Top 10 Best Starting Hands and How to Get the Most Out of Them
If you were playing poker back in the early poker boom days, you might remember Phil Hellmuth’s book “Play Poker Like the Pros” and its concept of playing only the top 10 poker hands.
While this idea certainly doesn't make too much sense today, and we have learned that there are so many ways to play more than just the top 10 holdings, there is no denying that these top 10 hands are still the biggest money winners in the game even today.
For that reason, I wanted to go back to the roots and discuss what the top 10 hands in poker are and how to play them to extract the maximum possible profit when you are lucky enough to get it.
10. AJ Suited – The Blackjack
Ace jack suited is the tenth best hand in all of poker, even though there are many situations in the game when this hand will be a marginal holding at best.
AJ suited performs extremely well at shallow stack depths in tournaments when it acts as a great hand to re-shove over opens or call off all-ins in blind versus blind or button versus blind situations.
The hand can also play pretty well at deeper stacks, especially in single raised pots, when you are facing various hands that you are dominating, such as KQ, KJ, QJ, and more.
However, it is extremely important to remember not to get married to AJ suited, as the hand will be very vulnerable anytime you are 3-beti or 4-betii by your opponents, who will often be holding premium hands that have you dominated and chasing from behind.
9. Pocket Nines – The Wayne Gretzky
Pocket nines may not seem like a huge hand when you see them in a ring gameiii, but they are, in fact, the ninth most powerful poker hand in terms of sheer equity.
That said, pocket nines will be in a coin flip even with a hand like QT or JT, which makes them less than ideal to get a lot of money in pre-flop.
99 performs extremely well in heads-up games where having a pair as high as nines to start with will often be enough and in late positions when most of the players have already folded.
In deeper stacked situations, pocket nines will sometimes make the top or the second top set, which is a monster hand in Hold’em and enough to put all your money in almost every time.
If you just remember not to get too much money into the pot when facing aggression from other players and navigate the pot size as much as you can, you should be printing money with the Wayne Gretzky hand.
8. AQ suited – Anthony & Cleopatra
One step above AJ suited, AQ suited packs a mean punch and is considered a premium tournament hand, even though we have seen countless top pros bust major tournaments with it.
AQ suited certainly has its drawbacks, the biggest of which is its relative frequency with its main nemesis, AK. Yet, the hand is usually too good to fold, even when facing a 3-bet.
In fact, AQ suited is at the bottom of the value range for 4-betting in many situations, such as when facing a 3-bet from aggressive players who will bet into you on a lot of boards, especially if you are out of position.
The best suggestion I can give you is to play AQ suited like it was AK suited against very aggressive opponents and be careful with it against those who tend to be on the nittier side.
This way, you should avoid running into AK or AA too often, and the value of your AQs will increase.
7. AK off-suit – The Big Slick
Seeing the big slick gives most players quite a rush, even though the off-suit version of the hand may not be as ideal as its suited cousin.
Nevertheless, AK off is a powerful hand and one you will not want to fold pre-flop too often, simply because its potential to flop top pair with top kicker is too great. In Hold’em, the top pair and top kicker will be the best hand on the flop more often than not.
In tournaments, you will want to try and get all the money in with your AK, especially against the looser opponents, all the way up to 50 blind stack size or even more.
In cash games, on the other hand, I recommend being careful with how much action you give people with your AK, but definitely use it as a hand to fire back at the frequent aggressors and give them a taste of their own medicine.
6. Pocket Tens – The Dimes
Pocket tens may not be aces, but it is a hand that flips against all the premium non-pair hands like AK and one that will dominate lower pocket pairs very often.
Pocket tens will sometimes be an overpair to the board on the flop, or you will see one overcard out there, which still makes TT a pretty strong holding to have on the flop.
However, remember that you won’t get too many spots in which going all the way with TT unimproved will be a great idea, especially at deeper stack sizes.
Pocket tens is a hand that performs incredibly well in tournaments when you have 30 BBs or less, as well as in cash games when you are extremely deep and hitting another ten out there will give you a true powerhouse.
To make the most out of this hand, remember to fold them on occasion when facing extreme aggression and play them very aggressively in tournaments against the pros and sharks who will try to push you around.
5. AK suited – Walking Back to Huston
The hands interesting nickname tells a cautionary tale of what happens to players who overplay their AKs and lose their mind and their bankroll when they are dealt these cards.
That said, AK suited is a poker powerhouse and a hand you will want to try to play for a lot of money against the vast majority of players.
After all, only one hand really troubles you when you have AKs, which is pocket aces. With the hand holding over 30% equity even against KK and being a marginal underdog against QQ, there is no doubt that AKs is a sight for sore eyes in this game.
With AKs, you will have many options. From 5-betting it all in against the aggressors in poker tournaments to trapping splashy players in cash games.
