Texas Holdem Poker Tournament Strategy – Starting Hands

Welcome to the fifth in my Texas Holdem Poker Strategy Series, focusing on no limit Texas Holdem poker tournament play and associated strategies. In this article, we’ll examine starting hand decisions.

It may seem obvious, but deciding which starting hands to play, and which ones to skip playing, is one of the most important Texas Holdem poker decisions you’ll make. Deciding which starting hands to play begins by accounting for several factors:

* Starting Hand “groups” (Sklansky made some good suggestions in his classic “Theory of Poker” book by David Sklansky)

* Your table position

* Number of players at the table

* Chip position

Sklansky originally proposed some Texas Holdem poker starting hand groups, which turned out to be very useful as general guidelines. Below you’ll find a “modified” (enhanced) version of the Sklansky starting hands table. I adapted the original Sklansky tables, which were “too tight” and rigid for my liking, into a more playable approach that are used in the Poker Sidekick poker odds calculator. Here’s the key to these starting hands:

Groups 1 to 8: These are essentially the same scale as Sklansky originally proposed, although some hands have been shifted around to improve playability and there is no group 9.

Group 30: These are now “questionable” hands, hands that should be played rarely, but can be reasonably played occasionally in order to mix things up and keep your opponents off balance. Loose players will play these a bit more often, tight players will rarely play them, experienced players will open with them only occasionally and randomly.

The table below is the exact set of starting hands that Poker Sidekick uses when it calculates starting poker hands. If you use Poker Sidekick, it will tell you which group each starting hand is in (if you can’t remember them), along with estimating the “relative strength” of each starting hand. You can just print this article and use it as a starting hand reference.

Group 1: AA, KK, AKs

Group 2: QQ, JJ, AK, AQs, AJs, KQs

Group 3: TT, AQ, ATs, KJs, QJs, JTs

Group 4: 99, 88, AJ, AT, KQ, KTs, QTs, J9s, T9s, 98s

Group 5: 77, 66, A9s, A5s-A2s, K9s, KJ, KT, QJ, QT, Q9s, JT, QJ, T8s, 97s, 87s, 76s, 65s

Group 6: 55, 44, 33, 22, K9, J9, 86s

Group 7: T9, 98, 85s

Group 8: Q9, J8, T8, 87, 76, 65

Group 30: A9s-A6s, A8-A2, K8-K2, K8-K2s, J8s, J7s, T7, 96s, 75s, 74s, 64s, 54s, 53s, 43s, 42s, 32s, 32

All other hands not shown (virtually unplayable).

So, those are the enhanced Sklasky Texas Holdem poker starting hand tables.

The later your position at the table (dealer is latest position, small blind is earliest), the more starting hands you should play. If you’re on the dealer button, with a full table, play groups 1 through 6. If you’re in middle position, reduce play to groups 1 through 3 (tight) and 4 (loose). In early position, reduce play to groups 1 (tight) or 1 through 2 (loose). Of course, in the big blind, you get what you get.

As the number of players drops into the 5 to 7 range, I recommend tightening up overall and playing far fewer, premium hands from the better positions (groups 1 – 2). This is a great time to forget about chasing flush and straight draws, which puts you at risk and wastes chips.

As the number of players drops to 4, it’s time to open up and play far more hands (groups 1 – 5), but carefully. At this stage, you’re close to being in the money in a Texas Holdem poker tournament, so be extra careful. I’ll often just protect my blinds, steal occasionally, and try to let the smaller stacks get blinded or knocked out (putting me into the money). If I’m one of the small stacks, well, then I’m forced to pick the best hand I can get and go all-in and hope to double-up.

When the play is down to 3, it’s time to avoid engaging with big stacks and hang on to see if we can land 2nd place, heads-up. I tend to tighten up a bit here, playing very similar to when there’s just 3 players (avoiding confrontation unless I’m holding a pair or an Ace or a King, if possible).

Once you’re heads-up, well, that’s a topic for a completely different article, but in general, it’s time to become extraordinarily aggressive, raise a lot, and become “pushy”.

In tournaments, it’s always important to keep track of your chips stack size relative to the blinds and everyone else’s stacks. If you’re short on chips, then play far fewer hands (tigher), and when you do get a good hand, extract as many chips as you can with it. If you’re the big stack, well, you should avoid unnecessary confrontation, but use your big stack position to push everyone around and steal blinds occasionally as well – without risking too many chips in the process (the other players will be trying to use you to double-up, so be careful).

Well, that’s a quick overview of an improved set of starting hands and some general rules for adjusting starting hand play based upon game conditions throughout the tournament.

Until next time, best of luck to you at the Texas Holdem poker tables!


Texas Hold’em – QQ – The Ladies

The Ladies, QQ, is often one of the hardest poker hands to play in tournaments. Most players, either consciously or subconsciously, rank it with AA and KK. While it is a very strong hand, it can be misleading to rank it so highly.

The beauty of AA and KK is that you are miles ahead of everything apart from AA preflop. QQ on the other hand is obviously behind to AA and KK, but is also just a coin-flip against AK. Non-pair hands are more common than pairs in hold’em, and AK is one of the most common all in hands when med/low stacked.

For this reason QQ is not always an automatic call in an all in situation for all your chips, and as hard as it may be, it sometimes needs folding preflop in the face of strong action from other players or an all in. QQ takes much more skill to play well, especially preflop than either KK or AA for this reason. You aren’t entirely happy getting all your chips in every situation as you are with AA or KK, and this makes things a lot more tricky.

Many players try and slow it down a bit preflop, hoping to see no aces or kings on the flop, but surprisingly, holding QQ, an A or K will flop over 41% of the time!

Slow-playing QQ can be profitable, but when deepstacked it often makes more sense to reraise preflop to find out where you are. Most AA or KK raisers will go over the top of a reraise, and if you’re deep enough you can let it go. You don’t want to find out on the J high flop that they have AA or KK, let’s try and get that information earlier. Define your hand a bit, with a large raise or reraise. But remember if you get lots of action, it might be worth letting go, especially early in a tournament.

One time when slow playing can be profitable though, is on a very aggressive table late in a tournament – although it isn’t a great hand to call all ins with early, it’s a perfect hand for limp/shoving towards the end of tournaments, especially when you have too many chips to just open shove.

Overall just recognise QQ for what it is: A very strong hand but one that is very vulnerable. Don’t get too attached to them unless you are low on chips, and play with caution when facing action early.