What Version of Poker are You Best At?

Poker is a very popular game in USA and Europe. Like every other game poker has it its unique set of do’s and don’ts. Poker players are supposed to follow poker etiquette. If any of the players do not follow this rule they are dismissed from the location. A proper decorum should be maintained while playing the game. A friendly atmosphere facilitates the progress of the game. Most of the poker players comply with these rules in order to save the matter from getting aggravated. Continue reading

Showing Cards During Tournament

During the 1980’s, I and others lobbied hard to get tournament directors to realize that the practice of showing cards during a tournament for the purpose of discouraging a call was improper behavior, and should not be allowed. The principle behind this was every pot played between your opponents in a tournament with multiple payouts favors you, because it gives you the possibility of winning a higher place by a player being eliminated. An action that discourages such a pot from developing is unethical. It is now a standard tournament rule to not allow such an action. The pertinent poker Tournament Director’s Association rule says, “A player who exposes his cards during the play may incur a penalty, but will not have his hand killed.”

This rule is worded in a simple, straight-forward manner. But the truth is that the showing of cards during play is only improper when the rights of players not involved are jeopardized. For example, in Texas home games, it was common when a player moved all-in when a flush was the nuts to show the “ace of trump” while his opponent was thinking about calling on the end. Of course, this was a psychological move, and did not reveal whether the player actually had the flush. Sometimes a player who was thinking would say, “show me a bad one,” actually trying to get the opponent to show a card. There is an old story of Amarillo Slim showing a player a bad one after making a big bet, hoping to get called. Unfortunately for Slim, the opponent had a stronger hand than expected–and now could see he had the nuts!

The tournament rule makes it sound as if the rights of the other players are damaged in all tournament situations. However, this is not the case. There are two situations in tournament play where showing one or both cards during play does not affect anyone other than the parties involved:

  1. When there are only two players remaining in an event.
  2. When the event is winner take all, as in a one-table satellite.

The showing of one card adds something to the spectator appeal of poker. It can also induce a play that would not otherwise be made–for better or worse. It should be legal to show a card, even both cards, in situations where the rights of others are not adversely affected. Our tournament rules should reflect this, instead of issuing a blanket condemnation of the practice.

Check to the Raiser

The expression “Check to the raiser” is in common usage at the poker table. The raiser has indicated strength on the prior betting round, and often bets if checked to on the next round. The player who checks is saying, “You have indicated that you think your hand is the best, so a bet is expected from you. By checking, I will defer my decision until you act, and then I’ll let you know if I think your hand is still the boss.” Usually, the raiser bets-but not always.

I would like to address the concept of checking to the raiser as it applies to a hold’em player’s action on the flop with respect to the preflop raiser. In my opinion, checking to the preflop raiser is one of the commonest mistakes made by hold’em players. Of course, checking is often the correct play, but it should be a far from automatic action, both in limit play and pot-limit play. In this article we will talk about when you should not check to the raiser.

Why does the raiser usually bet the flop in hold’em, even if he has no pair and fails to buy help on the board? Simply because the mathematics of the situation dictates that he do so even if he has wound up with a poor hand. It is about 2-1 against improving a no-pair hand on the flop. In a heads-up situation, if the raiser actually had the better preflop hand, he is the favorite to still be in the driver seat. Against two opponents, one of them will help more often then not, but it is still worthwhile investing a bet to see if this has happened. There is a reasonable chance of winning an uncontested battle. But as the number of adversaries increases, so does the chance that one or more of them will improve. To bet into a crowd requires a real hand–for circumspect people like me-and the raiser does not always have such a hand, even if he is a solid player. A fine holding like A-K suited is still an underdog to become more than a pair-draw after the flop. So the more people seeing the flop, the less chance of getting the raiser to bet your hand for you.

Naturally, if you start with A-Q and the flop comes with two aces and a queen, there is no reason to bet and protect your full house. As any terrorist knows, it is the soft targets that need protection. The most vulnerable hands among the decent ones are one-pair hands where an overcard can make someone a bigger pair. If you start with A-Q and make a pair of aces on the flop, it is not so easy for someone to outdraw you on the next card. However, on a flop of 8-5-3, a hand such as an overpair like 9-9 or top pair like A-8 may well be the boss for the moment, but is in dire need of a bet to give it protection against being outdrawn. An overcard can make someone a bigger pair, an undercard makes a bunch if possible straights, and even pairing the board may enable someone to make trips and beat you. There are many hands that the opponent may well throw away if you bet. Overcards, gutshot straight-draws, and small pairs may wish to drop out of contention if there is a bet on the flop-and of course should be charged a price to draw even if they choose to stay in. The situation screams for you to bet.

