Quiz No. 1: Test Yourself on What We’ve Discussed in This Column
This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
Over the years, we’ve shared a lot of information and thoughts. What if I put together a quiz now and then to refresh our memories and help us review some of the concepts that have made us – you and me – the masters of poker that we are today. Do you like that idea? Say yes. Good, then here’s the very first test, which, after some thought, I have decided to call “Quiz No. 1.” There are only three questions.
Caro Column Quiz No. 1: Questions
Question No. 1 (based on a concept in this unusual Poker1 entry: What not to bet in a nuclear winter). Suppose you’re playing against a single opponent in a game in which you ante and receive only a single card facedown. You then wager on the strength of that one secret card. Fine. But suppose that you can’t find a full deck of cards to play with. How many cards do you need to find for the element of bluffing to be meaningful?
Question No. 2 . You’re playing $40-$80 hold ’em. You’re one seat to the right of the dealer button (so you act before the button). You hold A♠ 10♦. A loose and aggressive player in seat No. 6 opens by raising the $40 blind, putting in $80. The next two players fold. It’s up to you. What’s your most profitable strategy?
(A) Reraise to $120 (and a bit more if it were no-limit)
(C) Call $80
Question No. 3. What factor often makes it less desirable to raise on the first betting round in hold ’em than in seven-card stud?
(A) Opponents tend to be more aggressive in hold ’em, and they may punish you for raising with medium-strong hands.
(B) You never want to chase players out of the pot before the turn in hold ’em.
(C) You will make most of your money in betting exchanges on the flop, so you want your opponents to stick around to see it.
(D) Your hand is largely defined on the flop, so you seldom have a huge edge betting before you see it.
Caro Column Quiz No. 1: Answers
Answer No. 1. You need at least three cards. (And, of course, they can’t all be the same rank.) Let’s say the “deck” consists of two cards – an ace and a king. If you are dealt the king, you can’t bluff because the other player must have the winning ace and must call. There’s no reasonable decision to be made.
What if there are three cards – an ace, a king, and a queen? Then, if you’re dealt a queen, you might try to bluff. Your opponent would be faced with a meaningful decision about whether to call with a king. He would absolutely call with an ace. (We won’t consider raising in this simple hypothetical card game.) If you are dealt the ace, you can bet with impunity, hoping to be called by the king. Or, you might try to check-raise if the rules allow it. The queen, of course, isn’t a calling “hand,” because whoever has that card knows it’s a loser.
But here’s where it gets more interesting. If you’re dealt the queen, you might decide to bluff. Of course, if your opponent holds the ace, you’re dead. But what if he holds the king? Then, he has a rational decision to make. Should he call, hoping you hold the queen? Should he fold, fearing you hold the ace? Now we’re seeing the soul of poker.
But, wait! It turns out that this isn’t just a curiosity; it isn’t just an easy-to-understand mental puzzle. It’s more. It means something to poker players, even when they play traditional games for big money.
We saw that you could (and probably should) bet your best card – the ace. And as long as you play poker, you’ll make more money simply betting your best hands than doing anything else with them. Sure, we talk a lot about check-raising, about checking to give opponents a chance to bluff. But those are alternative strategies that add to your overall profit if used occasionally. You are unlikely to make much profit in poker if you always seek alternative strategies, if you try to play too fancy. When you have a strong hand, you usually should feel compelled to bet.
And what if you hold the king? In our simple three-card example, you can’t justify a bet. You’ll always be called when you have the worst card, and never when you have the best one. And that turns out to be a powerful truth about poker. Although there are rare times when you might argue that you should bet a hand that is neither strong nor weak, generally you shouldn’t. Medium-strong hands are prime candidates for checking, and if you violate this powerful truth too often, you’re certain to suffer.
If you bet your strongest hands, check your medium hands, and bluff with your weakest hands, you’ll be walking the right path toward profit. As we get more sophisticated, we learn exceptions, but if we get fancy and use exceptions too often, we’ll lose. The three-card example is designed to point serious poker players toward reality. Answer: Three.
Answer No. 2.
