Tournament NLH Starting Hand Guide


Tournament NLH Starting Hand Guide

Tournament NLH Starting Hand Guide

Long before I played poker, I was an avid Blackjack player.  The beauty of blackjack for a gambling neophyte was that there was an viable strategy for playing any situation, based on your two cards and the Dealer’s upcard.  It was so common; you can buy a little plastic card with the entire strategy printed on one side.  But why bother, it was just as easy to memorize.  You have 11, Dealer shows a 9: You Double Down.  You get two 8s, Dealer has 6: You Split.  You have 16, Dealer shows an Ace: You bend over and kiss your arse goodbye (actually you hit and refuse Insurance).  While the majority of the time, I still lost; at least I knew what I was doing.

When I first started playing Limit Texas Hold’em, no such handy-dandy strategy existed.  It was evident, because I hemmed and hawed in obvious confusion, to the dismay of the table.  At that time (especially in tournaments), I wished there was some little card to tell me when to enter a pot and when to fold my hand, based on my two hole cards.  In the years since, I have devised such a tool for both the beginner and experienced player.

How to Use the Starting Hand Matrices

There are five matrices, based on your desired willingness to gamble.  Choose the matrix that best describes your style.  These styles are:

  • Supertight Player:  Folds the vast majority of hands in pursuit of premium hands.  Plays Top-5% Hands.
  • Tight Player:   Plays quality hands and selected high-value speculative hands that equate to Top-15% Hands.
  • Standard Player: Plays a fairly active mix of hands, but is not particularly too overboard.  Plays Top-25% Hands.
  • Loose Player: Active player who gets involved in a lot of pots – maybe too many pots.  Plays Top-40% Hands.
  • Wild Player:  Probably would not be reading this article anyway.  But if he does have some acumen of the game, only plays the Top-50% Hands.

Once you have settled on a style, only enter pots (preferable with raises if first to act) based on position.  The hands in Column 2 (All Positions) can be played from any position on a full 10-seat/9-seat poker table.  Hands in Column 3 (Good Position) should only be played if your position at the table is two seats (not counting unoccupied seats) to the right of the “Dealer” button.  It also includes the Small Blind and Big Blind positions if the decision to call a normal-sized raise comes into play.

Matrix 1 – Super Tight Player

  Super Tight
Hand Class All Positions Good Position
Suited Aces AKs AQs AJs
Offsuit Aces AK


Objective:  Seeks only premium stating hands to raise, re-raise, and go all in with.

  • Pros:  On a great day, when he’s getting these cards with some frequency, this strategy could be tough to beat.
  • Cons:  In a typical tournament, he will NOT get these cards often enough and blind out midway or late in the tournament.  Also, a keen opponent will figure out he has the goods whenever he dusts the cobwebs off the chips and adjust his play accordingly.

Matrix 2 – Tight Player:

Hand Class All Positions Good Position
Pairs AA-TT 99 88 77
Suited Aces AKs AQs AJs ATs A9s A8s
Offsuit Aces AK AQ-A8
Suited Kings KQs KJs KTs
Offsuit Kings KQ
Suited Queens QJs
Offsuit Queens
Suited Jacks JTs


Objective:  Prefers premium hands, but will also take a shot with some more speculative hands when he has position.

  • Pros:  Avoids moving in early with vulnerable holdings, while providing just enough hands that play well in a multi-way pots to scoop it with sets, straights, and flushes.
  • Cons:  May not see enough of these hands when the deck runs cold, particularly when approaching the tournament bubble.

Matrix 3 – Standard Player: 

Hand Class All Positions Good Position
Pairs AA-77 66-44
Suited Aces AKs-A8s A7s A6s A5s
Offsuit Aces AK-A8
Suited Kings KQs KJs KTs K9s-K7s
Offsuit Kings KQ KJ
Suited Queens QJs QTs-Q7s
Offsuit Queens QJ
Suited Jacks JTs J9s J8s


Objective:  Plays the Top-Quarter of starting hands, to achieve just the right balance of activity and strength.

  • Pros:  This style should be just right for most NLH players who seek an edge in every pot they enter, without continually sticking their neck out every hand.
  • Cons:  Experienced players may find such a style too constraining, particularly those who like to play any pair and any suited connector.  Some of the holdings (like pocket Fours and Queen-Seven suited) could be more vulnerable to catastrophic set-over-set or lower flushes to the nuts.

Matrix 4 – Loose Player:

Hand Class All Positions Good Position
Pairs AA-44 33
Suited Aces AKs-A5s A4s A3s A2s
Offsuit Aces AK-A7 A6-A2
Suited Kings KQs-K6s K5s K4s
Offsuit Kings KQ KJ KT-K7
Suited Queens QJs-Q8s Q7s Q6s
Offsuit Queens QJ QT Q9
Suited Jacks JTs J9s J8s
Offsuit Jacks JT
Suited Tens T9s T8s


Objective:  Wants to play a lot of hands and enter a lot of pots.  Caters to the more experienced player, who is confident with their ability to play the flop.

  • Pros:  A player who adopts this style and starts out strong could be very dangerous in the later stages of the tournament.   He will be the one picking up blinds and antes with lesser-than-optimal starting hands that tighter players are too fearful to defend.
  • Cons:  To get to a Top-40% hand selection criteria, you have to play some holdings that, for lack of a better word, are “crap.” Hands like Ace-Deuce, King-Seven offsuit, Queen-Nine offsuit, and even Jack-Ten offsuit are very vulnerable when calling a raise.  A player really needs expert-level hand reading and flop evaluation skills to avoid getting destroyed in a pot where they are hopelessly behind.

Matrix 5 – Wild Player

Hand Class All Positions Good Position
Pairs AA-33 22
Suited Aces AKs-A4s A3s A2s
Offsuit Aces AK-A4 A3 A2
Suited Kings KQs-K4s K3s
Offsuit Kings KQ-K7 K6
Suited Queens QJs-Q6s Q5s Q4s
Offsuit Queens QJ QT Q9 Q8 Q7
Suited Jacks JTs-J6s
Offsuit Jacks JT J9
Suited Junk T9s T8s Suited Connectors from 98s all the way down to 43s
Offsuit Junk T9 98


Objective:  Wants to take a shot at almost every pot.  Could either be a very astute player or a player who just like to gamble.

  • Pros:  At the right table, he can bully his way through pre-flop steals and post-flop continuation bets.  The very speculative hands that they enter with could be the very ones that win monster-sized pot when you crack a powerful hand like pocket Aces.
  • Cons:  A lot of these starting hands constitute the cardinal sin of entering pots with very speculative holdings without having position.  Any good player is going to quickly tag you as a crazy player (or even a fish), and put you to the test with a hefty re-raise or an all-in challenge.


Use these charts to assist you in developing the starting hand selection criteria that best fits your level of experience and willingness to gamble.  One strategic variation is to start with a matrix for the early stages of the tournament (like Tight) when your ratio of Chip Stack to cost of Big Blind are plentiful and not a factor.  As the tournament reaches its late stages and this ratio gets down to the point where your Stack/Big Blind cost ratio reaches a critical threshold (like 20 or 10), move down to the next matrix (i.e., the player who is playing the “Tight” Matrix should move to the “Standard” Matrix).  This will ensure you do not allow yourself to get blinded out or so short on chips that multiple players call your all-in bet, thereby greatly reducing your odds of surviving the hand.


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