The entire book is below.
This article is about preflop play at no-limit holdem and pot-limit Omaha. It’s about basing some of your preflop decisions on whether or not you have a straighter.
At holdem, a straighter is a hand that can flop a straight. 6-2 is a straighter. 7-2 isn’t.
If 9-7 is a “one-gapper,” and 9-6 is a “two-gapper,” then in gapspeak, a straighter is a hand with three or fewer gaps.
At PLO, a straighter is a hand with no pairs, no aces, and no more than two gaps. J-10-9-8 has no gaps, and J-9-8-7 has one gap, so those are both straighters. J-9-8-6 has two gaps, so that’s a straighter. J-9-8-5 has three gaps, so it’s not.
Another way to see it is that PLO straighters have a 6-span maximum. J-9-7-5 is not a straighter because the distance from jack to five (J-T-9-8-7-6-5) is seven cards. Whereas J-9-7-6 spans six cards, so it’s a straighter.
Waiting for straighters does not mean wait until you get a straighter and then play it. It means wait for a straighter, at least, and then maybe play it. In other words, fold the non-straighters. That’s the gist of this article.
Part I − DISCOVERY − is the story of how I came to know that the stuff in Part II would do wonders for my bankroll and my sanity forever.
Part II − APPLICATION − begins with an essay on Being Last to Act. Then comes how and why to apply WFS to no-limit holdem and pot-limit Omaha. Each game has its own section.
Part III is called Using WFS to Tame Tilt, Plug Leaks, and Reduce Fear of Self. If the Waiting for Straighters experiment appeals to you, I don’t think it will be on strategic merit alone. It will be because something in Part III makes sense to you and resonates.
PART I − Discovery
When I made friends with Earl, he played backgammon, chess, and gin, but he had no experience with poker. What he did have was a computer and a modem. And this was in 1999, when online poker was only one-year old, and all tables were goofy loose all the time.
“A trained monkey could beat these games,” I said to Earl.
“How about a trained Earl?” he replied.
We both liked that idea.
“We’re going to need something to write on,” I said.
Back then, almost everyone played limit holdem, and in that game, the higher your hole cards, the better. When analyzing preflop strategy, it was a simple matter to draw lines between which hands should or shouldn’t be played in a given situation. If it were correct to fold Q-10 under the gun, then it was also correct to fold all hands lower that Q-10, even if connected and suited.
No-limit holdem isn’t like that. At no-limit, it’s wrong to even believe in preflop correctness. For one, suitedness and connectedness have more value at no-limit than at limit, as does terrifying your opponents with wide ranges. At limit holdem, wide opening ranges are no less terrifying, but the psychological advantage of striking fear into the hearts of your opponents is not enough to overcome the statistical disadvantage of having lower cards, because so many hands go to showdown.
Back to Earl…
I drew two columns and labeled them ALWAYS PLAY and ALWAYS FOLD. Then I filled in the hands that I wanted Earl to always play and always fold.
“The always-fold list is a lot longer than the always-play list,” Earl said.
“Right. That’s why patience is vital in this game. But that’s not your concern because I am programming you to be a rock.”
“What about the in-between hands that you didn’t write down?”
“Those are the it depends hands,” I said. “Whether you play them or not will depend on two things: your position, and the prior action.”
Down the left-hand side of a new piece of paper I wrote these words, nicely spaced: Button, Cutoff, Early Position, Big Blind, and Small Blind.
Across the top of the page, I wrote six column headings: No One In, 1 Limper, 2 or More Limpers, 1 Raiser, 1 Raiser Plus 1 or More Callers, and 2 Raisers.
Next I drew horizontal and vertical lines to form a grid. And I liked what I saw. It was a table. The rows were positions. And the columns were prior actions. Each box of the grid now defined a preflop situation, such as: Two or more players limped and I’m in the big blind.
“Let’s start with the busiest position,” I said. “ The button. If one person limps and you are on the button, you will play all pocket pairs, plus AK, AQ, AJ, AT, KQ, KJ, and QJ. Everything else you throw away. Here’s what that looks like on the chart.”
In the box labeled BUTTON / ONE LIMPER, I wrote:
AK, AQ, AJ, AT
“Later I’ll add “R” and “C” to indicate if you should raise or call. For now, let’s just fill in the hands. Notice that each line is a category. First is pocket pairs, then ace-high hands, king-high hands, and so on. The square with the most ink will be BUTTON / NO ONE IN.”
In that square I wrote:
“Don’t tell me,” said Earl. “That means I play all pocket pairs.”
I nodded. “Next is ace-high hands.”
“You’re saying to play A2, and A3, all the way up to AK,” he said.
“You are going to be an internet phenomenon,” I said. “Now, about the king-high hands…”
I had to stop and think. Hmm, what’s the worst king-high hand Earl should open with on the button?
But not for long:
“Raise with KQ, KJ, KT, and K9,” I said, “but not K8, or any other king-high hands.”
And then it hit me. I had just drawn the same line in the BUTTON / ONE LIMPER box, when I listed AK, AQ, AJ, and AT as Earl’s hands to play, and stopped at A9. Where did that line come from? I had given it no thought. The AT/A9 line had become root code, etched into my DNA by decades of flops. At that moment, I became aware of my belief that situations do exist where it’s correct to play AT and fold A9, but no situation exists where it’s correct to play A9 and fold A8.
The Line Between Maybe and Always
Five years later, in 2004, poker exploded, and I became a poker coach for hire. I dusted off Earl’s starting-hand chart to use with clients. My idea was to ask them to fill out a blank chart with their starting hands, and that would give me some quick and deep insight as to how they played, before we even talked.
But first, I thought, I should fill out the chart, with my starting hands, to know how my clients would experience this exercise.
