Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2010) in Poker Player newspaper.
Let me think. What can we discuss today? Got it! In hold ’em, you obviously need to consider what’s on the “board” – the flop, the turn card, and the river card – in conjunction with the cards you hold and the betting action so far. There are simple mistakes many players make in this regard, so let’s make that the subject of today’s self-interview. There are hundreds of situations we could cover, so we’ll focus on just a few.
Question 1: When big cards flop, how does that affect my decisions?
If you’ve raised the pot from an early position, you probably have big cards or a reasonably high starting pair. If you began with A-K, A-Q, or A-J suited and the flop shows two or three high cards you’re likely to have made a pair. What’s important is that your opponents know that you’re likely to have paired.
When opponents call you before the flop, especially weak opponents, they’re often playing substandard hands. They’re hoping that big cards don’t flop. So, when they do flop, you’re in control. Against one or two typical opponents who have a bit of common sense, you should bet whether or not you paired. If you opened with A♦ J♦, for example, and the flop is K♥ Q♦ 2♥, you’re usually better off betting than checking.
From your perspective, you fear someone has made kings or queens. And that’s pretty likely. In fact, if it’s a limit game, you’ll usually be called, and if you make a modest bet in a no-limit game, you’ll quite often be called. Be prepared to fold to a raise. However, there’s a good chance nobody helped. Add that to the chance that someone might have a queen with a weak kicker and fold, plus the chance that someone might abandon a small pair. Put it together and you’ll take this pot outright a significant percentage of the time – enough to usually make betting more profitable than checking. You still need to vary your play and occasionally check, but betting should be your first instinct. If you’re called, well, you still might pair or connect for the ace-high straight.
The point is, when you’ve raised from a position where opponents suspect that you hold a quality hand and high cards flop, betting often should be your first choice.
What happens if you raise from a late position, are called by the big blind and low or medium cards flop? If you’re checked to and didn’t help, you should usually check along. Overall, trying to steal the pot when the board isn’t scary to your opponent loses money. If you hold A-K, you might bet, hoping to either take the pot immediately or be called by weaker overcards. That’s all right once in a while, but usually you should just check and see what develops. If Q-10-9 flops, you can take a shot with A-K, because those cards might be high enough to scare off opponents, even though you raised from a late position. They appear to fall in a likely range where you might have connected, and you have an inside straight possibility. But if the flop is 10-6-3, usually check.
That last piece of advice differs dramatically from the way most professionals pursue pots. You can make solid arguments for betting high overcards into a lone opponent when small ranks flop. You’re quite likely to have the best hand and actually be betting for value, rather than bluffing. It’s more profitable to take the whole pot immediately without a fight, when you have a high-card advantage. You might prevent an opponent from drawing out. And you have good chances of pairing on the turn or river and converting to a winning hand, even if your opponent has a small pair now. So, betting isn’t a huge mistake, and I sometimes do it, especially when I have a commanding image. But, overall, the truth is that you’ll make more money in the long run by just checking and seeing the next card for free.
Question 2: What happens when you flop a flush and the board pairs on the turn?
This is where your no-limit bankroll can be severely damaged and you should show great caution. Suppose you started with A♦ 10♦ and are amazed to see this flop J♦ 6♦ 2♦. You make a medium bet and are met with a substantial raise. You reraise and are called. Both you and your opponent have serious stacks of chips remaining to invest. The turn card is 6♠, pairing sixes on the board. You make a medium-sized bet and your opponent moves all-in.
Don’t call. You might have hoped that your opponent had A-J, Q-Q, K-K, or A-A to begin with – all reasonable starting hands that might merit his large raise after seeing the flop. You should also have been aware that he might have flopped a smaller flush or a set of jacks, sixes, or deuces. Unless this is a bluff, the all-in raise is very unlikely to come from an overpair, even aces. Much more likely now is that the opponent flopped three-of-a-kind and has made a full house or four sixes. There’s the less likely chance that it’s a smaller flush, with him holding, perhaps, K♦ 9♦ – but that’s too daring an all-in move to be most likely.
Since you both had substantial chips and you’re probably facing a full house or better, you should almost routinely fold, unless this is a consistent bluffer. Remember, no-limit hold ’em is a battle of big confrontations – and you need to win most of those to succeed. This is a big confrontation, the kind players wait hours and hours to encounter. And it doesn’t favor you. A lot of money is lost making calls like this.
Question 3: When there’s a straight on board, should I call a bet?
I can’t really give you a definite answer to that. Let’s assume no flush is possible. Often, if it’s a medium bet, the opponent is hoping to take the whole pot, rather than settle for half of it. In that case, often call.
But if the action suggests a good chance that the opponent was trying for a higher open-end straight, you should usually fold. For instance, if the board came in this order 10-8-9-6-7, then there’s a good chance your opponent held a jack all along and has a higher straight than what’s on the board. But if the board came 9-8-7-10-6, then your call is more rational, because an opponent would have needed a 10 to pursue an open-end straight beyond the flop. That doesn’t make the call safe, and you might even have been facing a flopped jack-high straight, against J-10, but it means you should be more willing to call a small wager to salvage half the pot.
Question 4: What is the biggest mistake players make in analyzing the board in hold ’em?
Clearly, you must always consider what the board probably suggests to your opponent. In the heat of poker combat, players often forget to do that. You know what cards you’re holding; an opponent doesn’t. The board not only shows you the real strength of your hand, it often implies something quite different to an opponent. Always think about that first before making your decision. — MC