Relative Hand Strength: You Have to Know it

relative hand strength

In poker, experienced players know that hand strength is not absolute – it’s relative. The key is evaluating your hand’s strength compared to your opponent’s possible holdings and ranges. Mastering this concept of relative hand strength is crucial for making optimal decisions and maximizing your win rate. That’s why in this blog post I’m going to be giving a breakdown of how it should be applied at the poker tables.

Absolute Versus Relative Hand Strength

Before we get into hand strength relative to others, we need to look at absolute hand strength first. Absolute hand strength refers to the pure power of a hand in a vacuum. For example, pocket aces is a stronger absolute hand than KQ suited. But relative hand strength compares your hand to your opponent’s ranges. Against a player who only plays a looser style, KQ is stronger relative to their holdings.

While beginners focus on absolute hand strength, winning players understand the importance of relative hand strength based on their opponent’s tendencies and the situation.

Example of Relative Hand Strength Applied

I am playing a live NL £200 game and open mid position with Js Jd to £8, the button calls (decent tight-aggressive), and both blinds call. The small blind is unknown but the big blind is a very conservative player. Everyone is playing £250 to £300. The flop comes 9d 8s  3h.

After both blinds check, I bet £18, the button makes it £45. The small blind folds and the big blind makes it £95. This is an example where my hand is clearly no good and doing poorly against the big blinds range. Despite holding an overpair to the board and almost no two pair combinations possible, the big blind’s nature means we are almost always against a set here. Therefore, we need to fold and move on.

Multiway Pots Benefit Speculative Hands

Whilst gauging hand strength is important in heads up pots. The concept becomes even more important in multiway pots. This is where players make costly errors. When going to a flop 3-handed or more, your hand strength will typically drop. This is because there is an increased likelihood of a hand like top pair no longer being the best hand. Instead, speculative hands like small pocket pairs and suited connectors gain relative strength compared to heads up as they hit sets, straights or flushes that may appear disguised.

This is because they thrive on implied odds in bloated pots while only needing one opponent to fold to win outright. Understanding this dynamic enables you to optimize your hand selection multiway and also encourage more aggressive 3-betting, particularly with hands that perform better in 1 on 1 situations.

Leveraging Relative Hand Strength

Once you understand your hand’s strength relative to your opponent’s range, you can use it to maximize profit.

Against weaker relative hands, bet aggressively for value. Against stronger relative hands exercise caution and consider pot control. Relative hand strength should always be something supports your strategy at the table.

Develop Your Instincts

Like any poker skill, training yourself to evaluate relative hand strength quickly takes practice. But with experience, you will instinctively know if you are strong or weak relative to your opponent’s range based on their tendencies and the board texture. In addition to pure instinct, your HUD will give your key data stats that can support your decision making. A player who has 15% VPIP over more than 1,000 hands is clearly a nit, for example.

While absolute hand strength concepts are easier for beginners to grasp, understanding relative hand strength will take your poker game to the next level. Use it your advantage to crush your opponents and increase your win rate. If you’re not winning and would like me to review your hands, book in a discounted session with me below.

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Narciso Baldo is the Director and Head Coach of Texas Hold'em Questions. He has been playing poker for over 16 years. After spending many years as a professional, he now runs UK poker training site Texas Hold'em Questions. Narciso regularly writes poker articles sharing tips, strategy, news and experience with gambling enthusiasts. Narciso also writes for reputable gambling portal Casino City Times, (bio here). Contact: