Hand Categorization, True Hand Values, and Playing Postflop

We’ve already established that AQ on the button is an easy 3-bet for value against a bad player who is likely to call us with worse hands. We’ve also established that AQ on the button is often an easy call against a good player who’s likely to 4-bet or fold against us.* Let’s explore this further.

Imagine three categories of hand strength:

  1. 1)  Premium Value. We have enough equity to raise for value and/or get stacks in the pot comfortably.** Holding AA preflop is an easy example of this, but in an aggressive game AK can usually be considered premium value preflop.
  2. 2)  Medium Value. We have enough equity/odds/strength to continue with our hand, but we can’t get stacks in. A great example of this is ATs preflop on the button against a tight aggressive regular—we’re certainly not folding to a raise, but exposing ourselves to a 4-bet usually means we have to fold our hand preflop.
  3. 3)  Low Value. We don’t have enough value to continue with our hand. However, we can be aggressive with these hands because we don’t lose any value when we have to fold to a reraise. A good example of this is 3-betting J4s on the button—my hand didn’t have enough value to call a raise preflop, and if I get 4-bet I can comfortably fold.

The following diagram illustrates the hand categorization spectrum of a common preflop scenario. A good regular has raised in MP, and we’re trying to decide which hands we want to raise, call, and fold on the button.

It’s generally somewhat easy to fit our hands into these categories if we’re paying attention to the people we’re playing against. For example, AJ would be considered premium value against somebody who’s shoving all-in preflop with any two cards. AJ would also be considered premium value against a player who calls a reraise with 100% of his hands. However, AJ is almost certainly a medium value hand against a good player—3-betting and folding to a 4-bet is an unfortunate waste of a hand with a lot of postflop value.

Against a player who either folds far too often or calls far too often postflop, a hand like 95s in position may be considered a medium value hand, as we could either bluff often or play to make a strong hand with implied odds. However, against somebody who plays more solidly postflop, 95s might be too weak to call with and thus slips into the “low value” zone. However, a hand like 95s has far more value

than a hand like 72o, so if I had to choose a “low value” hand to balance my range with, I’d choose one that has more value, so long as that hand still didn’t have enough value to be playable or to be considered as part of the “medium value” category. Essentially, all similarly categorized hands are not created equally—A6o is much better than 72o, just like QJs is much better than 87s, just like AA is much better than QQ.

So what factors influence the value of our hand? Many of the concepts we covered in the Basics come back into play.

  • Card Advantage. Obviously we play AA every time and we fold 72o pretty much every time.
  •   Skill Advantage. We want to play more hands against players we’re better than and fewer hands against players who are better than us. Skill differential adds or subtracts value from our hand.
  •   Table Dynamics. If we have AA on the button, we might be inclined to 3-bet due to our card advantage, but a super-active shortstack in the blinds might change that. If we call instead of 3- betting, and the short-stack shoves, the original raiser might 4-bet to isolate—and then we’ve got him. This adds value to our call, maybe enough value to make it better than 3-betting. On the other hand, maybe a hand like 96s has enough value to call in position, but with the possibility of the shortstacker shoving all in preflop, its value decreases to the point of making it a 3-bet or fold type of hand. Maybe an extremely good player raises UTG and we have 74s on the button. This hand might not be good enough to play against this particular player, but if the blinds are extremely loose and passive, it might gain enough value to call because of the likelihood of playing a multiway pot in position against bad players.
  •   Position. This factor is extremely important. The better our position, the stronger our hand is. For example, against a particular player I might play KTo every time on the button, but I’d never call with it OOP. Position either adds value or diminishes value and is a critical and active deciding component in how to evaluate a hand.
  •   Image. If we’ve been bluff-raising every flop for the last five orbits and it seems like our opponents are getting ready to play back, a hand like 85s might not have the proper value to play postflop and thus should be folded to a raise. We should also be inclined to call with KK in that spot and raise the flop. On the other hand, if we have been card dead or have been folding a lot of flops, perhaps calling 85s and making moves postflop has enough value to make the hand playable.

Once we understand that these factors influence the evaluation of our hand’s true value, we can begin to understand how to use the same patterns to play postflop.

Let’s say that a good regular raised in MP and we called on the button with T9s (I would only consider 3-betting here if deep-stacked). Consider several flops: The first is T♥9♥5♠. Villain c-bets. Easy raise, right? Premium Value. How about if the board comes down J♥T♣5♠? Villain c-bets. Easy call, right? Medium Value. What about if the board comes down 6♥5♥3♣? Villain c-bets. Easy fold or raise, right? Low Value.

