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Ten Dangerous NLH Starting Hands

Wanted – Dead or Alive (Preferable Dead):  These are not the “usual suspects,” like Seven-Deuce – but rather hands you might have thought were fairly decent.  That is, until you walk away from the table busted.  Unless otherwise specified, avoid these “chip-killers” at all costs.

Ten Dangerous NLH Starting Hands

Ten Dangerous NLH Starting Hands

Number Ten: Ace-Four (and Ace-Three) Offsuit

Many amateurs and even an alarming number of experienced players will play Ace-Anything (even Ace-Library Card).  This may have profitable applications at a short table.  But at a full table (or even one with a couple of seats open), chances are you are not the only Ace in town.

Players find the worst thing that can happen with A4o and A3o is that they do flop an Ace.  It’s all about the kickers.  If there are three or more players going to the flop, you must realize that you are probably going to lose to an Ace with a bigger kicker.  Pairing the Four/Three only is not very good either.  You can never have top-pair-top-kicker with Ace-Four or Ace-Three.  Some will contend that you hold two cards to “The Wheel” (An Ace-to-Five) straight.  But in actuality, by the numbers, it’s no better than a 3-gapped connector (like T6).  The odds of flopping the Wheel are a lofty 332-to-1 against.  More likely, you will flop a draw to an inside “gutshot” straight.  At 11-to-1 against, making the inside straight is fraught with pessimism, and a made Wheel tends to get destroyed by starting hands like 65s and 76s.

You ought to think twice about getting busy with these hands when you have a healthy stack.  The time to play them is near the tournament bubble.  By then, almost any two cards become playable.

Number Nine: Eight-Seven Offsuit

A lot of decent players like to play suited connectors routinely.  But these players invariable start to include just about any un-suited no-gaps (i.e., connectors) into their repertoire and even make audacious moves like 3-bets with it.  When you start making plays with 87o, you may hit the occasional winning straight, but its infrequency makes it so unprofitable, it’s deemed unplayable.

Unless you hit the nut straight, anything played to the river will likely overcome Eight-Seven.  As straights go, you definitely don’t want to own a piece of the low (“idiot”) end.  Flops like JTX is an invitation for disaster as any kind of raised pot or multi-way action will feature starting hands like JTs, QJ and KQ.  If the “X” card is a Nine, you could see yourself drawing dead to a higher straight.  If the X Card is a 7 or 8, that leaves you with a very marginal pair with a very marginal kicker.

Playing suited Eight-Seven is one thing.  You need all the emergency outs (as in a flush) you can get when playing these types of starting hands.  The offsuit sister is vastly inferior.

Number Eight: Queen-Nine Offsuit  

Many poker books will often advise players to the risk of these types of hole cards.  They fall into the unsavory family known as “trap hands.” When you call a raise with trap hands like Q9, KT, and KJ, you are almost always dominated in a raised pot by starting hands like JJ, AK, AQ, and KQ.  In some respects, you would rather pair the Nine than the Queen in a raised pot.

These hands play best when you are short stacked.  At 10 Big Blinds or less, put them all-in and hope for two live cards.  Short-table or Short-stacked, Queen-Nine is an okay starting hand to die with.

Number Seven: Pocket Deuces 

Danger: Poison.  Hands containing Deuces in tournament Texas Hold’em should be treated as if they are poison and should be mucked.  Do not embrace the rhetoric that a pair is a pair.  Pairs of Deuces are not viable pairs.  They are unplayable.  There are reasons for this:

  • People claiming to be smart will audaciously put someone all-in for the chance at a coin flip with two Deuces, thinking they are mathematically ahead.  In actuality, with Deuces, they are not.  You are exactly 50-50 against a random starting hand (and actually a slight underdog to any two suited cards).  Also, many times, the player they go all-in with has an overpair and now their double Deuces become an 18% underdog.
  • Unless you hit your 1-in-8.5 chance of making a set, with pocket Deuces, every flop will always yield three overcards.  Even the most optimistic person can’t convince themselves that they are ahead now.
  • By the river, there is likelihood that your Deuces will get counterfeited.  In other words, the board (like QQ663) negates the pair of Twos, leaving you at the mercy of the community cards.  Someone holding 42 offsuit will actually beat you now.
  • While it won’t happen often, you will bust out of one or two tournaments lifetime losing while going all-in when your set of Deuces runs into a bigger set.  You will also lose a tournament or two lifetime when you do make a set, but the Deuce gives someone else the Wheel straight.

Remember: you dominate just 24 out of 169 other possible hands: those starting hands also containing Deuces from A2s down to 32o.  Depending on position, any other pair is fine; but Deuces in any position are truly “Number 2.”

Number Six: Jack Eight (Offsuit)

Here’s another mid-rank, wide-gapped unsuited connector not worth wasting chips on.  It’s like Queen-Nine, only smaller.  The very illusion of playability is what results in higher net losses with J8: You will play it 3 times more often than 72-off and 25% more often than J7-offsuit.  You will be tempted to play it more (and unfortunately muck it more with your dead money in the pot).

