When to Chase: Speculative Hands and the 20-to-1 Rule

Dealer handles cards poker table at the Paris Elysees Club.
A dealer handles cards at a poker table at the Paris Elysees Club. Lionel Bonaventure / AFP

Small suited connectors and low pairs are amazing starting hands in No-Limit Hold’em. You can win gargantuan pots with these hands; suited connectors like Seven-Six of Hearts can become straights or flushes on the flop, while low pairs like pocket Fours can become sets or even full houses. Nice. 
The thing is, you can also lose a lot of money with these speculative hands. When you make a straight or flush with that Seven-Six suited, someone else might have made the same hand with higher-ranking cards, leaving you drawing dead. And that set of Fours could easily be facing a bigger set, maybe two. 
That doesn’t even address the money you’ll lose chasing down those big hands and not getting there. Like everything else in poker, there’s a time and place for these smaller suited connectors and pocket pairs. So let’s start at the beginning. 

Which Speculative Hands Can I Open? 

You probably know already that the more people there are at the poker table, the tighter your opening range needs to be when you’re in an early position. As your position improves, you can widen your range and include more speculative hands – hands like the ones we’re discussing here. 
There are no hard and fast rules for opening ranges, even in this age of solvers, but generally speaking, you should avoid opening pocket pairs worse than Fives from an early position. Suited connectors lower than Nine-Eight are also sketchy, but it’s good to sprinkle in a few anyway. One-gappers like Nine-Seven suited are even sketchier. Proceed with caution. 
Even if you’re on the button, you need to show a bit of discipline with your starting hands. All the pocket pairs are now worth opening; low-suited connectors can be used liberally as well. But that’s only if your remaining opponents have enough chips to go after. 

8-to-1 Rule Recap

At some point, most NLHE beginners learn the 8-to-1 Rule for set mining – that’s roughly your chances of completing a set on the flop when you open with a pocket pair. It’s a good rule to keep in mind; knowing that you’ll whiff eight times out of nine will help temper your expectations of making a big hand. 
Mathematically, it also lets you know that each of your opponents has to have at least eight times the amount of your open-raise size left in their stack for you to break even against them in the long run (you also have to be deep enough to cover them). But 8-to-1 isn’t enough. Because of all the times you’ll lose the hand despite making your set, and all the times your opponents will fold rather than give you all their chips, you need something closer to 20-to-1. 

What Is the 20-to-1 Rule? 

The good news is that you and your opponents will usually be deep enough when you open. For example, if your open-raise size is 3x the big blind, the effective stacks only need to be 60bb deep to make pocket pairs worth unleashing. We’ll ignore the blinds themselves and lump in all those other speculative hands here for simplicity. 
The bad news is that you’re going to get 3-bet a lot, especially when you open from late position. When you do, you now have to consider whether to call, then use that amount instead when you’re applying the 20-to-1 Rule. This means you’ll have to open-fold that speculative hand a lot of the time
You should 4-bet sometimes, of course, so that needs to be taken into account. And to further muddy the waters, you should adjust your starting ranges and your stack-depth requirements to account for the playing styles of your opponents. Maybe sometimes you’ll be able to get away with 15-to-1, or even 10-to-1 instead of 20-to-1. It depends. 
These are all rules of thumb anyway, so don’t cling to them too tightly. Just keep them in mind so you don’t get too carried away chasing down those big hands. Everything is in moderation.