In poker, as in life, it is unwise to rely on someone else to protect your vital interests if you can do so yourself. If you are fortunate enough to flop top pair with intermediate-ranking cards, it is your job to bet the flop. Do not rely on the raiser to bet and protect your hand for you. Poker is not supposed to be a game played by rote, but in this situation where you flop a hand that figures to be the best but can easily be overtaken, it seems automatic to bet.

To insure protection for your hand is the most important reason to bet the flop right out into the raiser, but far from the only one. Here is a situation at pot-limit that I think the best percentage play is to bet even if you are certain the raiser is going to bet the flop if you check. An aggressive and tricky player makes a preflop raise. You call, and hit a decent hand, but one not strong enough to go up against a big pair. A preflop raise represents a big pair, but as we know, it is not so easy to pick up that good a hand, and raises are frequently made on lesser hands.

Your goal should be proportional to your hand. The goal of a decent but not extraordinary hand should be the modest one of winning a small pot. You simply want to get the goods home without a big fight. But the way many players behave in the situation we are discussing is to provoke a conflict. They check the flop, call when the raiser bets, and then check again on the next round “to see if the raiser is serious.”

Let us now look at the situation from the raiser’s perspective. If he is an unaggressive person, he will most likely check it back on the turn, hoping to draw out, and willing to give up the pot when he does not, which is the vast majority of the time. However, an aggressive player may well decide to keep betting, since his opponent has not indicated a lot of strength with the sequence check-call-check. He may keep coming with the hand, betting on the turn, and possibly even again on the end. Of course, the raiser cannot be certain that his opponent isn’t slowplaying a big hand, but the odds are always way against a behemoth. Such a hand is not easy to get, and might not have been slowplayed had the person gotten one. Just how far are you willing to go with a modest-sized hand against strong betting? A lot of pots are lost by someone with a hand that would have won a showdown, but the player was pressured into folding.

I think of adopting a weak betting sequence as “cornering the raiser.” It may be okay to corner a pussycat, but beware of cornering dangerous animals. An aggressive player is a dangerous animal. The way to give yourself the best chance to win the pot is to make a probing bet on the flop and let him know you have something. If you also lead a lot with your very good hands–as I do–the opponent may well decide to concede a small loss rather than trying to represent a big pair, which may not be the best hand even if he has it. Bet right into the raiser and give him a chance to get out cheaply, rather than provoking a big fight by acting weak and staying in, and you will win most of those small pots, instead of turning them into big pots when your hand doesn’t warrant it. So if you stay for a raised pot on A-J suited or A-10 suited, bet when that ace comes. When you have an intermediate pair like J-J, 10-10, or 9-9 and flop an overpair, go ahead and lead with it. If you encounter strong resistance later, it is a lot easier to turn a hand loose after having shown some strength than if you have shown nothing but weakness. A shrimp does not know if someone kicking sand in his face is simply acting that way because of his small stature. A guy built like Schwartznegger knows that someone getting aggressive with him is likely to be real bad news. Let the opponent know you do not have a shrimp hand by betting the flop, and he is not likely to try and bully you into folding.

So far we have been looking at modest-sized hands. When you are fortunate enough to flop a really big hand like a set, it still may well be right to lead with it. This applies even if you feel sure the raiser will bet the flop. One reason to lead, at both limit and pot-limit play, is to avoid a power sequence that enables the opponent to get away from his hand. Check-raising the raiser shows a lot of strength; it may enable the opponent to make an astute laydown. If you bet the flop and keep betting on later streets, the raiser often hangs in there until the bitter end if he has a real hand, scratching his head after taking a sizable loss, and wondering just when he was supposed to have folded. It is also quite possible he may raise you at some point, as a lot of players are so used to an opponent with a big hand using a check-raise strategy that they fail to show the bettor respect. A lot of people treat a bet into the raiser as a try to win the pot by a drawing hand, or a probe on a hand that can beat an unimproved two-big-card hand (but not much else). Frankly, that is usually what it is–except when made by a strong player. Add the bet into the raiser to your poker toolbox of plays, instead of mechanically checking your hand.

