Speculative Hands in Early Levels
Speculative hands tend to be the winners in big pots. While hands like pocket kings and pocket aces are certainly valuable in and of themselves, it's much more difficult to stack someone with a pair than it is when you are holding the nuts (or something close). The early levels of tournament poker are one of the most ideal times to be playing speculative hands. You won't have a lot of risk to worry about and you'll position yourself to double up early. Speculative hands are still speculative, though, so you shouldn't be getting too carried away with them.
How you define a speculative hand is up to you and your own playing style, but they tend to refer to suited connectors and other similar holdings. If you are playing pocket pairs and broadway cards only, you aren't playing very many speculative hands. With that being said, however, JQ suited can turn into a speculative hand if it's being played in raised and re-raised pots. Your hand's value is going to be very much subject to change. The higher the price to get involved, the more risk you are inheriting. If you aren't comfortable playing these types of hands post-flop, you shouldn't be getting involved with them pre-flop.
Which Hands to Play
Some hands are going to be much more speculative than others. You don't want to be playing 4 9 off suit in the same way that you would approach something like 7 8 suited. This should go without saying, but some players think they are Tom Dwan and that 4 betting totally random (bad) hands is the path to success. There's a huge difference between what you see on TV and what is likely to work in your tournaments.
First, most televised poker is of cash game play (or at least the games where you'll see abstract strategy applied). Second, these players are on a different level of play. Odds are that if you are reading this article, you are a low to mid stakes player. There's definitely nothing wrong with that, but you need to adjust to your own level of competition. Attempting to apply complex strategies to a simple game is only going to hurt you. It's like doing a spin move when you have a wide open layup. It can hardly help you, but there's plenty of room for unnecessary error.
The actual range of hands that would be ideal for play at this stage of a tournament is quite dense. You shouldn't be straying far from 56 suited+ and maybe the occasional big suited ace, king, and queen. There could be some opportunities to play unsuited connectors, but these are going to be more of an overall challenge as you are chasing after a lot less hands. If you are playing unsuited connectors, they should be against players who you feel are very prone to stacking off should you make a hand.
The problem with playing anything less than the hands listed above is that you'll often times get sucked into pots. For example, if you call with a connected hand and hit a pair of 9s on a 5 9 2 flop, you'll likely call a flop bet. When your opponent fires again on the turn, you are going to be inclined to call again. If they bomb the river, you still only have one pair but will be tempted to make the call.
The issue with playing like this is that you aren't going after the hands that you originally intended. Instead of chasing after straights and flushes, you are instead convincing yourself that one pair is good. If you are dead set on playing mediocre hands in less than optimal spots, you need to have the self-discipline to fold when a made hand isn't a truly big hand.
Your hand's actual value is dependent upon a handful of different factors. You need to gauge the price that it will cost to get involved, the likelihood of winning a large pot, the chances of making a big hand, and your position. Theoretically, you could add many, many more items to this list, but these will encompass the majority of what you need to consider.
Pretend that you are holding 7 8 suited in early position. The options are to raise, call, or fold. Folding is weak because it's a valuable hand. Raising will put you in a tough spot if it's re-raised. Therefore, the best plan is to limp in. A limp will allow you to see the flop if there's no further action, and you'll also be able to safely call a raise. Now, adjust this to 7 8 in late position and you'll have different options. In a raised and re-raised pot you would fold, in a raised pot you might call, and in a limped pot you can raise or call. This is how the value of your suited connectors is so dependent upon circumstances.
The likelihood of getting paid off with a speculative hand is arguably the most important dynamic of all. If you have a total garbage hand but are playing against someone who never ever folds, it makes a lot more sense to get involved than if you are up against a very tight player. These are the spots that you should dream of. You should be looking to play in as many pots as possible with players who can't control their own stacks. The value of your hand is going to sky rocket when the chance of doubling up is present. Sometimes your cards are all that matter and sometimes your opponent is all that matters.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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