Quality/playability of a two-card starting hand in No Limit Hold’em depends on:
- Hand strength (card value/equity)
- Speculative value (flopability)
- Previous action in the hand
This is raw equity against random hands. Without consideration of any other factors (this happens in the case of preflop all in*), it shows how powerful the hand is on its own merit.
*Very important in tournaments. Tournament players need to have a clear idea of hand strengths (vs opponent’s ranges as observed or seen in an HUD) because in a lot of situations there is the possibility of preflop stack off. Generally, it is best to pick spots where opponents’ starting range is wide and our hand has a decent stack of equity.
Hand strength can be seen in equity calculators via moving the VPIP indicator. Moving it to the right until we “hit” the desired hand gives us information on its relative value.
It is also possible to find any group of hands. Usually, we are most interested in finding out which hands are the top X% in strength, but we can play around to see different ranges.
The best hand is AA, worst is 32o. It is widely known that 72o is the worst starting hand in poker, but this is actually due to a combination of poor hand strength (2nd worst after 32o) and poor flopability: it is the weakest hand that is both unsuited and unable to make a 2-card straight.
Hands with good hand strength don’t rely on a position as much as pure speculative hands (although it always helps).
Most of the time we do not hold a hand with large equity advantage against the field, so we need to consider how often it will get improved on the flop. This is called speculative value of the hand (I call it flopability because it is shorter).
With a hand with low hand strength but good flopability, we are normally looking to flop 2 pairs or better or a good draw (ideally some type of combo draw).
At this point it is enough to list some generic percentages (I will go into detail in another article):
- Any pair has 11.8% chance to hit a set+ on the flop. This does not include trips on board, where you technically do have a full house, but it is fairly weak.
- Any non-paired hand has 32.4% chance to hit a pair or better. This breaks down to 29% chance to flop a pair, 2% two pair (both cards paired), 1.3% trips, 0.1% full house or quads.
- Any suited hand has only 0.8% chance to hit a flush but 10.9% to hit a flush draw.
For weak, speculative hands, position is very important, since the hand has to pay for itself when it does hit (when it doesn’t, we will most often lose the hand) and for value extraction, we need position.
It is always significantly more profitable to have a position on the opponents.
This is mostly due to the profitability of speculative parts of hand ranges in play and their relation to implied odds in single raised pots (= someone raised and one or more players called, with no 3bet or squeeze).
A typical situation is when the preflop raiser has a best-but-vulnerable TPTK/overpair type of hand but he is out of position (OOP) and the board contains one or more draws. In this case, speculative hands can usually profitably call in position (IP) and rely on implied odds to make up for insufficient direct calling odds or even make profitable semi- bluffs when appropriate.
Conversely, in the situation when a speculative hand is OOP, it is very hard to profitably check-call because it is hard to get paid when an obvious draw hits (= implied odds are much worse). This means that the player ideally needs to balance his range with bluffs in typical spots, which is fairly hard to do properly.
Previous Action in the Hand
This criteria is important, yet very poorly understood by a majority of micro stakes players.
Previous action in the hand can be:
- Everybody folded, we can enter the pot first
- Raise, no callers
- Raise, one or more callers
- Raise, call(ers), squeeze
- Raise, 3bet
- Raise, 3bet, someone cold called the 3bet
- Raise, 3bet, cold 4bet
- One limper
- Two+ limpers
- Limp(ers) and isolation raise
- In all these situations, we can be IP (best position would be in BTN) or OOP (worst position would be in SB).
The hands/ranges we can play profitably are defined by the actions other players took before it was our turn to act and the types of players involved (this defines their ranges). Those influence our cost to play the hand and implied odds that speculative hands receive.
The most frequent mistake (by far!) micro players make is cold calling 3bets with pocket pairs in the hope the original caller will fold or just call.
Problems with this idea are:
- Even in the ideal scenario, the price of calling is usually too steep, considering a set is not guaranteed to get paid or even win the pot against (usually) 2+ other players in case the flop is reached without a preflop stack off.
- Original raiser can 4bet or shove and will do so with a significant frequency (depending on his position and opening range).
- Another player can 4bet or shove before action returns to preflop raiser.
- Original raiser can now actually profitably call his own speculative hand (!) and then cooler the coldcaller after he hits the set. Naturally this can go both ways but still the point is that original raiser made a correct decision preflop.