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Poker Strategy:Drawing Hands

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A drawing hand is any pair of cards that have no value immediately, but the potential to become strong hands if the right community cards turn up. There is a lot to review when we break down this last sentence.

First, any pair of cards that have no immediate value. These are two cards that are not impressive yet. A Nine-Eight-suited or a Jack-Nine, for example. You wouldn't bet the farm on a hand like this, but like Stud or Draw, Hold 'Em has more cards coming that may turn your hand from mediocre into a monster. The key with drawing hands is measuring the hand's potential to improve. There is inherent risk in chasing a drawing hand because more times than not, they will not improve.

Second, the potential to become strong hands. When a drawing hand improves, it typically does so to a straight or a flush. The two examples above have the potential to become a flush (or straight flush) and straight, respectively. These are strong hands, and usually pot-winners.

Put these two points together and you've summed up the significance of drawing hands at the low-limit table: drawing hands need to be measured for their potential, they will not likely improve, but if they do, you will win a nice pot. Small pairs are just like drawing hands, in that they probably don't have what it takes to win the pot on their own, but should they improve to trips, you have a strong hand. In fact, we treat small pairs as drawing hands for this reason: they won't win the pot on their own and the most likely improvement will be to trips.

Drawing hands are the lifeline of low-limit poker. As we will see here and expand upon in our discussion of low-limit mathematics, when a low-limit game is characterized by many players staying in the pot, we need to play the right hands. Big cards lose value against a big field (many players) because the more players, the better the winning hand is going to need to be. Against eight players, a big pair of Aces will likely not cut it, and the player holding that hand better aim to fold as many players as possible.

Against this many players, we need strong hands. And ironically, strong hands are borne of drawing hands, which again are limited in value at the outset. That said, the key to making money at the low-limit table is to correctly chase drawing hands against a large number of players. If done correctly, those few times where your hand improves will pay for the many times that your hand doesn't improve.

Measuring Potential

This discussion will focus on how we measure the potential of drawing hands. Some of them are garbage, some of them are must-plays, and some of them are contingent on other factors that we've discussed, such as position and table climate.

First, we look at the card-specific factors.

  • Rank: The higher the rank, the more playable the hand. Here, if we do not improve to the straight or flush, we at least hope to make a big pair or big two pairs. In this way, we should be more inclined to throw away a Five-Three-suited, yet possibly hold onto a Ten-Eight-suited. The numerical rank of the cards is a failsafe, since it adds to the list of possible hands we could improve to.

  • Sequence: We determine whether the cards are connected, gapped one, gapped two, or gapped three. Here, we are referring to the number of numerical spaces in between the two cards. Two cards that are connected, such as Nine-Eight, have more strength than two cards gapped one, such as Nine-Seven, or gapped two, such as Nine-Six. The greater the gap between the two cards, the more other factors in your favour are needed for this hand to be playable. Gapped cards can still be a playable hand, you just need other reasons to be playing it other than the sequence. We're obviously impressed with connected cards for their potential to improve to a straight.

  • Suit: It goes without saying that two suited cards are stronger than two cards that are not suited. A Nine-Seven-suited is always stronger than a Nine-Seven that isn't suited. Suited cards improve to a flush, which is obviously a strong hand. Unsuited cards need other factors in their favour to be playable.

    We sum up by saying that the potential of a drawing hand is measured by its numerical rank, its sequence, and its suit. A match with all three of these factors would be big suited cards, such as King-Queen-suited. Hands like these are the kings of the low-limit table, so we will discuss them in depth by themselves. These big potential hands aside, make it a rule of thumb to consider those drawing hands that capture at least two of the three factors. Jack-Ten is a good example because the rank is somewhat high and they are connected. Seven-six-suited is a good example because the cards are suited and connected. King-Nine-suited is a good example because the cards are suited and high in rank. Ten-Five-suited is a bad example as the cards are suited but have little else going for them.

    Next, we look at the situational factors. These borrow from our previous columns on Table Climate and Position.

  • Table Climate: If the game is aggressive (lots of betting and raising), then you need to lower the range of drawing hands that you intend to play. Such a table is costly, so you don't want to take chances needlessly. On the other hand, the pots at a loose-aggressive table will likely be huge everytime. Play the big suited cards that capture all three drawing hand factors. You will lose more times than not, but when you win, it will be a huge pot. And, this is really how we characterize the loose-aggressive table; it's a crapshoot with a lot of money on the line. If the table is passive (lots of calling and checking, but not much betting and raising), you may really open up your range of drawing hands. Nobody is really charging anybody else to stay in the game, so you're free to take a lot of cheap chances. If you make the hand, feel free to charge these unimaginative players. If you don't make the hand, fold and know that it didn't cost you much to take the chance. As an aside, the tight-aggressive player will do well at the loose-passive table. That's the player you aim to be, and that's the table you aim to play at.

  • Position: The earlier your position, the more players to act behind you. In such a spot, you need to lower the range of drawing hands that you play. You can't be as sure that there will no further betting behind you. Again, these are hands with no potential now. Your goal is to see if your hand improves as cheaply as possible. Bets that could potentially be made behind you need to be incorporated into your decision to call or fold. Late position, however, is when most or all players have already acted. Here, you have a lot more freedom to open your range of drawing hands and know with more certainty that there will be no further action behind you. You also know that you will carry this advantage into later betting rounds.

    Let the card-specific factors determine the range of drawing hands that you are willing to play. Then, let the situational factors determine the posts that tighten and widen on this range. In last position with no raises, you may play Five-Four-suited. In early position at an aggressive table, you would throw that hand away without a second thought.