Aggressive Poker

Nearly every time you read some poker advice, there is an exhortation to play aggressive poker. However, it is rare to get an interpretation of just what “aggressive” means. As interpreted by the kamikaze pilot, it means whenever it is your turn, you bet or raise. To my eye, and to other professional players, it is difficult to distinguish this interpretation of aggressiveness from simply giving away your money. Yet aggressiveness when harnessed to a brain instead of an arm is clearly a poker virtue. Since becoming a poker teacher, I have come in contact with a number of players whose most serious poker fault is insufficient degree of aggression. In this article, I will discuss how the limit hold’em player can make sure he is playing aggressive enough poker without going overboard.

Let us be clear that one can play tight in terms of initial involvement and still be an aggressive poker player. It is not how many pots you enter, but how you play once you are in, that determines if you are playing the kind of aggressive poker that is necessary. This proper kind of aggressiveness means betting your good hands strongly, rather than contending for a lot of pots. Aggressiveness and playing only high-quality cards complement each other. It stands to reason that if you play only the cream, you should have a better hand than the opponent who is not particularly fussy about what he plays. And if you figure to have a better hand, it is natural to want to bet it. Is this not the essence of poker? So lets look at each place where you can be properly aggressive: preflop, on the flop, on the turn, and on the end.

Preflop: Most players are aware that a raise can be used to drive opponents out of the pot, and make this type of raise. But some individuals fail to raise on strong hands when they know the field is coming. When all you can do is double the amount if the bet with your raise, there is no tool for thinning the field, as you can with a raise in most stud structures, where a raise usually triples or quadruples the bet. But a raise can also be used to increase the size of the pot, which is what you want to do when you are the player with the best chance of winning. Whenever you hold A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J, A-K, or A-Q, and nobody has raised, you are entitled to assume you are the chalk horse in the race, and should increase the size of the purse. Sometimes I will limp in with one of these hands instead of opening with a raise, to vary my game, but I always shoot it up when others are already in the pot. Note that I am not an advocate of raising with the intermediate pairs (10-10, 9-9, 8-8) in this situation. If the flop comes all small cards giving you an overpair, the extra money in the pot encourages the opponents to stay in throughout the deal, which is not what you want with so frail a leader. Overcards make bigger pairs, and undercards make a compact board where there are a lot of straight possibilities, so you are in constant danger of being overtaken.

It is a poker axiom that the smaller the size of the field, the more aggressively you are supposed to play. So when nobody has opened in early or middle position, the players in late position and those in the blind are supposed to rumble. When I am in either on the button or in the cutoff seat (the immediate right of the button), as soon as the betting has gotten to me, and nobody has opened, I am thinking about stealing the blind money. If I decide to open, it will be with a raise, so I have a chance to win it right there. Heads I win, tails we fight; pretty good odds. When stealing, I am scarcely expecting to need a big hand like a straight or a flush to win, because I figure to play a heads-up or threeway pot. Normally, all I need to win is a decent-size pair. Being suited or having cards that are touching in rank are not nearly as important as they would be in a large field of players contending the pot. Hands like 9-8 suited are bad hands for stealing the blind money, and I usually fold them. Desirable hands for stealing are hands with reasonable highcard content such as A-9, K-10, Q-J, and the like, and being offsuit is not a big drawback. Intermediate pairs go up in value when heads-up, so having hands such as 8-8, 7-7, or 6-6 will also bring out the larceny in me.

If you are in the blind, and a person in late position opens with a raise, it is particularly important to know what type of player you are up against. Is he someone who figures to have a big hand, a player with a touch of larceny in him (like me), or a compulsive kleptomaniac? You do not need to see what he shows up with when raising to categorize him if you have a chance to observe him for a while, as you can make a pretty good guess what sort of player he is by the frequency with which he raises.

Against a late-position raiser who is a non-rock, I will call on a wide range of hands, including an unsuited ace, suited low connectors, or a couple of facecards. These are hands that will fare poorly if the raiser has the type of strong holding we would expect from a raiser in early position. But if people are going to be trying to steal your money on trash such as a J-10 offsuit (a hand that a panel of expert players were almost unanimous in saying that trying to steal the blinds was the proper play), you have to fight fire with fire. When I hold a reasonable-looking hand like 7-7 or A-Q, and some klepto raises in late position, I will reraise him. My hand figures to be better than his, and the initiative is important in shorthanded pots, where all might miss the flop.