So I did. I sat on my couch with a clipboard in my lap. I wrote LIMIT HOLDEM at the top of the chart, and I pictured a soft game. I gazed into each box, and I imagined the depicted scene… It’s been raised and reraised preflop and it’s my turn in the small blind. Then I asked myself: What is the worst hand I should ever play in that spot?
Another way I framed the question was: In each of these situations, what hands should I always fold no matter what?
As I filled in the boxes, I was forced to draw lines. To set bars. I had to come up with a reason, however whimsical or sound, for choosing to place each bar where I placed it.
And the straighter line — the gap between three gaps and four — kept showing up in my boxes, as it had years before with Earl. Calling a single raise or not from the big blind. Reraising or not on the button. In situation after situation, the straighters were MAYBE PLAY and the non-straighters were ALWAYS FOLD.
Bobby Hoff and the A-10/A-9 Line
I was lucky and honored to play poker with Bobby Hoff about 20 times. It was during the mid-aughts, when he was flying up to San Francisco from Los Angeles twice a month to play in the big no-limit game at Lucky Chances. I was a regular in that game then.
Twice I was there when Bobby was cashing out and heading back home, and twice he accepted my offer to drive him to the airport. He let me ask him anything. For 20 minutes, I had the mentor of my dreams.
“It’s not about how good you play, it’s about how bad they play.”
Those were Bobby’s words of wisdom on the importance of game selection. And, subtly, it was a lesson on the dangers of pride. Maybe he knew I needed that.
Now that you know I’m a Bobby fan, and that I had a pre-existing sensitivity to the line between three-gappers and four-gappers, you can imagine how blown my mind was when Bobby Hoff said these words to me as we turned onto Airport Boulevard at 4am. They came out slowly, to make sure I gleaned the intended lesson.
“At pot-limit holdem and no-limit holdem, the worst starting hand is A-9 offsuit.”
And there it was again. The str8er line. Given its due, emphatically, by a master.
Three years later, I had written Elements of Poker, people were liking it, and my coaching calendar was full. Half my clients were full-time grinders, some of them at high-stakes. When I coached a top-flight pro, we didn’t spend much time talking about betting strategy because that’s not what they came to me for. But I did have a short list of strategy topics I’d bring up no matter how good they played, just in case it would up their A-game a smidge. I’d ask about the 3-gap/4-gap line, and where it fit into their preflop decision matrix.
One day I was working with a quick-minded high-stakes no-limit client (call him Kevin), and I posed my questions…
“If you take a holdem hand and you change one card by one spot, and then compare the two hands, which difference matters most? Is the difference between A-K and A-Q bigger or smaller than the difference between A-Q and K-Q? Is the difference between Q-4 and Q-3 bigger or smaller than the difference between Q-3 and Q-2? Don’t answer that. The real question I’m asking is—”
“Ace-ten ace-nine,” Kevin blurted.
“Right! But how—?”
“It has to be a 3-gap-4-gap difference,” Kevin said, “since the difference between 7-3 and 7-4 is obviously less than the difference between 7-3 and 7-2, because of the straight ramifications.”
It was like listening to myself talk. Naturally I agreed with everything. He went on…
“So then it’s just a question of which matters more in battle − the difference between A-10/A-9, or the difference between K-9/K-8, down to 7-3/7-2. And the answer is obviously A-10/A-9, because with A-T your straight is always the nuts.”
I nodded vigorously as he finished and said, “And while we’re here, let me ask you a research question. Do you think the 3-gap/4-gap line should sometimes be the parameter that tips the scales between playing a hand or folding it?”
“For sure,” Kevin said. “Lots of times.”
And Along Came Danglers
My love for the language of poker swelled up yet again when PLO brought the word dangler into our jargon. Here’s a rough definition of dangler that I think captures the spirit of the word: a dangler is a hole card that is 4-or-more gaps away from the other cards. We’re going to dig deeper into danglers later. My point is that this word arose in the modern wave of PLO analysis, and its existence shows that our collective consciousness is very aware of the 3-gap/4-gap gap.
PART II − Application
Waiting for straighters means different things to different players depending on where they fall on the loose-tight spectrum and the aggressive-passive spectrum. To a loose-aggressive player, WFS could mean folding J♠6♠, J♠5♠, J♠4♠, J♠3♠, and J♠2♠ in the early seats, and waiting for at least J♠7♠ to open with. Whereas to a tight-aggressive player, WFS could mean folding A♠9♠, A♠8♠, A♠7♠, and A♠6♠. And to a tight-passive player, WFS could mean loosening up and playing J♠7♠ on the button instead of folding it.
Waiting for straighters can strengthen your game strategically, and mentally. It can make you more wealthy, and less unhappy.
WFS and Being Last to Act
“Acting last is like taking a drink of water. We don’t have to understand why it’s good for us to know that it is. And the benefits are unaffected by our understanding of them.” — Elements of Poker
“There are only two postflop positions: last to act, and other.” — Elements of Poker
Being last to act is about losing the least when you’re beat, and winning the most when you’re not. Only as last to act can you check behind. Only as last to act can you bet when checked to. Only as last to act can you be bet into when you have a monster. Only as last to act can you plan the hand as last to act. This is why money flows to the button.
Waiting for straighters does not mean playing straighters out of position just because you have a straighter. Waiting for straighters combines two kinds of waiting. Waiting for cards. And waiting for last to act.
Reminder: It’s a short wait from the blinds to the button.
The button makes all hands better, but not equally. Drawing hands gain the most. The difference in value between 9-8 in the small blind and 9-8 on the button is greater than the difference in value between A-A in the small blind and A-A on the button. I happen to think it’s a lot greater. I fold 9-8 (suited or not) from the blinds and early seats. And I play 9-8 (suited or not) on the button (if the bet-size to stack-size ratios are right).
