Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2011) in Poker Player newspaper.
Many poker players automatically bet when they think they have an advantage. And they are quick to call whenever their hand looks promising. But, before you risk money with a bet or a call – even if you’re sure you’re the favorite – you need to consider the consequences and the cost of following through to the showdown. We’ll discuss that in today’s self-interview.
Question 1: Shouldn’t you always call when you have an advantage?
Definitely not. Let me give you an example.
You’re playing no-limit hold ’em, with $5 and $10 blinds. You’re in the big blind, holding 6♦ 6♥ against just one opponent on the button (dealer position) who has made a medium-size raise, totaling $25, on the first betting round. You called the extra $15. That call would almost always be correct. Folding would be a mistake. So, here comes the flop…
J♦ 4♠ 9♠
You check. The pot is now $55 ($25 from each of you, plus the surrendered $5 small blind). Your opponent now bets $40 – about 73 percent the size of the pot. So, you summon all your mental resources and you think and you think.
You think that this is a fairly aggressive opponent who is quite likely to take a shot at the pot, whether or not he connected. You think that in order to have you beat, that opponent would have to hold a pocket pair the board didn’t help that is bigger than yours, have made three of a kind, made an unlikely two pair, or paired nines or jacks. Or he might be betting with two spades, meaning a flush draw with, perhaps, overcards – making him a favorite. If none of that is true, you’re ahead and should call, you think.
But, wait! Yes, there’s a good chance you have the best hand, but if you do, then what?
Question 2: Don’t stop now. What’s the “then what” answer?
Well, then – if you call for $40 with what turns out to be the better hand – it isn’t over. Unless a six lands on the turn, which calculates to about 22.5-to-1 against happening…
Question 3: Let me interrupt you for a clarification. You mean exactly 22.5 to 1, not about 22.5 to 1, right?
Are you anal retentive or what? And no. I’m mean “about,” just like I said.
There are five cards you know about, the three on the board and the two in your hand. There are 47 cards you don’t know about. There are two sixes that would let you connect on the next card (the turn) to make three of a kind. So, it’s two out of 47, which is 45-to-2 against, which reduces to exactly 22.5-to-1.
I give you credit for knowing that, but I said “about,” instead of “exactly,” because we can make assumptions about what the opponent holds (and also, less significantly, about what other players folded). Because he raised pre-flop and because he’s betting after the flop, the likelihood that he holds a six is reduced. So, if anything, the chances of a six showing on the turn are increased and the actual odds are slightly better than 22.5-to-1. That may seem to be technical, but it has real relevance to the way poker is correctly analyzed. But it isn’t the purpose of today’s interview, so could we move on?
Question 4: Sure. You were saying you would need to snag a six, and it was about 22.5-to-1 against that happening on the next card. Could you continue?
Okay. Suppose, as is by far the most likely outcome, you don’t see a six on the turn. You could make a desperate “value” bet that has almost no value in it (and might have better chances if you thought of it as a bluff that might get a larger pair to fold) or you could check. If you check, which would be recommended as the tactic you choose most often, then you’ll be hoping that your opponent checks also and you can see the final, river, card for free.
But that isn’t likely to happen. You’re likely to get bet into. Unless that bet is tiny, you’re apt to fold. And if you do, you’ll lose that extra $40 you called on the flop. In short, the math just doesn’t add up in your favor to call that $40 bet in the first place.
Question 5: So, is that the poker lesson – don’t call with small pairs when there are two or more overcards on the flop?
No, silly. But, come to think of it, that would be pretty standard advice for many hold ’em games. My lesson is that you shouldn’t bet or call based solely on your chances of having the best hand or the best prospects.
You always have to consider what more it might cost if you continue and then lose versus how much you’ll gain on average if you win. In general, you should not bet or not call in situations that seem borderline if the continuation (today’s word) leads to a negative result. A negative result suggests that you will win significantly less from this point on if your hand is better than you will lose if it is worse. However, if the difference is not great, the money already in the pot will sometimes dictate that you call, anyway.
How much will it cost? How much will I gain? Learning to ask yourself those questions and answering them reasonably is one of the most important skills that successful players have mastered. Average players haven’t learned to do it.
That’s the lesson.— MC