Pocket pairs and big slick are all well and good, but if you want to win
tournaments you need to play more starting hands
When you’re playing no-limit Hold’em one thing you should constantly look for is the sort of hand or situation that can take an opponent off their entire stack. There’s nothing more beautiful than to see the look of dull stupefaction on your foe’s face and to hear them say, ‘You played that?’ as you show down your supposedly inferior hand and gleefully rake in their chips.
Apart from the psychological damage such moments inflict, in today’s post-modern Hold’em world, where everyone knows the top 20 starting hands by heart, you really do need to be able to add some so-called ‘creative’ holdings into your mix, if only to stop being so predictable and, you know, dull. Suited connectors are an excellent candidate for this job.
Suited connectors are, by definition, cards of the same suit and adjacent rank. A? -K? , for example, is a suited connector; however, it’s also big slick, a hand we discussed last issue, so we’ll leave that alone. For the purposes of this article, we’ll divide the remaining suited connectors into three groups:
• Low suited connectors: 3-2, 4-3, 5-4, 6-5, 7-6;
• Middle suited connectors: 8-7, 9-8, 10-9;
• High suited connectors: J-10, Q-J, K-Q.
These are, in a sense, arbitrary distinctions. For example, you could call 8-7 suited either a high low suited connector or a low middle suited connector. But we’re talking guidelines here, not rules, so always remember to stay flexible and adapt to the situation.
Low suited connectors
Here’s the best thing to do with low suited connectors: don’t play them at all. The reason for this is that you should add suited connectors to your roster of playable hands for the sake of adding some variety into the mix of hands you show down. But you don’t want to add too much variety, or else you’re just playing too loose, and using the concept of variety to dignify your promiscuous play. Since playing some (but not all) middle and high suited connectors will add sufficient variety to your starting requirements anyhow, it’s best to leave the little ones alone.
Obviously you’ll play low suited connectors in the big blind if no one has raised. You might even take a flier from the small blind if you’re getting the right price: if, for example, four or five players have limped in and the big blind seems unlikely to raise. Just be aware of how fragile this holding is. For example, you could flop a flush, and already be drawing dead (to a higher flush), or be vulnerable to another card of the same suit on the turn or river from someone holding the naked Ace or King of your flush suit. Consider all such free or nearly free plays with little suited connectors to be like Wheel of Fortune spins. If you hit big, great; if you miss completely (or, crucially, if you only partially hit) then your free ride is over, your hand goes in the muck, and you wait for a better situation.
Middle suited connectors
I often call middle suited connectors ‘package hands’, because you add them to the ‘package’ of hands you choose to play. It’s especially useful to add package hands when you have a tight image and people will naturally put you on big cards or big pairs. In this case, your middle suited connectors add an element of deception to your play.
Let’s say you’re in late position with 9? -8? and three or four players have limped into the pot before you. And let’s imagine that cards and circumstance have conspired to keep you sidelined in the game so far, such that you haven’t played a hand for a raise since you sat down. In this instance you could consider calling, since the limpfest is on and a drawing hand like 9-8 suited likes lots of callers and no raisers. You could also make a case for folding, since 9-8 suited is certainly nothing to write home about and you’re a favourite not to hit your hand anyhow. But this is a good situation to claim 9-8 suited as one of your package hands and fire off a raise. Since you’re perceived as tight, and you’re raising into traffic, your foes should put you on a very big hand. If you then happen to hit your hand (by flopping twopair, say) your hit will be very well disguised, and your foes may pay you off.
However, there are a couple of things to think about. First, don’t raise unless you’re prepared to make a big bet, and probably bet again on the flop. If you make a package raise, you’re representing a big hand. If you can’t, or won’t, sell it strongly enough then you’re better off not putting it on the market in the first place.
Also, recognise that your image must be right. A raise with middle suited connectors is designed to cut against the grain of your normal tight/aggressive play. If you haven’t established that tight/ aggressive image, then your raise will have no impact; it will be treated like just another raise from a player who has been raising as much as anyone else. But despite the weakness of your holding others should still see your raise as scary. If they’re not likely to be scared by a raise from you then call to draw, or prudently fold, middle suited connectors.
Some players who use middle suited connectors as package hands get completely carried away with the concept, and greet 9-8 suited or 8-7 suited with the same enthusiasm as they do pocket Aces. This, of course, is wrong. Remember, just because you can raise with a hand doesn’t mean you must raise with a hand. If you get out of line too often with middle suited connectors, you’ll devalue the strength of their deception. Pick your spots, and pick your opponents. Your package hand raises should look like big hands to everyone at the table – not just you.