You have A♣ Q♣ in the big blind. It’s folded to the button. He gives lots of action. He opens to 5x. The small blind folds and you 3-bet. The button calls. The flop is J♣ 3♣ 2♦.
Nice flop, right?
Please take a moment to recall the tinge of tension you feel on each street, in your core, as first to act. I’ll wait.
Now compare that discomfort to the luxurious feeling of flopping the nut flush draw with overcards, and acting last. The reason you feel safe and profitable is because you get to see what they do first, on the flop, on the turn, and on the river. You’ll never have it so good with nothing.
If you’ve played a lot of poker, you subconsciously know that every time you’re in a headsup pot, you are always either in the very best position in poker, or the very worst. You either have the advantage, or you don’t, on every street.
Here’s my approach to playing NLHE and PLO. I know from experience that if I act last on way more streets than the opposition, I’ll make enough money to live on. So I fold a lot preflop from the blinds and the early seats, and after the flop, I give up sooner than most when I’m first to act and I whiff. The result is that I am last to act on about 80% of the streets I play. It’s such a huge edge that sometimes it feels unfair.
I take the same approach with straighters. My objective is lopsidedness. I want to start with straighters more often than my opponents do, and I accomplish this by folding non-straighters more often than they do.
Being last to act is a power that should be abused, right up to the point when it shouldn’t. Pro players swing like a pendulum around that point. We tighten up, and that generates power that we then abuse appropriately and profitably, for a while, until we abuse it too much, which causes losing, and the pain of losing makes us tighten back up, which turns the power back on, and the winning resumes.
The cycle I just described is a fractal. It can play out over a span of months, weeks, or hours. I have used WFS to end the power cycle permanently on all time scales. WFS keeps me from over-abusing the power, and poof, no more pendulum.
Strategic Merits of WFS at No-Limit Holdem
The crux: With a straighter, you can clandestinely draw to a hand that will beat hands that will pay off.
Let’s run some cards. The effective stack sizes are 200 big blinds.
A loose player opens to 4x under the gun, and it’s folded to you on the button. You have K♥ 8♥, and you fold.
That fold is what it means to wait for a straighter.
One orbit later, the same player opens again and everyone folds again. This time you have K♥ 10♥ on the button. You 3-bet, the blinds fold, and the opener calls.
The flop is J♠ 7♦ 2♣. Your opponent checks, you bet, and when he calls, you get a sense that he likes his hand. The turn is a 9:
J♠ 7♦ 2♣ 9♥
You have K-10, so now you need a Queen or an 8 to make a straight.
He checks, and you check behind, and…
This is when you genuflect to the poker gods in gratitude for this divine gift: a free card that could win you a big pot. And this free card was actually free. All you did was C-bet a dry flop, a standard play for you, so those funds were already appropriated.
Let’s review the-hand-so-far, and predict the future. With a scattered flop, your opponent check-called your bet on the flop. Some percentage of the time, he will have a very good hand. It doesn’t matter if he’s a maniac or a nit. A set is a set. Two pair is two pair. Those are hands that any opponent could have when they call your C-bet and check the turn. And when they decide to play it slow like that, they will have their finger on the trigger, ready to fire into you on the river.
And most of the time, you’ll fold gracefully when they bet. That’s the usual ending to this traditional dance. But sometimes, your straight gets there, and that’s when chips fly — into your stack. Besides cracking made hands, you make money when they improve to two pair on the river, and when they value bet with one pair, and when they bluff the river because you checked the turn.
And when you raise the river, you’ll have the nuts, or close.
With K-8, none of those happy endings can happen.
Cracking Sets and Two Pair with Buried Straights
If you have J-6, and you don’t have a flush draw, your hopes for winning a major pot by cracking a set is nearly nil. First you have to make a full house by catching two jacks and a six or two sixes and a jack. And when you do manage to fill up, about half the time the player with a set will have a higher full house. And those losses can be soul crushers.
With J-7, viable set-cracking opportunities arise. You can flop a straight, flop an open-ender, flop a double-gutter, and flop a gutshot. And because you’ll be using both hole cards, your straights will be buried. They’ll be hard to spot, and hard to believe in.
Also with a straighter, you can flop a pair and a straight draw — like when you have 9-5 and the flop is 9-7-6 — or you can make a hand like that on the turn. And whenever you make a straight on the river against a set or two pair, your soul is safe. You win the pot every time.
Straights are better than flushes for cracking sets because when three hearts hit the board, any hand with two hearts just made a flush, and the holder of the set will see the danger, and might proceed cautiously. Timidity in these situations could be bad strategy for that player in the long run, but on a hand-by-hand basis, the “scared” player will in fact get away cheap when you have the flush. But when that same player flops a set and gets beat by a buried straight on an unpaired rainbow board, he gets stacked, because that’s how the poker world turns.
I’m in the big blind and a player with a wide opening range opens for his standard 3x. Two players call, and the action is on me. I believe the opener will fold 2/3 of his range if I 3-bet. And I believe both callers will fold nearly always. I look at my cards, 9♥ 3♣, and I try to act like someone who just saw A♠ A♦, and I raise.
That’s how I was playing no-limit in 1998. And I was making good money. (Mostly because the games were extra soft.) Then for 12 years, my squeezing range gradually narrowed, and I think I know why. It’s because of the times the opener forgets to fold (as I had scripted). And then the dealer puts out a flop, and I’ve got no pair, no draw, and no high cards, and what am I supposed to do now? Just check-fold every time? Like hell I am! I came in swinging and I’ll keep swinging! At least for a street or two (or three if absolutely necessary). And when the opponent continues to not fold I’m like, How the fudge did I get into this mess?
And on the drive home, the occasional ray of wisdom shines through: Would I go broke if I were to expunge this pattern of pain from my game? Maybe from now on I should wait until I have something halfway decent before I go charging into major conflicts out of position.
