My definitive guide for entering hold ’em pots

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2011) in Bluff magazine.

You know what? Say, “What?”

Okay, here’s what. In looking back over my poker columns, I see advice about tells, about bluffing, about tactical maneuvers, about using psychology to dominate poker opponents, about building bankrolls, and a lot more. What I don’t see is a set of simple guidelines for hold ’em players, defining what hands are okay to play. Let’s fix that.

Actually, today we’re only going to fix that partially, because these guidelines only cover what to do when nobody else has put money in the pot, except the blinds. It doesn’t tell you what to do if the pot is already called or raised when the action reaches you. It doesn’t tell you whether to call or raise or how much. And it doesn’t tell you what to do if you’re in the blind positions. The advice is purely, play or don’t play.

I’m about to give you a core set of standards. They can be modified to include more hands if a game is loose, if you have acquired significant poker skill, or if you are dominating your opponents. There are all kinds of reasons why you might want to vary from these guidelines, with the expectation of making even more profit. In fact, I strongly advise students to add hands to these safe starting guidelines. Still, consider this your fallback strategy for avoiding trouble when fate isn’t kind.

But, if you choose not to stray from this, you can be confident that you’re on the right path to basic profit. That’s true for limit or no-limit games because I’ve engineered an all-purpose blend, especially for you.

The chart

It’s time to look…

Safer hold ’em starting-hand guidelines
(as first player to voluntarily enter the pot by position or against opponents who already entered the pot in that position)

Players remaining to act Paired Unpaired:
mixed suits
Portion of hands
you can play
9 A-A, K-K,
A-K, A-Q A-K 2.9% 

(1 in 34.9)

8 (add…) J-J A-J 3.6% 

(1 in 27.6)

7 (add…) 10-10 A-10 A-Q 5.2% 

(1 in 18.9)

6 (add…) 9-9 K-Q A-J 6.9% 

(1 in 14.4)

5 (add…) 8-8 K-J, Q-J,
J-10, 10-9
A-10, K-Q 10.4% 

(1 in 9.61)

4 (add…) 7-7 A-9, A-8, A-7,
A-6, A-5, A-4,
A-3, A-2
A-9, K-J 15.1% 

(1 in 6.63)

3 (add…) 6-6 K-10, K-9, K-8,
Q-10, Q-9, J-9
A-8, A-7, A-6,
K-10, K-9, Q-J,

(1 in 4.22)

2 (add…) 5-5, 4-4 K-7, K-6, K-5,
K-4, K-3, K-2,
Q-8, Q-7, Q-6,
Q-5, J-8, J-7,
10-8, 10-7, 9-8,
9-7, 8-7
A-5, A-4, A-3,
A-2, K-8, K-7,
K-6, Q-9, Q-8,
J-10, J-9, 10-9

(1 in 2.46)

A guarantee

I don’t like giving guarantees, but here’s one. I guarantee that if you follow my chart, you’ll seldom be far from the right decision against most opponents in typical games. You won’t be maximizing your profit if you’re a superior player, though. But you’ll be avoiding many costly confrontations.

Although I said I wasn’t going to add wagering advice, here’s some, anyway. When entering a pot in a late position, you should usually raise, not call. That’s because the benefit of occasionally taking the pot without a fight — when everyone, including both blinds, folds — often overwhelms the cumulative disadvantages of having a medium-strong hand contested.

If you’re going to add hands to this, consider raising with any pair from late positions and either calling or raising with medium pairs earlier.

As far as raising the blind first in no-limit games, your average amount should be a little less than three times the big blind. A minimum raise is okay, despite what you’ve heard, and you can occasionally raise more than triple the big blind to bring your average to about 2.75 times. A two-and-a-half times the big blind raise is almost always in the most-profitable range, although you can experiment with varying in accordance with hand strength.

My purpose in creating the chart was to make it easier to remember, while sacrificing some sophistication. Notice that I didn’t say “easy to remember,” just “easier.” You’ll need to spend some quality time with yourself, memorizing the chart.

Some of the hands that I’ve grouped into logical arrangements could be moved to earlier or later positions, but the difference would be trivial and the chart would be confusing. For instance, A-3 suited can sometimes be played from an earlier position than A-6 suited, because it has better straight-conversion chances. So what? In actual play, this doesn’t matter enough to complicate the chart.