High suited connectors
High suited connectors tend to beguile the mind. Pick up something like K? -Q? and you can go all giddy at the prospect of flopping top pair and a flush draw and an open-ended straight draw. It’s wise at this point to remember that having suited cards only adds about an extra 2.5% value to your hand, so don’t get carried away just because it looks prettier.
The same problem applies to straights, which also seduce. Some pundits actually favour J-10 over A-A in the name of all the straights J-10 can make. I think that’s nonsense. In a heads-up confrontation, A-A creams J-10 suited, roughly 80% of the time. That said, high suited
connectors are fairly powerful hands, and their power lies in their flexibility. They rarely flop the stone cold nuts, but they frequently flop reasonably big hands or reasonably big draws – or a little bit of both. So play these hands semi-strongly, for the semistrong hands that they are. While many players have been chastened (and rightly so) by the times their Q-J has been outkickered by someone’s A-J, there’s no need for paranoia, especially if you have the measure of your foes, knowing either that you’ll get calls from weaker hands or that raises represent real strength, not just bluff.
Say you’re in last position, holding Q-J suited, and no one has opened the pot. At this point, with only the blinds to contend with, you probably have the best hand, and will possibly win without a fight if you bet. But even if you see a flop, when you happen to pair either of your cards, it’s likely to be the best pair, with a good kicker to boot. Of course, if you take heat on the hand (a re-raise from the big blind, say), then you should proceed with caution. But if your foe has re-raised with, say, 8-8, your Q-J has exactly the same number of over-card outs as A-K, plus some added straight potential. So go ahead and play high suited connectors strongly, especially in position, and especially against opponents you understand well.
You can also call raises in position with high suited connectors. Not only do you have the strength of position, you also have the benefit of information. Your opponent raised, defining his hand, whereas you just called, leaving your holding unclear. If, for example, you know your foe to make middle position raises with middle pocket pairs, you can go to war with suited, connected over-cards, looking to hit your hand, and hit him with a raise when he makes the expected continuation bet.
But you should save this move for when you’re in position. Say you limp in early position with K-Q suited and face a raise from someone in late position. Sure, that could be a positional raise, or someone with a package hand, but if you call, you’ll be out of position for the rest of the hand, and thus at the mercy of whatever bad news the late position raiser cares to dish out. In this case, it’s best to fold. It’s only semi-strong, and it’s wildly out of position.
Remember, you can play good hands in bad position, or bad hands in good position, but you can’t play bad hands (or even semi-good ones) in bad position and expect to prosper in Hold’em.
Also remember that draws can be deadly in no-limit Hold’em. If you flop a straight draw or a flush draw with your high suited connectors, and that’s all you have going for you, make sure you’re getting the right odds to draw. Say you’ve got K? -Q? and the flop comes A? -8? -3? . You can’t count Kings and Queens as good cards because one of your foes might have an Ace. (Or even A? -x? , which would be horrbile.) So you’re really only drawing to nine outs to make the flush. Savvy opponents won’t give you the right odds to call, so unless your foes make a mistake and underbet the pot, you really have to be done with the hand.
Likewise, don’t get stuck in the fantasyland of top pair, good kicker. Suppose you’ve got Q? -J? and the flop comes Q-x-x, rainbow. Okay, you’ve hit top pair and you want to play, but K-Q and A-Q both beat you, and these are exactly the kind of hands your foes are typically likely to hold. If you take significant heat, you’re going to have to let your hand go, and folding top pair, good kicker is something that many players have a notoriously tough time doing. If you’re prone to this sort of mistake just fold those big suited connectors pre-flop and let other players get stuck in those tricky situations.
Rational, not rationale
Many Hold’em players look for any excuse to play a hand, and they consider suited connectors to be as good an excuse as any. Don’t fall into that trap. Suited connectors do have the potential to win monster pots, but they’re still just a couple of unpaired cards and, more often than not, middle or low cards at that. Playing them well requires finesse, understanding of your situation and your foes, and no small amount of courage. So play them with discretion. Because there’s a phrase you’ll no doubt have heard many times before: ‘But they were suited!’ And it’s usually said by the person who’s just gone broke. Make sure that person’s not you!