One of the most important intermediate skills a player can have is the ability use combos and blockers at the poker table. These technical skills require nothing more than a little counting (if you can handle 4+12, you’ll be fine!), but they can help you find so many extra bluffs and thinner value bets in every session you play.
So let’s break down combos and blockers with some easy formulas and shortcuts. Either push play, or read the entire guide below. Good luck!
Let’s start by defining both of these terms:
What Are Combos In Poker?
Combos count how many different ways a certain hand can be made. For instance, if you are counting the combos of AK suited, you can make that 4 different ways: A♥K♥ A♣K♣ A♠K♠ and A♦K♦
If you’ve heard of combinations, combinatorics, or any similar word – these are all the same thing.
What Are Blockers In Poker?
Blockers are visible cards that reduce the number of combos of hands that would use that card. Sometimes blockers make it totally impossible for a combo to exist, and other times a blocker may just reduce some combinations.
Combinations With Ace-Blocker Example
If you have the A♠ you make it impossible for your opponent to have A♠K♦.
But your A♠ only reduces the combinations of AA they could hold since your opponent could still make AA with A♥A♦, A♥A♣, and A♦A♣.
Preflop Combos & Blockers
Combos and blockers exist both preflop and postflop. If you are brand-new to counting these items before the flop, start with this video.
The thing to memorize is this:
- There are 6 start combos of each pocket pair preflop
- There are 16 combinations of each unpaired starting hand
- 4 of those combos are suited
- 12 of those combos are unsuited
Now those numbers are BEFORE we factor in blockers. Say you hold K♦Q♦. These cards will naturally block combinations of hands like AK, KK, and QTs, since there is overlap between your hole cards and those possible starting hands.
But your K♦Q♦ does not overlap with hands like AA, 55, nor T9s.
So let’s see how those preflop combos are impacted with your K♦Q♦:
- Combos of KK: 3
- Combos of AK: 12
- Combos of QTs: 3
Your K♦ reduces the 6 possible combos of KK down to just 3 since the 3 combos of KK that that included the K♦ are now impossible. Your K♦ reduces the 16 possible AK combos down to 12 since there are now 4 unseen Aces and 3 unseen Kings left in the deck. Of these 12 combos, 3 of them are suited (since A♦K♦ is impossible) and the remaining 9 are unsuited.
And there are 3 combos of QTs since your Q♦ blocks the 4 start combinations down to 3 since Q♦T♦ is impossible (which leaves only Q♥T♥ Q♠T♠ and Q♣T♣ as possible combos).
How Many Preflop Combos Are There?
There are 169 possible starting hands in NLHE. These are represented by the 13×13 matrix:
If you select every hand in the matrix, there are 1,326 preflop combos. Once you factor in both of your hole cards, the maximum number of remaining preflop combos drops to 1,225.
Postflop Combos (Without Blockers)
Combos and blockers come into play both preflop and postflop. Preflop, the only possible blockers are your two hole cards since they are the only visible cards you have access to.
But postflop, you have your hole cards and every visible board card.
Essentially, if there are no blockers at play, you retain the same combos from preflop. So if you hold 5♦4♦ on K♠8♠7♥, there are no blockers to your opponent’s combos of hands like 22, JT, or A♠Q♠.
This means there are still 6 combos of 22, 16 combos of JT, and 1 combo of A♠Q♠.
Postflop Combos With Blockers
When blockers are in play, we can use two simple rules to count up specific combos. One focuses on pocket pairs and figuring out how many combos of things like sets, full houses, and quads a player can make. The other focuses on unpaired starting hands and figuring out how many combos of hands like one pair, two pair, trips, flush draws, etc. exist.
Combos Of Sets
When counting pocket pairs, you use the rule of 6, 3, 1, 0.
- If there are no blockers, there are 6 possible combos
- If there is one blocker, there are now 3 possible combos
- If there are two blockers, there is just 1 possible combo
- If you see all three blockers, it’s impossible for them to have that pocket pair
So if the board is 9♠ 9♣ 7♥ 6♣, there are 6 combos of AA, 3 combos of 77, and 1 combo of quads (99). If you held 9♥8♥, then it would be impossible for your opponent to have 99 since you see three nines.
Combos Of Pairs, Two Pair, Etc.
Now what if we wanted to count the number of two pair combinations? Two pair combinations are actually quite simple, you multiply the number of unseen cards of the one by the unseen of the other. That probably sounds a little confusing, so let’s actually give a clear example. Let’s say we want to figure out how many combinations of KJ our opponent could possibly have on K♣ J♣ T♠.
Assuming that they got to the flop with all possible KJ combinations, we just multiply the 3 remaining Kings (K♠, K♦, and K♥) by the 3 remaining Jacks (J♠, J♦, and J♥).
3 * 3 = 9 combos of KJ.
