Defending the Big Blind and Preflop Hand Selection

I’ve been criticized in my limit play for calling a single raise out of the Big Blind with hands such as A6 offsuit. Poker players are prestigious as Jennifer Harmon in Super System 2 say that you should not call a raise with a hand as weak as A7 off in a 10 full game if the initial raiser is under the gun.

The logic being that an under the gun raise is not an attempt to steal the blinds, but rather a raise based purely on hand strength. And if all forms of Hold’em people tend to avoid hands that might be “dominated”- which is to say they don’t want to be in a hand where they have the same top rank as their opponent and in inferior kicker. In this example, an Ace with a 6 or 7 kicker figures to not do well at all against someone with an Ace and a superior kicker. The reasoning being that if in order to win the hand you’d have to pair your lower rank and hope that the opponent isn’t going to pair his other rank. So, in a match of AK versus A7, the A7 hand has to hope for a board that contains a 7 with no King and that’s the only way he’s going to win. Such is a rare board, and that’s why people fear being dominated.

The thing is that this very reasonable fear of domination leads people to seek hands that are definitely far away from the range of the preflop raiser. Thus, people would not want to call a raise from the big blind with A7, but would instead prefer to call with a hand like 87 suited. Here’s the thing though, if we take a program like Pokerstove, which can evaluate your pot equity (your percentage of winning a hand over infinite trials) and put in A6 offsuit versus a villain with the range of hands of pocket Aces through pocket 99s, plus all Ace-Kings, all Ace-Queens, Ace-Jack suited, and King-Queen suited (a typical preflop raisers range) we discover that A7 has 27% equity against that range.

27% means you’re about a 3-to-1 dog to the preflop raiser, but since we’re discussing limit Hold’em and you’re in the big blind, 3-to-1 is what you’re getting to call a single raise. This is why I defend the blinds with such hands. In deference to those who argue for suited connectors or small pocket pairs, 87 suited has 30% equity against the villains range, and a pocket deuces has 35%. Of course, the problem with deuces is that that equity assumes you’re calling all the way to the river if you don’t improve the board against a hand like AK, and that can be a fairly daunting task. Still, the math seems clear that you can defend your blind with all of these hands and be alright.

Well where is the folding threshold for blind defense in limit Hold’em? Well let’s take a look at the hands preflop equity against this same range for the villain:
K2 of mixed suits has 25% equity
Q2 of mixed suits has 22% equity
Q2 suited has 27% equity
72 suited has 26% equity
72 of mixed suits has 22% equity

In looking at these range of hands, it seems clear that if we limit our blind defense hand selection to just hands that garner 30% or more preflop equity, then we end up with the range of hands that Jennifer Harmon is talking about. Specifically, hands that have 30% or more preflop equity are:

  • all suited connectors down to 45 suited
  • suited one card “gappers” down to 46 suited (which includes Q-10)
  • all pocket pairs
  • all broadway Aces down to Ace-10
  • all suited Aces
  • all suited Kings down to King-4
  • King-Queen, King-Jack, Queen-Jack, and Jack-Ten, of mixed suits

I can see that for beginners, playing only hands with a 30% equity or better against the villains range will help to keep them out of trouble. In addition, hands like pocket pairs are fairly simple to play: if you flop a set, you’re playing the hand and otherwise release.

Hands that fall below 25% equity are losing money on the preflop call pure and simple. Although even the worse of all preflop holdings, the lowly 72 of mixed suits, still has 22% equity, which isn’t that horrible when you’re getting 3-to-1 on the call. So I can see where Mike Caro says he usually defends his big blind with most any two cards. The problem here is that you have a hard time realizing whether your hand is good or now.

If you hold two low cards and you flop a pair, it’s hard to know whether your pair is good or not in a head’s up pot. Typically you’ll check raise the flop and just hope for the best. Maybe your opponent has a pair that’s smaller than the top board card and will lay down the best hand, or maybe they’ll call you all the way. If they call your check raise, the turn is tricky. Should you bet out and prey or check fold?

When it comes to No Limit, it gets even worse because they can be putting a lot more pressure on you with hands that, while not the favorites, are also not huge dogs either. That’s where hands that are otherwise good just get lost in the fog of poker combat. So staying with Harmon’s advice can help to keep you out of trouble, but it’s not a guarantee. If you play 78 suited and flop middle pair, you’re still in the same predicament.

This is that part where reading your opponent becomes valuable. Are they the kind that will raise AK before the flop, but check back a flop they didn’t hit? Will they bet a flop they missed, but surrender to a check raise or a turn bet? If you know these tendencies in your opponent it will greatly help you to defend your blind because you’re going more on their perceived strength on less on the strength of your hand.

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