In a fast, short sit n go poker tournament, there is hardly an opportunity to ever play plain old good poker. That is, to play slow thought poker, with plenty of time for thought about the exact two cards in an opponent's hand. You know, the kind of thoughtfulness afforded by a cash game, or a slow deep-stacked tournament.
In our type of tournament, our thoughtfulness typically has to be abbreviated to a quick estimate of an opponent's possible range of hands rather than a specific holding. And, oftentimes even those estimates are not much more than just a quick intuitive hunch made on the fly.
So, in an attempt to quantify possible hand ranges for the more common tournament variables, and then hopefully aid in our quick estimating; I have put together the following listing based upon the Sklansky-Karlson (SK) starting hand rankings. In the SK rankings, all of the 169 possible hold'em starting hands are separated into nine groups, and ranked based upon their probability of winning an all-in push showdown. The groups range from the near valueless trash hands in Group 9, to the premium winning hands in Group 1.
Admittedly, there are issues with application of the specific SK rankings to the typical play of a poker hand between multiple opponents. The listing, however, is intended to help guide an analytical thought process regarding an opponent's possible range of hands, not to convey or suggest absolute values. Although, the hand ranges presented, while not absolutes, are pretty close estimates. So, what we have here is a collection of estimates, but they are pretty close based upon lots of observations.
In poker, when deciding whether to commit chips or not, about the best we can ever do is speculate, or make an educated guess, based upon our personal experiences; as we often will never know what two cards were in an opponent's hand, at least until it is too late. But, if you have been involved in, and have closely observed, 1,000's of showdowns involving 1,000's more than every type of player, then you should be able to make some reasonably 'pretty close estimates'.
Hypothetical though it is, the following listing of estimates will serve as a good probability guide for thinking through common tournament problems. But, as with most poker situations, any decisions made in reliance upon this listing, would just be another among many other decisions based solely upon an estimate. Estimates are the bread and butter of poker, since we never have complete information - just bits and pieces, and some of those pieces true, and some intentionally misleading.
Any, as already stated, the question should not be either the following estimates are correct, or even close or not; instead, the important thing is to gain an appreciation of how several frequently occurring variables can influence an opponent's starting hand selection. And, the degree to which that impact might, but not always will, shift an opponent's hand selection away from a standard or norm.
In other words, variables, both human and poker, are the driving force behind all of the actions and changes that we witness in the game. Consequently, it behooves us to become able to recognize the more frequently occurring, and the more important, of the many possible variables. And, to understand their potential for influencing change from the norm. Basically, we are just putting a name with a face, so to speak. Or, in this exercise, an estimated range of values with a variable. In this way, we can aid our analytical reasoning, and ever our intuition, in order to quickly see a solution when confronted with these particular situations.
Furthermore, since we are almost always dealing with questions of human nature when solving poker problems, and because of human nature being as complex as it is, our estimated values will often shift even more broadly than is possible to consider here. Thus, it is because of that huge mass of human and poker variation that we always come back to the standard poker answer for every situational question, which is, "It depends." In other words, any answer to a poker question always depends on the variables, the human ones as well as the poker ones.
So, there are simply too many variables for there to be any absolutes. And, often enough, there are too many variables for there to even be a reliable educated guess. For evidence of this, just consider all of the on-line poker forum interviews and opinions that often rage on for days about how a particular hand should or should not have been played. Never mindless, simple and imprecise as it may be, this following listing will help to organize your thinking about starting hands, in order to better recognize common situations and patterns of behavior. So that, you will then be able to quickly estimate a best course of action.
The listing will hopefully provide guidance for these type of poker questions:
- Should I call / re-raise a bet / raise by this player?
- Is he bluffing, semi-bluffing, or does he have a hand?
- How strong is his hand?
- Can I bluff this player?
- Can I steal this pot?
- Do I have a better hand than this player?
- Should I commit to a race for all of my chips with this player?
- What did I just see, has this player switched gears? And,
- Almost any other example related question that might come up during a tournament.
We will be assigning estimated starting hand ranges for these more frequently occurring variables:
- Stage of tournament - size of blinds.
- Mood of opponent.
- Size of stack.
- Position at table.
- Playing style of opponent.
- Collective style of opponents - table texture. And,
- Experience of player.
The range of values could apply equally to you or to an opponent. So, in your case, they could serve as a current barometer or predictor of your performance. Or, as a guide for how your opponents may be judging you as a player (your table image). Or importantly, as to your possible starting hand holdings. In other words, just as this observable data can help you to understand an opponent; This same data would also be observable by an opponent, to better understand you.
So, what does this listing look like? Let's take as an example, and for our standard or norm, an experienced tight-aggressive (TAG) player. The following is a representation of the starting hand behavior that we might reasonably expect for the selected variables, based upon our many observations of this type of player. Note also, that our standard player may also represent the way that we ourselves play. If that is the case, then you can likely make many refinements to this listing based upon your personal experience.