On the flop: We are all familiar with the desirability of having outs when making a move on the pot. Outs are nice, but in many circumstances they are not a necessity. There are quite a few flops that do not figure to help anybody, if the field is small. Suppose the flop comes Q-7-3 rainbow (no two-flush) and you are first to act. What do you need to bluff at the pot? Second pair? Third pair? An overcard? In my opinion, the most suitable answer is “No more than two opponents.” That’s right. You simply reach down into your stack and put a bet into the pot. The dealer will either push the pot to you or he won’t. I believe that you will win at least half of the heads-up pots and at least a third of the threeway pots by this bet. If you do not overwork this play, and have the table-image that a player who does not play a lot of starting hands usually has, you will win enough pots to show a profit. Of course, the opponents need to be the type that throw a hand away on occasion, not compulsive calling stations

One of the most common errors made by players who are insufficiently aggressive is to just call on the flop unless they are confidant they have the best hand. The right attitude is to raise if you are even suspicious you have the best hand. Here is an example. You are on the button with Kh-Jh in a five-way unraised pot. The flop comes Kc-9c-3h. The first two players check, third player bets, the fourth player folds, and it is up to you. The player who bet is a sound player who had called preflop in middle position. Is your top pair with a jack kicker any good? Damned if I know. However, I’m certainly going to raise him. I do not want any player to take a card off and make a bigger pair by hitting an ace, two pair (or trips) with a piece of the board, or a gutshot straight. A flush-draw will probably stick around, but at least my raise figures to get out the lightweights. Here is the proper way to look at this situation. There is a decent chance that I am going to win this pot, and by a small investment relative to the pot size, I can make a reasonable improvement in that chance, so I will do so. Top pair with a decent kicker is a raising hand when there is a normal-looking flop. Players will draw at a wide range of longshots on the cheap street, so you must confront them with a double bet to protect your hand.

The Turn: If you have a large number of opponents that stayed for your bet on the flop, when a bad card for your hand comes on the turn, such as an overcard or the third card of a suit, you must respect the size of the field and check. But heads-up, or against only two other players, most of the time you need to bet again. Naturally, if you get raised, reevaluation is in order. But if the opponent raises, he is likely to have a good hand. If instead you check, and then the opponent bets, it is uncertain whether he bet because you showed weakness or he actually has the goods. It is wimpy poker to check with the intention of calling a bet. Naturally, if the card is truly horrendous, such as an overcard that is also the third card of a flush, what we call the “death card,” it could easily be right to simply check and fold.

On the End: Many players are good about betting a hand with cards to come, trying to whittle the field, or at least charge a price to those who want to draw out. But there are a large number of people who after the last card seem to have the attitude of, “It’s over; now let’s see who wins.” They are unwilling to bet, even though they think they still have the best hand. However, if the opponent bets, they will call without hesitation.

There is some simple reasoning you should use. If the opponent failed to raise on the turn, and the last card does not have danger written all over it, you still have the best hand, and should bet. On the end, the opponents are getting big pot odds. If there is a potential draw on the flop that did not come home, they will call you with any pair, just in case you were pumping the pot on a drawing hand. Don’t be reluctant to squeeze the last drop that can be milked.

These are the main situations where I see people playing insufficiently aggressive poker at limit hold’em. You should not be in the pot on inferior starting hands, so when you connect, you are supposed to be betting and raising, particularly in heads-up and threeway pots. Max out and make all the dough you can!

Power Poker

There is a school of thought at limit holdem that says you are supposed to play a pocket pair strongly if you face only one opponent. No wimpy calls for this crew. The fact is that I know certain players who swear by this treatment (I am a bit more flexible myself). Frankly, this philosophical club has some members that are better limit holdem poker players than I am, so it is worth listening to what they have to say.

How many opponents do you want for a pocket pair? Unless you have aces or kings, I would say, “none.” This means I prefer to win the antes instead of getting played with if I have queens or worse. My second choice would be, “one.” A pair is a hard hand to improve-it’s over 7-to-one you won’t flop a set–so you have to live or die with the same hand most of the time. If an opponent has two overcards, like A-K against your two tens, you are a slight favorite, somewhere around 6-to-5. But as soon as another player with two different overcards enters the pot, the added pot odds do not compensate for the huge dip in your winning chances with the pair.

Here are some of the situations where the machos play their pocket pair strongly. First, if no one has opened in front of them, they never limp. Sometimes they fold a pocket pair, but if they do not, the pot is popped. Second, if the pot is opened by a limper and no one has yet called, they raise the opener whenever they play. Third, if someone opens with a raise and there are no callers, but players left to act, they either three-bet or fold.

