Josef Rantamaki returns with another excellent poker strategy article to follow up The Ultimate Guide to Hand Ranges, this time giving you the Ultimate Guide to Relative Hand Strength.

One of the first things you learn as a poker player is understanding the absolute strength of hands. You study the hand rankings chart and make sure you remember in which order the hands are ranked. This is a good start but the mistake that usually happens thereafter is that you use this information as the only base when estimating the strength of your hand during play. This will give you a massive disadvantage and the punishment for making this mistake is usually very harsh, meaning it will lead you to lose big pots.

Understanding absolute hand strength is like understanding that a person that is 200cm is tall and someone who’s 150cm is pretty short. If you are in the competition for the worlds tallest man the only thing that matters is how tall you are in comparison to your opponent. You might both be tall, but only the tallest man will win.

The same applies to poker and this concept is called relative hand strength. For example; although the absolute strength of a flush is strong it should not be considered as such in a spot where if your opponent only raises you with a full house or better.

Relative hand strength is described as the equity of your hand versus your opponents range.
In my previous article I talked about the theory behind hand ranges and understanding this is key in accurately estimating the relative strength of your hand.

Avoid thinking in terms of “Drawing” or “made” hands

It’s very common to consider your hand as being a made hand or a drawing hand. A common misconception is to think that a made hand is when you have a pair or better and that a drawing hand is when you are drawing to make a hand, such as a straight for example.

The fact is that a made hand is these terms only have meaning relative to an opponents hand. The player with the best hand is the one with the made hand, even if’s just ace high, and a player can be drawing, even if he has two pairs as long as he has the worst hand.

Think in terms of equity

A lot of players tend to play draws passively based on the fact that this is not a made hand. Since a drawing hand can have more equity than a made hand this type of thinking leads to sub-optimal play.

Instead, if you consider the equity of your hand versus your opponents range you can identify spots where you are a favourite in terms of relative hand strength, or in other words; equity.

A simple, but not completely accurate, way of calculating the equity of a drawing hand is to look at the number of outs and multiply it by two for each street. So if you have 10 outs on the flop you have 20% equity by the turn and 40% by the river.

Calculating the equity of a made hand comes down to comparing it to your opponents range on a particular board. Using free tools such as “Poker Stove” is a great way to get an understanding of the equity of hands versus different types of ranges on different types of boards.

When you play a draw aggressively you get the chance to make your opponent give up on his equity share and fold out marginal hands. This is called “fold equity” and it’s a way of adding equity to your hand by playing it aggressively.

Let me give you an example

You pick up [3x][3x] and call a raise on the big blind from a tight player in early position. The flop is . You put him on a tight range of hands, something like AJs+, KQs, AQo+ and 77+.

You check the flop and your opponent makes a pot sized bet. You think your opponent bets his entire range like this and versus a pot sized bet you need 33% equity to call.

The value in dominating your opponents drawing hands

A lot of players would call here with [3x][3x] since they consider themselves to have a made hand while the opponent can still be drawing. At the same time they will fold a hand like [Ax][Kx] in the same spot.

If you would calculate the equity of [3x][3x] versus the opponents range it would be about 32%, while the equity of [Ax][Kx] is 40%. This is because the hands that [3x][3x] beats are overcards which have 9 outs, while [3x][3x] at best has three outs versus the hands that are ahead.

[Ax][Kx] on the other hand is ahead of the opponents unpaired range and has 6 outs agains the opponents pair.

The value of having outs versus your opponents made hands

Apart from the stronger equity of [Ax][Kx] here it also plays much better on later streets. If you call a bet with a low pair like [3x][3x] you will never know where you stand versus bets on later streets and you are often forced to fold. But with a hand like [Ax][Kx] in this spot, although you might still face some tough decisions you also have a good chance to start value betting on later streets or call of two more big bets if and ace or kings hits on the turn.

Another benefit of having more outs versus your opponents made hands is that your have better implied odds. Meaning if you hit a card which improves your hand and there is still money behind you can win a big pot.

Blockers

Last but not least it’s important to consider which hands the cards you hold block. If you hold the you can safely discount a portion of draws from your opponents range if you face a raise on a two-club flop. This can allow you to make a big fold if you think your opponents range has few bluffs or to push your opponent of a hand since you can represent a nut flush when the third club hits and you know your opponent can’t have the nut flush.

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