Free cards and position

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

ENTRY A: The risk of checking.
This concept applies to many forms of poker, and often to hold ’em. But we’ll use seven-card stud in this example. I’ve talked about why seven-card stud is a game in which you should frequently bet, even if you’re unsure whether you have the best hand at the moment. Sometimes, you should even bet when you know you don’t have the best hand.

How come? The reason is this: If your next card is scary – making a small pair on board, adding a high card, or appearing to add a straight or flush possibility – and your opponent’s card is not scary, you will often win the pot outright on your next bet.

Suppose you hold A♣, J♦ in the hole and K♥ 5♦ showing. Your opponent has (unknown to you) 6♥ 9♦ in the hole and 6♥ 10♣ showing. Now, listen closely. If you’re the one who has been doing the betting on 3rd and 4th streets, you’re often better off than if there has been no betting or if you’ve been calling your opponent’s bets. In all cases, your opponent has a pair of sixes, but you have three cards that outrank any card he has.

Who’s the favorite?
Is this an even match-up? No way! You’ve got the worst of it by about 2-1. But, especially in late-position combat, you should play these hands occasionally. After all, you don’t know your opponent has any pair at all. Then, again, he might hold something more powerful. Still, we didn’t come to the poker table to avoid taking chances, did we? If we wanted to do that, we would’ve gone to the movies and watched someone else at risk or stayed in bed and dreamed about adventure.

Anyway, we’ll leave that discussion for another time, and simply look at the situation at hand. On the next round, you catch 5S and your opponent catches JS. Suddenly you have a pair. Big deal, you say. Of course, it’s a big deal. In fact, it’s such a big deal that now all you have to do is bet to win the pot. Watch.

“I bet.”

“I pass. I was just hoping to draw out on you.” And with those words, your opponent throws his hand away. Maybe he suspects there’s a slight chance he’s tossing in the better hand, but it’s not worth the money to call. After all, if you have kings-up, it’s too much of a long shot from his perspective.

But, if you hadn’t been betting all along, it’s much more likely that your opponent would not surrender the pot now, and you’d have to fight an uphill battle. Does that mean you should always bet weak hands when you think your opponent is also weak? It depends on how certain you are about his hand. When you’re in doubt, you should sometimes bet, sometimes check. Establish an image for yourself that does not make you so predictable that your opponent feels comfortable about planning a winning counter strategy.

He might have surrendered.
Where was I? Oh, yeah, the risk of checking. It turns out that there’s actually even more danger in checking than I’ve told you about. Suppose you had a pair and your opponent didn’t. Now, one of the biggest problems with checking is that you might allow your opponent to make a hand for free and beat you when he would have surrendered immediately had you bet.

You often have more to risk by checking than by betting. If an opponent who would have passed makes an inside straight for free, they say you’ve lost a whole pot. If you bet, you’re only risking that bet. This is an important concept to think about when you decide what do in seven-card stud or any form of poker. A better way to look at it (but still not the complete way) is that you’re not risking the whole pot, but only a portion commensurate with your opponents chances of connecting.

The big truth.
I think the cost of giving a free card is over estimated. There are often good things that can happen when you check, such as not wasting more money if you’re wrong about your opponent attempting, say, a flush.

ENTRY B: Positional advantage.
We all know it’s better to see what your opponent does before you act. Since the action goes clockwise, players have a substantial advantage over opponents who sit to their right. You should tend to beat up on people sitting to your right, making their lives as miserable as possible. Players on your left have a positional advantage over you. Make friends with them and hope they don’t maximize their advantage.

It’s simple. Befriend players to your left; declare war on players to your right.

Another positional benefit.
One of the little-understood benefits of last position is that you get a lot of free cards. Remember, in “Entry A,” we talked about the danger of giving free cards to opponents – somewhat overrated, but a danger, nonetheless.

When you get a free card, you’re taking a free ride. You figure you’re beat right now, but you might get lucky and make something awesome. If nobody bets, you get that opportunity for free. That’s what a free card is. Fine. Well, a governing concept of free cards is that you get lots more of them when you’re last to act than when you’re first to act. Even better, when you’re last to act, you get control over whether or not you take a free card. You can accept the opportunity, or you can bet and deny the same opportunity to your opponents.

The bottom line is, there are not chiseled-in-stone answers to when you should bet marginally strong hands and when you shouldn’t. But if you keep today’s concepts in mind, you’ll have a lot better chance of making the right choice when it counts. — Mike Caro

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


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  1. How would the concept of free cards apply to HE either L or N/L? Say two high suited cards like KQs into an Axx board? Or even as two overcards into a 8 high board?

    1. When you have a flush draw in hold ’em, unless you have other strength, too, you almost never want to bet voluntarily. Just as you always try not to give your opponents free cards, you want to receive a free card. Betting ensures that it can’t happen.

  2. I’ve played a lot of stud games online. Like razz, stud hi/low and stud. But, none live. I still have no idea what dictates position in those games?

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