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Building a No-Limit Hold’em Starting Hand Chart – Cutoff Standards

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Simple Poker Tips from Noted Poker Authority

I’ve always thought a true starting hand chart for no-limit was out of reach. Preflop play in no-limit cash games is very malleable; a wide array of different styles and strategies can work well, and your opponents’ stack sizes and styles matter a lot also.

But then I figured, what the heck. Let’s try to build a decent starting hand chart, step-by-step, on NPA. I’ll write about the reasoning that goes into the chart. Then at the end we’ll compile the whole thing. That way, if someone (mis)reads the chart without the reasoning behind it, which is the most important part, it’s not hanging over my head. :)

If you haven’t already, read the first four parts of the series:

The cutoff is like the button. Except it’s not the button. There’s a player between you and the button. Depending on how they play, the character of the cutoff can change a lot. If the button is tight, then you can play the cutoff more or less like it’s the button (loose and aggressive). Sometimes you’ll get caught with your pants down if the button picks up a good hand. But if they are truly tight, then you’ll likely make up for those bad outcomes by getting a second button hand per round every other time. Typically you’re playing two blind hands to have the opportunity to play once on the button. If you get to play twice on the button, that’s terrific.

Most buttons aren’t tight. Or, at the very least, they will interfere fairly often in your button-grabbing plans. So I’ll write the rest of this article assuming that the button player is reasonably likely to enter the pot, but not almost guaranteed to do so.

If You’re Opening The Pot

The cutoff is a flexible position. The better control you have over your opponents, and the bigger your hand-reading edge over them, the looser you can play. Potentially, if it’s folded to you, the button isn’t too worrisome, and the blinds are bad, you can play a ton of hands, perhaps 50% or more. For this series, though, I’ll go conservative. But realize that there’s a lot of leeway once we get to the cutoff and button.

Even conservatively, you can open with a lot of hands. Any pocket pair, any two cards both ten or higher (e.g., Q :spade: T :heart: ), any suited ace, decent offsuit aces (down to maybe A8 or so), suited connectors down to 54s or 86s or Q9s or K9s (these boundary hands are somewhat arbitrary), and perhaps some offsuit connectors down to maybe 98o or so. That’s a decent default opening range. Again, you can play much looser under optimal conditions, and you might have to tighten up a bit under adverse circumstances.

Again, that range was:

22+, A2s+, K9s+, Q9s+, 54s+, 86s+, A8o+, KTo+, QTo+, 98o+

If You’re Playing After One Or More Limpers

I wouldn’t change the above range too much due to limpers. In general, the more multiway the pot is, the more value being suited has, and the weaker offsuit high card hands like KTo become. So if there are four or five limpers to you in the cutoff, you might add a few extra suited hands and perhaps avoid weak offsuit aces if you’re worried about how you’ll play them after the flop. In medium- and deep-stack no-limit, if you’re playing with position and only for the price of the big blind, you have tremendous flexibility. Even if you limp in with a totally trash hand like 9 :heart: 2 :spade: , your “error” only costs you a fraction of the big blind. If you play a whole lot better than your opponents do after the flop, you may find that you easily make up for that “error” by preying on your opponents’ much bigger postflop mistakes.

It’s not an argument for playing 92o. But it’s an important no-limit principle: If you’re out of position or playing against a raise, hand values matter. If you’re in position and it’s limped or folded to you, you can get away with playing some junky hands. The better you read hands after the flop, the more you can get away with.

So, for simplicity, I’ll just keep the after limpers range the same as the opening the pot range:

22+, A2s+, K9s+, Q9s+, 54s+, 86s+, A8o+, KTo+, QTo+, 98o+

In the next installment of the series, you’ll see the difference between these two situations: Opening the pot I almost always raise, but after limpers I’ll raise only some of the time.

If You’re Playing Against A Raise

Whenever someone has raised already, you should tighten up. The preflop betting is now a much larger percentage of the stack sizes, and someone has represented strength.

If you’re the only player in the pot besides the raiser, the button will affect your play a lot. If the button is bad and/or tight, then you can call with some marginal hands. If the button is loose, aggressive, and overall annoying, then you should avoid marginal hands and reraise more often to shut them out.

Also, the looser the raiser, the more inclined you should be to reraise.

I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, as the raising versus calling decisions will be in the next installment. So let’s talk about standards. Only the raiser is in the pot for now. With a tight raiser and a normal, not-so-scary button, I’d play any pocket pair, AK, and AQ, AJs, and KQs. If the raiser were loose and a bit of a weak player (as I find usually to be the case), I’d add a lot of hands: primarily AJo, KQo, suited aces and suited connectors. I’d still avoid weak offsuit high card hands like KTo or A7o. If the button is worrisome, I’ll avoid calling with marginal hands (but sometimes reraise with them).

Why play suited connectors but avoid weak high card hands? Steal equity. When you’re playing in position against a loose raiser, you’re counting on stealing equity to make up a lot of the value of your hand. You’re generally not looking to play make-a-hand; you’re looking to punish your opponent for building a pot out of position without enough values. Suited connectors work well for stealing since they afford so many semibluffing opportunities.

