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Of Gaps and Chasms

by Barbara Connors 

The Gap Concept is a term coined by poker author, David Sklansky, to describe the difference in starting-hand standards between the type of hand you need to call a raise, as opposed to the type of hand you need to put in a raise yourself. This concept has become famous as a fundamental part of tournament poker strategy, but the basic idea behind it can apply to ring games as well.

 When you are the first player to raise, there is no evidence yet that anybody else at the table has a particularly strong hand. Moreover, being the first player to show aggression gives you two ways to win the pot: either by making the best hand, or by pushing your opponents out.

 By contrast, when you are calling somebody else’s raise, those advantages go right out the window. Now you know from the get-go there’s at least one quality hand out against you. And barring some kind of bluff—always risky against a player who has already demonstrated that he likes his cards—your only way to win the pot is to make the best hand by the showdown. Thus handicapped, you must hold a very strong hand to call a raise.

 For example, suppose you are in late position and everyone has folded around to you. In this favorable situation, hands like K-J or even Q-J offsuit can be candidates for pushing out a raise. But if you hold A-J offsuit in that same late position and you’re looking at a raise in front of you, that A-J should probably hit the muck. The only exception would be if you are confident the original raiser is bumping it up with an inferior hand. If you look at the range of hands that a solid player would raise with from early-mid position, A-J is behind, or even dominated by just about all of them. In a ring game, calling in this spot can prove to be a very expensive leak. In a tournament, it can kill you.

 Of course, two key words here are “solid player.” Like everything else in poker, the Gap Concept is very situation-dependant. Exceptions and adjustments for the size of the gap must always be made according to circumstances, most notably the type of opponent putting in the raise. If you have a good read on this player, and believe he would raise with something like a weak ace, suited connectors, or any other not-so-premium hand, your calling range gets much wider. But if you believe this particular player would only raise with a strong hand, then you must have a premium hand yourself to make that call.

 Aside from your read on the raiser’s playing style, other factors that can influence the size of the gap include: position in the betting order (his and yours), table image (his and yours), effective stack size, the presence of any cold-callers and/or players still to act behind you, the current stage of the tournament, and your standing in the tournament. If the situation is such that the raiser appears strong—he is a tight solid player, the raise pot-commits him, the raise comes from early position—the gap is formidable, and you should fold all but the very best hands. Conversely, anything that leads you to believe this opponent might be raising light—he’s very loose-aggressive, he’s in a steal position, he has a huge chip stack and can afford to gamble, the table has gotten shorthanded—closes the gap and allows you to call with more speculative hands. The main exception would be if the tournament is on the bubble and you are in danger of being eliminated. In that situation, the gap in question becomes a massive chasm.

 Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at

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