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Building a No-Limit Hold’em Starting Hand Chart – Playing in Early Position

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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 part of the series Early Position Standards.

Last time out, I recommended that in early position (the first four seats of a 10-handed game), you play any pocket pair, AK, AQ, AJs, ATs, and KQs. I had you folding everything else, except occasionally mixing this range up by playing a small suited connector.

In this installment, I’ll talk about how to play those hands – whether to limp in or to raise (and if so, how much).

The Basics

You are vulnerable in early position, even with a strong hand. Playing 100BB stacks, a top pair or an overpair may not be a strong enough hand to commit your entire stack on a favorable-looking flop. If your opponents are tough enough to test you with big bets and semibluffs when they have position, you may want to play conservatively up front, event with the top hands.

Indeed, I want to dispell a few no-limit myths right now. Open-limping is not necessarily a bad play. It’s not necessarily a bad play even if you have pocket aces. Some people say, “Open-limping with aces is stupid because you’re just asking someone with trash to flop two pair and stack you.” The problem with that statement is the second part, “and stack you.” If you limp in with pocket aces, the whole idea of the play is to make sure you don’t lose a big pot with just an overpair. In a limped preflop pot with 100BB stacks, generally speaking you need to hit the flop (usually either by catching another ace or a nut flush draw) to play for your stack. So limping in with aces is pretty bad if you are willing to defend any old overpair with your whole stack. But if you aren’t, then it can be an ok play in early position.

The same goes for the often-maligned min-raise. Making a 2BB raise isn’t necessarily a “donk play” any more than limping in is. In fact, I min-raise from early position with some frequency. Generally speaking, if you min-raise with a big pocket pair, you similarly shouldn’t commit your whole stack with just an overpair.

Playing the Big Hands

Ok, back to the main discussion. You are in early position and are sticking to premium hands. How should you play them? You have two major considerations:

  1. You want to protect yourself and your stack since you are out of position.
  2. You want to get value from your premium hand.

First, assume that your opponents are weak and unlikely to test you with big bets and bluffs. For instance, say you flop top pair with AK, make a pot-sized bet, and get raised the pot. If you can be fairly confident that you are, on average, a big underdog once you get raised big, then you don’t have much to worry about. You can play aggressively preflop by opening for a solid raise. How big the raise can be depends on what your opponents will call. In some games (particularly in online games) players will be sensitive to raise size and may not call a raise bigger than about 3.5BB or 4BB. If that’s the case, raise that. If you’re playing in a looser game where people will call 6BB or even 8BB raises, then raise that. Because your opponents are timid and won’t test you after the flop, you can get maximum value for your premium hands even from early position.

Now assume your opponents are the opposite. They are wild and make big raises and calls postflop with weak hands and draws. You still have nothing to fear, because you can now safely commit your stack with top pair or an overpair if you get challenged after the flop. So again, you can make a solid raise, as big as your opponents are likely to call.

If your opponents are tricky, however, and can put you in difficult postflop situations when you have just a pair, then you should be more careful. Start limping or making min-raises when you open from early position. Again, you do this to avoid getting stacked after the flop. You also do it for deception. When you limp or min-raise, your opponents are less likely to give you credit for a strong hand, and you’ll find yourself getting raised (or reraised if you min-raised) more often than if you had opened for a larger amount. Generally, you can reraise with your strong hands (AA-QQ and AK at least). And you can reraise sometimes with your weaker hands like 66 as well, especially if the person who raised you is a loose raiser.

The Small and Medium Pocket Pairs

Let’s talk about the small and medium pairs for a moment. Playing these hands does two things for you:

  1. It balances your hand range so you don’t always have big cards when you play up front.
  2. It allows you to flop sets and win big pots occasionally.

Above, I recommended that against weak players you make big raises with your big early position hands. What about the small and medium pairs? You don’t want a huge pot with a small pair, since usually you’ll fold on the flop. So you don’t want a huge raise either. But you might want to make a small raise rather than limp, because it could make it easier to win a big pot if you “sweeten” it somewhat with a small preflop raise.

The Bottom Line

Against bad players, you want to make big raises (as much as the table is generally calling) with big hands. This is true whether your opponents are timid and fold too much postflop or they are crazy and get all-in too often with bad hands. You want to limp or make a small raise (2BB-3BB or so) with small and medium pairs.

