Which poker hands should I play, and why?

You can’t play every hand at online poker profitably. This is the scourge of recreational and professional poker players alike. Phrases like “I know it’s a loose call, but I think I can outplay this villain post-flop” and “If I hit a good flop, I can stack this guy he is playing so crazily” are unfortunately a fallacy (despite it taking me many years and thousands of dollars to work that out). This can be confirmed by doing even the most basic equity studying; what hand you have, it turns out, is actually very important.

When you are deciding what hand to play, you should think of it simply as “How well does my hand play against the type of hand my opponent is playing?” If asked before making any actions, this short question will end up making you a lot of money.

The basic advice for starting poker players is to fold often

When you are still learning, it’s a good idea to play your poker hands according to the graph below. This will keep you safe most of the rounds, but it does mean you are folding a lot of your hands. Once you understand the basics it’s time to learn more about equity in poker hands and how you can put your opponent on a range of hands.

Poker starting hands to play

What is equity in poker hands?

Every hand has a certain amount of “equity” against other poker hands (which is just a fancy way of saying what chance they have mathematically to beat another), so when we are deciding what hands we want to play we should be trying to maximise that equity i.e. giving ourselves the highest percentage chance to win that hand on average.

Let me delve a bit deeper for you as you may be asking yourself “well that’s all well and good but how do I know whether my hand has the best percentage chance to win? Isn’t that kind of knowledge only for those young whizz kids?”

No, absolutely not.

Understanding what type of hand your opponent has isn’t relegated to the realms of the maths geniuses, it is something that you already know. Whenever you have folded A7 off-suit to a raise because “This hand always gets you into trouble” or calling a late position raise with JT suited because “This guy is so loose and my hand flops very well”, you are already doing what I’ve said in the paragraphs above. Similar to when you have called with a small pocket pair in the blinds because “There was value” or you called a raise from a tight player with 67 suited because “He’s tight so if I hit I will get paid”.

All you are doing is understanding what type of hand your opponent is playing and making a decision about what type of hand plays well against that information. To sum that idea up, if you are always trying to play a hand that is slightly better than your opponent’s, then you will end up having a slight mathematical advantage which translates to profitability in the long run.

A quick test of your poker skills

The below situations use some poker jargon. If you're not familiar with what "under the gun" and "cut off" mean, then you should read our article on positions in online poker.

Which is a better call before the flop? Situation A or situation B?

Situation A: You are playing an online cash game with €100 with blinds of €0.50/1 and a reasonably active player raises in the cut off (CO) and you have Queen and Jack of clubs on the button (BTN) with two passive players in the big blind.

Situation B: You are playing on online cash game with €100 with blinds of €0.50/1 and a very tight player raises under the gun (UTG) and you have King Queen off suit in middle position with unknown players in the blinds.

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Answer: Situation A.