The "Non-Linear" Hierarchies of Poker

I once came across a discussion on an internet forum discussing what the best starting hands were in NLH. They didn't only attempt to categories the top starting hands, but they argued about hands that any reasonable player wouldn't even play. "What's better 43s, or K9?" They debated the topic so fervently that it quickly changed from discussion to slanderous argument. One player would hurl an insult, along with his opinion that ATs was a better hand than 66, the next would counter that JJ was a better hand than either so they should just quiet themselves.

Rock, Scissors, Paper

There was even a man who was convinced and attempted to convince the others that the best hand to start with at a ring, cash game, from late position was J10s. "Think of the implied odds," he argued. Well, I could have just moved on to a thread that actually makes sense, but I saw something very interesting happening and an opportunity to invoke a paradigm shift.

You see, the players that were so convicted and violently debating were missing something very fundamental from their understanding of the game. The problem wasn't so much with their answers; the problem was the question. The question they asked didn't even have an answer as such. They were involved in a circularly logical debate and could have easily gone on arguing forever without anyone making any ground. And, in reality, I had already discovered the truth in this matter a few years back. I shared some insight with those players that seemed to be well received. I think I actually changed the way they looked at the game. I'd also like to share this concept with you.

There is not an absolute hierarchy of starting hands in NLH, or any poker game for that matter. While you can figure out, statistically, which starting hands will win the most money per hour, or per hand in a particular setting; that still doesn't settle the debate. Not when you are talking about two or more particular hands without setting up specific parameters. I'm going to use a question as an example to illustrate my point. What is the best hand in the list; J10s, 33, or AQo? The answer really depends on what data we are inquiring about and what definition we will use for "best hand". If we are simple asking which hand will beat the others the most consistently in a showdown, then we are asking a question which, at its very root, is illogical.

Starting Hand Experiment

I'd like to propose a thought experiment dealing with our starting hand examples above; J10s, 33, and AQo. Suppose we agreed to a proposition wager of $10, racing those starting hands, one against another. If I let you chose your hand first, which would you select? We're simply going to each take one of the three hands and race them, dealing a flop and then fourth and fifth street without any betting rounds beyond our agreed ten dollars. Which is the best hand? Well, I'm afraid that's a bit like asking what the best choice is in a game of "rock, scissors, paper". You see; if you chose 33, I pick the J10s and I am a favorite in the hand. If you select AQo, I pick 33 and am a favorite. It might seem then, that you should go with J10s, but that is the worst selection of all because I would just pick AQo, and have a pretty significant edge to win.

There is no absolute hierarchy of hand strengths in beyond AA and KK. Those ARE the two best starting hands in order. Every other hand falls into a situation dependant, variable sensitive, subjective power level. I hear an argument all of the time, from even fairly strong players that falls along these same lines. What's the third best starting hand in NLH, is it AKs, or is it QQ? I'm afraid the question is not specific enough to have a logically valid answer. The only correct answer to that question is, well, "It depends".

NLH is a very complicated game, with a great deal of deviation and a plethora of variables. It's important to understand that the answers to even some of the simple questions about NLH will always be, "It depends". Your job as a player is to decipher what the variables are, and how they should influence your decisions at the table.

The Rock, Scissors, Paper Effect

I hope that I've helped to switch on some proverbial light bulbs. This article is not intended to settle a debate, but rather to show the logical fallacy of the debate. And it doesn't stop at starting hand strength. The entire game of NLH has such a relativistic and human element that the "rock, scissors, paper effect" shows up all of the time. You'll need to be aware of that if you are to successfully navigate the "murky water" of poker success. Is it better to play tight or loose? Well if you are facing a table of calling station "fish", you'd better tighten up your starting requirements. If you are playing at a table full of "rocks" or "squeakers" who only play premium hands, then you'd be leaving money on the table by not loosening your own starting hand requirements. Should you play aggressive or should you play passive? If you're against a tight player you should gear up your aggression, if you're against a maniac you ought to bet less and call more.

The key to being a great, not a good NLH player, is now and always has been "energy sensitivity". You have to be able to adjust your game to the circumstances at hand. The more sensitive you are to the table dynamics, the players' betting patterns, the atmosphere of the room, even the blink rate of your opponents' eyes, the more successful you will be.

Reading books can teach you the fundamentals of NLH, and rest assured that you will be able to profit playing fundamentally correct poker. I've heard people argue about that, actually it is a widely debated subject. Believe me, though, when I say that I have done the research, and the math. You cannot lose money in the long run playing fundamentally perfect poker. However, a player who is able to deviate in accordance with the living flow of the game will have a much higher hourly rate of profit.

starting hands in order from greatest to worst, that the game is not static and mechanical but flowing and alive; once you start to play inside the game and become part of the game, you will be well on your way to becoming a great NLH player. Until next time, Good "Luck!"

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