I Was Suited

A suited Poker Mutant at The Palazzo, Las Vegas for the Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza I, 17 February 2012

I’d already been planning to write this article later this week. but then the great Mike Caro published a column in Poker Player, so I’m addressing it before I get to my second go-round at the Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza.

It’s the standard joke when a player—often on the short stack—busts out when they go all-in with mid-level suited connectors or gaps. I think I’ve heard it in almost every tournament I’ve played, the (sometimes) suppressed chortle from one player to another that: “They probably played it because it was suited.”

Now, I can’t claim to know what those people were thinking—and far be it from me to joust with someone like Caro over poker statistics—but I have my own rationale based on statistical analysis of hundreds of thousands of hands at various numbers of players.

Anyone around a poker table will be happy to tell you that suited cards are only a few percent more likely to win than unsuited cards. That’s absolutely true, but let’s look at what that means in real life before we get too dismissive. In a nine-handed showdown to the river, a hand like 8To loses 87.47% of the time. That means it either wins the pot or ties for and splits the pot 12.53%. The same combination suited loses 84.42%. It wins or ties 15.58%. Now, if you’re looking at raw numbers, you see that as a mere 3.05% difference.

What you need to take into account in hand selection pre-flop is the relative strength of the hand to other potential hands. And when you stack up 8Ts against 8To, what you get is a hand that’s 24% more likely to win or tie (15.58% divided by 12.53% = 124%). That’s what that 3% difference means. So if you’re going to play something like JT, wouldn’t you rather play it suited (wins/ties 19.32%) over unsuited (wins/ties 15.92%)? That’s a 20% differential in the strength of the hand you’re starting with, i.e. if you’re playing JT at all, you’re 20% better off playing it suited than unsuited.

Caro’s analysis of the unsuitability of suited cards relies heavily on how likely it is that the cards will make a flush, which is the presumed rationale for playing suited cards. My analysis isn’t based on relying on the chance of a flush, rather the chance of a flush is a modifier to the pre-flop starting strength of the hand, in the decision to play it.

As Caro points out: “there are two chances to make a flush when you hold unsuited cards. … You have about a 6.5 percent chance of ending up with a flush (including a straight flush) when you begin suited and stubbornly stay to see the river. You have a bit less than a two percent chance if your cards are of mixed suits.” Using Caro’s numbers, if you view this in relative terms, you’re 225% more likely to get a flush with suited cards than you are with unsuited cards. That’s in addition to whatever pair, set, straight, or full house possibilities you might have picked up on the flop and turn. The number’s still small, but every slight advantage can count in poker.