Also, small pairs – when played at all – are often more profitable from early seats in loose, but not aggressive, games, because then you can anticipate more players and better pot odds should you connect for three-of-a-kind. However, the sad truth is that many small pairs played early lose money, except if chosen by experts under the right circumstances. Even then, the average profit is small. For that reason, I’ve decided to structure pair play in descending order by position. This is arguably correct, anyway, for most situations you’ll encounter.

Another quibble you might have is that suited connectors like 8♥ 7♥ are often played early with the hope of getting many players competing on these speculative hands. Unfortunately, most of these hands simply don’t earn a profit. That’s why, I’ve placed some suited connectors in the final row, used to attack the blinds with hopes of connecting, if called. If you have ample skill and psychological command, you can play these earlier. Otherwise, don’t.

Two main uses of the chart

The chart doesn’t only define what you need from which positions when all previous players have folded. It also shows you approximately what you need to call another player who already entered the pot. It’s the position of the first player who voluntarily enters the pot that matters. That sets the target for you. If an opponent opens in position 6 (six players remain to act) and you’re in position 3 (one position before the button), then you use position 6 on the chart to determine approximately what you need to play, not 3, which is your position.

In no-limit games, this assumes your opponent opened for a typically sized opening raise, which I define as no more than three times the size of the big blind. If that raise is larger, you need stronger hands to compete.

Beware of opponents who just call in early positions. They can be trapping with strong hands. For that reason, you should treat calls almost the same as normal raises, although you might sometimes liberalize the chart’s requirements slightly.

Precise rankings

What you see is based on my research about 1980 that resulted in my precise rankings for all 169 hold ’em starting hands, as published 1994 in my Pro Poker newsletter. Each hand was given a value, adjusted for the number of players involved in a pot. Some hands play better with fewer opponents, some with more.

Look at the first row on the chart – for nine players waiting to act after you. Well, isn’t that just totally ridiculous?

It says you’ll only play one in 35 hands! How come?

Notice that you play more and more hands as the positions get later. Your choices don’t accelerate much, from position to position, in early seats. That’s because those seats are the most vulnerable, testifying to the power of position in hold ’em.

With eight players waiting, you still can only play one out of 28 hands. But if nobody else has entered the pot and there are just two players waiting (the blinds), now you can play about two out of five times, just over 40 percent.

More pots

I concede that most skillful players enter more pots than that from the early seats. And, certainly, as you advance at poker and understand your opponents, you can add more hands from the early seats without being harmed.

But here’s the truth. The hands listed are the only ones that are likely to make much money. The one’s you’d add would be for “spinning your wheels” or hoping for small profit at high risk for the sake of a more lively image. And, if you do add them, you better know what you’re doing from that point forward.

And while I’m an advocate of a lively image, the chart is all you need to stay on the safe side. Unless you’re capable of outplaying opponents on future betting rounds, you won’t be sacrificing much, if anything, by sticking with those tight early seat standards.

Okay, I’ve said what I came here to say. Now it’s up to you. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


19 thoughts on “My definitive guide for entering hold ’em pots”

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  1. These guideline are great—very useful. Are they also applicable to tournaments?

    1. Hi, Scott —

      Thanks for joining our Poker1 family and commenting.

      In everyday loose games, you should liberalize the chart about one position in early seats and half a position late. The guidelines are for the most solid games, which you should often avoid.

      I suggest playing the chart strictly, without any liberalization, in proportional-payoff tournaments, where the prize pool is distributed in relation to how high you finish.

      There, survival matters most and these guidelines keep you close to optimal. However, with large stacks, you would play a bit looser — and with short stacks, tighter. Hope this helps. — Mike Caro

  2. @Mr. Caro…Thanks for recommending this page during our coaching session today. I’ve stopped the (chip) bleeding and today had one of my biggest cashouts playing 2/5. My biggest loses today were when I entered preflop MY way (approx -$500 total).

