Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (1988) in Poker Player Newspaper.
Rediscovered, enhanced, and added to Poker1 in 2014.
Let’s talk about hold ’em. Here’s a silly hold ’em myth you’ve probably heard. When you start with suited cards, you’re only slightly better off than with unsuited cards. This advice is generally intended to teach beginning players not to fall in love with suited starting hands.
Some players believe that if the ranks aren’t strong enough to win unsuited you should be very reluctant to play those same ranks even if they are suited. One popular (and generally worthwhile) hold ’em book says that suited cards are only worth 3% more than unsuited cards. I think this is based on the miscalculation that only 3% of all suited starting hands convert to flushes after seven cards.
First of all, if you stay through seven cards you’ll make about 6% flushes, not 3%. In fact 5. 8% of all boards will include exactly three of your suit, which is what you want if you have low ranks. How come you want exactly three? Because four or more of your rank on board makes you more likely to be beat by a bigger flush.
The mistake in logic is to calculate how many flushes you’ll end up making. The percent of flushes you finish with isn’t really important. The important question is: What portion of the hands you’ll win will be flushes?
The degree of improvement with suited cards relative to unsuited cards is governed by three forces:
(1) The ranks of the cards. The lower they are, the greater the relative value of suited cards over unsuited cards. Think about it. Compare two hands such as A-K suited and 7-2 suited, and you’ll realize that flushes (including royal flushes) will account for the same proportion of hands A-K finishes with as hands 7-2 finishes with.
So, what’s the difference? Its this: Flushes account for a much greater proportion of hands 7-2 actually wins with. A-K will win a lot of hands with a pair of aces or kings. Will 7-2 win many times with sevens or deuces? Of course not! Flush possibilities are more important to 7-2 than they are to A-K.
(2) The number of opponents. The larger the number of opponents, the greater the relative value of suited cards over unsuited cards. That’s simply because powerful hands such as flushes are often required to beat a large field of opponents. One-pair and two-pair hands are frequently enough to win against few opponents.
Once again, it’s the proportion of flushes among hands you actually win that matters. The larger the number of opponents, the bigger the proportion of flushes among hands you win.
(3) The closeness of the two ranks. The farther the ranks are apart, the greater the relative value of suited cards over unsuited cards. Why? Because closely ranked cards afford opportunities for straights. Hands that don’t offer such opportunities will have flushes account for a much larger percent of the actual wins.
Keep those three points in mind when someone tells you there isn’t much difference between suited and unsuited hands in hold ’em. True, the bigger the cards, the less the difference. Still, the advantage of suited cards is substantial with any ranks. Also, remember that with suited cards you should be happier to play against lots of opponents. And if your unpaired hold ’em starting cards don’t show any straight potential, it’s almost essential that they be suited even to consider playing.
Suited cards tend to win big confrontations. Lower suited cards aren’t quite as unprofitable as they seem to professionals (or nearly as profitable as they seem to beginners). With low suited ranks you’ll simply surrender whenever the flop is unfavorable.
Want some odds? If you hold suited cards to begin with, you’ll flop at least two more of your suit 11.79% of the time (7.48-1 against). The odds against flopping a completed flush are 117.8-1.
Next four paragraphs added 2014
Although only a small percentage of your outcomes will be flushes when you begin with suited cards, a much larger percent of your wins will be flushes. And an even larger percentage of your profit will be from flushes. That’s because all outcomes combined contain a large number of garbage hands that won’t win. But when you look at just the winning hands, flushes no longer account for a meager six percent. They account for a much greater percentage of your actual wins.
While the percentage that flushes account for wins varies in accordance with the ranks, smaller ranks own a greater percentage, because improvement is more often required. It gets even more lopsided in terms of profit. Since you’re apt to win bigger pots with flushes than without, flushes account for a great percent of your profit — but varies by the situation.
The bottom-line truth is that suited starting cards are both undervalued and overvalued. They are undervalued by some experts and overvalued by casual players who barge into pots early with hands like K-7 suited when they rightly wouldn’t consider playing K-7 of mixed suits. So, my message isn’t that you should play many more suited cards. You probably shouldn’t. But you should be aware that in many combinations, flushes account for more profit than you think and that being suited can often make the difference between playable and non-playable hands.
Advice: In the heat of poker competition, stop to ask yourself if you would play that suited hand if it wasn’t suited. Then if you hesitate and lean toward folding, it’s close enough to play, because it actually is suited.
Good-bye. — MC