For a complete chart of the Sklansky-Karlson (SK) starting hand rankings, visit this link - http://www2.decf.berkeley.edu/~chubukov/rankings.html . And, for an explanation of the 169 possible hold'em starting hands, visit this link - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_hold_'em_starting_hands [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_hold_].
Listing of estimated starting hand selection by common variable for an experienced TAG player:
1. Tournament Stage - Early (Low blinds). Hand Selection - Group 1, norm.
2. Tournament Stage - Middle (Medium blinds). Hand Selection - Groups 1 - 2, norm.
3. Tournament Stage - Late (High blinds). Hand Selection - Groups 1 - 5, norm.
4. Mood - Calm. Hand Selection - Groups 1 - 2, norm.
5. Mood - Worried (Semi-Tilt). Hand Selection - Groups 1 - 6.
6. Mood - Emotionally Upset (Full-Tilt). Hand Selection - Groups 1 - 9.
7. Stack Size - Starting Stack. Hand Selection - Group 1, norm.
8. Stack Size - Chip Leader. Hand Selection - Groups 1 - 3.
9. Stack Size - Desperately Short. Hand Selection - Groups 1 - 9.
10. Table Position - Early. Hand Selection - Group 1, norm.
11. Table Position - Middle. Hand Selection - Groups 1 - 2, norm.
12. Table Position - Late. Hand Selection - Groups 1 - 4, norm.
13. Playing Style - Tight-Aggressive. Hand Selection - Per norm.
14. Playing Style - Loose-Aggressive. Hand Selection - More groups than TAG.
15. Playing Style - Tight-Passive. Hand Selection - Fewer groups than TAG.
16. Playing Style - Loose-Passive. Hand Selection - More groups than TAG.
17. Table Texture - Tight. Hand Selection - More groups.
18. Table Texture - Moderate. Hand Selection - Per norm.
19. Table Texture - Loose. Hand Selection - Fewer groups.
20. Experienced Player. Hand Selection - Per norm.
21. Intermediate Player. Hand Selection - More groups.
22. Beginning Player. Hand Selection - Even more groups.
23. Concentration - Focused. Hand Selection - Per norm.
23. Concentration - Wandering. Hand Selection - More groups.
24. Concentration - Impaired. Hand Selection - Even more groups.
You can interpolate, extrapolate, induce or deduce for any of the many other possible variables. You can also agree, add to, or delete from, this list as your personal experience might dictate. This is not science, just (experienced) guesswork. Again, our objective is purely to create a certain accurate visual representation to help organize better thinking, which would hopefully lead to quicker, better, and ultimately, intuitive decision making.
So what does all of this tell us? Again, using the experienced tight-aggressive player for a behavior standard, here are some likely tournament scenarios:
Scenario # 1. When our standard player is playing well and normally, his 'A' game; he is calm and focused, playing his style of tight selective-aggression, with an adequate number of chips, against an opponent that he understands, as appropriate for the stage of the tournament. But, as any of the variables change, so may his starting hand selection, with possibly a direct impact upon his level of performance.
For example, towards the end of a long session of sit n go tournaments, our standard of concentration may begin to wander. Consequently, he would be more likely to overlook that an opponent has shifted gears, and is no longer playing as loosely. Indeed, the opponent has changed to playing tightly, in order to protect an improved chip position.
Having missed this important variable change, our standard player re-raises with a Group 2 hand, which was previously good enough for this particular opponent, who had previously been playing Group 3 hands. However, the opponent, who had recently tightened-up, is now raising instead with a Group 1 hand. Uh-oh!
Scenario # 2. Let us say that our standard player hit a string of bad hands, losing lots of chips and his self-confidence. So, he tightens up, even though it is late in the tournament. An observerant has taken note of all of this misfortune, and the resultant change - our standard playing too few hands at a point when playing more hands would be appropriate. The astute opponent now proceeds to routinely steal our standard's blinds with Group 5 hands, while our standard stubbornly sticks to defending with only Group 1 hands. Sadly, our man is soon blinded out of the tournament!
Granted there are many factors that can account for a player's mistake, but most can be traced back to improper starting hand selection. When a player is said to be, for example, 'playing out of line' or 'playing too many hands', those observations could be considered as evidence of improper starting hand selection. The player is obviously playing too tight or too loose; based upon selecting their starting hands from too few or too many groups. In other words, they are playing too narrow or too wide a range of starting hands.
Of course, many inexperienced players are unaware that their hand selection is from any one group or another, or from too few or too many groups - it is not a factor in their conscious decision making. But, therein is part of the justification for this article.
Here is the bottom line:
This listing, or something else that you could easily internalize, will help you decide when, where, and against what to play a hand. That saying, that same hand, during the course of a tournament, should be played in many situations, and should not be played in many others. And, all of which situations, would be occurring in a relatively brief period of time, say an hour or less.
Learning to quickly make these many starting hand decisions, based upon imprecise estimates, under a barrage of constantly changing variables, repeatedly in a compressed amount of time, is not an easy task, to say the least. Hopefully then, this listing will be of some help.