The hand's increased equity comes from all the boards with two suited cards on which you will have the nut flush draw and those on which the suited cards will be picture cards, giving you a straight draw to go with it.
Unlike the AK offsuit, AK suited is a hand that has a ton of playability on a variety of boards, which is why you will seldom want to fold it before the flop, despite what the Texas "pros" may tell you.
4. Pocket Jacks – The Hooks
If Daniel Negreanu is to be trusted, pocket jacks are the worst hand in Hold’em, or at least that’s what he said many times before getting it all in with them on TV.
It is true that JJ will get you busted from many tournaments and will see you stacked many times in cash games, but it is a hand that prints money over the long run.
A thing to remember is that JJ may be higher on our list than AKs because of sheer equity, but the deeper stacked you get, the more AKs become a better hand to have.
All that said, to maximize your profit with jacks, you should play them like a high pocket pair and often get your tournament stack into the middle, flipping against AK or crushing those TT or 99 that your opponent was hoping to get you to fold with.
If you remember to try and control the size of the pot in deep stacked games with the jacks and play them ultra-aggressively at shallow stacks, you should be making heaps of money with this premium holding.
3. Pocket Queens – The Ladies
There are few things at the poker table that will make you feel as alive as looking down at a pair of queens in the hole and hearing one of the other players announce “raise”.
The hand has incredible playability and dominates all hands except AK, KK, and AA while even being a reasonable favorite against the big slick itself.
A pair of ladies will remain an overpair to the board on a vast majority of flops, making it an ideal candidate to play big pots with and punish players who are chasing their draws.
While there are some situations in which QQ will diminish in value even pre-flop, for the most part, you will not want to part with these beauties without at least seeing what the flop brings.
Pocket queens are extremely powerful in splashy live cash games where players will put way too much money into the pot with hands like KQ, AQ, or smaller pocket pairs.
2. Pocket Kings – The Cowboys
The second-best hand in poker, pocket kings, are an absolute monster and a hand that most players will tell you, you should never fold before the flop.
Poker pro Antonio Esfandiari once said that he folded pocket kings pre-flop three times in his life, and that tells you enough, considering he has probably played millions of hands of poker.
The Cowboys are the second biggest moneymaker in the game, and a hand you should play one way and one way only, aggressively!
To make the most out of your kings, make sure you re-raise any raises in front of you and make your re-raises big. Most players will find it hard to fold all the dominated hands like AK, JJ, or AQs, and you will be printing money by getting as much in before the flop as you can.
The bane of kings’ existence is an ace rolling off on the flop, so I recommend remembering to remain calm in such situations and not automatically jumping to conclusions and expecting the other guy to have an ace.
The truth is that a c-betiv will often win you the pot even when an ace does come on the flop, and you may even get called by second pair or a drawing hand on many boards. Keep the pot size in control and keep on paddling.
1. Pocket Aces – American Airlines
The absolute best hand in Texas Hold’em, pocket aces are a hand that’s really difficult not to make money with and one that makes even the biggest fish look like poker geniuses.
And yet, there are definitely wrong ways to play aces, whether it is by trying to trap too much or stacking of on every board, every time.
To maximize your profits with aces, you should make the other guy make the mistakes by playing aggressively and making big bets and raises that force them into a tough spot.
In most cases, you will get paid all the way anytime someone hits the top pair with a good kicker, and even more so when you turn your top set, only to have the other guy make his two pair.
Pocket aces also make nut flush drawsv on four-to-a-flushvi boards, making it a perfect hand in so many different scenarios.
Getting the most out of your aces will also mean knowing your opponents, as there are many things you can do in regards to bet sizing to make different players pay you off.
However, just like will all hands in poker, make sure not to overplay it on particularly bad boards and always be ready to adjust your strategy based on the situation no matter what you have.
i3-bet – this term is used to describe a re-raise and is most commonly used in preflop situations. If one player enters the pot by raising, and another player raises over the top, that is called a 3-bet.
ii4-bet – this term describes a situation where a player raises over a 3-bet. If one player enters the pot by raising, another player re-raises by 3-betting, and any player decides to raise one more time, that is a 4-bet.
iiiA ring game refers to a cash game, meaning that there is no tournament structure and players are putting actual cash to play.
ivC-bet – when someone bets on the flop after raising preflop, that bet is called a continuation bet or a c-bet for short.
vNut flush draw – a draw to a flush when you have the best possible flush combination if you complete it. For example, if you are holding AJ of spades on a flop with two spades, you have a nut flush draw since if another spade comes, you will have the best possible flush.
viFour-to-a-flush – a situation where there are already four cards of the same suit on the board available to everyone, so the player only needs one card of that suit in his hand to make a flush.