    Much appreciated,


  3. Like all good players we try different things But never wander far from your ideas if winning is your aim.Lately using your ideas I have ben playing even tighter as Zoom and Blaze allow 300 hands per hour.Draws only on Button +SB +BB.If a raise only AK and 21s.Max BBx3.All pairs all positions BBx3 max unless AA all if necessary and KK x 5.I never raise pre flop unless AA x8 and KK x5.I have now become a constant winner.Plus I never go broke post with one pair or a draw.This system is Totally position based.Your idea would be greatly appreciated.Your friend in Ozi ozi ray.

    1. Hi, Ray —

      Thanks for leaving your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.

      Playing that many hands an hour, you're wise to stick to the basics, unless circumstances give you more time to be creative. As you grow comfortable with that structure, you might try loosening up in a few areas sometimes. But it's not necessary, and possibly costly.

      Straight Flushes,

      Mike Caro

  4. I have recently started playing again after several years being out of the game. I have your VHS Poker Tells video and used to have audio tapes that have gone bad. To the point. Two weeks ago was my first time "back in the game" and I lost $200 in 3 hours and quit. Went straight to the book store, bought "Caro's Most proffitable Hold'em Advice" and started refreshing my game. I only read a few chapters by the time I returned to that same table last night and didn't feel ready so I started googling and came across this site. Watched some of your Tells video blogs ripped from the VHS I watched (when I still had a VCR).
    Most importantly I found this chart and used it along with the Tells refresher to make back my $200 plus another $50 my 2nd game back in.
    Now I only had about half an hour before the game so I didn't have time to memorize it so I came up with a few formulas to reduce what I have to memorize. I'll share for anyone who's brain works like mine and might benefit.
    P (# of Players Remaining) + 3 – (So 9 players + 3 is 12 or a Queen)
    Suited Cards:
    AP+3 (Ace & Players + 3)
    6KP+6 (At 6 Players remaining add King & Players +6)
    5-10C (At 5 players remaining play any 10 or better connected)
    4 Wheel (At 4 players Play any cards in a wheel or better)
    3 9S (At 3 players Play any 9 or better that could make a straight)
    2 Mid C (at 2 players play and mid range connected)
    Off Suit:
    3 Wheel (I got away from the chart here, but stayed tight by opting not to play and Ace that couldn't make a straight)
    For me I could memorize those 10 formulas in the short time I had and it covered the chart. Hope you find it more helpful than confusing. :)

  5. I seem to give other players too much credit for having better hands than me.  I see other players just go full steam ahead with their hands when the board would show that at the time they could very easy be beat, yet they bet like crazy and they do win. So, my question is should I forget about what the other player might have and just bet in accordance with what I have. I seem to lose a lot and I have read every thing you have posted. Bought three books and two tapes from you.  But I keep getting beat by the exceptions to the rules. HELP

    1. Hi, Charles —

      Those "exceptions to the rules" are actually part of the "rules." Opponents often play weird hands in unusual ways, and you must consider that possibility in making a decision.

      Sorry to hear you're going through one of those runs. At those times — even though it might be nothing more than bad luck — you should carefully examine your entire game plan. There might be something you haven't thought about that is causing you to lose, or — at least — costing you money.

      Examine tactics and psychology. Be very objective in thinking about hands you might have played or calls you might have made that seemed rational under the heat of poker combat, but might not have been wise on reflection.

      If you believe you're playing your best game, then you either have to keep playing and wait it out or stop playing and sit it out.

      Your luck will change. It always does. Sometimes that's a good thing, and sometimes it isn't.

      Straight Flushes,

      Mike Caro

  6. Mike Caro’s RULES are not a fantasy.Every rule has a reason.Follow him and him only.Dont break the rules,and YOU WILL WIN.But most important-Don’t play ONE position out of position or you will lose.I lost online for Seven years because of “Just this Once”.Now my % of hands I play has dropped from 16% to 7%.Thanks to you Mike,THE POKER GENIUS,I am now a constant winner online at the 50cx$1 limits.Also on my trip to Vegas each year,in October for 3 weeks,I play at the Golden Nugget. I pay for my trip and make a profit.Stay Safe,Keep Well.Your Number One Fan in Australia.Ozi Ray.

  7. Mike do you advocate the same chart for no limit and limit games? I would be surprised to find that the games don’t require different thinking about hand selection.

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