Pre-Flop Play, Part 2: What Makes a Starting Hand Valuable?

In part one, we discussed the importance of position in no-limit hold’em and laid out a few guidelines on which hands to consider playing from different positions at the table. However, before making a single bet or raise, you should not only understand which hands to play, but the reasoning behind playing them.

Why play J-T suited instead of K-4? Isn’t king-high a better hand? On the most basic level, sure. But hold’em is not a two-card game. Your two hole cards should not only be judged by the naked value they hold pre-flop, but about what kind of hands they can turn into on the flop. J-T suited can flop, well, almost anything. A straight. A straight draw. A flush. A flush draw. Two pair. Top pair. The K-4? Your best hope is hitting a king on the flop, and even then you could be in serious kicker trouble.

So what makes a good hand, well... good? Let’s look at some of those starting hands and talk about their potential on the flop.


A pair in the hole has value in and of itself, especially if you’re holding a high pair. A pair of aces, kings, queens, or jacks is a hand that can hold up on its own a lot of the time at showdown. Medium pairs like tens, nines, eights, and sevens can sometimes do the same, but are far more vulnerable to overcards. Let’s say you’re holding [8s][8h] and the flop is [Js][9h][3d]. Two cards higher than your eights are already on the board and there are still two more cards to come. Now say someone bets into you. How do you like those eights now? Now, if you had [Ks][Kh] on that same flop, you’d be holding an overpair-a pair higher than the top card on the board-and would probably feel a lot better about what might come on the turn or river. On the other hand, if you held those pocket eights on a [7s][5h][2d] flop, they’d certainly be worth continuing with.

Pairs can also “flop sets” or, hit a third card of the same value, creating a powerful, well-disguised hand. Holding any pair preflop, your odds of hitting a set on the flop are 7.5 to 1. Let’s look at that same flop-[Js][9h][3d]-and say you’re holding [9c][9d]. Your set of nines is a huge favorite over almost any other hand that catches a part of this flop. If your opponent flops a straight draw with [Qs][Th], you’re a 3 to 1 favorite to win. If he has an overpair like [Kh][Kc], you’re an 89% favorite. And if he has top pair with a hand like [Ac][Jc], you are better than 98% to win.

Small pairs are also worth playing, but usually only from late position, or if conditions will allow you to limp in and see a flop cheaply. Beginners should follow this simple adage when it comes to baby pairs-“set it or forget it.” If your pocket fours hit a [Ac][Th][4s] flop, well, game on. But if the flop is something like [Tc][9d][8d], there is no reason to put any more chips into the pot.

Suited aces/offsuit aces

Big suited aces, like [As][Ks], [Ad][Qd] and [Ac][Jc] have the potential to make any number of strong hands on the flop. Not only can they flop top pair (and with a good kicker to boot) but they can flop the nut flush draw as well as the nut straight draw, which give you the potential to outdraw hands like two pair or a set. Let’s say we have [Ad][Qd] and the flop is [Qc][7d][6d]. Even if your opponent has pocket kings, you’re still about a 50/50 shot to hit another ace, queen, or diamond by the river. And if he’s flopped the almighty set with [7h][7s]? You’ll still win 30% of the time.

Big offsuit aces may not have their suited counterparts’ ability to flop flush draws, but they are still strong top pair hands. [Ac][Kh] would look great on a flop of [As][9h][4d]-you have top pair and the best kicker. If your opponent holds a smaller ace, say [Ad][Ts], there are only three cards in the deck that can improve his hand-the ones that pair his kicker, in this case the [Th], [Td] and the [Tc]. Being in this situation, holding an ace with a smaller kicker against an ace with a larger kicker is called being dominated, and it’s not a situation you want to find yourself in.

Broadway cards

“Broadway” cards are the ten, jack, queen, king, and ace-the cards that make up an ace-high or “Broadway” straight. Broadway card combinations (K-Q, K-J, Q-J, J-T, K-T, etc), especially suited ones, have the ability to flop huge made hands as well as powerful draws. Let’s look at a hand like [Kh][Qh]. On a [Jh][Ts][3h] flop, it is only a slight underdog to [As][Ad], despite not having paired at all. And against a top pair hand like [Ac][Js]? It’s actually a 2 to 1 favorite. To win against the pocket aces, the king-queen would need to hit a nine or an ace to make a straight, or a heart to make a flush. That’s 17 outs in the deck with two cards to come. Against the ace-jack, the king-queen can win with a king or a queen to make a higher pair, or a nine or ace for the straight (14 outs twice).

Suited connectors

Suited connectors (T-9, 9–8, 8–7, 7–6) don’t have the high card value like the other starting hands we’ve talked about and are unlikely to flop a strong top pair. The value in suited connectors lies in their ability to flop straight or flush draws against hands that are likely to flop top pair. Let’s say you’re holding [8d][9d], your opponent is holding [As][Qh] and the flop is [Qd][7s][6d]. Even though this is a pretty good flop for the ace-queen, the eight-nine is actually a favorite to win. A five or a ten makes a straight, and another diamond fills a flush. Let’s look at that same hand, [8d][9d] against [Jh][Js] on a [Td][6h][4d] flop. In this situation, the eight-nine is up against an overpair, but is only a slight underdog with two cards to come. A seven fills the ten-high straight draw and a diamond makes a flush for 13 outs.

With suited connectors, don’t pay a fortune just to see a flop. If three players have limped in, by all means limp in behind with your [9c][Tc] and try to hit a flop. But if the pot has already been raised and reraised, wait for a better spot.

We’ve covered which starting hands to play, why to play them, and how they are capable of developing on the flop. In Part 3, we’ll discuss opening the pot, raising vs. limping, and how to re-evaluate your hand when an opponent raises in front of you.


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