Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Card Player. This entry in the "Aunt Sophie" series covers poker.
Aunt Sophie draws to an inside straight (Part 2)
“Nu, Dollink?” said Aunt Sophie, as we returned from feeding the meter on the street to admire the La Brea tar pits, “you said you would tell me when it would not be a bad play in the draw game to come in to draw to an inside straight. I thought that must surely be the worst play in draw poker. I see now that it’s not the worst; drawing to a short pair is probably the worst. So drawing to an inside straight being a good play, when is that?”
“You understand, Aunt Sophie,” I advised, “I’m not giving you carte blanche to draw to inside straights. Most of the time doing so is a bad play. If you just generally adopted the rule never draw to inside straights, you wouldn’t be playing badly at all. Most players don’t know when doing so is the right play. However, in poker, as you know, some bad plays are not always bad. And you wanted me to teach you advanced play. I know you already know the basics.”
“Yah,” she exclaimed, “advanced play. That’s what I want. And from an expert. By the time you’re through with me I’ll be a quadruple-threat player.”
“Okay,” I continued. We found our bench next to the biggest pit, in which a realistic, life-sized model of a mammoth struggled offshore in the tarry miasma, watched by his anxious mate and two smaller offspring. Millennia after preservation in the tar, its bones would be dug up by fin de siecle archeologists and reconstructed into life-size representations within the on-site museum, and the knowledge used to construct the outdoor dioramas. “But before I give you a few examples of when to draw to an inside straight, I’m going to retell the old chestnut about why not. It concerns the farmer who lost three-fourths of his farm drawing to inside straights, and the other quarter when he finally made it at the same time as someone else made a full house. Here are a few times when it makes sense to draw to an inside straight.”
I leaned back, enjoying the shade beneath the trees. Although it was fall, the LA Indian summer made it feel like July. I closed my eyes, and let the pictures come, flowing around my words. I saw small creatures tentatively stepping onto the partially hardened tar, seeking water under a merciless sun. They ventured out, and sometimes got stuck in a soft spot. I saw larger creatures, ancestors of modern buffalos, advancing on the solid-looking stuff, only to get enmired. The bones of all of them would end up on back shelves in the museum, to be carefully cleaned and exhaustively categorized by those interested in such things.
“Okay, here’s one,” I offered. “And you don’t even have to make the hand to win! Five and ten draw, dollar ante, after one hand has been passed out. Each player puts in another ante. There’s sixteen dollars in the pot now. It’s your deal. You have ace-king-queen-jack of mixed suits, an inside straight draw. Only a ten or the joker will make you a complete hand. The player just to your right opens, and inadvertently flashes a jack. The most likely hand for a player who accidentally shows exactly one jack to have is precisely a pair of jacks. That the player is opening in next-to-last position makes it even more likely that he doesn’t have better. The player draws three, and you draw one. Most of the time you won’t need the straight to win. Pairing any of the four cards you hold should be enough. If you pair jacks, likely your kickers will beat the opener’s hand. Assume the player started with jacks. That means you’re drawing from a deck of 46 (53 minus your five, minus those two jacks). Any ten, jack, queen, king, or ace wins. There are three aces among those 46, three kings, and three queens. One jack remains. There are four tens, plus the joker. That’s 15 cards to make a winner out of 46, or only about 2-to-1 against you. After the opener put in $5, the pot held 21. It cost you five to get in, giving you immediate pot odds of over 4-to-1. That’s quite a large overlay, and should take care of the times the opener has better than jacks. Let’s say it was a queen the player flashed, making the most likely hand he holds precisely a pair of queens. Now the two jacks wouldn’t win for you, but there would still be two aces, two kings, one queen, and the five cards to make the straight, ten cards to win, and 36 to lose, and still you’re getting 4-to-1. With the opener holding kings or aces, or, of course, anything better, it’s no longer a favorable situation. But the opener in late position has jacks or queens much more often than anything better. Part of the time you will be wrong, of course, but your 4-to-1 pot odds are so much stronger than the 2-to-1 against your winning, the times he does have jacks or queens make this a profitable play. And, you have to take into account the times that you make the hand and beat two pair or three of a kind. That’s worth at least two bets after the draw. You can even bet kings or aces if you make them, and you’re likely to get called for a bluff by just one pair. That, too, is an extra bet, and has to be taken into account. Admittedly this is an infrequent occurrence, but it certainly proves that sometimes drawing one to an inside straight is a good play.”
“Are there any other times?” queried Aunt Sophie.
“Yes,” I responded, “but they’re not from limit draw. However, since you want to be a multiple-threat player, you will likely be playing other games. In the Central Valley and a few parts of Northern California, no-limit and spread-limit high draw poker are popular. There you can take implied money odds into account. That is, not just what you’re getting from the pot at the moment it’s up to you to make a decision, but what you will get if you make the hand. One example from there doesn’t even require taking implied odds into account.”
More than it costs
I saw silhouetted against my closed lids an early mammal scampering across the solid-looking tarry surface, pursued by one of the last of the dinosaurs. The tar would not support it, and its bones, too, would end up on one of those dusty museum shelves. “In these Northern California games,” I went on, “there usually are one or more traveling blinds. Let’s say you have the big blind in a one-one-two. The dealer puts in a blind. The player under the gun puts in a dollar, and you, the big blind, put in two. That makes the minimum bet $4. Already there’s $4 in the pot. You have 2-4-5-6-king. You can’t win this pot by pairing. One player opens, and four more call. Now there’s 20 plus the four in blinds, or 24 in the pot. Costs you two to get in. Already you’re getting 12-to-1 on an 11-to-1 shot. Anytime you get more than it costs to enter a pot, that’s a play with positive expectations.
“And here’s another,” I added. “You have the same hand, and are in the same position, that is, the big blind. The little blind opens. You know this player will come in on anything, a small pair, one to any straight or flush, maybe even two high cards. This player also hardly ever calls after the draw without improving. You raise. This being either a no-limit or spread-limit game, you can raise more than the opening bet. Say it’s a 4-to-40 game. The little blind adds $3 to the one she already has in the pot, thus opening for $4. You raise $10. Most of the time she’ll just fold, and you win it right there. If she calls, you draw one. Most of the time she’ll take her draw, and, if she misses, check, and then not call when you follow through by betting after the draw. This is strictly a bluff, of course, but still you are drawing one to an inside straight.”
I opened my eyes, blinking against the bright daylight. “Okay, that’s enough,” I concluded. “Three instances in which it’s a good play to draw to an inside straight. Somewhat rare, true, but real instances nonetheless. If you’re going to be a consistent winner, you need to assess every situation. Don’t just automatically throw away every inside straight.”
“But do,” Aunt Sophie finished, “throw away most of them.”