Brunson: The flop isn’t your friend

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in the London Telegraph in 2005.

Doyle Brunson index.

Historical note: The following explanatory note didn’t appear in the series, but was sent with each column as submitted.

Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson stands unchallenged as the most celebrated poker player who ever lived. In 2005, at age 72, he won an unprecedented 10th championship gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He is among the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and his books  are the bibles for poker professionals.. Through and, Brunson has teamed with Mike Caro, today’s premiere poker educator, to offer a free learning experience to players worldwide. This column is founded on  those collaborative teachings.

Doyle Brunson

Sometimes I flick on the tube, and shake my head in ponderous astonishment to see poker. It wasn’t many years ago that seeing a game on TV was rare, and when you did, it was usually part of a movie where the actors wagered unrealistically, using plastic chips that I haven’t seen in a serious game in fifty years.

Now you can sometimes see poker on several channels at once. And the most gratifying thing about this for me is that the game you’ll almost certainly be watching is hold ’em.

Hold ’em has overwhelmed the poker world and become the unquestioned game of choice almost everywhere. Just about every major tournament uses hold ’em as its showcase event to determine a grand champion.

I’m proud that I was one of the original advocates who brought hold ’em to the World Series of Poker thirty-five years ago. Back then, you could just mention “hold ’em” by name and players outside the U.S. South (and particularly Texas) would get these strange looks and you knew what words were forthcoming: “What’s that?”

Game of choice

Well, you don’t hear that question much today. If you ask players what they like most about hold ’em, one thing that’s sure to come up is “the flop.” For many,  the flop is the most exciting thing about hold ’em, because three cards are turned up by the dealer all at once. Those three cards pretty much define the strength of your hand.

Which hold ’em two-card starting hands are good enough for you to be satisfied with any flop? That answer is easy. Only aces. If you don’t hold two aces before the flop, you need to worry.

With two kings, you worry about an ace showing up (unless a third king also appears). With a pair of queens, you worry about a king or an ace flopping, giving an opponent a superior pair. The lower your pair, the more worried you need to be. And the more players are challenging you, the more worried you need to be.

Without a pair, even with an ace and a king, you better get a flop that gives you four parts of a flush, a completed straight, or see at least one ace or king fall.

And, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you’re not likely to see what you’re hoping for on the flop. No matter what cards you start with, your wishes will not come true most of the time.

Now, as I’ve said, the flop is one of the things that sells hold ’em. It’s exciting. Your opponents love the flop.

Attitude adjustment

But if you love it, too, you need a serious attitude adjustment if you intend to win in the poker big leagues. To be truthful, I’d occasionally rather be run down by a freight train rolling full speed across the prairie than to stare down the flop in big games. The flop is fun for your weaker opponents, because it usually gives them a chance to catch up. Why catch up? Because you’re the superior player, so you’re usually going in with the better hand, right? In truth, you’d rather just end the hand right then and settle up on the basis of a premature showdown.

Listen closely. What I’ve just told you is important. At hold ’em – as in all other forms of poker, as well – most of the time you’d rather end the pot early. It’s your weaker opponents who want to keep going – because they usually need to improve.

And what this means about the flop is that it’s a happenstance that favors your opponents more than it does you. This fact has practical importance. It means that a key to winning at hold ’em is to go in with big cards, being as likely as possible to have the best hand to start with.

Those who need to catch up most often eventually lose, and those who are in the early lead most often eventually win. And this means one other important thing to you no-limit players. With quality hands, there often is real value in making large bets against weak opponents before the flop.

Bet enough so that you hope they call, but if they do they’re getting far the worst of it and must hope for a favorable flop. After all, the flop is their escape; and the flop is your worst fear.

Keep that in mind and a lot of hold ’em strategy will fall into place automatically. Just remember, if you’re a superior player, the flop isn’t your friend. — DB

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