What I’m suggesting is that if you are playing in a full, live, cash game, and one of your cards is, say, a Queen, that you don’t squeeze unless the other card is an A, K, J, T, 9, or 8. To be clear, I’m not saying you should squeeze because you have a straighter. I’m saying you should refrain from squeezing because you don’t. Because sometimes they don’t fold, and then you’ll have a flop, turn, and river to play, first to act, against a player who likes his hand. And that’s a fine time to have something halfway decent, every time.
And by increasing your preflop folding rate, your squeezes and C-bets will gain heft and believability, which translates to increased fold equity.
Limped Pots at No-Limit Holdem
Playing $2/5 NLHE, I’m on the button and three players limp. I lift the corners to see 6♥ 2♥ . I have composed concertos with this hand. The flop is K♠ 4♦ 3♣. I need a 5 for the second nuts. Two thoughts come to mind:
- Poker loves me.
- Just in case, I should tune my Spidey sense to spot a 6-7, the only hand that can hurt me.
As often happens in multiway limped pots, everyone checked the flop. And now it was on me, to either bet or check. Nobody at the table knew this, but I had no choice. I had to check. That’s because I was following a script. 6♥ 2♥ is the worst hand I ever play, and this is the only way I ever play it: limp in, multiway, on the button, and then, if the opportunity presents, I check behind on the flop with a slowly tapping pinky finger. (Unless I flop two pair or better, in which case, let’s gambol!)
At this point in the script — after I check the flop and before the turn card is dealt — the pot is always puny, everyone will know six of their seven cards before they bet again, and no one knows what anyone has. So we’re all on equal footing.
Except for one stupendously huge thing.
There are two rounds of betting to go, and only one person gets to go last, and that person is me. What a dandy time to have a straight draw that could cause major stack damage to bad players holding good hands. And it only cost me five bucks to get here.
I’m happy to play 6♥ 2♥ on the button, or 7♥ 3♥, but never 7♥ 2♥. This was a tough decision because there are times when I could play any hand with positive expectation. But I made a choice. To always throw some hands away. I raised my worst-hand-ever-play bar all the way up to 6♥ 2♥. And now I always have a chance at a bingo.
A Pair Plus a Draw at NLHE
A two-way hand is a hand that already has showdown value (such as one pair in holdem or a set in Omaha) and can also improve to a straight or a flush. Two-way hands create favorable gaming conditions. The thinking is: I might have the best hand now, but if I don’t, I have a backup plan. And if my pair is good on the river, I might earn extra money with a value bet, or by picking off a bluff.
But if all you have is a draw, and you miss, your only options are to fold (boring) or to bluff (needlessly risky). Two-way hands are safer and funner and win more pots.
Two-way hands at holdem can be hard to read because first the villain is playing the hand like he has a pair, because he does, and then a flush card comes on the turn or river, and now he bets or raises like someone who made a flush, because he did. The stories don’t match. Something smells fishy. And you’ve got a pocket overpair. So you call a big bet and lose.
I’m not saying you made a bad call. I’m saying it’s tough to play against two-way hands, which is why you should want to have them. With JT, J9, J8, and J7, you can flop a two-way hand, for example, you have J7 and the flop is J-9-8. With J6, J5, J4, J3, and J2, you can’t.
A Pair with a Backdoor Straight Draw at NLHE
You have A-6 and the villain has K-9. The flop is 9-6-2. You are behind, and you can take the lead by catching an Ace or a 6. That’s five outs.
If you have 8-6 instead of A-6, the 9-6-2 flop gives you a covert backup plan to go with your pair. If a 7 comes on the turn, you now have an open-ender, and a 10 or 5 on the turn gives you a gutshot. That’s 12 additional cards that improve your hand on the turn, because you started with a straighter.
Waiting for Straighters at Pot-Limit Omaha
You only need seven words to define a holdem straighter: A hand that can flop a straight. Defining a PLO straighter is bound to be more complicated than that, and the inherent arbitrariness of the definition, whatever it is, would demand an explanation. So I’m going to start there, with the story of how Harry Kaczka and I came up with what we came up with.
My Relationship to PLO
Did you know Omaha invaded Ohio in 1980? That’s when a crazy new rule rode into town. It was baffling. And perfect. And baffling in its perfection. One little rule was enough to create a crazed new level of hysteria for me and my poker buddies:
You must play two cards from your hand and three from the board.
Ten years of mostly-Omaha later, I went full-time pro, and during my first few years of grinding, about half the hands I played were some variety of Omaha (pot-limit, fixed-limit high-only, or fixed-limit hi-lo). That comes to 13 years of Omaha, during my apprenticeship.
From the mid-90s until 2013, I played no Omaha. Then they started spreading PLO in the rooms I played at, and the action looked good. “You have to swim where the water is warm.” That’s what Bobby Hoff told me when I asked him why he was flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco to play poker. So I dove into the PLO pool.
I was a totally different poker player in 2013 than I was way back when. Gone were my spasmodic cravings for action. Which meant I had the discipline to deploy any nitty idea and stick with it. I knew so because I had been rigidly applying WFS to my preflop NLHE game for several years with no leakage.
In the Pool
I went to Vegas to play PLO at Aria. The blinds were $5/10. The action was what I would call good, as in, a good amount of chips were in motion pretty much continuously. A typical pot had one preflop raiser and a couple callers, with plenty of spunky post-flop action. The water was warm and the stacks were deep. I made it my objective to play no bad starting hands for five days.
“What exactly do bad starting hands look like?” I asked myself.
“Don’t worry. You’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.”
