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The Beginners Guide Series: Dynamics of Hand Strength

Poker is a popular game for many reasons. It is simple to learn, can be played by people of all skill levels and can be played at any stakes. An important point to remember about poker is that it is not a game of chance. Despite having an element of luck, it is not defined by it like other games. The randomization of cards in poker keeps the game fresh and prevents players from relying solely on one strategy. This is precisely where poker’s strategic depth comes from. The best poker players can adapt to unpredictable situations that are constantly changing. This irregularity is often tricky to grasp, particularly for inexperienced players. Almost no scenario in poker is a sure thing; there is plenty of potential for a hand’s strength to change throughout a game. This beginners guide will cover the concept of “dynamic” hand strength and explain how the value of a starting hand can change over time.

Hand Terminology      

To start things off, we need to cover some common poker hand terminology that you may not know if you’re a new player. 

Several terms refer to your hole cards, which in Texas Hold’em are the two cards you are dealt at the start of the game. Pocket pairs are when both your hole cards have the same rank, such as AA or 66. The higher the better, but any pair brings guaranteed value, regardless of the flop.

Suited connectors are hole cards in consecutive order and of the same suit, like AKs or 45s. These hands do not bring guaranteed value like pocket pairs but have strong draw potential for flushes and straights. 

A “drawing hand” in poker refers to a hand that needs additional cards to complete. Drawing hands usually refer to those that only need one more card, while a hand that needs two more cards is referred to as a “backdoor draw”. The most common kind of draw is for a strong five-card hand like a straight or flush.

The Best Pre-Flop Starting Hands  

There are 169 potential combinations of the two hole cards which make up your starting hand in Texas Holdem. The best starting hands are high pocket pairs because of their guaranteed value, then suited connectors due to their draw potential. The top five starting hands pre-flop are AA, KK, QQ, JJ and AKs.

Pre-flop hand strength is not everything and there are two main reasons for this, which we will cover below. 

Hands Change with More Cards

Your hole cards do not make up the entirety of your hand. You must make use of community cards to make your final five-card hand, so the cards revealed on the flop, river, and turn are often more important than your starting hand. Drawing hands rely on the turn and river cards to improve, and hand strength can increase significantly because of an unforeseen hand combo. For example, let’s say you decided to play 36o. This is an incredibly weak hand, as the cards are not high-ranked, nor do they have much potential for five-card hands. The flop is then revealed as 2-4-9. Despite having a bad starting hand, the flop worked in your favor. Now you have a straight draw requiring a 5 to complete. If you were to draw a five on the turn, you would have made a straight, an incredibly powerful hand on this board. 

You must understand that pre-flop hand strength only describes how consistently valuable the hand will be. It is possible to get the right cards and win even with the worst pre-flop hand. However, this does not mean pre-flop starting hand strength is meaningless. Poker is a long-term game, so consistent value is precisely what you want; you shouldn’t let short-term luck affect your emotions and instead focus on the bigger picture.

Hand Strength is Relative

The second big reason your hand strength isn’t fixed is that hand strength is relative to your opponents. You could have a straight, but if someone else has a straight with a higher top card, they will win if it comes to a showdown. It is critical to remember that everyone shares the community cards, collectively known as “the board”. Boards are often categorized into “wet” or “dry,” depending on how conducive they are to strong hands. Wet boards have suited and connected cards, while dry boards have cards with big gaps in rank and multiple suits. With a wet board, while have the chance to make a powerful straight or flush, you have to be wary of someone having that same hand with a higher rank.

Wet boards are particularly dangerous to starting hands like pocket pairs. Let’s say you have AA, the best starting hand in poker with a guaranteed top pair, but flop a wet board of 5-6-7 of hearts, you would have to consider the situation carefully. While you have top pair, the board does nothing for you, and it provides your opponents plenty of opportunities to make a straight or flush which will beat your hand. Conversely, dry boards are best for strong pre-flop hands since there is little chance hand strength will change on the turn or river.

Also consider the number of players involved. Pots with more than one other player, known as multiway pots, tend to be more volatile. The more people there are involved in a pot, the more likely someone has a better hand than you, or has the potential to outdraw you.

Dynamic Hand Strength in Poker Variants

Depending on their rules, some game variants can alter hand strength dynamics. 

In 6+ Short Deck, all twos, threes, fours and fives are removed from  the deck. That makes every hand much closer in relative value, meaning hands like top pair lose a lot of value. The smaller deck also means straights and full houses are more common, which is why many places use alternative hand rankings; three-of-a-kind will beat a straight and a flush prevails over a full house.

Omaha also has tighter hand strengths for other reasons. You are dealt four hole cards and must use exactly two of them, giving you more opportunities to make strong hands. If you are on a dry board in Hold’em and holding a solid hand like pocket aces, you are in an excellent position. Dry boards are much more rare in Omaha, as the turn and river have good potential to complete monster hands. In general, when hands are closer to each other in strength, you will need to think more about your decisions as someone else can often be holding a similarly powerful hand.