There are pros and cons to such an aggressive strategy. Raising or folding clearly gives them a better chance to win the pot, but does it compensate for the extra money spent to protect their hand? Frankly, I don’t know. I have an instinctive dislike for any poker strategy that incorporates the words “always” or “never.” On the other hand, when some of the best players in the world use a certain strategy, perhaps we should listen. What do you think?

Picking a Good Seat

An examination of poker literature will show considerable disagreement on the subject of where to sit at a poker table. We are, of course, not talking about avoiding tobacco smoke, excessive body odor, or a player who overflows his allotted seating space. We are discussing purely poker considerations.

Why the disagreement? Let me outline the problem. Two principles that all poker authorities agree on are that it is desirable to act after your opponent, and you want to act last or as late as possible in multihanded pots. Quite often there is a player in the game that is a bulldozer, someone that plays a lot of hands and does a lot of betting. You cannot have everything. If this individual is on your left, you play a lot of hands with him having position on you. If this individual is on your right, the betting comes through you and the field acts after you do. So there is no one seat that is desirable in all situations.

Which is more important, to have position on the bulldozer or have position on the field? To me, this is not a close decision. I want to be placed well in multihanded pots, so I would rather have the bulldozer acting after I do, and sending the field into me, rather than the reverse. I believe anyone who tells you to plop down on the immediate left of a heavy bettor is giving you bad advice. Here are some reasons why.

First, when there is a player in the game who does a lot of betting and raising, the game usually gets fired up, and most of the pots are multihanded. You will not be dueling heads-up against the bulldozer very often. Note that in the old days, a lot of your heads-up situations in hold’em came from being in the blind along with your opponent, but most of today’s players chop in this situation.

Second, having position on a guy who almost always bets is not worth as much as some people think. In a sense, you can act after him by checking and having him bet, if you wish. Position is of greater value when it is on someone who is less predictable.

Third, your toughest poker decisions often come as a result of a bet through you by someone who you may well have beat, but some unknown hands behind you. When you have a mediocre holding such as second pair and a good kicker or top pair and a weak kicker, you are a likely favorite against someone who bets every time it is his turn to act, but not against a large group of opponents. If you raise and try to get the bulldozer all to yourself, you may run into a good hand and find out about it only after a sizable investment of funds. On the other hand, Just calling may let people in on a draw that you could have knocked out with a raise.

My advice is to consider the seat on the immediate left of a bulldozer the “death seat,” the one place you should avoid in a hold’em game. Let the bulldozer have position on you, but get good position on all those multihanded pots where he pumps. He who acts last has the blade.

Fighting the Bully

A common occurrence at a tournament poker table is the presence of a bully. Especially at holdem, whether the poker form is limit or no-limit, someone in the game may be doing a lot of raising. A sound holdem player is supposed to play only about fifteen to twenty percent of his starting hands. The bully plays thirty to fifty percent, and almost always raises if no one has opened yet. How you choose to cope with a bully has a lot to do with your tournament result. What should you do?

One school of thought is, “fight fire with fire.” Don’t let the bully run over you. Defend your blind. Raise him when he bets. He is on light hands, so you can scale down from your solid normal standards to keep him from thinking you are a pushover.

Another school of thought is, “Don’t let a money-pusher throw you off your game.” The bully is going to put down some heat after the flop, so give yourself a chance to build a hand that can take that heat. Sit back, wait for a good hand, then pick him off with it.

Can both schools be right? I believe they can. The school you belong to should be dictated by the blind structure. If the players have a lot of money in relation to the blinds, it does not matter if the bully tries to steal a little bit. For example, when the blinds are $5-$10 and the players have $500 worth of chips, as is the case at the beginning of many tournament events, the player that jumps out in front by picking up another $15 or $30 in blind money is not going to hurt your chances much. Let him boogie around playing high-risk poker while you wait for the right weapon to duel with. But if the blinds are a matter of life or death, like playing with a $50-$100 blind when you have less than a grand, you are going to have to run some risks to fight for that money.

To sum up, say to yourself, “Are the blinds up high enough to fight over?” If the answer is no, wait for a solid hand. If the answer is yes, the bully is probably playing correct poker strategy for that portion of the tournament, and you have no choice but to make a stand.

