Starting Hands For No Limit Holdem (Part One)

No Limit Texas Holdem, Strategy

October 9, 2007

As I stated previously, starting hand selection is not as critical to success in deepstack no limit holdem as it is in other forms of poker. Various players have adopted radically different strategies and yet still achieved good results. However, that doesn’t mean you should neglect the subject altogether. What it does mean is that rather than present an ironclad system I’m going to give some suggestions that most players, especially those new to the game, should have reasonable success with.

I makes two critical assumptions here:

  1. You’ve read these two articles already
  2. The stacks are at least 100BB deep all around – I’ll talk about opening hands for shortstack NL in a future article

In the last two articles I talked about the distinction between the “small game” for pots and the “big game” for stacks. The key concept to remember is that you don’t know, before a hand starts, which game you’re going to ultimately be playing. So when choosing whether or not to enter the pot you need to take into consideration how your hand and situation is going to fare in both games. The following aspects make a hand & situation strong for each game, in rough order of importance from highest to lowest

Small Game

  • Having absolute position on all players, or relative position on the likely bettor (or ideally both)
  • Being able to represent the nuts as a bluff
  • Having a hand likely to make a made hand in the top pair, top kicker range
  • Opponents who are tight

Big Game

  • Having the near-nuts or a good draw to the near-nuts
  • Opponents who are willing to call you down for stacks with weak hands
  • Having position when you’re drawing to the nuts

Now it should be noted that there’s two common element between the two lists – the nuts and position. For the big game you need the nuts (or a good draw) and for the small game you need to be able to represent that you’ve got them as a bluff. And position matters for both games (up until you make your monster hand, in the big game). If you’ve got position and the right type of hand on your side, you’ve likely got an advantage over your opponents. Therefore you want to play for more money. Hence the first guiding principle of deepstack NL opening hand selection:

In an unraised pot, try to play in position, with a hand that’s likely to make the nuts (or close), for a raise

Now, as I said before there is some flexibility in opening strategy for deepstack play. But this is a good place to start. Let’s examine each element separately:

In Position

To the extent that the small game dominates the big game in deepstack play, being in position is probably the single most important advantage you can have on your side. If you skip all the other elements of good preflop play but are consistently in position, you have a reasonable chance of doing OK. In contrast, if you do everything else right but always play out of position, you probably get the worst of it. As previously stated, there are two types of good position to have. The first is absolute position, being the last person to take the first action in a betting round. The second type is relative position, namely being the last person to act after the likely bettor.

Absolute position is fairly easy to achieve, if you’re disciplined. Basically, it involves not playing many hands out of the blinds or from early position (unless you can play for free in the blinds, of course) and when you do play from middle position raising to try to fold out everyone to the button.

Obtaining relative position is more complicated. It always happens somewhat by accident. Since it requires someone on your left raising or re-raising preflop (thus indicating they’ll likely bet the next street as a continuation bet) and you can’t predict reliably what players behind you will do, you never intentionally play for relative position. But when you’re surprised by a raise behind, a key factor in whether or not you play is whether or not there are players between you and the raiser such that you’ll be trapped in the middle on future streets.

If you do decide to intentionally play out of position (and sometimes you’re dealt a hand so pretty you have little choice), it’s best to play a hand that will not leave you in a tight spot on the next street. That means that draw-generators like suited connectors and suited aces are bad, while pairs are better. The pairs will either make a set, an overpair, or an underpair, and you’ll have a fairly good idea of where you stand. Similarly, an AK is not a bad out of position play since you’ll usually either have top pair, top kicker or not much.

Hands That Frequently Make The Nuts

The key to the big game is making the nuts or very close to it. That means playing starting hands that have a high probability of drawing into such a hand. While any hand could theoretically be the nuts, certain hands get a lot closer a lot more often.

