We’ve received a lot of questions regarding this topic, so we decided to dedicate an entire section to it.
Most advanced players know that the Sklansky hand rankings—by poker expert and author David Sklansky—aren’t set in stone, but that they’re general guidelines for ranking hands. That’s something we’d like to stress. That’s because hand values fluctuate greatly depending on the number of people in the pot. Many people aren’t quite sure how to treat their starting hands when the game’s dynamic fluctuates between loose and tight, and thus affects the number of people in the pot. The answer to this dilemma lies with what type of hand you hold, and how many players this type of hand is suitable against.
We’ve divided the types of hands into three categories: Large pairs (J-J or higher), big cards (two cards of J-Q-K or ace), and small pairs and suited connectors (we know they’re totally different but there’s a reason for grouping them together; you’ll see). Please note that the following information is primarily for use in a longhand, limit context.
These are “premium” hands that people hope to receive. They have a lot of value of themselves and are not board-dependent to win. People generally raise pre-flop with these hands for value, but often a major reason to raise pre-flop is just to knock people out. For example, consider K-K. Unless an ace hits the board, K-K will probably be the best hand at the flop. But if the board is Q-10-2 and someone has Q-J and someone else has A-K, they’ll be tempted to draw to see another card. If you make this more complicated and make the Q-2 suited, someone with two cards of that same suit will be drawing as well. All of a sudden, you face a situation where there are about 16 outs (depending on what the suited cards are) against you. While you still have the highest chance of anyone to win the pot, it’s now more likely that someone else will win the pot instead of you!
This is a common situation with large pairs: they’re the best hand at the flop but there are enough runners out there that one of them is bound to beat you at the river. Thus, the way to alleviate this situation is to knock these people out of the flop by making raises aimed at limiting the size of the pot. Re-raise people after they’ve raised you to make it expensive to see the pot, and raise at the flop to knock people out. For example, in the above situation, if you’re in early position and there are five people at the flop, you should consider checking at the flop in the hopes of check-raising to knock out the people between you and the original bettor.
That way, people with five outs or less won’t be in the pot against you and you have to worry less about long-shot draws beating you. Another tip that applies to a loose game is to perhaps not raise too much pre-flop. For example, if you’re in late position now and someone raised and four people cold-called the raise, don’t re-raise because all you’re doing is beefing up the pot and giving people an incentive to chase even more. Aim your raises to limit the size of the pot and increase your chances of winning.
Big cards like A-K, A-Q and K-Q are great for shorthanded games, but they’re often a curse in longhanded games. While big cards can at least be an overpair and win money from someone whose hand isn’t likely to improve (such as top pair or top kicker), these hands are the ones that make top pair or top kicker. When you hit the board with these hands, unless you are outkicking your opponent or your opponent is an idiot, he or she will generally be on a draw against you. Thus, you generally want to go ahead and take the pot down at the flop, or at least make it very expensive for your opponent to see the turn.
Small pairs and suited connectors
These hands change drastically in value depending on the situation. Assuming a non-heads up situation (where small pairs do well simply on the chance of your opponent not hitting anything), these are hands you want to play in a multi-way pot. You generally won’t hit much with these hands, or you will hit a very nice hand like three of a kind, a flush or a straight. The overreaching goal with these hands is to have pot odds in your favor. (Note: A-xs plays a lot like a suited connector.)
If you have a suited connector, you are hoping that there’s enough callers and dead money in the pot to justify drawing to the straight or flush. Pot odds is why these hands will show a profit with four or more people in the pot, but will generally be poor against two or three opponents. In a multi-way pot with a suited connector, you may have a flush or a straight draw (that will win if you hit), but you only have to put in 1/10 of the pot to see the next card, which is very good odds.
If you have a small pair, you’re hoping for the 13% chance of hitting a set on the flop. So if seven people are in the pot, you have the exact pot odds for a set. However, for small pairs, not only are the pot odds good for a set, the implied odds once you hit your set are great. If you hit your set, chances are good that someone will have a second-best hand that has a slim to none chance of beating you (for example, if you have 3-3, and flop is K-J-3, there’s a good chance someone will pay you off with a king or maybe even a jack). So small pairs really begin showing their profit potential when there’s five or more people in the pot.
A common response to the small pair strategy is, “How should I evaluate the set potential of large pairs?” After all, we’ve talked about how the implied odds are generally great once you hit a set. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to large pairs. If you hit a set with a large pair, there’s a good chance it will be top set (meaning there’s no cards on the board that are higher than that), so you won’t get much action from anything besides draws. After all, if you have A-A and the flop is A-J-5, there’s only so much action you can get from a hand like K-J.