However, in some situations people raise without a very good reason and run the risk of wasting their hand’s value. A classic example: With 100bb stacks, we call a raise on the button with J♠T♠. The flop comes down Q♠5♣4♠. Villain c-bets, and we raise. In general, this is a bad raise.*** The best possible outcome is that we make a hand like TT fold, but anybody who plays in aggressive games knows that that rarely happens. Additionally, we open the door for a worse draw to reraise, forcing us to fold.

We spoil implied odds against his strong hands (like sets or overpairs) as we have to fold when he reraises those.

What about Reason #3 for betting? Can’t we capitalize on dead money because he folds too often to our flop raises? Let’s dissect these questions.

  •   The fact that he folds too often to our flop raises is a good reason to raise a hand regardless of its value on the flop, NOT specifically a good reason to raise a hand with some value on the flop.
  •   If he has a dead hand that will fold to a flop raise (22 for example), he’s very unlikely to draw out on the turn and thus will fold to aggression there.

Basically, floating that flop has all the benefits of raising (we make him fold his air and capitalize on dead money on the turn) and none of the drawbacks (we don’t ruin our implied odds, no risk of having to fold a hand with strong equity).

Some complications occur when the opponent is aggressive and is likely to bet the turn as a bluff. Suddenly, it’s no longer as easy to capitalize on dead money as when he was just check-folding all of his air. However, despite that drawback, an aggressive, 2-barreling opponent provides advantages for our call as well—we now have increased implied odds, as we win money from both his good hands and his bad hands as opposed to just his good hands. Also, if we are confident that the opponent is bluffing a very high percentage of the time, we can shove the turn over his bet and collect a lot of dead money. Obviously it’s a very high-risk/high-reward play, but it’s an appropriate response to a player who 2-barrels with a high frequency.****

In general, it’s not terribly difficult to decide which hands constitute premium, medium, and low value when playing in position. Premium hands are pretty much always easy to spot. Medium hands obviously vary in strength, but generally include anything you want to play but can’t stack off with on the flop. Low value hands simply don’t have enough value to call a flop bet with. This leads us towards another question—when do we raise the flop with a low value hand?

Hands in the low value category vary in strength, just like hands in the medium or premium value categories. Just as 87 is better than 66 on a T96 flop (but they’re both premium), AJ is better than 22 on a T96 flop. If we raise 22 and get called, we’re drawing to a 2 to make the best hand.****** If we raise AJ, on the other hand, we have two overcards and a few back-door straight draws. We’re far more likely to win by making the best hand than 22 is. So, if I decide to make a raise to bluff/collect dead money, I’m far more likely to choose AJ than 22. Similarly, it’s better to bluff raise a 985 board with KQ than it is with A4.

Let’s recap. An average good player raises in MP. We hold A♥5♥ on the button. Our hand definitely has value, so we can eliminate the low-value category. Our hand doesn’t have enough value to 3-bet for value, so we can eliminate the premium value category. We quickly check the blinds to make sure nobody squeezes super light—nope, the big blind is a loose passive player and the small blind plays extremely tight and straight-forward. So now we can comfortably call, content to play a heads up pot against the original PFR or to play a multiway pot on the button with the fish in the big blind.

We call, and the blinds both fold. The flop comes down 8♥6♥4♠. PFR bets. We can raise here, as we have enough equity to comfortably get all in. Our hand has premium value. Let’s change the flop slightly—8♥6♣4♠. PFR bets again. Now we can’t comfortably get all in, but we certainly don’t want to fold with a gutshot, overcard, and backdoor flush draw. This is a medium value hand, so we call. Let’s change the flop one more time—8♥6♣T♣. PFR bets—this is a good board to raise a low-value hand like our A♥5♥. If he has a hand like QQ, he may call our raise and hope for a safe turn. Unfortunately for him, any club, any 7, any 9, any A, or any heart all make it very difficult for him to play against us. Most of the time, though, he’ll just fold his KJ or 33 and we’ll collect the dead money.

Obviously, board texture has enormous effect on whether or not we can make aggressive moves on the flop. It’s interesting, though, that board texture works in conjunction with our opponent’s player type. I’ll explain.

  • Poor-to-average thinking player. This player is aggressive but is more comfortable playing fit-or- fold. He knows to c-bet many flops, but will quickly fold air anytime he is raised. Dry boards like K72r are great to raise against this player, because he’s just going to fold all of his air. Seeing how he’s c-betting 100% of his air there, and that he has air an extremely high percentage of the time, this is extremely profitable.
  •   Average-to-good thinking player. Against this player, raising the dry flop with air is not as good, simply because he knows that we can’t have a good hand very often either. There’s just not much to represent.

