How Not to Suck at Poker: Play Fewer Hands

The fewer hands you play, the better you get at folding.

It sucks to suck at things. And Texas Hold'em can be a frustrating game for beginners.

You lose to your friends in your home games. You lose the first few bucks you deposit online. Worse, you may not even understand why.

Are you just unlucky? Are you making huge mistakes? Are you missing one simple concept that could change things?

The truth: You're really not that far behind 95% of the poker players in the world. And you don't need to be the foremost expert on the game to become a winning poker player.

In fact, a relatively small amount of basic poker principles can produce massive improvements in your results almost immediately.

And the true first step to becoming a good poker player: simply figuring out how to stop sucking at it.

This is the first in a 10-part series explaining exactly how to do that on the most basic level, starting with the most important tip of all: playing fewer hands.

How Not to Suck at Poker Tip 1: Play Fewer Hands.

In Texas Hold'em, there are 169 different possible starting hands you can be dealt (this is ignoring specific suits).

Out of all these possible hands, there are only five hands that are considered "premium."

  1. AA
  2. KK
  3. QQ
  4. AK (Suited)
  5. JJ

Regardless of your position at the table, a premium hand should always be played if there is no raise ahead of you. If there is a raise ahead of you - especially if there are callers or re-raises - sometimes it can even be a mistake to play anything below Aces or Kings.

Phil Ivey

When you think about Texas Hold'em starting hands in this light, you'll realize that you should be folding around 80% more hands than you should be playing at any given Hold'em table.

Naturally, the hands you play, and how you play them, will change depending on thousands of different variables at the table.

But at the very core of the game, there are very few hands that are considered playable.

If there has been no player to open the pot (meaning no one has raised, or even limped ahead of you) you can play almost any hand with any sort of potential value.

Once someone has raised ahead of you, your hand selection should be narrowed down to only the hands that can give you the nuts, and help keep you out of any situation which has you dominated.

For example: you should never play KQ into a raise, as AA, KK, QQ, AK, and AQ all have you dominated.

Unless you have a very good reason to do so, as a beginner poker player you should stick to playing only the top 10 to 15 hands, period.

The more you play, and the better you become at the game, the more hands you can add to your playlist.

Until then, keep it simple, and always head to the flop with the best of it.

Top 15 Hold'em Starting Hands

  1. AA
  2. KK
  3. QQ
  4. AK (suited)
  5. JJ
  6. 1010
  7. AQ (suited)
  8. AJ (suited)
  9. AK (off suit)
  10. KQ (suited)
  11. A10 (suited)
  12. KJ (suited)
  13. AQ (off suit)
  14. 99
  15. JQ (suited)

Stay tuned for the next installment: How Not to Suck at Poker: Play in Position.

More on how not to suck at poker:

  1. How Not to Suck at Poker: Play Fewer Hands
  2. How Not to Suck at Poker: Play in Position
  3. How Not to Suck at Poker: Count Your Outs
  4. How Not to Suck at Poker: Learn Basic Odds
  5. How Not to Suck at Poker: Pay Attention
  6. How Not to Suck at Poker: Have a Bankroll
  7. How Not to Suck at Poker: Stop Bluffing
  8. How Not to Suck at Poker: Keep Your Mouth Shut
  9. How Not to Suck at Poker: Keep Records
  10. How Not to Suck at Poker: Discuss the Game

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20 April 2008 1387

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rick 2014-06-17 07:38:10

Hey Sean!!

Can i use this guide on a 6-max table or do you suggest something else?


BROWN7town 2013-02-17 08:37:30

im skeptic about beginners playing 99 .. its a good hand to limp or call a small bet but theres alot of fish in the sea who's going to play anything with an A .. so basically your hoping for all low cards preflop to get good odds .. personally i rather play J 10 suit then 99 because if A K Q J 10 or any draw you will be second guessing your 9s .. with 99 forget about flushes or str8 all you can wish for is your 9 or a board filled with undercards

Matt 2012-05-03 16:38:37

Good series of posts Sean. Def still relevant at low to mid stakes live play.

One place I'd disagree.

Provided players are getting the right pot-to-stack odds (at least 10 to 1), pocket pairs should be played by beginners over the many of the "top 15" hands listed. Small pocket pairs are far easier to play than A10, KJo, QJs, etc. The beginner either flops a set and pushes the action or puts on the breaks.

Verne 2012-02-05 05:31:25

This should help me in my poker game.

Arty Smokes 2011-05-30 18:18:57

I basically use the advice on this page and play like a rock until I get a feel for what hands my opponents are playing, but there is one thing that I keep seeing that is contradicted elsewhere in the text.
Newbies are often advised to "fold 80% of the cards you are dealt" and "Only play the top 15 starting hands". If there are 169 possible starting hands, then 15 accounts for less than 9%. (Since the list of 15 contains suited and unsuited versions of AK and AQ, there's only 13 hands mentioned). If you're only playing 9%, then you'll probably only be in the pot once every orbit of a full ring. When you consider you've got to post small and big blinds with each orbit, you can't really afford to only play 9% of the cards you are dealt unless you win decent pots when you finally get AA or KK. Many times with those monsters you'll just win back the blinds you've already paid out, unless it goes to a flop and you trap someone.
To the list of hands mentioned above, I think you have to play 66 77 and 88, especially if you have position and there wasn't a large raise. If you flop a set, these hands have much more value than KJ, AQ etc.

sara puskarits 2010-11-06 01:15:32

Let Jack know I am at thanks

sara hanson puskarits 2010-11-06 01:13:29

Some body please let Jack Binion know I am looking for him. I am a looong time friend of the family. He is hard to reach from New York

Kris 2010-07-29 03:02:03

How did you determine top hands? For example 99 is ranked higher the QJ suited... 99s generally lose at least from what I have seen to a Face-card and a kicker of the same unit. I think I would prefer QJ suited than pocket 99s.

Johnny Cashout 2010-07-21 00:23:18

Good advice, starting with the top premium hands is a good start for most beginning players.

--it however does begin to vary according to which tables or type of games you're playing at (cash, sngs, mtts)

A loser 2010-05-13 17:38:36

A year to do the day of the first comment. I rule!