And I did. It was a straightforward approach. I played such that if I saw the flop, and I hit the flop, I would absolutely crush the flop, every time, with nut hands and nut draws and nut redraws all over the place. Any hands that couldn’t flop huge I folded. For example, suitedness only affected my preflop decision if it was a suited ace. If I flopped a non-nut flush draw, it was always inadvertent, meaning I had entered the pot entirely because of the connectedness of my cards, not their suits. In short, I didn’t play danglers.
“What’s a dangler?”
“You’ll know those when you see ‘em too.”
Lots of chips moving around the table was an important part of why waiting for straighters felt highly profitable to me. Even when the opponents had sat with me long enough to know that I was playing only premiums starters, they’d commit so much so early, often by correctly playing aggressively toward me or each other, that by the time I had my monster hand formed on the flop or the turn, it was too late, mathematically. My statistical advantages were in place, and the biggest bets were still to come.
When I got home from Aria in 2013, I called Harry. Harry is a young friend and a PLO specialist. We have a long history of bouncing poker ideas around. But not PLO ideas, until now, because I had just played it.
I asked Harry what he thought about my zero-danglers-ever approach.
“I’ve been doing something close to that since high school,” he said.
“Tell me more!”
“During my first few million hands of PLO,” Harry said, “I gradually got tighter and tighter before the flop, and more aggressive after the flop. It was trial and error. I did force myself to go deep into the mathy side of poker, to understand it, but it was never natural for me. My main thing was to focus on the best way to think about the game. I arrived at the no-danglers approach after I had tried everything else. It emerged out of the rubble.
“I developed a strong trust in how I reacted to a starting hand,” Harry said. “If I was excited to play a hand, then I knew it was right to play it. Hands with no danglers satisfied that feeling. They excited me. That’s how I knew they were profitable. I could see all the boards. I could see all the outcomes. The hands that didn’t excite me, I folded.”
In Elements of Poker, I wrote, “Confirmation is as good as inspiration.” Listening to Harry’s words, I felt confirmed and inspired. And motivated, to fly back to Vegas, and wait for exciting hands, which I did.
Fast forward to last year (2017) when I was working on this article. The first draft contained nothing about PLO. It was an article about no-limit holdem. Then I wondered if maybe there was a PLO equivalent to a straighter.
What if a PLO straighter was simply a hand with no pairs and no danglers? That would be clear enough. Except I’d need to define dangler.
How about this as a definition? A dangler is a hole card that cannot be part of a straight.
Nice! With 9872, the 2 cannot be part of a straight, so it’s a dangler. Which leads to this concise definition of a straighter: a hand with no danglers.
So I wrote one page about PLO straighters, using that definition, along with a sample hand that showed the advantage of waiting. I summarized with, “Waiting for straighters at PLO basically means folding all dangler hands, with exceptions made for high-card value and suited aces.”
And that was that. It was still an article about NLHE, now with an inexact PLO tangent.
And then, right in the middle of my post-lunch nap, I leapt up, aghast. My slumbering mind had somehow come to realize that according to my sleek definitions, this hand would be a straighter:
It met both criteria. All four cards can be part of a straight, and each card is fewer than four gaps away from another card.
So, the existence of a dangler depends not only on the degree of separation, but also on the degree of clustering of the other three cards.
In other words, we are totally making this shit up.
Sometimes a new idea is accompanied by experimental predictions, and when the experiments are conducted, the idea is shown to be correct. I’m thinking of Einstein’s prediction that a clock sent into space and back would tell a different time than the clocks that stayed home. And sometimes two people discover the same thing. Like when Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace figured out evolution independently. And sometimes there’s just a spark, a hunch. A hunch that means nothing until it is put to a test. Will the test results support the hunch? There comes a moment when the thinkers hold their breath.
Harry and I experienced all of that.
I sent the article-so-far to Harry. He read it and we had a video call. We began by voicing our shared appreciation of elegance, and we set out to define the words straighter and dangler elegantly.
“For a hand to contain a dangler,” I said, “the other three cards need to be close together. How close?”
“One gap would qualify for sure,” Harry said. “Like 7-6-4. Next to those three cards, a queen would be a dangler.”
“What about two gaps?” I asked. “Like 7-5-3? Those seem close enough together to activate the existence of danglerism.”
Harry mauled his hair. “True enough I suppose. However—”
“We could say a dangler means three of your cards span no more than five cards, and the fourth card is removed from the cluster by four or more gaps.” I was quite pleased, until…
“That last condition cannot be right,” Harry said. “If we have JT95, the 5 is fewer than four gaps away from the 9, yet it adds nothing to the straight-making potential of the hand because if the board is 8-7-6 then our T-9 makes a 10-high straight, and the 5 does nothing.”
“But with JT96,” I said, “we do need the 6 to make a straight, when the board is 8-7-5. So with JT95, the 5 is a dangler, even though it’s fewer than four gaps from the cluster.”
“And with JT96, the 6 is not a dangler.”
“I was really hoping for something tidy like E=MC2 to fall out of the sky,” I said. “This is getting messy. And it’s lunchtime. Let’s talk tomorrow.”
Refreshed and back at my computer, I resurrected the driving question of the universal starting hand chart, and aimed it at PLO: “In a deep-stack live cash game, what are the worst hands I think I should ever play?”
I decided to start with the 9-high hands, so that my list would be all integers and no letters, and I started typing:
Those are straighters for sure.
And by that you mean they are not auto-folds.
Next came these hands…
Those are straighters too, meaning that with favorable conditions — such as completing the small blind in a multiway limped pot, or when I’m on the button and a player who plays poorly is in the pot — I would play 9864.
But not 9863.
But that’s just me and my gut talking. Granted, it’s a gut that has eaten a lot of Omaha. But still, it’s just one voice, one opinion.
Why is that hand an auto-muck in my world? Maybe it’s because the 4 in 9864 connects to the 8, and the 3 in 9863 doesn’t?
What’s the pattern here?