In short, against a good player, we need to balance our range on both wet and dry boards. On a dry board, since we can only value-raise occasionally, we can only bluff occasionally as well. On a wet board, since we can value-raise often (including strong draws), we can bluff often. Against a worse player, we don’t need to worry about balancing as much, and we can raise dry boards with an uneven nuts-to-air ratio. It’s also likely that a worse player will have a poor understanding of equity and won’t fold relatively weak hands on wet boards where good players would, so it’s worse to bluff on wet boards against bad players.

Hand categorization helps us make the most +EV play all the time. I’ll give you an example of a really common mistake that I see often. An aggressive regular raises on the cutoff, and we’re on the button with either 98s or A6o. With 98s it’s +EV to 3-bet, but it’s more +EV to call. With A6o, it’s +EV to 3-bet, -EV to call, and 0EV to fold. Often, I see players 3-bet the 98s because it is +EV and fold the A6o. To avoid excessive 3-betting, players don’t usually feel comfortable 3-betting both. So, instead of two +EV opportunities, we’re reduced to one, and it’s the least +EV opportunity we had in the first place!

This is how the top players in the world play so loosely—they maximize EV out of every possible hand, allowing them to 3-bet more junk and cold-call more medium value hands. The same example applies postflop. Consider 7♠6♠ or KJo on a Q♠3♠2♥ board. Players often raise the 76♠ and fold the KJo. Instead, they should be calling the 76♠ and raising the KJ.

One of the most common misunderstandings of hand categorization comes when a player raises AK on the button and is 3-bet from the blinds by a good regular. The inclination is to push our hand into the premium value category and raise. This is almost certainly the correct play if we think he’s capable of continuing with worse hands after a 4-bet (5-bet shoving AQ, for example, or spazzing out and shoving a random bluff). However, if he’s not, AK actually usually rests in the top of our medium value range. It becomes a great time to call. Then, on almost any A or K high flop, our hand becomes premium and we can raise for value. Or, on any low flop, our hand finds itself often in the medium value category and we can call. One of the reasons that AK still has medium value, even when it misses the flop, is the value of its equity. Not only would turning an A or K almost certainly be enough to win the pot, but against an aggressive opponent, a turned A or K almost always earns us another big bet. Whether our opponent holds a hand like AJ and is value-owning himself, or whether he holds a hand like QJ and is bluffing it off, turning an A or K is incredibly profitable. This keeps us high in the medium value category even when we completely miss the flop. In 3-bet pots, the only types of flops where AK isn’t in either the medium or high value categories are usually queen high. The queen often reduces our equity just enough to put us into the low value category.

Understanding how to evaluate the relative strength of your hand is the single most important

concept in poker. This chapter has broken down the method of hand categorization in a simple, easy to use way. So, when you’re playing, simply ask yourself, “What category is my hand in?” The answer will almost always be e
xtremely apparent. If it’s close, you get to make the tough choices—sometimes top-pair top-kicker will be premium. Other times, it will be medium. Sometimes, a gutshot will be medium, whereas if the board were slightly different (add a flush card, for example), it becomes low. Categorize your hand every hand, on every street, on every action, and you’ll find that poker really can be quite simple.

*Though, as we’ve just discussed in the last few chapters, if our opponent is likely to 4-bet bluff us it may be better to 3-bet to induce a 4-bet. Normally we would call the induced 4-bet (though in some circumstances we might be able to get value with another raise).
**An important caveat to this is explained in the chapter “Basic Street Projection”. Just because you have a premium value hand does NOT mean you need to raise for value—sometimes there is superior value by waiting until a later street to raise. Premium value only gives you the ability to value-raise immediately should you decide that value now is more +EV than waiting until later.

***It’s not necessarily bad to raise a low flush-draw on the flop. It’s only bad if you expect your opponent to play raise-or-fold (in which case we’d want to polarize). But, if our opponent is likely to play call-or-fold, we want to adopt a Strong Range which could include flush draws. This rarely happens on wet boards when 100bb deep, but sometimes when deeper your opponent will play more call-or-fold in that spot.
****We’ll discuss this more in the chapter titled “Raising Into Equity”.
*****It’s not necessarily correct to say that AJ is a better hand to bluff with than 22 on a T95 board.

Certainly, AJ has more outs to improve. However, the quality of outs matters. So, turning a set with 22 is stronger than turning an A with AJ (and significantly more so than turning a J). Additionally, your outs are more disguised with 22 than with AJ. If your opponent holds KT he might fold his hand if an Ace hits. However, he’d be unlikely to fold if you turned a set of deuces. So, it could be very reasonable to argue that the 22 is a better hand to bluff with than the AJ.


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