Relative Hand Strength

Jack Wilcox (Hoodlincs) Profile Photo

By Jack Wilcox

6 Nov, 2011

We all know the different types of poker hands, and we know which hands are stronger than others in terms of absolute strength. For example, a flush beats a straight, and so on.

But what is a good hand?

Is a pair a good hand? Is a straight a good hand? The answer is it depends. It depends on the board texture and our opponent's actions. This is relative strength.

What is relative hand strength?

Example 1.

We are heads up with against loose player who likes to get all in with any draw and any pair. You could call them an "aggressive fish".

Hero: Ah Ac

Flop: 8s 5s 3d

If we bet and get raised, our pair of aces has good equity against their range of hands. Our hand is relatively strong given what we know about our opponent.

Example 2.

We're in a five-way pot.

Hero: 3h 3s

Flop: 8s 5s 3d

We bet again, but this time it gets raised by a tight-passive player who only raises the nuts. You could call them a "nit".

In this situation we have to throw our bottom set away. Our hand is relatively weak against this player.

Why is relative hand strength important?

So you can find more opportunities to value bet.

A prime example is when you're playing against a loose calling station and you have weak top/middle pair. These are relatively strong hands against these players, so betting where you'd normally check will win you extra money.

Or in other words, ignoring relative hand strength will cost you money.

You can gauge your relative hand strength more accurately by recognizing the importance of position and by taking notes on your opponents.

How can you make use of relative hand strength?

Practical Application 1.

We are on the button and our opponent is in the big blind. They are a tight aggressive player.

Preflop: Dealt to Hero 10s 10c
Hero raises, BB calls.

Flop: 7s 5h 2h
BB checks, Hero bets, BB calls.

Our opponent check-calls us on the flop.

We know they would check-raise a set because of how draw-heavy the board is. They wouldn't want to give us a free card. We also know they would re-raise JJ-AA preflop as well.

So we can logically deduce that we always have the best hand when they check-call.

The most likely hands they would check-call with are flush draws and one-pair hands (that aren't JJ+). So 99/88/78/67/A7s.

Turn: 4h
BB checks, Hero bets, BB raises

We know they wouldn't check-raise with one pair; they would either check-call or check-fold. Therefore, the only hand that makes sense is a flopped flush draw which has now made a flush.

We can safely fold.

We are ahead of their range on the turn, so our bet was correct. They can call with many worse hands such as 8h8x or 9h9x, as well as 67/56.

Practical Application 2.

We are on the button and our opponent is in the big blind. They are a loose player who loves to bluff-catch with any pair.

Preflop: Dealt to Hero Jc Qc
Hero raises, BB calls.

Flop: Jh 7h 5s
BB checks, Hero bets, BB calls.

Turn: 4s
BB checks, Hero bets, BB calls.

River: Kc
BB checks

We should bet here.

There is a small chance they have KJ or AJ, but the vast majority of their range is made up of hands like JT/J9/78/66/99.

Additionally, we know they like to bluff-catch, and every possible draw has missed. They will know that we have 89/T9/A6o or any flush draw. We have so many hands in our range which could have missed, so we need to give them the chance to call with their bluff catchers.

Final thoughts.

The two most practical ways to significantly increase your winrate at the micro stakes are:

  1. Getting away from hands when you're beat.
  2. Value betting thinly.

At the micro stakes you will frequently find the following types of players:

  • Passive players who only raise when they have the nuts (or close to it).
  • Players who like to call down and see your hand whenever draws miss.

The way you beat these players is by value betting until you are told that you are beat, and then letting your hand go. It's as simple as that.


Related articles/videos.