The total span of 9864 is 987654. That’s six cards. The total span of 9863 is seven cards. I wonder if that rule holds elsewhere?
9854 I would play sometimes.
9843 I would always fold.
9754 I would play sometimes.
9743 I would always fold.
Maybe my rule is nothing more than this: 6-span maximum.
With that restriction, what hand has the worst shape?
Not a gem, but also not an auto-fold.
And then it occurred to me. This is how I had played at Aria. Unless I had a pair or an ace, I was folding the 7-spanners, like, every time.
Time to call Harry!
“I think I’m onto something,” I said.
“Me too,” Harry said. “It’s all about the gaps. A straighter has no more than 2-gaps, in the whole hand. That’s the guideline I’ve been using when I play, without even realizing it.”
Before I could process what I’d heard, he asked, “What’s your idea?”
“It’s all about the span,” I said. “Six max.”
We shared a stare.
“Holy shit!” Harry grinned. “It’s the same thing!”
We were extremely happy. I hit the vape to celebrate.
“I can’t get over the fact that I’m 35 years older than you and our tightness is exactly tied.”
“We don’t know that for sure yet,” Harry said. “What about high cards?”
“I like those.”
“I’m talking about the straighters definition, buzz brain. High cards are a complicating factor. What did your first draft say? Something about giving special considerations to high cards in general and suited aces in particular?”
“Right. We’ll need to invent rules for those cases, to complete the definition of a straighter.”
“So much for elegance.”
“We have no choice now,” I said. “We have to see this through.”
Harry lit up. “Actually, we don’t. Let’s just throw out the aces.”
“What do you mean throw them out?”
“I mean remove them from the conversation. I think the word straighter should refer only to hands that do not have an ace.”
“I’m on board with that,” I said. “Besides being sensible, it’s also elegant. We’d only need to add one word to the current definition. A PLO straighter is an unpaired, ace-less hand with no more than two gaps.”
“There we go,” said Harry. “That’s our definition.”
“We should have an explanation as to why it’s best to not even talk about ace-high hands as they pertain to straighters.”
“Because they’re personal,” Harry said. “And they get lots of attention, as they should. The whole game is hands with an ace, plus hands with a pair, plus straighters. And it’s the ace-high hands that generate the grayest areas, specifically because many ace-high non-straighters are playable. As to which ace-high hands to fold, well, that needs its own article.”
“And you should write it. You could call it Waiting for Acers.”
Harry wrote that down while he said, “What about king-high dangler hands? What’s the worst hand you play that contains a king and a deuce?”
“I muck ‘em all.”
“Even KQJ2 double suited?”
“That was a trick question!” Harry said. “I do the same thing. I’ve gone suit-blind at PLO, except for suited aces of course.”
This was another convergence of theory and practice arrived at by million of trials in Harry’s case and decades of trials in mine.
If 9876 = ABCD, and if we call ABCD the shape of that straighter, then straighters come in 10 shapes, and here they are:
9876 – ABCD
9875 – ABCE
9865 – ABDE
9765 – ACDE
9874 – ABCF
9864 – ABDF
9854 – ABEF
9764 – ACDF
9754 – ACEF
9654 – ADEF
And just for fun, here are the best nine-high hands you would fold when waiting for straighters: the 7-spanners…
9873, 9863, 9853, 9843, 9763, 9753, 9743, 9653, 9643, 9543
Those hands are equivalent to A9, K8, Q7, J6, T5, 94, 83, and 72 at NLHE.
Strategic Merits of WFS at PLO
Wraps and Equity
At holdem, with 98, there are three ways to flop an open-ender using both hole cards. With 97, there are two ways, and 96 has one way. The same is true at PLO. Every pip matters. 9876 has better wrap-flopping potential than 9875. And JT86 has better wrap-flopping potential than JT85.
And when we flop a wrap, we very often get to cash in the full equity of our starting hand by seeing the river. This is big. The value of a hand is not only about how it performs in an equity calculator. It’s also about how it plays. It’s about the hand’s ability to correctly see the river, because only then does a hand realize its full statistical potential. 9875 will see the river more often than a hand like QJ75, and that stat alone gives 9875 additional worth, above and beyond its straight-making potential.
When a straighter flops a wrap, you see full-board run-outs. This is the hidden value. It’s like the dark energy of Omaha.
The Straighter Edge
Waiting for straighters creates a permeating edge, like the house edge at roulette, or like being taller than your opponent at basketball. You have a simple advantage that’s just there, all the time, independent of skill or luck or the weather.
Which is not to say that you don’t have to be skilled at basketball to win at basketball. You do. Height is not enough. But it sure helps. As does having better cards, on average, than your poker opponents.
Freerolls, Fold Equity, and the Secret Sauce
Freerolls are the best and drawing dead is the worst. The secret sauce of the professional survivor is to glom onto freerolls and to take precautions against drawing dead and nearly dead. WFS is the secret ingredient in the secret sauce. It not only tips the stats in your favor, it also cultivates a strong range in your opponents’ minds, and you gain fold equity. Fold equity is when you bet and they fold. Fold equity is where half the grinder’s profit comes from. The other half comes from having better cards. And the other half comes from consistency. WFS does all of the above. No lapsing. No pendulum. No problem.
Why To Do It
As with holdem, WFS at PLO is not about following a one-size-fits-all starting-hand chart. It’s not about theoretical correctness. It’s about drawing new lines that you decide on, and then intending to stay within those lines for a few sessions at least because 1) You want to see if you can. 2) It might improve your score.
Good starting hands − compared to lesser hands − make the turn and river easier to play. The decisions are more perceivable, less ambiguous, and more fun.
Chances are high that waiting for straighters would lower your VPIP, and if that’s the case, here are the potential benefits:
- Improve the long-term stability of your game. More on that later.
- Improve the short-term stability of your game. More on that later too.
