Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2008) in Poker Player newspaper.
Further enhanced in 2014.
When you enter a pot, you should always ask yourself, “Do I want to play this hand against a lot of opponents or just a few?” The answer isn’t always as obvious as you might think.
Today, we continue our series in which I get to both ask and answer the questions. Remember, except where federal, state, or local regulations prevail, you have the right to suggest questions by e-mail.
And I have the right to modify your questions to the extent that they may be completely unrecognizable. Now that we both understand the rules, let’s play…
Question #19: What is the theory behind wanting more or fewer opponents?
Your hands will generally make more money when played against many opponents under two conditions:
- Your hand is very powerful;
- Your hand is speculative.
Remember that simple truth and you’ll almost never be confused. When I say “very powerful,” I mean just that.
Moderately strong hands usually make more money against a reduced field of opponents. In hold ’em, it’s usually wrong to invite players into the pot by just calling with any pair from queens down to eights (or thereabout). Smaller pairs can often be played more profitably against larger fields of opponents (if played at all), because they are primarily speculative. That means you’re probably going to need to improve that low-ranking pair in order to win. This is especially true for deuces up to fives.
While a pair of queens has a significant profit expectation against each opponent individually, the hand usually makes most money when played against just one or two opponents. A starting pair of aces, on the other hand, makes more money — on average — against many opponents.
In seven-card stud, rolled up trips or a pair of aces usually makes more money against many opponents, but smaller pairs, particularly those lacking a large kicker, usually should be played against fewer opponents, if possible.
Speculative hands are those that have no significant immediate strength, but have hope of converting to make straights, flushes, or even high pairs. Except for purposes of occasional deception or trying to steal the blinds without a fight, there’s little reason to raise prematurely with such hands.
The secret is to just call and wait to see what develops. An example of a speculative starting hand is 10♦ 9♦ in hold ’em and K♥ 10♥ 9♥ in seven-card stud.
Some hands can have dual strength, both speculative and initially strong, such as A♠ Q♠ in hold ’em and A♣ K♣ 8♣ in seven-card stud. Those dual-category hands should usually be played more aggressively, but you can make your decision in accordance with other factors that I’ll explain in future columns.
The trick is to first decide whether your hand is primarily strong, primarily speculative, or in-between for the situation. Always make a judgment before entering the pot.
With very strong starting hands, you can always safely call in early positions and be confident that you’re not straying far from a best-profit decision. But you should often raise anyway (as I’ve discussed previously).
And with speculative hands, you can also safely just call — and that’s what you usually should do. With everything else — moderately strong hands or moderately speculative hands — making the initial raise is usually the right choice, except in the blind positions, if you play them at all.
Question 20: Are there limits to whether many or few opponents are ideal?
Yes. In the early 1980s I did a seminar at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, showing that there was a “right” number of opponents for hands. As far as I know, this concept hadn’t been dealt with previously.
Too few opponents and you averaged less profit. Too many opponents and you also averaged less profit. As an example, four (and sometimes five) opponents turns out to be most profitable when you begin with a pair of aces in a limit hold ’em game.
The concept here is quite obvious if you think about extremes. Having an advantage against each opponent individually doesn’t always mean you have an advantage against all opponents collectively.
Mathematically, the size of the pot relative to your wagers won’t keep pace with the increased chances that someone will get lucky as you add more and more opponents. The ultimate example would be if you’re playing draw poker, no drawing allowed to improve a hand, and were dealt a king-high straight flush: K♣ Q♣ J♣ 10♣ 9♣.
The chance that someone will hold or make a royal flush to beat you is very slim. You’ll make the most money if everyone at the table plays against you.
But wait! What if you’re playing with an infinitely large deck. Under our rules, we’ll say you can’t use two duplicate cards in your hand, such as 7♣ 7♣. Duplicates must be immediately exchanged, so there’s no such thing as five of a kind. The only hand that can beat you is a royal.
Fine. Against one opponent, you’re almost certainly going to win one bet. Against seven opponents, you’re expecting to win seven bets.
Better and better
With more opponents, it gets better and better… until it gets worse!
There are only four chances in 2,598,960 that an opponent will hold a royal — 649,739-to-1 against. If you played against 650,000 opponents, you’d still only lose about 70 percent of the time (I’ll explain the complex math to you some other day).
That’s extremely profitable, so you’d rather play against all those foes than just a few. But what about 6 billion foes? Then, although you’d get a 6 billion-to-1 return on your money, you wouldn’t have one chance in 6 billion of winning.
On average, you wouldn’t just be beat by one player, you’d be beat by over 9,000 of them! And the chances that no one holds a winning royal are so remote that you couldn’t even fathom the odds.
Clearly, there’s a point where there are too many opponents for a hand, even the second-best one in the universe. Once you understand that, you can see how — in real world poker games — two big pair sometimes might be more profitable against two opponents than one, but less profitable against five or six.
But understanding this theory doesn’t help much in actual play. There’s no way to dictate the exact number of opponents you’d like to face at a given moment, even if you could easily calculate it. So, we’re pretty much left with either wanting more or fewer opponents with a given hand in a given situation.
So, here’s some final advice. When it’s close and you can’t decide if you want more or fewer opponents: Raise if strong players remain to act; and call if weak players remain to act. This tilts that borderline decision in your favor.
How? By raising before strong players act, you tend to chase them away and often play against weaker foes already in the pot. And, also, by just calling in the reverse situation, you often end up playing medium-strong hands against weaker opponents, because you wisely invited them in.
We’ll continue this question-and-answer series next time. — MC