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Relative Hand Strength

When you decide to put in your chips for a value bet, you do so because you think that you’re a favorite to win. As the name implies, you’re trying to cash in on a hand that is stronger than your opponent’s.

To take this line in the first place, though, we need to figure out what hands are worth betting and how much we should bet. Some may want a general formula like “always bet ½ pot with top pair, top kicker, and always bet 2/3 pot with a set.” And yet, unfortunately, this isn’t quite how it works.

Like most things in poker, our decisions heavily depend on context and a constant analysis of the information that we receive. We can’t establish these formulas because they won’t always work.

While there are other factors that you need to consider when betting, like player profiling, today we are going to discuss the way that the board and runouts influence the overall value of our holdings.

This is known as relative hand strength.

Which Two Pair is Better?

Let’s start with an example. You have two pair. Some of you may be ready to jam in all your chips, but let’s take a moment to look at just how our two pair is made.

In scenario one, we have a pocket pair, say a low pair like 3’s, and the flop brings a high pair that doesn’t hit our hand, something like KKx.

In scenario two, we have a broadway hand like KQ, and the flop comes KQx.

Now, in both cases we have kings up, but these two pair are far from equal. In scenario one our hand didn’t improve beyond our pocket pair, as our opponent also gets access to the kings. Furthermore, depending on the pre-flop action, our opponent might have a lot of king combos in their range, which means that their range hits this flop harder than ours.

This means that we should proceed with caution, and our two pair may not even be worth a value bet. Sure, against a calling station who would have come into the pot with garbage that loses to our low pair, we might still be good, but the key takeaway is that our pocket pair, not our two pair, is the thing we’re betting here.

On the other hand, in the second scenario, we smashed the flop and drastically improved our hand. There are far less hands that beat us than in the first scenario, which translates to an increase in our relative hand strength. We basically only lose to KK and QQ, both of which we block anyways, and our opponent is liable to call our value bet with all sorts of Kx, Qx, and drawing hands.

A Rule of Thumb

In summary, when assessing the strength of your holding, consider the relative strength of your hand and not the absolute strength. Not all two pairs are equal, and the same goes for sets, straights, flushes, and the like.

When in doubt, you can also remember this handy rule of thumb: in general, it’s better when your hole cards play a bigger role in the composition of your hand.

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