Starting Hands for Stealing

Some notes about starting hands. When you are short stacked remember that big cards are kind. Many people make the mistake of overvaluing a 6-5 suited or something similar when the stacks are around 20BB. In these cases big cards really serve you better because it’s close to impossible to do something wrong short stacked with top pair, so hands that make top pair are more valued.

Another consideration that is more relevant currently is big-card hands. From earlier positions broadway combinations and weaker aces, hands such as K-Jo and A-10o, are less valuable. Back in the day an early position raise was more respected. If anyone played with you it would typically be the big blind. They’d often flat, and heads-up your big cards had a good draw to a pair – a great hand heads-up.

Nowadays 3-betting and flatting is more prevalent versus early position raisers. The early position raise is less respected. Often you will be flatted by a player in position, and then the big blind player will call correctly given the great odds he is getting. In a threeway pot big-card combinations are less valuable. They only draw to one pair, and not a terrific pair at that. Worse, one pair is usually not the winning hand in a multiway pot when action gets down to the turn or river – the most expensive betting rounds. The hand either wins a small pot or loses a big one.

In general, tight is right. From positions other than the button the weaker aces should not be played. The suited gappers as well are ineffective in earlier positions, although they were formerly a good stealing hand. They no longer work as well against the more aggressive players. In multiway pots out of position they are hard to get value from, and often make inferior draws. They work more efficiently as semi-bluffing hands preflop, when a player is able to get heads-up and in position versus a weaker opener.

When Pots go Multiway

When people are calling you frequently, when many pots are played multiway, it is best to play “two pair or better” poker. This term is not common. I came up with it for myself when I started playing wild cash games in Europe in 2007. Overwhelmed by the number of nut jobs in my game I struggled to find a way to make a profit with my traditional starting hands. One day, I decided only to play if I made two pair or better. Despite the nitty way I was playing I started making money hand over fist.

The traditional MTT games are closer to these dens of psychopaths then they used to be. As previously noted, the big cards are less valuable. In multiway pots they are bound to cost you some coin. However, suited connectors go up in value, because they are most likely to give you two-pair combinations, which are in another ball park from the big-card playing other players. They also give you the most straight and flush combinations. It even helps you if you just flop a draw. The additional equity assists you in making more profitable semi-bluffs.

For this reason, when playing frequent flatters it’s a better idea to open with 9-7s from an earlier position as opposed to an A-Jo. I probably would fold both of them if I were playing an MTT on a traditional website, but if I was forced to play one I would go with the 9-7 suited. The problem with the A-Jo is you’re just not going to be heads-up that often. In the old days the button would call you and the big blind, afraid to play out of position, would just let his hand go. This got you heads-up with a hand that made a number of pairs; pairs are great hands heads-up.

These days it’s far more likely that the button or another late position player will call you. The button, correctly surmising that he is getting 5-to-1 and doesn’t need much of a hand, calls. You are now in a multiway pot with a hand not appropriate for it.

You cannot bluff the flop. In many of my simulations I’ve found both players miss the board about 33% of the time. If you fire half of the pot your bet will need to succeed 33% of the time. You’re not generating a profit. If you’re lucky both opponents have missed 40% of the time, but the more educated players of today are more likely to float you, so the possible profit is more negligible. When you fire into a multiway pot you’re not relying on the initial bet to win. You are accounting for the additional drawing equity, which is added to your hand to give you an edge.

Big-card combinations such as A-J, A-10, and K-Q offsuit are unlikely to have any drawing equity. In fact, the aces are blocking the better A-x combinations that you want to fold out on low card boards. This does not help you. Worse, you are out of position when you do hit your hand. In heads-up pots one pair is likely to be the best hand by the river. In multiway pots it is more often a hand that is better than two pair. One-pair draws, such as A-J, are going to be the most expensive hands you play multiway.

And when you hit? The equity is meager. When you hit the board it’s unlikely they have much worse. If they do, it’s not going to stand up versus multiple barrels. However, when they have you dominated, you can bet you’re going to be paying through three streets, especially given the additional control they possess having position on you. For these reasons I pass the big cards from the earlier position, whereas earlier in my career I would open them.

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