The Importance of Watching the Odds

Posted January 15, 2013


watching the odds

Where you learn to play poker, whether it’s at an online poker room or in live games, can strongly shape your style, aggression, and hand selection at the card table. Yet one common trait all poker players have is a working understanding of probability - or in layman's terms - they know the odds. While you don't need a master's degree in theoretical mathematics to know chasing an inside straight draw against a strong raise is a bad decision, understanding what your chances are at any given point in a hand is an essential part of poker.

The 'Ins' and, More Importantly, the 'Outs'

In order to properly assess your situation in a game of Texas Hold'em you must first understand the concept of outs. Outs are the remaining cards that could come to improve either you or your opponents' hands. While it's simple enough to look at a flop and understand what cards you need to make the best hand, there are a lot of factors that you will have to consider before making a decision.

First, you must think of how many players were dealt into the hand, as those cards will not be available to help you improve your hand. You'll also want to pay attention to how your opponents play to gauge the strength of their hole cards. While there's no surefire way to guess an opponent's hand without cheating, you can typically narrow down the possibilities based on the temperament of the player (i.e. Are they a loose player? Are they more selective?) and how aggressively they play their cards. If a player bet big preflop, for example, then you can assume they have a moderate-to-strong hand with high overcards (notably face cards) or pocket pairs, meaning those cards cannot help you and this lessens your number of outs.

Playing Percentages

When you have a concept of how many outs you have, you are in a better position to take stock of your situation and figure out the odds of your success. There are roughly 19,600 different flop combinations, and more than 2.1 million board combinations that can come out. Consider also that there are four suits of every card, and every card you hold makes it less likely that you will encounter a pair, so the math of the situation is always in flux based on you and your opponents' hands, as well as the pace of the game. In Texas Hold 'em poker tournaments the board will hold five cards, and though the first three come all at once (as part of the flop), the remaining two, the turn and river cards respectively, will be laid out individually. This will greatly shift your odds, as the fewer cards there are left to be dealt, the less likely you are to see a particular out come into play.

Consider a scenario in which you are holding a weak ace and miss the flop entirely, but want to keep playing in the hope that you can nab top pair. You effectively have three outs, as there are three other aces in the deck. In this scenario, there is only a 12.5 percent chance that you will hit your ace. If you miss the turn your chances drop to 6.5 percent, and that's not considering the very real chance that one of your opponents may have been dealt an ace, or one might have been found in the burn cards. Obviously the more outs you have, the better your chances are for coming out on top in the hand, with players who have four cards to both a straight and a flush draw having a more than 54 percent chance at hitting one or both of these hands.

Long Odds on Big Payoffs

While everyone loves a story involving quad aces being trumped by straight flushes, it's important to note that the odds of landing the biggest hands in poker are pretty slim. The odds of starting with a pocket pair, for example is a meager 5.88 percent, or 16 to 1. The odds of looking at your hole cards to find pocket aces, on the other hand, are a dismal 0.45 percent. Even if you happen into a pocket pair, the odds of flopping a set (11.8 percent) aren't phenomenal, while a full house (0.74 percent) or four of a kind (0.24 percent) are even less likely. That being said, it may be worth it to see a reasonably priced flop with low pockets, as the odds of making a set or better are about 19 percent.

Some players also sing the praises of hands that are suited, and with good reason. Suited cards have a 24 percent chance of improving over the course of the hand, though don't be too sure of your cards, as the flop will be rainbow (i.e. showing three different suits) around 40 percent of the time.

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