Brunson: The truth about small cards

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in the London Telegraph in 2005.

Doyle Brunson index.

Historical note: The following explanatory note didn’t appear in the series, but was sent with each column as submitted.

Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson stands unchallenged as the most celebrated poker player who ever lived. In 2005, at age 72, he won an unprecedented 10th championship gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He is among the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and his books  are the bibles for poker professionals.. Through and, Brunson has teamed with Mike Caro, today’s premiere poker educator, to offer a free learning experience to players worldwide. This column is founded on  those collaborative teachings.

Doyle Brunson

Hold ’em can be defined as a game of big cards. By that I mean high-ranking cards. And I mean aces, kings and queens. In blackjack aces can count as 11 points, and all facecards count as 10 points, as do tens themselves. An easy way to determine if your unpaired hand is likely to be profitable is to score your cards the same way you would in blackjack.

Any two-card starting hand that has 20 or 21 points has the potential to be playable. That doesn’t mean it always will be, just that it’s a candidate to be. The hands, then, that are eligible under this very simple formula are ace with any card ranking higher than an eight (which includes aces, of course), king-king, queen-queen, jack-jack, 10-10, king-queen, king-jack, king-10, queen-jack, queen-10, and jack-10. Of course, the best starting hand, ace-ace, isn’t a 21 or 20 point hand. So, let’s just call it the big exception.. And, obviously, if the cards are of the same suit, you should give even more consideration to playing them.

Many times I’ve had a beginning player ask me how to play against experienced opponents and I’ve said, “Well, you know the best thing is probably not to play. But if you’re going to play, anyway, here’s an easy formula.” And I’d spell out the one I’ve just given you.

Common sense

For sure, you’re not going to call down a double raise with Q-10, so the rule has to be applied with common sense. What I’m trying to teach you is that, unless you’re a skillful player, there’s trouble and treachery along the trail in hold ’em, and I’m advising you not to stampede your cattle over the cliff. By only considering a pair of aces, 20 and 21 point hands, plus occasionally some lower pairs and so-called “suited connectors,” such as 8-7 of hearts or 6-5 of clubs along the way, you won’t be facing the disaster. At least, you won’t be facing the type of disaster that befalls average and beginning players when they suddenly find themselves committing a lot of money with K-8, A-7, and other such difficult-to-play hands.

So, I’ve just shown you that that standard definition is correct: Hold ’em is a game of high cards. And if you haven’t played along the dusty trails, going from poker game to poker game, honing your game for years and years, as I have, then I suggest you stick closely to the formula.

But now I’m going to tell you something that’s almost the complete reverse and will work for you against opponents who are playing too “sensibly.” The secret is small cards.

Populated by sharks

When I first came to Las Vegas in the seventies, the games were often populated by sharks waiting for only big hands. It was no-limit, so I realized that when there were several opponents in the pot, often they’d be holding each other’s ranks, diminishing their chances of helping. I was the only one who ventured out there with low cards on a regular basis. When you play low cards, you don’t connect often for three-of-a-kind, two pair, or a straight or flush, but when you do connect against their high cards, you’re likely to hammer their heads until they’re dizzy. They just can’t fathom that you played those small cards and got lucky.

Of course, you’re only going to do this when you can call cheaply and then pursue these hands at little or no cost. If you do that, you can afford to just give up most of the time after seeing the flop, while occasionally building big pots with hands your opponents never suspect you of holding.

So, yes, the secret can be to play big cards. But, if opponents are too conservative and only play those big cards themselves, then small cards can be the key to success, too. Always try to gauge your opponents to determine whether they’ll make it worthwhile for you to go against the grain and sometimes play small ranks. If you see a lot of studious, somber opponents guarding their money, this might just be the time to surprise them.  — DB

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  1. This is great advice, and a tactic I often use – sometimes to great effect. I’ve lost count how many times my 7 8 suited has flopped two pair or an open-ended straight that my opponents have allowed me to chase free of charge. When their King or Ace hits on the river they think they’ve got me, then I take all they want to give me.

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