This allows us to very quickly see that based upon the exact board texture that we have the number of really, really monster combos of two pair and sets and all those kind of things can get massively reduced very quickly. Especially when you think that they only got to that point with the suited variant of that hand.
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If you think your opponent only got to the flop with KJs combos, you know there are 4 combos of each suited hand preflop. Since K♣J♣ is an impossible combo given the K♣ J♣ T♠ flop, there are only 3 combos of KJs specifically left.
We can also do this exact same thing with something like one pair. Let’s say we want to calculate how many different ways our opponent could have AK here, for whatever reason. If we look at preflop, they can have 16 possible combos of AK as a starting hand. Being that we know that the K♣ is spoken for we have 4 unseen Aces multiplied by 3 unseen Kings, giving our opponent 12 possible combos of Ace King.
Now again let’s do the suited variant only, let’s say they only could have ace king suited pre-flop for whatever reason. We see the king of clubs, which means the only way they can make ace king suited is going to be ace king of diamonds, ace king of hearts, ace king of spades. We’re down to three of only ace king suited. See, it’s not too, too complicated once you know what to look for.
We can use this same concept while we’re trying to figure out how many combos of nuttish and nutted hands there are. Let’s say we’re trying to figure out how many combos of AQ there are on this same K♣ J♣ T♠ flop . Again if we think they got here with all of them, there are 4 unseen Aces times 4 unseen Queens, which means they have 16 possible combos. If we thought they would only get to the flop with ace queen suited for whatever reason, again that boils us down to four possible combos of AQs since there are no blockers.
Combos Of Flush Draws
Too many players panic when there are flush draws present, and worse, when flush draws improve on the turn and river.
But if you keep blockers and combos in mind, you can use math to over-ride any irrational fears of flushes that may not exist.
Take the same K♣ J♣ T♠ flop. Based upon this visible cards, it’s impossible for our opponent to have ace king of clubs or king jack of clubs or ace jack of clubs or queen jacks of clubs, or any of those kind of hands because those specific cards are being blocked out given the cards that we can see.
At most, there are 55 combos of possible flush draws here. However, this assumes that your opponent is playing 8♣3♣ and Q♣2♣ preflop. If your opponent is playing a more narrow range of hands preflop, then they likely show up with less than 30 combos of flush draws (and it’s not uncommon for this number to drop below 15 for tighter players.)
How Do Actions Block Combos?
You have to not only think about the math of this, the blockers and the combos, but you also have to think about the actions and what does that indicate about the possible combos that could even be left in our opponent’s range in the first place.
In this exact situation think about the ways that they could really show up with a flush draw here. If the board is K♣ J♣ T♠ 2♣ and your opponent had something like ace queen of clubs or ace 10 of clubs or queen 10 of clubs, are they more likely to raise the flop or just call it? If you think that they’re more likely to raise that, again blocking out possible combos based upon their actions, that really leaves them with only a couple like suited connectors that could possibly get here.
Same thing with hands like T♣9♣ – would they have called or raised the flop? Because if they would have raised the flop with a lot of the bigger clubs, that means they can’t have as many made flushes on the turn after they call the flop. This could reduce their flush combos down to a handful (at best) – and is that something we have to really panic about?
A lot of people will panic about flush draws filling when really if you think about combos and you think about the blockers and you think about the actions that they realistically took, you may actually be able to give them a very reduced amount of combos of that possible flush.
Your Hole Cards As Blockers
So far we’ve focused on using the board cards to figure out combos based upon the blockers of those specific cards, but we can also, and should also, be using our own actual hole cards too.
On K♣ J♣ T♠ 2♣, say we have J♦T♦. If we try to figure out how many combos of king jack suited our opponent can have, again the king of clubs is spoken for, the jack of club is spoken for and now the jack of diamonds is spoken for being that we hold it. We’re in a situation where they can make king jack suited with king jack of hearts, king jack of spades and that’s it.
We know that we’ve even further reduced the possible combos of that kind of hand, same thing with jack 10 suited, now there’s only one possible combo with J♥T♥ specifically. If we’re trying to figure out just king jack in general for our opponent, say suited and unsuited, we see one king so there’s three unseen kings. There are two unseen jacks, three times two equals 6.
Again, that concept is still present. We still consider the blockers, we still can multiply the number of unseen by number of unseen and that will get us where we need to be when we’re talking about things like two pair, figuring out how many ways our opponent can make top pair, etc.
Practice Combinations & Blockers
This may seem a little complex and a little confusing at first, but I assure you with a little bit of practice this becomes much easier and will really help you refine your hand reading skills and your precision in your technical ability on the table.
Just to make sure you fully understand this, I made a complete quiz for you so that you can actually put this knowledge right to use and get a quick score right now. It’s called the combos and blockers quiz, and honestly, the average person right now is only scoring 46%, but I think if you learned what you needed to from this lesson you’ll be able to ace it in just a couple of minutes.