Ellie Biessek: Trouble hands – suited connectors

Suited connectors are potent weapons, says Grosvenor Poker pro Ellie Biessek, but you need to know when to deploy them and when to wave the white flag

In my previous article, I talked about ‘trouble hands’ – hands which can be difficult to play in certain circumstances or on certain board textures due to the risk of being dominated. This time out I’m going to talk about another type of hand that can be difficult to play – suited connectors. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to consider suited connectors to be any hand above 5-4s, containing no Broadway cards. Clearly, similar dynamics apply to the likes of Q-Js and J-Ts, the difference being that they can have some high card value.

The hands that we’ll be considering range from 5-4s to T-9s. Whilst not specifically considering suited one or two gappers (like 7-5s and T-8s), the same basic principles apply.

So, why play suited connectors? They have no high card value and are easily dominated when you hit a pair. The main advantage of suited connectors is that they can be used to trap big hands, enabling you to get paid when you hit.

When to play them, though, is very important. I see many players in tournaments who know about the value of suited connectors but play them in early position or when they have become too short-stacked to do so profitably. Let’s look at some examples.

Example 1

It’s early in a tournament and you have roughly the starting stack of 25,000 chips with blinds of 100/200. The table has been fairly aggressive with quite a lot of three-betting. UTG opens to 600 and you’re UTG+1 with 5-4s.

This is a pretty hand that has lots of potential, but there are a number of players to act behind you and UTG’s range should be strong – pocket pairs, A-Q+, etc. You could call and hope to see a flop, but you could face a three-bet and, even if they just call, you’re likely to be playing the hand out of position to most of them.

One of the disadvantages of small suited connectors is that even when you do hit your hand and make a flush, there is a good chance that, when there is heavy action, your flush could be dominated by a better one. In this situation, I would therefore fold and wait for a better spot.

In later position, such as the cut-off or on the button, I may call, however, as there is less chance of aggressive action behind and I’m likely to be able to play the rest of the hand with in position.

Example 2

It’s later on in the tournament and you have a stack of 22,000 at 400/800/100. Again, UTG opens, this time to 2,000, and you’re in middle position with another pretty hand – 9-8s. In order to call here, you’d need to put in more than 9% of your stack, and fold if there is a raise behind you. While sometimes frustrating,this is one of those times when folding is the best option. I would almost certainly call from the big blind if I was closing the preflop action.

Rule of 5%

So, when should you play suited connectors? In my view, they are best played when you have a deep stack and position in the hand. Some pros use a rule of 5% – you should only commit 5% of your stack preflop with a marginal or drawing hand. Others use a higher number, but if you are approaching 10% of your stack preflop it’s probably best to lay them down.

It’s also an advantage if you have some kind of information on your opponents and how they play, so that you can maximise your return if you do hit your hand. If you’re heads up post-flop against an opponent that’s very tight, it may be very difficult to extract any value even if you do make your hand – again, another reason to fold. So, let’s assume that you do choose to play your suited connectors in position and you get a favourable flop, how are you going to play your hand?

The odds of flopping a flush when holding two suited cards are 118-1 and the odds of flopping a straight with two connecting cards not much less at 76-1, so the chance of you flopping a made hand are low. That’s not including flopping two pair and trip hands, of course, but it’s still not a large percentage. You’re much more likely to flop a draw than a made hand.

There are basically two schools of thought on how to play a draw – one that you play passively and wait to hit, the other that you force the action and play aggressively by semi-bluffing. Which route you should take will depend on a number of factors, including whether you have position and how you would actually play your strong made hands. Again, let’s look at an example.

Example 3

UTG opens, a player in middle position also calls and you call on the button to see a flop of 4-8-9. UTG continues on the flop for half-pot and the other player folds.

Let’s say you’d called on the button with 8-8. How would you play this hand? With both flush and straight draws present, many players would raise here, hoping to get value from overpairs as well as those draws. The downside of this is that if UTG has a hand like A-K, you won’t give them the opportunity to fire another barrel. If you would always just call here with a made hand like 8-8, then raising if you have a draw like 7-6 makes less sense. If you would raise with a set, then raising with a draw like this is much more effective.

Out of position it’s likely that UTG will just call even if they have an overpair, unless they’re particularly aggressive, and then check the turn, allowing you to check back and see a river for less than if you had called on the flop and faced a bet on the turn.

The situation will be very different if you are out of position, however. Here, it’s likely that a player will check behind if scare cards land on turn or river, so you may find that you have to play the hand more aggressively on the flop and check-raise, trying to use fold equity with your semi-bluff.

In today’s aggressive game, this can be a dangerous strategy – many players will expect you to do this with semi-bluffs and you are then put in a difficult position on the turn if you don’t hit and have the betting lead. Do you fire again, potentially for a substantial portion of your stack now that you’ve bloated the pot out of position, or do you meekly check and hope that your opponent doesn’t fire a big bet on the turn, forcing you to fold?

There are certain draws that are just too big to fold, even though you don’t have a made hand, and you should generally be trying to get all your chips into the middle on the flop when you have the most equity. The most obvious example of this is an open- ended straight flush draw. It may surprise you to know that an open-ended straight flush draw is only marginally behind top set on the flop and is ahead of any overpair.

Those are the kind of circumstances in which you want to get as many chips in the middle as possible. The same is true of straight/flush combo draws like 7-8 on 5-6-K. In this scenario, your hand has more equity than Aces on the flop.

Summary

  1. Just about every hand is easier to play in position. For drawing hands like suited connectors, this is especially true.
  2. Make sure your stack is deep enough – suited connectors are drawing hands so you have to be able to make enough chips when you hit to make up for the times you don’t.
  3. Make sure you’re up against an opponent who will pay you when you hit your hand.
  4. You’re more likely to flop a draw. Think about how best to play it against your specific opponent depending on their tendencies and how you play your made hands.
  5. Don’t be afraid to play straight/flush combo-draws aggressively. You have the most equity on the flop if you don’t hit the turn, so that is when you should generally be looking to put the most chips in.


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