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Combination Hands in No-Limit Hold’em


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Once upon a time, no-limit hold’em cash games were a relative rarity, but now, lots of casinos are offering them to both high- and low-limit players. While I’ve seen plenty written about no-limit hold’em tournament strategy, I’ve seen very few articles about no-limit hold’em cash games, so I’ll make sure to write about the subject from time to time.

Of course, we all want to book as big a win as possible (duh!), but when it comes to no-limit, I think an equally important issue is making sure that you avoid big losses. If you’re going to risk your entire stack, you want to be pretty darn sure that you’re not taking the worst of it. I think no-limit players go broke most often in two situations:


  1. They have a big pocket pair, someone outflops them, but they can’t lay their pair down. I’ve discussed this scenario extensively in past columns, so I won’t rehash it here.


  1. They flop a combination hand and play it incorrectly.


What is a combination hand?

You have a combination hand when you flop a pair along with either a straight or a flush draw. A typical example (which I’ll use throughout the column) would be the 8clubs 7clubs with a flop of Qclubs 8diamonds 2clubs. You might have the best hand with a pair of eights, but even if you don’t, you can still hit your flush and win that way. I think too many players get overly excited when they flop such a hand. If they stopped to think about it, they would realize that they could go broke by playing the hand incorrectly, which should make them more worried than excited.

Too often, poker qiu qiu players instinctively get far too aggressive when they flop a combination hand. They figure they don’t want to be moved off their hand, so they either move all in or overbet the pot. There might be $50 in the pot, and they bet more than $100. They don’t stop to think that no sensible no-limit player is going to call them with a drawing hand — the pot odds just aren’t there. Most of the time, they will win the pot uncontested, but when they do get called, they are almost certainly up against a better hand. In all likelihood, their opponent has at least two pair, and maybe a set. So, once someone calls, their pair is usually worthless. Their combination hand has been reduced to merely a drawing hand. Now, they’ve overbet the pot, and the only way to win is to hit their draw. Not only are they getting horrible odds on their flop bet, but if they didn’t put themselves all in, a smart opponent will make it expensive for them on the turn if the next card off does not make their hand. All in all, this is a pretty lousy situation.

Let’s examine this further. You can essentially break down every combination hand into one of four groups:


  1. You have the best hand and the only flush draw: In this case, you’re not going to encounter too much resistance. You don’t mind betting and winning the pot without a fight, since you definitely don’t want to give someone with overcards a free shot at beating you, but a large bet certainly isn’t necessary. A pot-sized bet or less should end the hand then and there.


  1. You have the only flush draw, but someone has a better hand: This essentially presents you with a classic semibluff situation. As such, this might be the only time that making a large bet would be worthwhile, but it depends on just how strong your opponent’s hand is. In the Qclubs 8diamonds 2clubs scenario, if he has the 9hearts 8hearts, you should be able to move him off his hand. However, if he hits a big flop with Q-Q or 2-2, you’re now going to end up putting a large bet in with only a draw. Sure, you have outs, but once you see your opponent’s hand, you’ll wish you hadn’t gotten involved in the hand to begin with.


  1. You have the best hand, but someone has a higher flush draw: Continuing with the Qclubs 8diamonds 2clubs scenario, let’s say your opponent holds the Aclubs 4clubs while you have the 8clubs 7clubs. You could probably make an oversized bet and push him off his draw, but is that your best play? Think about it. An opponent with the Aclubs 4clubs has only 10 outs against your 8clubs 7clubs (three aces plus seven clubs left in the deck), so you’d be happy to have him call a pot-sized bet. You’d much rather have him call instead of fold, since you’re laying him the incorrect price to draw to his hand. But more importantly, if you’re a solid no-limit player, you should be able to get away from your hand whenever this opponent hits any of his 10 outs. If an ace comes, would you really call him with just a pair of eights? I hope not. If a club comes, you are faced with a tougher laydown, but it still shouldn’t be too difficult to fold an 8-high flush if you bet and get raised. All in all, an oversized bet might cause him to lay down his draw, but you stand to make more in the long run by hooking him in with a more reasonably sized bet.


  1. One opponent has a better hand, while a second opponent has a higher flush draw: Oh, boy. You’re in quite a bit of trouble. In a past column, I wrote about an actual hand in which I held the Kclubs Qclubs and caught a flop of Kdiamonds Jclubs 10clubs, which of course looked like a beautiful flop for me — that is, until I discovered that one of my opponents had the Ahearts Qhearts while another one had the Aclubs 4clubs. If you’re up against two opponents who are both giving significant action, you have to consider that you might be in this disastrous situation, and the sooner you can identify it, the better. Obviously, of all the four scenarios, this is the one in which overbetting the pot would be the biggest mistake by far.


I’ve seen times when one opponent bet, another raised, and the player with the combination hand reraised all in. As no-limit plays go, this has to be one of the worst you can make. Of course, those players with the combination hands went on to bemoan their bad luck when they realized they had gone all in and were drawing completely dead. I could have told them that luck was not the issue there. If you’re going to go all in over two players who have both shown strength, you’d darn well better have something more than just a pair and a weak flush draw.

In general, I have oversimplified the four possible scenarios, but I just want to drive home the main point: It doesn’t pay to make a large bet when you flop a combination hand. When you have an opponent drawing thin against you (scenario No. 3), you don’t want to blow him out of the pot. Conversely, if your opponent has you in bad shape, you want to be able to get away from the hand. If someone raises you a significant amount, you’d certainly rather wait for a better situation instead of risking the possibility of going broke.

So, exercise some restraint when you flop combination hands. They have been the death knoll of many no-limit players, both in live games and tournaments. Don’t let them be yours.

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