Bet for Value

The poker term “betting for value” applies only to a bet made after all the cards are out. No longer is there a need to protect your hand, and the sole purposes of a bet are to either make an opponent fold who has a better hand (a bluff) or collect more money from a worse hand (a bet for value). We usually use this term only in describing a situation where there is some doubt whether your hand is good or not, so you have a decision whether to check or bet depending on whether you believe your hand is still good.

Many holdem poker players need to adjust their mindset a little in river betting. Their attitude when they have been carrying the betting seems to be, “I have protected my hand to the maximum; now let’s see if it is the best.” Then they check a decent but unspectacular holding. The more aggressive and more profitable attitude is, “At limit poker, the opponent is likely to call on any pair just to see if I have been pumping on some kind of a draw or overcards, so I have a chance to make more money if I have a real hand.”

The way to make that extra money at limit holdem is to realize that the normal place for an opponent to make a move is on the turn, not the river, if they have a hand that looks like it should be good (as opposed to hitting on the end). There are many times when you bet the turn with your heart in your mouth, because the turn-card is of some danger, but you do not want to give up the initiative and allow a free card. Here is an example to dramatize such a situation.

You have pocket queens and raise the pot, getting called by the button and the big blind. The flop gives you an overpair without any particularly threatening card combination. We will use Jc-8d-5h as an example. The first player checks, you bet, and they both call. The turn is the Kc. The first player checks again. An overcard is never welcome, but you grit your teeth and bet again. Only the player who checked calls. On the end comes another king, and he checks. What should you do?

The first thing you should realize is you have caught a good card for your hand. It is impossible that the player drew out with that second king. It is even better than catching an innocent-looking deuce. If by some miracle the opponent had two pair on the turn (with a king not one of the pairs), you are now back in the lead. If the turn king had hit him, he would likely have either led into you on the turn or check-raised. Since he did neither, and also checked the river, it is clear to bet again and collect one more big bet for your reward. He does not know you have Q-Q, and if he holds a pair, will probably pray you had A-Q and pay you off.

This theme of catching an overcard on the turn and having it pair on the river comes up over and over again at holdem. Make the most of it when the betting action indicates your former top pair or overpair that you had flopped is still good. Bet for value.

Tournament Tips

A key concept of tournament play is the idea that a hand has a “point of no return,” where the player has committed such a large portion of his chips that he should simply close his eyes, commit the remainder of his chips to the pot, and hope for the best. Although this is a general concept of poker, it arises far more often in the setting of tournament play than in money-game play, because there the blinds and bets can easily be a large portion of your total chips. That’s why I speak of it as primarily as a tip for tournament players.

The concept of hitting a point of no return is easy to understand. Poker is a game where the worse hand has a chance to improve by having additional cards help the hand. Sometimes we are better off sticking it out and hoping to help rather than surrendering. In practice, you usually have two chances; either your hand is good, or you get some help. So when you get confronted with a bet or raise, your chip position relative to the pot size may dictate that you play in a committal fashion. Rather than just calling, if you do decide to play, you should put the rest of your money into the pot. That way you can get some potential opponents to fold because they would have to commit more of their money, and with the certainty of having to show down the better hand to win the pot.

As a simple illustration of committing your money, let me use a hypothetical example. Suppose the game is pot-limit hold’em. You have only a small stack of $1000 in tournament chips in front of you. An opponent makes a preflop reraise to a total of $800. You hold AK. It should be obvious that to just call the bet, having the intention of either continuing or folding, depending on the flop, is a faulty strategy. You will flop a pair about a third of the time, yet will make a pair about half the time if you go all-in and look at all five boardcards. If you call the $800, are not helped by the flop, and subsequently fold, you will be losing all those hands where you would have helped on the turn or river and won. There is about a couple grand in the pot, counting what would be added from the blind money. For only $200 more, you can look at five cards. Rather than just calling the $800 with the intention of calling your last $200 if the opponent bets the flop, it is considered better technique to put the money in before the flop, so your opponent cannot get away from his hand if you buy help and bet the flop yourself.

In our hypothetical problem, it was easy to see that you should either raise the rest of your remaining chips before the flop or throw your hand away, because the money figures I used were so close to putting you all-in. Now here are a couple of examples from real play that were recently given to me by one of my students. You will see the same principle at work.

My student said, “I was playing in a tournament and had about $300 worth of chips in front of me. A player raised the pot to $75. I was in the big blind with 9-9; what should I have done?”

