Cardsharp Mailbag: When Good Hands Go Bad

No Limit Texas Holdem, Reader Questions

May 1, 2008

It’s always good to get mail, and here’s an excellent question:

Hi Wayne,

[in the context of NL holdem] I am winning with pocket pairs without exception and I win with Axs at a nice clip but suited connectors are losers. Unless the suited connector is in the T/J range or above they are consistent losers and I think that they should not be played. In fact a recent article in Card Player suggested just that. What is your opinion?

My first thought is that you should not be overly concerned about taking wagers you expect to make money on and passing on those that you expect to lose money on. That’s perhaps the most fundamental concept of winning gambling. So if you’re winning, there’s no real reason not to keep doing what you’re doing. That said, it’s also true that a lot of other players win a lot of money by playing suited connectors lower than JTs. So it’s clear you’re doing something different from them when you play those hands. I have no way of knowing what that is, but I can take some guesses:

  1. You might be playing the wrong ones – suited connectors and one-gappers fall into 3 categories:
    • The big ones – JTs and QTs on up
    • The medium ones – everything from there down to 54s and 53s
    • The small ones – everything down from there

    The big suited connectors have the nice advantage that when they make a straight using both cards, it’s always the nut straight. They’re the most profitable, but they’re also not what you’re question is about. The medium connectors and one gappers don’t always make the nut straight when they make one, but they do make the full compliment of straights and straight draws- so you’ll at least have something to play with as often as possible. The small ones make a reduced number of straights and straight draws. Generally speaking, the big suited connectors are playable in most games, the medium ones are playable in most standard games where the stacks are 75BB or larger, and the small ones are only playable in deepstack games.

  2. You might be paying too much to get into the hand. Suited connectors need a lot of money behind to make them profitable. If you pay more than 5% of your stack to get in, you might be paying too much. If you pay more than 10%, you’re definitely paying too much.
  3. You might be playing out of position. Whether you flop a flush/straight draw or not, suited connector hands benefit hugely from being in position. It helps you bluff profitably when you miss, helps you get free cards when you’re on the draw, and helps you get a lot of money in when you hit. Speculative hands like suited connectors should never intentionally be played out of position in my opinion. They should be used behind limpers, or to attack the blinds. This is a place where Harrington and I disagree. He likes to use suited connectors up front to balance his play sometimes. I prefer to use small pocket pairs for that purpose.
  4. You might not be continuation betting effectively. If you enter the pot in position, and your opponent misses, you should usually be able to pick up the pot on a bluff. This means, since your opponents miss most of their hands, that you should pick up a large number of pots in two and three way hands. If your continuation bets aren’t working often enough, or you aren’t making enough of them, this may be the cause of your problem.
  5. You might not not be narrowing the field effectively preflop. Because continuation bets are so effective on the flop, it’s often advantageous to narrow the field preflop by raising even though your hand strength doesn’t really justify it. This is called a “position raise” and it’s very effective. In medium to deepstack games you can usually raise your suited connectors and still not be paying too much to play them. This also disguises your hand so that you can plausibly represent AK or whatever postflop. Position raises, of course, require position. Raising suited connectors out of position is just silly.
  6. You might not be wisely choosing when to semi-bluff and when to take a free card. If your semi-bluffs are getting called too often, or you regularly find yourself taking a free card on the flop and then getting bet out of the pot on the turn when you miss, you may need to look at this aspect of your game.
  7. You may be making second best hands. If you draw at the ass end of a straight, or at a low flush when it looks like someone else is drawing, or at any straight or flush on a paired board, you’re taking a big risk of making a second best hand. A lot of judgment is required to pick which draws to continue with and which to muck. You’ll know you have this problem if you keep losing with straights and flushes at showdown.
  8. You may be putting too much money in the pot on weird holdings. Smaller suited connectors have a habit of making very strange hands on the flop like bottom pair plus a gutshot draw to a 1-card straight. These oddball holdings usually aren’t worth much, but it’s tempting (and usually costly) to continue with them.
  9. You might not be getting enough money when you hit your hand. This can happen because you don’t semi-bluff enough (thereby announcing your draw) or because you make poor choices about when to slowplay and when to push your big hand. There’s little point in trying to hit a straight or flush if you don’t do a good job of getting paid off once you hit.

If one or more of these sounds like you, it might be worth adjusting your play and giving the medium suited connectors another try. I can’t comment on the Card Player article because I haven’t seen it, but I do know that lots of winning NL players make lots of money playing the suited connectors. If you play them correctly, you should be able to duplicate their success.

Secondly, Harrington suggests playing weaker hands more often than I might. He suggests sitting around waiting for the nuts will get you no action when the nuts finally comes. That makes sense of course so maybe playing the middle suited connectors and other what I consider trash like the occasional unsuited connector and such actually gives you +EV. It sounds to me like he is saying quit playing that rock 15% shit and start playing 25 or 30% of your hands to make it look like you are giving action. What do you think?



First off, I don’t think it’s accurate to classify Dan as a wild and crazy gambling man in terms of the advice he gives for NL play. He’s always been considered a temperate player, and I don’t think his advice here is any different. Consider this: there are 1326 distinct starting hands you can be dealt in holdem. Of those, pairs constitute 78. AK constitutes 16. Other suited aces constitute 44 more. Other suited Broadway gives an additional 24. In total, that’s 162 hands or only 12% of all hands dealt. When you figure that some of those hands are unplayable in certain circumstances (KQs isn’t much behind a raise and a re-raise, for example) you can expect to play less than 10% of hands outside the blinds if you stick to those starting requirements. That’s simply too tight. For most games it’s correct to play roughly15% of your hands outside the big blind, and that means you need a pool of more like 20% of the hands that you might potentially play, but then you turn down a lot of situations that are bad due to position or unfavorable action in front of you. Adding in the middle suited connectors and one-gappers adds another 48 potential hands, for only 16% of the hands total. To even get to a 20% pool of hands you might play, you’re going to end up adding a lot of unsuited connected hands and weak aces and kings as steals from the button and cutoff.

The point here is that even tight play includes these hands. Someone who’s playing 25-30% of their hands is playing some stuff that ia a LOT worse than what we’re talking about. I think what Harrington is advocating is reasonable.

This article is part of Project Cash Game No Limit Holdem - You can find more great strategy articles there.
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