Win A $1,000 Tournament Ticket To The Event Of Your Choice!

Evaluating Your Hand Strength

An important basic skill

by Matt Matros |  Published: Jun 25, 2010


The beauty of poker is that sometimes ace high is a monster, and sometimes a full house is worthless. Knowing how to tell which situation is which is the essence of the game. Beginning players who don’t learn the skill of basic hand evaluation are likely doomed. Conversely, an experienced player who learns how to assess the relative strength of his hand with greater and greater accuracy is on his way to becoming an expert. This column attempts to give a slightly different take on hand evaluation, one that will hopefully push a few readers into that next level of thinking.

Most any competent no-limit hold’em player knows the rules of thumb for hand strength. Top pair is pretty good on the flop, watch out for the draws that come in on the turn, and tend to slow down on the river if your one-pair hand hasn’t improved. How can we go beyond that? How can we be exacting about the quality of our hand, so that we’ll know precisely when we’re supposed to fold, call, or raise? Well, it’s tough to develop this ability perfectly, but one way to improve it is to use my favorite poker analysis tool: math. I’ll provide an example to illustrate what I mean.

Let’s say that you’re at a nine-handed no-limit hold’em tournament table, and the blinds are 100-200 with a 25 ante. Three players fold, and you open for a standard raise to 550 with A-J offsuit. The hijack, cutoff, button, and small blind all fold, but then the big blind reraises to 1,500 total. How good is your hand?

In this case, a better question might be, how bad is your hand? A reraiser typically has a strong range in no-limit hold’em. You don’t know for sure that the big blind has a strong hand, but if he happened to get dealt aces, kings, queens, or A-K, you can be pretty sure that he’d be playing the hand the way that he’s playing this one — by reraising. A-J is not a good hand here, but is it a bad enough hand to fold? Obviously, if you have a strong read on your opponent, you should go with your read. The discussion that follows is for a situation in which you don’t have much of a read on your opponent, and you think it’s very likely that he’s a tough and aggressive player who will take advantage of all of your mistakes.

In such a situation, it can be very helpful to forget for a second about guessing your opponent’s hand, and to think about your A-J within the context of your own range of hands. Look at it from your opponent’s perspective. He’s risking 1,300 to win 1,075 (550 from your raise, 100 from the small blind, 200 from the big blind, and 225 from the antes). If you fold more than 1,300 ÷ (1,300 + 1,075) = 54.7 percent of the time, the big blind shows a profit from his reraise with two blank cards. Even if the big blind’s hand gets declared dead every single time that you decide to four-bet him or call his reraise, he still makes money on the play. In real life, of course, his hand is not dead if you four-bet him or call, so you’ll want to be folding even less than 54.7 percent of the time. I try never to put myself in a situation in which I plan on folding to a normal-sized reraise more than half the time. I like to defend about 60 percent of my raises against a tough and aggressive opponent.

Getting back to our A-J hand, how do we determine whether folding is acceptable or too tight? We start by looking at the range of hands with which we would open from our position, three to the right of the button. If, for example, we would open with only good pairs and big aces down to A-J, then A-J is the worst hand in our range. We could safely fold to the reraise and know that we have plenty of better hands to defend with, so that we’re not being exploited. We wouldn’t be folding anywhere near 50 percent of the time. But instead, maybe our range is something like A-10+, A-8+ suited, K-10+ suited, K-Q, J-9+ suited, 8-7+ suited, and 4-4+ (14.3 percent of hands). If we take the strategy of continuing on against the three-bet with A-J suited, A-Q, A-K, J-10+ suited, and 8-8+ (6.8 percent of hands), we’re folding to the three-bet 52 percent of the time [(14.3 – 6.8) ÷ 14.3]. That’s too much. We have to at least call with our not-so-attractive A-J offsuit (and four-betting might be better, depending on stack sizes and other considerations) to prevent the big blind from exploiting us. If our opening range is a little tighter, we might be able to safely fold A-J and still not be folding excessively. On the other hand, a maniac who opens with any suited ace, any pair, most suited kings, and most facecard combinations is compelled to play on with A-J. That’s a monster hand for him!

Rigorously determining whether or not your hand is strong enough to take a certain action in a certain situation requires a bit of work. It’s worth it in the long run. The more studying you do away from the table, the more insights you will pick up for your play. Inevitably, these insights lead to strategy changes at the table, and these strategy changes lead to added profit. Take a look at some situations from your recent tournaments, and determine if your strategy is something that can be exploited by your opponents. Sometimes, the smallest strategic tweak is enough to turn an early bust-out into a small cash, or a small cash into a huge one. Spade Suit

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player. He is also a featured coach for