Your best means of winning is by way of the straight.  Unfortunately, the chances of flopping a straight or a straight draw with J8 and Q9 are 25-to-1 against (versus 8-to-1 with JT).

In deep stack situations, you must have some semblance of starting hand strength and position when playing.  If you lead out with an early raise pre-flop with J8o, only to get re-raised, there is no illusion of you being ahead now.  There’s nothing worse than being a sneaky mouse and getting caught with cheese like J8, A2, or 76s as the trap is set above you.  Cut your losses and throw them into the muck.

Number Five: Nine Eight (Offsuit)

While straights vice flushes might be the preferred outcome with this type of starting hand, being suited influences my decision to call.  But even Nine-Eight suited does not win enough to enthrall me.  And Nine-Eight offsuit in the hole merely disgusts me.  All the woes discussed with Eight-Seven also come into play here.

Number Four: Ten Nine (Offsuit)

Hopefully, you see a theme here: Playing the unsuited variant of a suited connector is a bad play.  Suited connectors give you three chances to win: by pairing; by making a straight; and by making a flush.  This is daunted by the fact that any of these ways to win with Ten-Nine suited are tenuous at best, and being unsuited takes away one of those ways to win.

The reason Ten-Nine loses more than Nine-Eight and Eight-Seven is the increased frequency for loose (and even solid) players to call this hand in a large pot built up by a raise and multiple callers.  They get enticed by the fact that they hold a “Broadway” card (Ace, King, Queen, Jack, or Ten).  Even with good pot odds, you just don’t have the hand strength to overcome the other players unless the flop hits you like a sledge hammer.

Number Three: Ace Deuce (Offsuit)

It is true: Acey-Deucy really is loosey-goosy.  Even at a table as short as six players, the chances that someone else will also be dealt an Ace (with a higher kicker) exceeds 50%.

Yet many amateurs like to play any starting hand with an Ace.  But unless you are heads up or so short-stacked that you must play any two cards, you are probably in deep trouble going into the flop.  Even at a half-full final table, I recall at least two instances of calling an all-in with A2 and getting dominated by a bigger Ace.  I even recall the great poker pro Humberto “The Shark” Brenes making a similar play in a televised tournament and running into Big Slick.  All Brenes could do was shout out “Deuce…Deuce…Deuce!!” (It never came).

You do win hands with some frequency with A2o.  Stealing the blinds when you have the button will be the predominant means you win with this starting hand (unless someone in the blinds does call you).  The pots you win will tend to be small unless you catch fire and flop A22 with someone willing to bet all his chips with AK.  More likely, you will be the one most likely to lose your arse.  If hands like A4 and 22 are deemed very vulnerable, where does that put A2?  Even the very vulnerable starting hands are squashing you.

In general, any hand with a Deuce in it – even suited – is a big-time loser and should be flung into the muck quicker than used tissue paper.

Number Two: Jack Ten (Offsuit)

While Jack-Ten unsuited has the reputation of being a good starting hand to play in multi-way pots, more often than not, you will lose a gigantic pot.  For every 10 big pots you take down to the river with JT, you will win four of them and lose six of them.  Over time, this really increases your net loses – hence Jack-Ten offsuit’s placement as second-most dangerous hand on this list.

Common causes for losing with Jack-Ten off is missing your open-ended straight draw (4-to-1 against), missing your inside straight draw when you are pot-committed, losing to a bigger straight, or hitting two-pair which gives someone else their straight.  Once again, playing suited Jack-Ten is perfectly fine.  But unsuited Jack-Ten greatly reduces one of your ways (via the flush) of winning a multi-way pot.

Number One: Jack Nine (Offsuit)

The most dangerous hand in poker, in terms of net money lost, is Jack-Nine unsuited.  As NLH is essentially a game that demands high cards, the Jacks family has trouble competing with Pairs, Aces, Kings, and Queens.

For players longing for action, they will typically call raises with starting hands like this because they consider it as good as a suited connector.  However, it is not suited nor is it a true connector.  You lose the flush possibility for the most part and you have less straight combinations by being 1-gapped.  While you get lucky with it from time to time, your occasional big wins will never cover the overall losses you encounter.

Conclusions

You may be wondering, “Why are there no suited hands on the list?” The main reason is that suited starting hands don’t come nearly as often as the unsuited hands.   By the numbers, the probability of getting any connector is 5.4-to-1.  The probability for suited connectors is 25-to-1.  From the pure perspective of net money lost, based on my analysis, none of the suited starting hands broke into this Top-10 list.  For arguments sake, the Number 1 most dangerous suited starting hand is (you guessed it): Ace-Deuce suited.  The higher frequency of non-suited hands correlates to higher frequency of pots entered (and pots lost!)

Beginner and intermediate tournament players need to understand that every starting hand, even pocket Aces, carries a degree of risk when played down to the river (particularly when more than two players are going to the flop).  The purpose of the article is to provide the tournament player a decision aid to identify those starting hands that carry the highest amount of risk in terms of net money lost.  Good luck at the tables.

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