Naturally, making different-sized raises with different hands can be a giveaway to an observant player. So disguise your general plan – sometimes min-raise with pocket aces or make it 4BB with pocket fives. If your opponents are barely observant, then you barely have to disguise your plan. Remember, you won’t be playing much from early position, so your opponents won’t have many data points on you to form a pattern. If you play just a few hundred hands with someone, they’ll be hard-pressed to figure out how you size your early position raises.

If your opponents are tougher and use position well enough to put you in difficult situations post-flop, then play more cautiously. Limp and make small raises (2BB-3BB again) with all of your hands. Also default to this strategy if your opponents are observant and you’re worried that spreading your raises is tipping your hand. If you get raised, then reraise usually with your big hands (AA-QQ and AK) and sometimes with weaker hands (particularly small pairs). If a tough player who has position on you raises, you may even throw away the weakest of your hands (e.g., AQ, AJs, ATs, KQs). In general, avoid limping/min-raising and then calling a raise behind you.

Remember, no-limit is an extremely complex game, and these recommendations are in no way meant to override a situation-by-situation analysis of each hand. It’s merely a general plan that should get you started on the right track.

Move on to the next installment of the Building a No-Limit Hold’em Starting Hand Chart series where we talk about playing in middle position.

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18 Responses to “Building a No-Limit Hold’em Starting Hand Chart – Playing in Early Position”

Gaston Jeremy
@ Sat Sep 01, 2007 03:12:23 AM

Very nice Ed, but I wonder what adjustements I should do in a 6-8 game, it would be nice if you could make some general notes about this later on when you compile/wrap-up everyting.

@ Sat Sep 01, 2007 04:33:12 AM

yes fullring is hardly played online and most player play 6max or are trying to learn 6max

Rick N
@ Sat Sep 01, 2007 03:33:06 PM

Wouter mentioned full ring is hardly played online (my online these days is restricted to an occasional 45 player $27 or $55 NL SNG on Stars and games I’m trying to learn for home games (such as triple draw).

The situation is different live. In LA you have nothing but full ring except at the higher limits e.g., the 10/20 min buy game at Commerce, Bike & HG. Even there the live players still prefer to play full. Of course in LA the full drop taken on any flop means you can’t play in a tight or short game. Fortunately you will find most tables with multi-way action.

Short of it is I hope you continue to write about full ring.

Ed, as an aside love the new book. I’ve read it about four times and has helped me tremendously with SPR and . Also bought two copies for friends (and to keep them away from the compitition).

~ Rick

@ Sat Sep 01, 2007 04:01:05 PM

To Gaston Jeremy re. six max requirements:

In part one of this series Ed stated that if you are playing six max, just assume the first four positions have folded and use the requirements for middle and late positions (yet to be written). I’m a six max player myself so I’m looking forward to seeing what he recommends for 100 big blind stacks, particularly with regard to blind stealing hands.

Rick N
@ Sat Sep 01, 2007 04:50:59 PM

In regard to “if you are playing six max, just assume the first four positions have folded and use the requirements for middle and late positions”

I think this is faulty (at least when applied to B&M games). Short handed players have a different mentality (i.e., they are used to and like playing short) than full ring players that may be temporarily playing short (this is more common in B&M of course where it isn’t always so easy to get up and find another table).

Many full ring B&M players will keep the game going in order to see if the three or four empty seats fill with bad players. They won’t do it forever and they tend to play sort of soft while waiting (once again the collection in LA makes playing short in LA almost impossible with a big blind $10 or less).

This means that an UTG player in 6 max will probably be a lot more aggressive than a full ring player in a game where four have folded (or there are three or four empty seats and he is UTG).

Gotta go to Commerce :)

~ Rick

@ Sat Sep 01, 2007 05:24:47 PM


I don’t play live, but I’m sure what you’ve described is true. However, I don’t think GJ was interested in how other people approach the game. I think he just wants to hear Ed’s advice on what constitutes a solid set of openers for a six max game.

I was pointing out that Ed referred to this in the first article in this series in case he missed it.

Gaston Jeremy
@ Sat Sep 01, 2007 06:13:40 PM

Yes Tony, I seem to have missed that even tho I did read the first article, thx for the info.