- As mentioned, it’ll increase your squeezer vig, also known as fold equity.
- Fewer marginal situations means fewer tricky spots means less guessing means more confidence and more on that later.
- Less exertion-per-hand means more stamina which means playing more tables online and playing longer live sessions with less depletion.
WFS at PLO is a safe approach for beginners, similar to playing super tight before the flop when learning no-limit holdem. When I teach a beginner how to play no-limit in a public poker room, I recommend that they play nothing but pocket pairs and AK at first, from all seats. The reason for doing so is to log lots of hours at the table to gain table experience, while minimizing the amount you lose per hour by playing very few hands, while at the same time minimizing your strategic disadvantages postflop by playing only those starting hands that result in the simplest postflop decisions.
And then, over time, the preflop ranges expand, safely, comfortably.
In the same way, WFS at PLO is a safe way to learn the game. The difference is, at PLO, you don’t ever need to expand your ranges to be a consistent winner.
(But you do have to play consistently superb postflop poker to be a consistent winner, no matter what your preflop ranges are.)
Stretching the Lines at PLO
Waiting for straighters is strictly defined, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. You can use it as a guideline, a baseline, even a lifeline, that you intend on stretching, as appropriate, in battle.
For example, you might choose to play some of the best non-straighters when you are in one of the three situations where you know at the outset that you will be last to act throughout the hand: 1) On the button 2) Big blind vs small blind 3) You are in the cutoff and the button telegraphs a preflop fold. In those spots, you might decide to play, say, any hand with three-to-a-Broadway (KQJx, KQTx, KJTx, QJTx) even though they have a dangler. Or you might play JT92, on the strength of having three-in-a-row.
It’s natural and necessary to mix some gray into the black-and-white picture I’ve painted, because until you run your own tests, you’ll know nothing about the scope or effect of WFS on your game.
Reciprocality is about creating profitable differences between you and your opponents on purpose. If you get better sleep than they do, that’s a profitable difference. If you tilt less than they do after getting multiple sets cracked and losing big for five days in a row, that’s a profitable difference.
What if one of the things you did differently on purpose was to usually have the best hand on every street?
By “usually” I mean, “more than half the time.” And by “best hand” I mean, “a hand that is favored in a run-out against each opponent.” Let’s say you play 1,000,000 streets, and you go back and do a headsup run-out against every hand you faced from each of the streets you faced them. If you would win more run-outs than you lose, that’s what I mean by usually having the best hand on every street.
There are three types of PLO hands:
- Hands with 1 pair, 2 pair, trips, or quads
- Hands with 1 ace and no pairs
- Hands with no aces and no pairs
To play a style of poker that could be called My Hand’s Better Than Your Hand, you wait for the best hands in all three categories. Besides the obvious statistical advantages of doing so, you are also now powered by dark energy in all three categories. (See Wraps and Equity.)
Let’s look at what happens when you and your opponent both have Group 3 hands.
If you always have a straighter, and your opponent plays a wider range, then you will usually have the best hand before the flop. When both of your hands connect with the flop, then you will have the best hand on the flop, and on the turn, and on the river, more often than they do. And when you share 2 or 3 cards with your opponent, you will sometimes hear the F-word. No, not that F-word, although you’ll hear that too. The F-word I’m talking about is:
When waiting for straighters, you will sometimes play JT86, and never play JT85. Let’s pit those hands against each other in a big pot…
You have JT86 and your opponent has JT85. The flop is:
You both play aggressively on the flop and you get all-in on the flop. The turn is a blank:
On the river, if any card but a 5 comes, it’s a split pot. When a 5 comes, you enjoy a sip of the secret sauce. It’s quite tasty, and worth the wait.
And those two starting hands differed by only one pip. Take a hand like JT97 up against a typical somewhat attractive non-straighter such as QJ65, and even more good times lie ahead.
Sometimes you’ll be outgunned. Let’s give you JT86, and your opponent has T987. You are poised to lose money on this hand if you hit the flop because most of the flops that hit your hand will hit your opponent’s hand even harder. And the reason you’re behind is because your hand has more gaps than his. You have 2 gaps and he has 0.
It happens, even while waiting for straighters. You get out-gapped. The idea behind WFS is to get out-gapped less often than you do now, and to out-gap the opposition more often than you do now. There’s you, with never more than two gaps, and then there’s the rest of the world, oftentimes with three or more gaps. That right there is the straighter edge.
Do the math, and you end up with this equation:
USUALLY BEST x THE REST OF YOUR LIFE = A VERY BIG NUMBER
PART III — Using WFS to Tame Tilt, Plug Leaks, and Reduce Fear of Self
I play and teach under the assumption that tilt reduction, leak reduction, and fear reduction are profitable pursuits because they rate to improve one’s score. This section is about making money, and living an easier poker life, during sessions and in between, by lightening the mental load.
You can use WFS to reduce tilt, which I defined in Elements of Poker as any deviation from your A-game and your A-mindset. From that perspective, reckless betting is the same as fatigue is the same as boredom. They’re all varieties of tilt.
And you can use WFS to plug leaks. Leaks are the effect of tilt. When you feel impatient, that’s tilt. When impatience causes you to play a hand that you think you should fold, that’s a leak. When the desire for revenge is burning inside you, that’s tilt. When you keep attacking the one player who keeps beating you, that’s a leak.
And, you can use WFS to make yourself less fearful of your own tilting and leaking.
Here’s how waiting for straighters has helped to pave my path to painless poker…
Recall that in 2004, I sat alone on my couch and filled out Earl’s chart with my starting hands for limit holdem. Here’s the rest of that story.
My gut knotted up halfway through the first box. I knew that if I kept going, I’d expose myself to myself as a fraud. My hypocrisy would have no place left to hide.
