Hands You Want To Play… But Shouldn’t by Phil Gordon

Even the best poker players in the world make mistakes, and when these mistakes are not corrected, they can develop into "leaks" that can easily sink your game. There are two leaks in particular that I see all the time with regard to Hold ’em starting hands that people play but would be better off folding.

The first of these two leaks involves playing easily dominated hands. Domination in Texas Hold ’em is death, so you must make an effort to fold potentially dominated hands pre-flop if another player has voluntarily entered the pot.

This concept spins off of David Sklansky’s "Gap Principle", which essentially says that the range of hands you’re willing to raise with should be wider than the range of hands you’re willing to call with.

For instance, if everyone folds to me and I have K-Q off-suit on the button, I’m going to raise. It’s likely the best hand, and I give myself a chance to steal the blinds. However, if a middle position player raises before the flop, I’m going to throw that K-Q away quickly. That K-Q is very easily dominated by the hands my opponent is likely to raise with in middle position, such as A-K, pocket Kings, pocket Aces, pocket Queens, and A-Q. These are hands that K-Q will have a very difficult time beating, and if we both flop a pair, I could be in severe trouble and lose my entire stack.

To further illustrate this point, here’s a mathematical look at why a theoretically powerful hand, if dominated, is worse than playing random rags. Say my opponent raises in first position with A-K and it folds around to me on the button with 7-2 off-suit, the worst hand in poker. If I call there, I’m about a 65-35 underdog.

Now let’s say I have A-Q on the button facing that same raise from A-K. Now my hand is about a 75-25 underdog, which is significantly worse than if I had 7-2.

It’s not easy to fold A-Q to a single raise pre-flop, but if the raise is coming from early position and you have reason to believe your opponent has a premium hand, A-Q could easily be dominated. More to the point, that next tier of starting hands—K-Q, Q-J, Q-10, K-10, K-J—those are hands you should just throw away if your opponent opens the pot for a raise.

The other leak involving starting hands that I see frequently is overvaluing suited hands. I see players with A-5 suited or 8-7 suited and they play the hands because they think they might flop a flush. In reality, when you’re suited you will only flop a flush about one out of 121 times. That’s about 0.84 percent of the time. It does not happen very often. And even when it does happen, you’re not likely to win a big pot.

If you take a hand like A-5 suited and compare it to A-5 off-suit, in reality, against the range of hands your opponent might be playing, it only adds about two to three percent to your expectation of making the best hand.

So don’t be fooled by being suited. Just because the hand is suited does not mean that it is playable. The ranks of the cards are much more important than whether or not your hand is suited.

When making your pre-flop decisions, if you can resist the urge to play hands that are likely dominated and resist the urge to play mediocre suited cards, I think you’ll find yourself playing a more profitable brand of poker in the long run.

Phil Gordon