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Relative Hand Strength: Ignoring the Signs That Your Aces Are No Good

Relative Hand Strength: Ignoring the Signs That Your Aces Are No Good


  • Preflop, pocket aces are the strongest hand in hold'em. But by the river, they may not be relative to other hands.

  • Pocket aces are pretty, but don't get married to them. Highlighting a lesson about relative hand strength.

One of the most beautiful things about poker is the freedom it provides, but the freedom I’m talking about might not be the freedom that has initially popped into your mind. While it’s nice to pick and choose when and where you want to work, to take vacations whenever you’d like, and not to have to obey deadlines from a hollering manager, the freedom I’m referring to lies within the actual play itself.

Let me preface what I’m about to say by saying that, yes, there are certain plays in poker that are “correct.” But overall there is so much flexibility and maneuverability within poker that allows players to get as creative as they’d like at the table. Sometimes players get a little too creative — and I’ve been victim of that myself, with what is often called fancy play syndrome (FPS) — but as Vanessa Selbst put it recently, “If you never do anything foolish, you can never be a hero.”

I probably do things that are foolish more often than not in poker, but that doesn’t deter me from playing and continuing to work to get better. As someone who plays as a non-professional, I don’t get to dive into games as often as I would like to get copious amounts of practice, but I do take advantage of the learning time I do get.

Recently, while tagging along with the PokerStars Pro Tour, I played in two of the tournaments. In the second event, I misplayed a hand that really stood out to me. Now that I think back on the action, it was a hand in which I made a mistake, one having to do with understanding relative hand strength. Relative hand strength is the value of your hand versus your opponent’s potential range of hands.

The hand happened at the 150/300/25 level. I had a stack of about 45,000 in chips and was dealt {A-Spades}{A-Clubs} in the hijack seat. Play folded to a solid player in middle position and he raised to 700. He hadn’t been getting too out of line, I thought. I hadn’t seen him showdown a bluff, and he had my stack covered.

After action folded to me, I opted to flat-call as there had been a fair amount of three-bet jamming for large amounts from the group of players left to act behind me. The opener was also folding liberally to a lot of three-bets, including one of mine from before. After I called, the players on the button, in the small blind, and in the big blind all called as well.

The flop was {7-}{5-}{3-} rainbow, and action checked to me. I bet 2,100, confident that I had the best hand. The player on the button — a very loose, passive player — called, the two players in the blinds folded, and then the original raiser called.

The turn was a {J-} and kept the board rainbow. The first player checked, and I bet 7,000. Both the player on the button and the first player called, putting just over 31,000 in the pot.

The river was a {6-}, and I wasn’t too happy with that card, mainly thinking hands like {7-}{6-} and {6-}{5-} now improved to two pair to beat my aces. The first player opted to lead with a bet, but he wagered just a small 6,000 — about one-fifth of the pot. I opted to call, but it was a call that I made due to his bet size being so small and me getting lost in the notion of “Well, it’s only 6,000, so I’ll call.” I kind of knew that it was a bad call to make, but I opted to suppress that voice in my head and make the call anyway. Upon thinking about the hand further, I don’t like my call at all and was likely victim to getting married to my pair of aces.

“I have aces, I should just call because it’s so small and I started with the best possible hand. If he sucked out, he sucked out,” I can remember thinking to myself just as I called.

The player behind me folded, and the first player turned over {9-Spades}{8-Spades}. As he removed the chip from his cards to turn them over, I felt as though I was going to see {7-}{6-} or {6-}{5-} like I had mentioned earlier, or also possibly {9-}{8-}, which is what he actually had. It felt he’d be much more likely to play the hand the way he did with his holding as opposed to pocket fours, where I think he would bet the flop after raising preflop.

Going back to the definition of relative hand strength, while my opponent’s bet is very small on the river, I just don’t feel like there’s much point in him bluffing with weaker hands than mine. His range here smells of strength much more so than it ever does of weakness, and I should know better than to be a calling station with aces.

Looking back on the hand, I’m facing a river bet of one-fifth pot with just a single pair on a board of {7-}{5-}{3-}{J-}{6-}. Going back to my limit hold’em days and the art of conserving bets even when small in relation to the pot, I think this is a clear fold. Before you go ranting and raving about how I’m being results oriented with my thinking, let’s remember that I only have a one-pair hand and that I classified this player as a solid opponent.

When the hand was done, I didn’t care so much that I lost the pot, but rather that I opted to call the river and stick with my aces. It was one of those times when all signs point to your hand not being good, but you decide to make the call anyway. I forgot the rule that while my aces were the best starting hand in poker, on the river the strength of my hand is only relative to my opponent’s hand. In this case, I was clearly second best.

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Relative Hand Strength: Ignoring the Signs That Your Aces Are No Good 101

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