If you said (C) call, that’s OK. It’s not the answer I was hoping for, but powerful arguments can be made for just calling, and you certainly should mix up your play and call sometimes. The advantage of just calling is that you can see the flop inexpensively, probably will have the best position unless the player on the button plays, and you might entice the blinds to play weaker hands than they should.
But (B), folding, is a poor choice against a loose, aggressive raiser in a middle position. You’re simply losing money making this laydown, but many overly tight players do it. Even if your opponent has an ace, there’s a good chance that you have a better kicker. And the possible hands that this player might hold are heavily weighted toward him not holding an ace. So, fear of always being dominated by another ace is irrational here.
My answer is (A). Usually reraise to $120 (and a bit more if it were no-limit). This reraise has all kinds of benefits. It helps build your psychological dominance over the table. It may serve to chase away the player having superior position on the button with hands that would cut into your profit potential, or even hands that are better than yours. Your reraise is likely to chase both the $20 small blind and the $40 large blind out of the pot, leaving that dead money for just you and one opponent to fight over. By reraising, you’re likely to be checked to on the flop, since you’ve made yourself the central focus of the wagering. This means you’ll likely be able to keep betting if the flop is favorable or check and take a free card if it isn’t. This is a powerful option that you can win for yourself by reraising. And, besides, you are very likely to be reraising with the best hand right now. Answer: (A).
Answer No. 3.
I don’t consider (A) a good answer. First, it’s not clear that hold ’em players actually are more aggressive on the first round of betting. In some comparisons they are, and in other comparisons they aren’t. Second, I’m not sure how much others can punish your medium-strong raising hand. They usually need an even stronger hand to do it or they might be punishing themselves.
And (B) is wrong because there are many times that you want to chase players out of the pot before the flop. In fact, winning the blinds and taking the pot immediately usually results in more profit, on average, than a hand is worth if played to the showdown. The reason you shouldn’t try to chase players out more often is that the tactic doesn’t work reliably. When it does work, you’ll often scare away the players who would have been most profitable to you had they stayed, and strand yourself against callers with strong hands.
Most of your money in hold ’em isn’t necessarily made from betting exchanges on the flop (C), although you can profit significantly by playing correctly on this betting round. In any case, even if you did make most of your profit on the flop, this wouldn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t raise before the flop.
I believe the main reason it’s less desirable to raise on the first betting round in hold ’em than on the first betting round in seven-card stud is (D): Your hand is largely defined on the flop, so you seldom have a huge edge betting before you see it. With medium-strong hands in hold ’em, you may not have as much of an advantage as you think against other hands that may be weaker. Too much depends on the definition of your hand on the flop.
You also sacrifice some deceptive value when you raise, since you will be raising mostly with high-ranking cards. Opponents then know that when high ranks that don’t help them hit the board, they need to beware. As a result, you’ll often get less profit from your medium-strong hands in hold ’em if you raise pre-flop and later see a flop that you like.
The main problem with these seemingly borderline raises is that if you hold the best hand, the extra value may be small. But if you don’t hold the best hand, a reraise can come from an opposing hand, such as a large pair or an ace with a bigger kicker, that has a significant advantage over you. So, if you’re right, you may gain a little, and if you’re wrong, you may lose a lot. Those three flop cards come all at once in hold ’em. Cards come one at a time in seven-card stud. In hold ’em, the flop is when your hand is largely defined. And you usually don’t have as much control over your fate before the second betting round in hold ’em as you do in seven-card stud. For that reason, I believe you should be more selective about your hold ’em raises than most medium- and larger-limit players tend to be. Answer (D).
By the way, Answer No. 2 and Answer No. 3 are not in conflict. One encourages you to reraise, one not to raise at all. But the central factor is the same – the flop will largely define your hold ’em hand. In one case, you want to reraise to secure your position and be checked to on the flop, leaving you with the option to bet or take a free card after you see the flop. In the other, you simply want to see the flop before committing yourself further. In both cases, you’re trying to reduce the damage that the flop can do. In both cases, the flop is the key. It determines your destiny. We’ll talk again soon. — MC