In Blackjack, everyone grimaces when they’re dealt a 16. It’s the worst possible hand and the odds are, you’re going to lose your money. The Hold’em equivalent to a 16 is a 2-7, which is considered the worst possible hand. However, with a 2-7, the odds are that you’ll lose nothing (because you’ll fold pre-flop), or just your blind. In fact, we think you shouldn’t even mind being dealt a 2-7 because at least you know what it’s worth. It’s much more frightening to be dealt A-A, oddly enough—because that’s a hand that has the potential of costing you a lot of money. The paradox that a good hand is even more frightening than a bad one centers on the most important concept of poker: relative hand value.
Everyone knows that to win at poker, you have to maximize your wins and minimize your losses. Maximizing your wins is fairly easy. Slowplaying and trapping help accentuate these wins, but the reality is that any fool can win a decent amount when he’s got a good hand. What generally separates a winning poker player from a losing one is HOW the two players lose their hands. A winning poker player knows how to dump his second-best hand while a loser will call it down and lose at the showdown.
We believe that the psychological difference between a winning player and a losing player is, generally, that the losing player must satisfy his need to know what the other guy had. The desire to be a policeman and make sure his opponent isn’t bluffing, and to make sure he didn’t lose what he could have won, causes a losing player to call when he shouldn’t. A winning poker player has long since overcome this innate desire and forces himself to simply play well.
Now that we’ve brought to your attention the need for identifying your second-best hand—how do you play it? It really depends on limit vs. no limit poker.
In limit, calling with the second-best hand won’t kill you quickly. You’ll only notice your negative bank balance in the long run because you’ll sometimes win in the short run.
Generally, the best way to limit your second-best hand losses is pre-flop play. Don’t go in with hands that don’t have a decent kicker (i.e., dump K-8 or A-7) because those are often dominated hands. A dominated hand generally refers to when you’re up against an opponent and you have similar hands, but one will almost always beat the other. Examples would be A-A vs. A-Q, or A-K vs. A-9. The hand that’s dominated has three outs or less (A-Q must catch two queens without an ace hitting, or a straight, to win). Thus, correct pre-flop play can limit second-best hands because you call less with dominated hands, due to the kicker.
Flop play is a bit different. Suppose the board is A-K-9 and you have K-Q. You definitely have second-best hand potential—but how can you tell? Generally, the best way is to bet or raise at flop and see what happens. If you encounter a lot of resistance, you’re probably done for. If there’s a large multi-way pot, go ahead and fold. Someone is bound to have the ace.
At no-limit poker, it’s a totally different ball game. At limit, you won’t lose too much for one second-best hand, but you can easily lose your whole stack at no-limit. That’s why, at no limit, it’s best to play the nut-like hands more. In other words, pocket pairs go up in value because of their ability to hit a set and so do connecting cards because of their ability to hit straights. Ace-suited goes up in value too because of the nut flush, but people are generally very aware of the flush potential and will shut you out at the flop when you hit a flush draw.
Since these hands go up in value, what goes down? A-Q, A-J, K-Q, K-J, etc. go down. These hands are the ones that can get crushed at no-limit poker. These hands will win small pots with top pair, but will lose large ones when someone else hits a set or a straight.
The key to no-limit poker is not dumping these second-best hands pre-flop, necessarily. It’s sniffing out what other people have on the flop. Don’t simply call bets with the second-best hand; you have to raise to see where you are. When someone bets at you, they’re threatening your whole stack (if the bet is a significant one). You must reciprocate by threatening theirs. If the board is K-10-7 and you’ve got K-Q, you could be in a lot of trouble. Someone betting at you could have 10-J or 10-10. It’s important to figure out their relative strength by raising them at the flop.
Many people might respond by saying, “Well, couldn’t they just bluff re-raise me?” Of course they could, but that will cost them a lot of money when you finally do get the nut hand. Simply call the re-raise and then zap them out of the rest of their stack on the turn or river.