Starting Hand Selection: Why Charts are a Waste of Time

A common question that I’ve been asked (and see asked frequently in forums) are what hands to play and from what position. These players want a poker starting hand chart.

I can understand why a beginner poker player would want a starting hand chart. And empathize. It can be scary or even intimidating to choose what hands to play. They don’t want to get into any awkward spots and lose a lot of money. A hand selection chart can help you avoid these spots, as the charts are tight-aggressive in nature. So you’re only going to play the best hands, and you’ll be told when to fold, call or raise. You’re not left to guess as to what you should do.

You’re also not left to think for yourself, which is why I think using a poker hand chart is a big mistake.

5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Use Starting Hand Charts

Steve Badger said it best when he said, Strong, solid winning poker is all about situational analyses. In other words, every situation is different. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to use something as rigid or structured as a starting hand chart because it won’t apply to every situation. If you haven’t read his article on starting hand charts, you should go read it now.

I wanted to expand on what Steve said in his article, as well as give you a few of my own opinions. So here are 5 reasons why I think you should avoid using starting hand charts in poker.

1. Poker is situational. I wanted to expand on this thought using an example. Say that you have AA under the gun and raise 3x the big blind. You might have all weak-tight players at your table, and as a result, you get no action — everyone folds preflop. However, you can have AA UTG and have a completely different situation if you swap out the player in the big blind for someone maniacal. You might decide that open-limping makes more sense, or perhaps even raising larger than you normally would for value. Just that one player changes the situation entirely.

2. Poker charts stunt your growth. I think using starting hand charts is the quickest way to mediocrity as a player. Steve Badger agrees, as he said that “rigid adherence to artificial charts is the root of ruin of many people who might otherwise become quite good poker players.”

The problem is that if you use a chart, you’re not thinking for yourself. You’re doing what you’re told. This might work if poker was straightforward (it’s not). As I’ve mentioned already, poker is situational. At one table it might make sense to open-raise AA, and at another it might make more sense to open-limp. However, a poker chart is going to tell you to do the same thing no matter what. You’ll never learn how to adjust for different situations or players this way, and you’ll have a hard time developing these skills.

3. Poker charts = transparency. After a while of following a hand chart, it’s going to become painfully obvious what you’re doing, and to some extent, with what hands. Even the dumbest of players will be able to figure you out because you’re consulting a chart, as opposed to reading the situation and making adjustments to your strategy. It’ll be difficult to get value for your good hands, and it’ll be easy to shut you down when you don’t have a hand at all.

4. Only breakeven or losing players use charts. It’s not that you won’t be trying to win money. But between having to have your hands held, not knowing how to think for yourself and being transparent, you’re going to have a difficult time making any money. When you have a hand, you’ll play it the same way, and everyone will fold. And when you don’t have a hand, you’ll fold. Super face up.

5. You’ll still need to play postflop. The problem with a hand chart is that it’s only good (barely) preflop. Situations become way too complex postflop for there to be a guide on how to play your hand.

Also, having a clue as to what to do postflop means you had an idea of what you wanted to achieve preflop. But since your excuse is ‘my starting hand chart told me to,’ you won’t. So you’ll have a difficult time trying to maneuver your way around postflop, much less strategize your way out of a paper bag.

What to Do Instead of Using Starting Hand Charts or Guides

Since I told you not to use starting hand charts and why, you might be wondering what you should do instead. You still need to learn what hands to play and from where, right?

What I suggest trying is coming up with your own guide based on your experience and common sense. In other words, if you’re not very comfortable preflop or postflop, it makes more sense to have a tighter range, as it’s less likely that you’ll find yourself in awkward spots. The more out of position you are, the tighter your range should be. So you might start off by saying that no matter what, you’re not opening any wider than KQ from under the gun. Then as your skills improve, and your ability to label players as weak/tight and passive/aggressive improves, you can then give yourself the freedom to start widening or narrowing your range based on how you perceive your table and/or situation.

I hope this makes sense. It’s much harder to explain in text than it would be to explain in a video or in person. What I’m trying to get at is that the less experience you have, the tighter you should be — tighter from under the gun and loosen up as you go around the table. As your skills improve, you can then start to relax your personal guidelines and play based on feel, perception and as Steve Badger puts it, situational analyses. I truly think that this is the best and fastest way to learn what hands to play, and from what position, in poker.