:

  • Your opponents will quickly realize that you have some understanding of the value of good starting hands—and know how to play them.

  • Throwing away trash hands saves you money. A wager saved is as good as a bet won. (The following table summarizes starting hands and table positions.)

Texas Hold ’em Suggested Starting Hand Chart

Two-Card Starting Hand





Tens and below

Plays in Position

Premium hands






Early, middle, or late





















Good hands






Middle or late









































Plus pairs 9,9; 8,8; 7,7





Marginal hands






Late for one bet




















































Plus Pairs 6,6; 5,5; 4,4; 3,3; 2,2

Trash hands

Any combination not included above


Note: (s) denotes suited cards and (u) denotes unsuited cards. Otherwise, the cards can be either suited or unsuited.

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