    Size of the Field

    This is another situational factor and an extension of Table Climate, but it is important and advanced enough to be discussed on its own.

    The size of the field makes reference to the number of opponents vying to win the pot. It is an extension of Table Climate because there will likely be more players in the pot in a passive game than an aggressive. However, when we speak of a truly loose table, there are always many players in the pot, whether it is passive or aggressive. Know, however, that a passive table usually keeps more players in the pot.

    It is a common mistake with home poker players making the transition to low-limit poker to misinterpret the size of the field. One might suspect that the more players in the pot, the better one's hand needs to be to stick around. Bear two things in mind, however:
      i) The more players in the pot, the higher the winning hand is going to need to be. Big cards and big pairs improve only marginally into better hands, whereas drawing hand improve into the kinds of strong hands needed to win the pot when this many players are vying to win it.

      ii) The more players in the pot, the bigger the pot is going to be. For every bet that you are asked to put it, there are more players having to put in that same bet. Against a table of eight players, for every bet you put in, eight other players are putting in the same bet. This, as opposed to playing against two other players, where for every bet your in, only two other players are putting in the same bet. Hence, the return on your investment is higher when there are more players in the pot. The higher the return, the more risk you can take with a drawing hand.

    Rather than to shy away from a pot with many players, we should be playing in these pots. Of course, if the game is aggressive or if your position is early, we have already warned against playing too many hands. However, this is just one more situational factor to lead you to opening up the range of drawing hands you are willing to play. These will be big pots, and only a strong hand will win, the kind of hand borne of drawing hands.

    Obviously, if the field is small, tighten your range of drawing hands. Here, there is less return on your investment, and therefore, less reason for you to risk playing a hand that doesn't improve. In such a situation, we value the factor of numerical rank. A Queen-Ten, for example, is the kind of drawing hand you might want to play, as it can improve to a big pair of Queens or Tens; these aren't monster hands but potentially enough to beat a small field of opponents.

    Tricks of the Trade

    Nothing is ever that cut and dried, including the discussion above. There will be situations and opportunities where experience takes over and makes more appropriate decisions. Below are some examples.

    • Ace-suited, King-suited
    In this example, you have an Ace (or King) with another card that is much smaller, yet both are suited. This only satisfies one of our hand-specific factors, in that the hand is suited, but the cards are not connected and only one of them is high in rank. Despite this, you are encouraged to include these two hands in your repertoire. Don't play them every time, but consider them where the table is passive or your position is late. On top of the potential to make a flush, you may make that big pair. Use caution when playing this hand against a big field. If you make the big pair but not the flush, you may find it's not a good enough hand against this many players.

    • Late Position Raise
    This should be used with extreme caution. If you are in last position and there are many players in the pot, you may decide to throw out a raise with your drawing hand. This may seem like a strange move, considering your hand has no immediate value, but it's logical from a mathematical standpoint, which we will discuss in more depth in a later article. For now, remember that against a big field, each player has to put in a bet to match yours. Against a table of eight players, for example, every bet of yours puts eight more equal-sized bets into the pot; that's a return of 8:1 on your money. If you felt that your drawing hand had enough potential that its chances to improve were better than one in eight, then you are right to try and get more money out of your opponents. The logic is that over the long run, this strategy will pay enough when it succeeds to pay for all the times that it fails. This is only advisable at a passive table; try a move like this at an aggressive table and somebody else might raise, folding players and reducing the size of the field.

    • Late Position Bet on the Flop
    This is a highly-recommended move for players who have seen the flop and are only one card away from making the straight or the flush. If the flop falls and everybody checks to you, feel free to bet. This does two things: one, it puts more money in the pot, and two, it scares anybody into betting into you on the Turn. At that time, if you made your hand, bet. If you didn't make your hand, check and go to the River for free. Effectively, you're discouraging anybody from betting into you on the Turn until you can see if you've made your hand or not.

    • Last-Card Chase
    A good rule of thumb to consider is that a hand that is one card away from the flop or the straight is a hand worth playing until the bitter end. Obviously, you need to get out of hands that are costing a ridiculous amount of money. And, you always have to watch for players who are chasing a hand that will beat yours, even if yours improves. However, there is usually enough money in the pot to justify you chasing this hand. If you are one card away from a flush, there are nine cards left in the deck that can help you (the other nine cards of that suit); if you are one card away from a straight, there are eight cards in the deck that can help you (the four at each end of your straight). Eight or nine cards that can help you is a good chance to take. More times than not, you won't make your hand, but the pots that you win on those times where you do make your hand will more than pay for the rest in the long run.


    Drawing hands are full of irony. On one hand, they have no immediate value. On the other hand, they can potentially improve to strong hands. On one hand, they won't typically improve. On the other hand, when they do, they are huge hands. In the short term, you will lose money chasing drawing hands. In the long term, those times that they improve will pay for those times where they didn't.

    Low-limit poker usually means many players in the pot. In such a game, you may hear a lot of disgruntled players talking about how they lost with their pair of Aces, Kings, or Ace-Queen. These players are playing higher-stakes strategy at the wrong table. When there are six players at the River, for example, a pair is not going to do it. Even two pair should be cautious. At a low-limit table, the winning hand has to be strong. And the biggest irony of all is that strong hands typically start out as drawing hands.

    You have to chase a drawing hand in order to have a hand good enough to take the pot at a low-limit table. This means lots of shifts in your bankroll. All that you can do to account for this is minimize the losses of chasing drawing hands, and maximize the size of the pots won. Drawing hands are the lifeline of low-limit poker.

  • Table Climate - Position - Starting Hands - Playing Pairs
    - Drawing Hands - Psychology - Playing Big Cards

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