On realtivly unccordinated boards that do not have paired cards, connected cards, or a 3 or 4-suit, the top set (of trips) is the nuts. Sets are one of the most attractive hands to play in NL holdem because they can be both the current nuts (or very close) and a strong draw to a full house or quads. As such you want to maximize the number of sets you hit, and this means playing lots of pairs. This tactic has been termed “set farming” and is one of the most basic and most effective NL tactics. To this end, you rarely want to fold a pair in an unraised pot in deepstack poker. On paired boards, the near-nut and nut hole cards are also pairs – producing full houses and quads.

On unpaired, unsuited boards where the board cards are sufficiently close together, straights are the nuts. While any hole cards can make a straight, they’re not by any means created equal in terms of how many straights are produced and how many of those are the nuts. Connected middle cards (like 78) make the maximum number of 3-on-the-board straights (4 different combinations of board cards) and 3 of the 4 are the nuts. It should be noted that JT is the best straight-making hand, because it makes 4 3-on-board straights, and all 4 are the nuts. Higher connected cards make fewer straights (QJ makes 3, etc.) but they likewise are all the nuts. If you add a “gap” between the cards, the number of possible straights goes down by one for each card in between, and the straight “lost” is one of the nut ones. So 86 makes 3 straights (compare 4 for 87), and 2 are the nuts (as opposed to 3). An effect similar to what happens at the high ranks happens at the low ranks as well – the closer you get to the bottom (past 54) the fewer straights you can make. The ones you lose are unfortunately the nut ones – A2 makes only one 3-on-board straight and that’s never the nuts. Something to be aware of with connected cards is that they don’t make the nuts as often as you’d like because the board frequently pairs or 3-suits. To make up for this connected hands usually need a bit of extra strength to be playable. You usually want them to either be suited, or high enough that you will sometimes make top pair.

On unpaired 3 or 4 suited boards, a flush (or sometimes straight-flush) is the nuts. The nut hole cards are usually AX suited unless the A from the suit is on board in which case KX would be the nuts (and similarly then QX if the K is also on board). But the A is usually not on board (since only 3 out of 14 cards from the rank are) so KX rarely makes the nut flush but often makes a second best hand that costs you money. Hence AX suited is usually openable and KX usually isn’t.

On boards that are both suited and connected, a straight flush may be possible. If so suited connected cards (called suited connectors) will be the nuts. Straight flushes are very rare in holdem however.

Summary: Your core playing hands are any pair, suited connectors and one gappers higher than 54/53, and suited aces.


In deepstack NL, when entering an unraised pot with an appropriate hand and position, it’s almost never wrong to raise the size of the pot (including your phantom call) which amounts to raising to 3.5 BB plus 1BB per limper. Slightly larger raises are likewise fine – many people do 4BB + 1BB/limper or even 5BB+. I personally do either 4 or 5 and then add or subrtact 1/2BB randomly sometimes just to keep people guessing.

At tables where the “table standard” raise is much bigger than I’ve suggested, it’s OK to go with the flow as long as the raise isn’t so big that it’s more than 5-10% of your stack (think of this as sort of a reverse 5/10 rule). If the standard raise is bigger than that, you’re probably best off breaking with tradition and using a smaller raise.

When intentionally entering the pot out of position, it’s often best not to raise at all under any circumstances, even if you have a premium hand. If someone raises behind you you can ditch the non-premium hands if you relative position is bad and re-raise the big pairs (and possibly AK). Often this re-raise will be all-in.

Raising, even when you have a speculative drawing hand like suited connectors, achieves two results. First, it protects your positional advantage by driving out marginal hands and cowardly players behind you. Second, it increases the pot size and thus make the whole game play bigger. If you’ve got the edge (by virtue of position and the right type of hand) you want to play for more money. This is true even if you know you don’t have the best hand right now.

Next Time…

There’s a lot more to NL preflop play. In the next part I’ll talk about playing AK, entering pots that have already been raised, dealing with re-raises behind you, and marginal hands you may decide to play anyways.

This article is part of Project Cash Game No Limit Holdem - You can find more great strategy articles there.
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