Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2010) in Poker Player newspaper.
Well, I had another break-even week at poker. And I mean exactly break even, because I’m enjoying my hermitage deep in the Ozarks without poker. No wins. No losses. No games.
However, I’m about to fly to the Dominican Republic in a few days on business and will be investigating the public poker scene there. Yes, there is poker in the DR! It reminds me just how off-track those who want to banish poker in the United States are, with our game’s popularity thriving worldwide.
Speaking of “off-track,” I’ve been sidetracked myself. This self-interview will focus on “finesse” – today’s word. Finesse, as a verb, means to handle a situation extra skillfully, succeeding when more routine tactics might not work as well. As a noun, it is the act of doing that. Here’s how it relates to poker.
Question 1: How often should you use a “finesse play” in poker?
As often as it adds value. Before trying to be creative and straying from a more obvious tactic, you should always compare probable results. If the likely profit from the finesse play, if averaged over many attempts, isn’t clearly higher than that of the routine play, you should usually choose the latter.
Why am I bothering to tell you that? It’s because many skillful poker players don’t bother to make that comparison. If they mentally stumble upon a clever way to play a hand that seems reasonable, they tend to give it extra credit and choose to put the idea into motion. They fail to carefully consider how the creative way compares to the routine way in terms of profit. That failure costs them money.
So I’m saying that you should use finesse plays as often as they truly have value, and never more often than that.
Question 2: What’s the most common type of finesse in poker?
Clearly, it’s checking and then raising, also known as sandbagging. In fact, it’s the only type of finesse most winning players thoroughly understand. Unfortunately, although they understand how it works, they tend to use it too often and at the wrong times.
Many otherwise skillful players will more or less sandbag at random when they hold strong hands. They use the tactic to mix up their play, so they won’t seem quite as predictable. The problem is that betting is usually more profitable, measured over time.
Occasionally, sandbagging can be more profitable, and if you do it only then, you’ll gain the desired deceptive value of mixing up your play, plus you’ll be making extra money on the sandbag itself. That’s superior to just sandbagging at random, don’t you think?
Question 3: So, when is the right time for the check-and-raise finesse?
Three times, mainly.
First, you should tend to sandbag your strong hands against opponents who bet much too often. In that case, you can achieve extra value when an aggressive opponent bets a weak hand that would have been folded, netting you no gain at all, had you bet. Such players will also, of course, bet their strong hands, and you can win additional money if you let them bet those first and then raise.
Second, you should also sometimes check-and-raise your weak hands against that same aggressive type of player. This is a true finesse play. Suppose it’s hold ’em. You know that a player seldom lets a flop go without a bet. His tendency is to seldom check-check and see the turn. He’s in love with betting and trying to win small pots.
Fine. You check. Now this opponent bets, so you raise. Unless this was one of those times when the opponent actually connected with the flop, you’re likely to win those chips immediately without a fight. But you should seldom use this finesse if the opponent is near your left, because he will hold positional advantage on future hands and can use it to punish you. Usually, try this check-raise if you’re heads-up in an early seat against a player at least three positions to your left.
Third, you should tend to sandbag your strongest hands against opponents who have already demonstrated, through previous betting on this hand, that they also have strength. In this case, having a strong hand isn’t enough. You’re giving your opponent credit for also having one, so yours must be exceptionally powerful to justify this check-raise. Perhaps you hold 9♥ 9♠ with a flop of 8♥ 7♦ 6♣ and your opponent has been betting, beginning with a medium no-limit raise, followed by a not-quite-pot-size bet on the flop. Now a 9♦ hits on the turn. Often, this is the time for a finesse – a sandbag.
Question 4: Are there other common finesses?
Well, checking and then calling is a powerful finesse. Despite what you’ve heard about checking and calling being weak, the tactic is extremely profitable when you hold strong or even medium-strong hands against bullies who bet too frequently. Let them hang themselves. Check call. Check call again. On the river, you can check-raise.
Question 5: Anything else?
Some of my favorite plays are what I call “continuation finesses.” This is where I’ve earned my bizarre reputation for doing seemingly ridiculous things. By “continuation,” I mean that the finesse won’t make money right now. But it initiates a friendly psychological battle that can make money later.
For instance, I like to call on the river with a hopeless hand and leave players scratching their heads in bewilderment. Assuming the cost of the call is small, this leaves many players at my mercy later, not knowing what I’m going to do next. The result is that I’ll earn a lot more calls in the future when I hold strong hands, simply because opponents aren’t sure what strange thing I might be doing this time.
Question 6: Any closing thoughts?
Only to repeat that finesse plays should be used sparingly or not at all. Always try to estimate their value versus using the most obvious play before resorting to a finesse play. Asking that question will keep you from choosing unusual tactics for the thrill of being creative. — MC