If there are several limpers before the raise and/or if the raise is bigger than “typical,” tighten up a bit. If you call, you run the risk of getting limp-reraised. You also run the risk of playing in a four- or five-way raised pot with a weak hand and without much steal equity.

If there’s a raiser and then several callers, you can think about squeezing.

So against a raise, my ranges will vary considerably. Sometimes I’ll play as tightly as:

22+, AK, AQ, AJs, KQs

And sometimes I’ll loosen up to something like:

22+, AJ+, KQ, A2s+, KTs+, QTs+, 54s+, J9s+

It depends on the raiser, the button, and the other circumstances.

If You’re Playing Against A Raise And A Reraise

Tighten WAY up! Against most reraisers, this isn’t a situation to mess around in. Even most pocket pairs are no good here since the price is too high to see the flop (compared to what you’d expect to win if you hit your set). The original raiser is also a threat to push on you.

AA and KK are the only hands I’ll reliably play against a raise and a reraise. If the reraiser might be a bit light, I’ll play AK and QQ also, and perhaps a few other hands. But generally two raises in front of you should be a signal to sit this one out.

The cutoff is perhaps the most complex preflop position. It’s late enough that you have a lot of flexibility. But you always have to think about what the button might do. Today’s post was a lot to digest (and it’s only a brief summary of cutoff play, at that). When it doubt, tighten up a bit. I always suggest that you start off playing tight and then add more hands as you gain confidence.

Next time we’ll talk a bit about raising versus limping in the cutoff.

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9 Responses to “Building a No-Limit Hold’em Starting Hand Chart – Cutoff Standards”

@ Tue Oct 02, 2007 01:44:46 PM

I was curious how you felt these starting hand suggestions would work at nanolimit levels. Can they still be effective????

@ Wed Oct 03, 2007 04:36:59 AM

Hey Rick,

I was gonna ask the same question, because it seems that on many sites the low limits do not follow “normal” poker theory.

Imho the key for low limits is valuebets and NO Bluffing.
It’s always nice to understand concepts and tricky plays, but where does it get you when your opponent doesn’t even notice them?

So the question is, at which levels do the opponents normally begin to think?

For me, I came to the conclusion, that I need to learn to be flexible for every game I sit down and change my plays (and “my inner” starting hand chart) according to the table.

@ Wed Oct 03, 2007 08:28:29 AM

They do work more or less. As Raccoon said, you do need to adjust to the game a bit. Bluff less, play a little tighter, value bet more. One of the things I found when I played the micro limits was that you could really value bet your monsters. You could over bet the pot 20% on the end and still get paid off. Grab yourself a pitchfork and toss the money in when you make the nuts. Also, suited As go up in value because so many people will limp with any 2 suited and pay you off when they make a lesser flush.

Ed Miller
@ Wed Oct 03, 2007 08:42:39 AM

These ranges should be fine online too, given that you make modifications for opponents/game type. Again, no-limit is very fluid, and I can’t possibly hope to present an optimal preflop strategy in chart form. The goal here is to develop a strategy that should work ok as a baseline.

Having said that, online people are a bit more aggressive… I see more light 3-betting in, say, a $0.25-$0.50 online NL game than a $2-$5 live NL game. So you have to have more of a plan for responding to a 3-bet than you do in a live game.

I disagree strongly with what I consider to be a common myth that you should never bluff at small stakes. I bluff with some frequency at every level.

Opponents also think at all levels. They just don’t think as DEEPLY at lower levels (in general) as they do at higher levels. But they’re definitely thinking, and hand-reading at any level means getting into your opponents’ brains and reverse engineering their hand from what they seem to be thinking.

@ Wed Oct 03, 2007 08:57:08 AM

I disagree strongly with what I consider to be a common myth that you should never bluff at small stakes.

I am with Ed 100% here. You can bluff at any stakes. It is important to figure out what bluffs are successful at a given stake. For example, I was playing .10/.25 with a friend the other day and you could pot it on the button pre-flop with just about any 2 when there were 3 limpers to you and then pot it again on the flop. The flop bet would be large enough that you really didn’t get much action. Very effective bluff. I don’t have nearly as much success with that bluff in 1-2. That said, the micros and nanos probably aren’t the place to pull out the 3 barrel bluffs when the villain can’t fold second pair.

Ed Miller
@ Wed Oct 03, 2007 09:03:45 AM

Just to throw something else out there, I’ve noticed some players like to try these sort of ham-handed stone bluffs at low levels. If you do a little hand-reading, their play doesn’t make much sense except if they have a monster or if they have nothing. Some players will usually have a monster, some bluff enough that they’ll usually be bluffing. You can often take them off their bluff with a resteal raise.

@ Mon Oct 08, 2007 10:57:55 AM

Maybe I’m just a nit, but playing hands like A8o and QTo after limpers seems like a recipe for disaster. Is this really +EV?

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