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Hand Analysis: Where To Even Begin?

by Matt Matros |  Published: Feb 26, 2020


It’s been said that to keep things simple, one should begin at the beginning. The poker world seems to agree, and thus much poker instruction, hand discussion, and research has focused only on starting hands. We ask questions like, “what hands should I open with from early position?” or “what is a good three-betting range from the button?”

As fundamental as such questions are, it is impossible to answer them without a strong understanding of how to play the later streets, including and especially the river. Furthermore, having perfect opening ranges won’t help you very much if you’re clueless about what to do with those ranges. “Whether to play” is a distinctly different question from “how to play.”

For these reasons, why not begin at the end? By that I mean, why not start thinking about your river strategy before you worry about your plan for earlier streets? You can even try to analyze your hands in this backward manner. Often a close inspection river play will lead you to change the way you tackle earlier streets. I’ll give an example of what I mean.

The World Rec.Gambling.Poker Tournament (WRGPT) is a free, annual, email-only tournament with no associated prizes. We play only for the glory. As I’ve been saying in print and elsewhere for 15-plus years, I thoroughly enjoy WRGPT. It’s the only poker tournament I know of where you get as much time as you want to think over your decisions, and so you never end up making an impulsive play. You have plenty of time to consider every factor without being biased by results! Some people are bothered by the pace (it takes about a day to play a hand on average—which is actually much faster than it used to be), but to me, those people miss the point. WRGPT is a different kind of poker, and not meant to match the high-speed adrenaline rush of the live game. I encourage all my readers to sign up when the new tournament begins in the fall.

Here is a hand I recently played in this year’s WRGPT… and we’re going to look at it starting from the river.

The board is AClub Suit 8Club Suit 3Spade Suit AHeart Suit 8Spade Suit and I am first to act in a heads-up pot. I have a stack size that is only 70 percent the size of the pot. Since my opponent has the option to showdown any medium-strength hand if I check (medium-to-high pocket pairs, king-high, or maybe even eights full), I’ll want to be able to bet my aces full for value. That means I also need to have hands I can bluff! After all, what opponent is going to call me if I only ever bet with aces full or better? (OK, we all know there are some players who are only playing their own cards, and will call with pocket nines even if it’s impossible that they’re good. But the point of this exercise is to devise a strong strategy against tough opponents.)

The ideal bluffing hands here would be low pocket pairs (which have no showdown value on the double-paired board), or any unpaired hand. It would not make sense to bluff with medium-big pocket pairs, as they would not get many better hands to fold. In the actual hand, I had ASpade Suit 4Spade Suit and moved all-in, and my opponent folded. Was this play justified based on my overall strategy?

Let’s go back to the turn. The board is AClub Suit 8Club Suit 3Spade Suit AHeart Suit, and I am still first to act in a heads-up pot. Again, my stack size is 70 percent of the pot. If I bet here, I want to have a mixture of aces and bluffs. But it’s not necessary that I bet anything. With another street to go, it would be OK to check all of my hands, assuming I have enough aces in that checking range to call with if my opponent shoves, AND enough bust hands to bluff the river with in case he checks back. In the hand, I did check, and my opponent did check back. On to the flop…

The board is 8Club Suit AClub Suit 3Spade Suit and I am second to act in a three-way pot. I have roughly three times the pot in my stack, and my opponent has me covered. The first player to act checks. I can’t bet my entire range here, because surely if I’ve made it to the flop, then I have a fair number of hands that prefer to check and call on an ace-high board—namely big pocket pairs and weak suited aces.

But I can’t plan to check and call with only those hands because I need to be able to get to the turn and river with some bluffs. So it probably makes sense to also check and call with some flush draws—much better candidate hands to carry forward than small pocket pairs, which are the other possible hands I could bluff with on the river. In the hand, I checked, the last player to act made a near pot-sized bet, the first player folded, and I called.

Preflop, I opened under-the-gun for the minimum and got called by a late-position player and the big blind. Not much to talk about here, but note that it’s important for me to have some suited connectors in my range, in addition to big aces and pairs, so that I have the option to create that bluffing range later.

In reviewing this hand out of order, I decided that I should be checking and calling this flop with more flush draws than is my typical style, both for the reasons outlined above, and because if I check-raise all-in with all my flush draws on the flop, I am likely bluffing too often, since I’m not checking all that many made hands. Whether you agree with this conclusion or not, you have to admit that working from the river all the way back to the preflop action led to some interesting ideas on how to play the earlier streets.

Even if you don’t start reverse engineering all your hands, I hope this technique I’ve introduced proves useful in helping you find leaks in your own play, and if nothing else, gives you a new method for analysis that will be a fun change from the boring, chronological process you’re used to. ♠

Matt MatrosMatt Matros is a three-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, poker instructor, and the author of the strategy/memoir The Making of a Poker Player. His new book, The Game Plan, is available now from Amazon. Want to see how the Game Plan would apply to a hand you’ve played? Write Matt at