@ Mon Sep 03, 2007 03:57:19 PM


Great post again.

Just one more favorite hand in early position: A5s. If you’re including ATs surely, we can include A5s for the same reason?
(you’re good post-flop only if you flop flush draw, straight draw or 2-pair)

@ Tue Sep 04, 2007 02:23:26 AM

Ash, the answer to your question is in the first article?

Quote from EM: “Some hands are so good that you can win with them despite the problems. But most aren’t. THAT INCLUDES SOME GOOD LOOKING HANDS LIKE A8s or ATo or T9s. Out of position these hands will bring you headaches, not profits. Avoid them.”

Remember it’s supposed to be a basic chart as part of the ‘easy hold’em’ series, and so designed to keep newbs out of trouble. Playing drawing hands out of position doesn’t really come under that remit.

Gaston Jeremy
@ Tue Sep 04, 2007 11:09:00 AM

This might sound wierd but there is some “mental block” (literally) when it comes to folding (rather than limping) PC’s like ATo, 54s, or suited aces OOP (even UTG), they look so good (especially if you have played them a lot in the past)that the signal from my so called brain to the hand to fold the hand does not “get through”, I just play them even tho I shouldn’t – weak mind eh?

@ Wed Sep 05, 2007 04:39:10 PM

Great post Ed.

It seems like the theme is the worse the players are the bigger you can raise up-front with big hands.

In live play the players are much worse. So larger raises up front would be a pretty good bet. But online in general the players are much better and trickier, so the limp/min-raise to re-raise line would probably work best.


I am still trying to determine what is more profitable, playing online or playing at the casino?

At the casino the players are much much worse! But you see so many fewer hands.

Online you see many many more hands, but in general the players are much better (except for the occasional donk).

At my local 1-2NL game (max buy-in of $300, aka 150BB) they charge $10/hr to play with no rake.

I play full-tilt about 5 tables at once of .50/1.00 NL with rake but no hourly charge.

What does your gut think of which game would be more profitable?

In addition the casino trip is 1 hour there and 1 hour back (gas money, wear and tare on car).

Also, how long should your poker sessions be? I’ve seen even the best players start to waver after too long of a session online or at the casino.

@ Wed Sep 05, 2007 04:44:21 PM

I’ve been a consistent winner online and at live play. With live play the big wins come further apart but the big wins are huge! Taking down monster pots of like $600 with nice sets.

With online the wins are smaller, but more consistent.

A good nite online I’ll make like $100-$200 playing .50/1.00 NL (these wins are closer together)

A good nite at the casino I’ll make like $400-$900 playing 1/2 NL (these wins are further apart)

(p.s. I’m not bankrolled yet to take on 1-2 NL online with 5 tables at once)

@ Thu Sep 06, 2007 12:18:55 PM

The statement “fullring is hardly played online” simply isn’t true. Right now at the two biggest US-friendly online poker rooms, at $100 and $200 NLHE, there are 1196 FR players and 1104 SH ones. The relative proportions vary from room to room however.

Online games are mostly 9-handed rather than 10-handed however. In fact one of the smaller networks moved from 10- to 9-handed in a recent update.

@ Thu Sep 06, 2007 12:28:45 PM

Ed, I was surprised when you said “Generally, you can reraise with your strong hands (AA-QQ and AK at least).” I have the idea that just calling a reraise with QQ and AK was normal (perhaps I picked that idea up from Harrington?). Generally, I want AA or KK to put in a third raise against a typical player. Do you really think QQ and AK are ahead of the reraising range in a game like this? They may have JJ or AQ some of the time, but is it often enough? I play more online than live, and I’m assuming a mix of LPs and LAGs, but there are more passive than aggressive players in the online games I’m used to ($50 NL at one of the donkier sites).

@ Thu Sep 06, 2007 01:17:31 PM

SelfMade – where do you play online? which are USA friendly… i’ve been full tilt and newbodog

@ Thu Sep 06, 2007 04:46:39 PM

Ducks, you can find info about which rooms are US friendly (and traffic data by game, limit, etc.) at PokerSiteScout.com.

@ Fri Sep 14, 2007 03:50:52 AM

Where is that f* CHART?


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