I kept going anyway. I peered into each preflop situation —There’s one raiser and I’m in the cutoff — and I asked myself — What is the worst hand I should play in this spot?
Then I littered the page with my shattered delusions. I was finally forcing myself to face the fact that in the fog of war, I play more hands than I think I should. Not only did I not practice what I taught, I didn’t even practice what I thought. I mean, I did, most of the time. But this game isn’t about most of the time. It’s about having an edge all the time, as big as it can be. That was the code I lived by. It was my identity. By filling out the chart, I was rooting out my leaks and writing them down. And from that day on, I could no longer pretend that I wasn’t a pretender.
Unless I stopped leaking.
Ha! There’s a fantasy for you.
Hey, you never know. Maybe the pain of knowing how bad I play will somehow deter me from playing bad.
I finished filling out the chart. A year later, I filled it out again, this time for no-limit. Then again, a while after that. These were more like spasms of compulsion than what I would call “work.”
Whatever it was, the result was awesome. Two big upgrades came from messing with the chart. By asking myself, What do I do and why? in the 40 most common preflop betting patterns, I refined my A-game. And by deciding to fold certain hands in certain situations no matter what, the chart worked like a scalpel and lopped off ugly growths of C-game.
(You can download the chart along with instructions at my website, in WORD and EXCEL. I call it the Universal Starting-Hand Chart because it’s blank, until you set the scene. http://www.tommyangelo.com/ushc/)
Less Tilt and Less Fear
The line between 3-gappers and 4-gappers was a line I could see. And it did not waver, no matter how frustrated I was, or angry, or anxious, or downtrodden. WFS became a do-not-cross line. If I stayed on the safe side, survival was guaranteed. If I crossed the line, well, it would by no means mean certain death. I might even make more money. I would also expose myself to the pain and complexity that only exists on the danger side of the straighter line, where I lived for many years. It was a grand time. I was able to satisfy my cravings for sporadically irrational aggression and still make a good living. Then I became older, and now I value simplicity and peace of mind.
The reason WFS reduced my tilt was because I was trimming off the very worst of my preflop situations, the plays that generated the most variance and the least profit. WFS removed the moments of highest consternation and aggravation from my game. By saying no to marginal situations, I had less fluctuation, which resulted in less tilt and better focus. And that caused my earn rate to go up, which incented me to hold the line.
(Lowering one’s variance also lowers one’s bankroll needs, which is not in itself a reason to favor less variance, but it sure can come in handy at times.)
By waiting for straighters, I was also pruning the times I got too frisky with lousy hands. I did this by rigidly defining the term lousy hands. The idea was to always fold these hands — even if I was playing my loose-aggressive style, and even if I was suited, and even if I was on the button and everybody limped, and even if I was in the small blind and everybody limped — K8, K7, K6, K5, K4, K3, K2, Q7, Q6, Q5, Q4, Q3, Q2, J6, J5, J4, J3, J2, T5, T4, T3, T2, 94, 93, 92, 83, 82, 72.
I swore an oath to John Lennon to dump my dumper hands no matter what. Of course I broke the oath, tons of times, but that was okay because I retook it, and retook it, and after some number of years, I got there. That was about seven years ago. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve paid to see a flop with one of my dumpers.
At the same time, I swore a different oath of tightness (this one to John Bonham) regarding my miniscule opening range from the early seats. I’ve held to that oath for a long time too, and now I’m never in shitty pots with shitty cards and shitty position unless it’s a free play from the big blind. And I do mean never. Whew! What a relief. Gone are my fears of leaking and tilting. And now poker feels — and I don’t think I’ve seen this word used in this context — easy.
The Difference that Makes the Difference
To play or not to play. That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to sufferthe slings and arrows of middling starters out of position, or to take arms against a sea of troublesand by mucking, end them.
I actually know the answer to that one. ‘Tis nobler to muck.
To play or not to play, that really is the most important question. It doesn’t matter if the game is draw poker, stud poker, or a game of flops. The first round of betting is in a class of its own. Is it profitable to invest in this hand in this situation against these players at this time? Lines must be drawn, consciously or otherwise, betweens Invest nowand Wait for a better spot.
Playing NLHE, I’m on the button with J♦ 7♦. Three players limp. This is a no-brainer. I either call or raise. If I have J♦ 6♦, it’s also a no-brainer. I fold. I have concluded that for me, in this situation, the straighter line is the difference between +EV and -EV.
Playing $5/10 PLO, I’m in the small blind. Under the gun limps and it’s folded to me. I look left and I can see that the big blind is not going to raise. With 9♠ 8♥ 7♣ 5♦, I toss a $5 chip in. With 9♠ 8♥ 7♣ 2♦, I toss my cards in.
Playing $5/10 NLHE, I’m on the button. It’s folded to the cutoff who opens for 3x. With A♣ T♥, I might fold, I might call, or I might raise, depending on the usual slew of variables. With A♣ 9♥, I used to maybe play it in this spot, but now I always fold because 1) I wait for straighters. 2) I don’t want to be haunted by Bobby Hoff.
Have I drawn my lines in the right place? I have decided to believe that I probably have. The cool thing is, I’ll never know if I’m right to wait for straighters. Such is the nature of live cash-game poker. The EVs of our decisions are always unknown, and unknowable. I like that. Actually, I rely on it, to keep me from spiraling into self-doubt.
Waiting for straighters isn’t about making straights. It’s about winning more big pots than you lose. It’s about acting last more often than they do. It’s about maintaining power over the people, and control over yourself. WFS is not a strategy, it’s an experiment. Will it yield positive results? There’s only one way to find out.
Waiting for Straighters is available in ebook
2018 Coaching Update: I’m doing video coaching now on whatever ails you — from betting problems and tilt issues to bad quitting and no patience. For more details and to schedule a call, click here.