When we talk about how to play drawing hands, we're talking about how to play a hand that you are looking to complete, but haven't yet. In other words, you've got potential, but no solid holdings. Not yet at least. To make your hand you need another card of a specific rank and/or suit.
How to Play Drawing Hands: The Odds and Your Outs
The first thing you are going to want to determine is your odds of making your hand. This is best done by calculating your outs (i.e. how many cards left that will complete your hand).
So if, for example, you are looking to complete a flush draw with clubs and you have 2 in your hand and there are 2 on the board come the flop, you will have 9 outs, since there 13 clubs in total in the deck. (13 clubs - 2 in your hand - 2 on the board = 9 clubs left to act as your 'outs'.) This gives you a roughly 4:1 chance of making the flush by the river. We get this ratio by taking the 52 cards in the deck, subtracting the 5 cards we can see (in our hand and on the board) and then subtracting 9 (our number of outs). We are left with 38, which means our chances of making our hand by the river are 38:9 – or 4:1.
The Action: Opposition and Board Texture
As always, you are going to want to look at your competition and board texture when deciding how to play drawing hands. This can be as important if not more important than your odds. After all, decent odds don’t always pan out when you are up against uber aggressive and loose competition, multiple opponents and/or wet boards.
LAG: Loose aggressive opponents will often stay in a hand even if they don’t have the odds to support it. This makes playing drawing hands against these sorts of opponents risky unless you have really good odds and the other crucial factors are in your favour – factors like...
Multiple Opponents: The more people in the pot, the more likely it is that someone has a better hand than you or will make a better hand than you by the flop.
Wet Boards: Wet boards mean that the community cards make it not only likely, but highly probable that a lot of players could make or have already made a solid hand. (Example of a very slippery board: 8♦ 9♦ T♦)
So, ideally you want good odds, one conservative opponent and a board without a lot of obvious traction – but of course, you can't count on ideals, and you certainly won’t make money banking on them.
The Determining Factor: The Cost
As with everything in poker, we can give you some general guidelines, but you also need to consider each hand on a case-by-case basis. This is why an incredibly important part of determining whether or not it's worth playing your draw is to work out how much that particular hand is going to cost you.
Let's say the pot is $200 and your opponent bets $50, making the pot $250. You have to call $50 to see your draw out, but with the 4:1 odds we worked out earlier, is it worth it?
The pot ratio is 250:50, or more simply, 5:1. Given this information, we can see we are actually getting better pot odds than odds from the cards. In other words, for the number of times we make our hand (4:1) we will be winning more (5:1). When the pot is giving you better odds than your hand (i.e. your outs), it's generally a good idea to call.
Of course, there's that word again: generally. You won't be able to get away from it since each and every hand you play will depend on highly variable factors. What you can do is account for as many variables as possible, including your outs, your opponent(s), the board texture and the cost and then take all these factors into consideration to decide whether or not you are likely to cash-in if you see your draw out.
We understand the whole process can seem a little ambiguous at first, but learning how to play winning poker it's just like learning to run long distances; it will take a while for your brain to get a handle on the basic fundamentals that keep your body primed, but once it does, the whole experience starts to feel effortlessly reflexive, and you, my friend, are good to go for the long hauls – or, more appropriately in this case, the BIG ones.
Another variable is YOU
We've been talking mainly about taking passive actions (namely, calling) when deciding if we should play drawing hands, but aggressive measures have their place too. If you are an advanced player, you shouldn't shy away from aggression when and where it can benefit you. As an advanced player, you already know how to aptly read your opponents and situations, so you can up the ante a little. Having the best hand is great, but so is convincing your opponent you have the best hand (i.e. getting them to fold). If you're chasing a drawing hand, you're counting mainly on the latter to secure your road to riches and should embrace the art of semi-bluffing to help secure your win. When employed properly, a semi-bluff can score the pot without you even having to complete the hand – but again, this is an advanced technique, so be sure to get a handle on the basics first.