When holding a pocket pair, we must first see if the chip position allows us to try and flop a set. It is over seven to one against this, and a set will lose some pots, so you should never commit more than ten percent of your money to try to flop a set. If you call and try to hit the flop holding 9-9, what type of flop will you be aiming at, if you do not turn a set? An overpair? Hard to achieve with nines, and there is no guarantee of winning if you do get that flop. Only one overcard? No ace or king on the flop? These things are of some help, but why back off and give your opponent with 8-8 or some such holding a chance to win the pot when you both miss? The fact is when you have a pocket pair, if you have to commit more than ten percent of your stack to the pot to see the flop, it is better to take a firm position. Either throw your hand away or move in, but do not make the indecisive play of calling with the hope of getting a good flop, because such a thing is difficult to identify if you do not make trips. It is particularly tempting to make the wimpy play of just calling when it is late in the tournament and you are hoping to survive to achieve a higher place in the money, but don’t do it. You can fold, of course, but if you decide to play, go out with your guns blazing, not shelling out large chunks of your money hoping to get a good flop.

My student’s second example was from the late stages of a limit hold’em tournament at an eight-handed table. He had $15,000 in chips. The blinds were $2000 and $4000, and the betting limit $4000-8000. Here is what happened.

“I picked up A-K in the big blind. A player opened in middle position with a raise and a player in late position cold-called. Should I call or raise?”

I believe that the player is close enough to being all-in that he is going to have to call on the flop even if the boardcards are not helpful. With less than one big bet left (seven grand when a big bet is eight grand), he should reraise, and bet the remainder of his money on the flop. That way, he sees five cards, and not just three. Note that it is the amount of chips that he has left relative to the pot size that required this strategy. The fact that is was thousands of dollars worth of chips is not of consequence, as that changes only the psychology, not the mathematics. With more money, say over twenty grand in this blind structure, it would have been quite reasonable to only call, and hope to help the A-K on the flop, but not in the actual circumstances he faced.

The experienced tournament player is especially aware of these situations where you must either marry your hand or muck it. If you wish to succeed in tournament poker, and especially satellite play, you must be familiar with the concept of a point of no return, and recognize the many situations where a committal decision is forced upon you.

Become a Winner

I have worked with many people, who vary widely in ability and poker experience, but have remarkably similar problems they need to overcome. Of course, they all want to be winning players. Here are three major barriers they need to surmount.

  1. Overcoming an exorbitant rake. How would you like to be a track coach for an athlete that wants to run a fast time for the mile, but his home course where he will be trying for that fast time is up a steep grade? You would say, “I can help you run more quickly, but neither I nor anyone else can instruct you how to get a fast time on an uphill course.” How can the student expect me to teach him how to win in a game that I would be hard-pressed to beat myself? If the rake is too strong, you can’t win. My poker experience has taught me that when the rake gets above five percent, nobody wins except the house. The first thing every poker player needs to do is find a place to play poker that charges only a fair amount for playing the game.
  2. Playing too many starting hands. I have never met a limit hold’em player who’s vice was playing too tight before the flop. I am convinced such an animal exists only in theory, and does not actually occur in the real world. Nearly everyone I know, from pro to beginner, plays too many starting hands to get his or her optimum result. The two main sins weaker players commit are playing small pairs and small suited connectors, and not tightening up sufficiently in pots raised by a player who is marked with a good hand. Anytime you have to pay a full bet to play a hand composed entirely of little cards, you are making an error. Hands such as 5-4 suited or 3-3 are not playable hands. Being in a volume pot or being on the button hardly ever makes these hands playable, it only reduces the crime of entering the pot from a felony to a misdemeanor. In raised pots, the raiser is supposed to have big cards or a big pair, unless he is in position to steal the blind money. The worst type of hand you can have is where the raiser has one of your cards and a bigger sidecard, or a pair of the rank of one of your cards. In such a case you have a crippled hand in competing with the rest of the field, and are in serious danger of flopping a second-best hand when you do hit. The implication of this is hands such as K-Q or A-J are unplayable in raised pots when unsuited, and far from a bargain even when suited. I believe more money is unnecessarily lost in a poker session from calling raises on inadequate values than any other poker error.
  3. Playing wimpy poker in shorthanded pots. In hold’em, a player who flops a solid hand that is not the nuts (or is no longer the nuts after the next boardcard) is pretty lucky if he can get a card off the deck that looks innocuous. Most of the time the player has to deal with the possibility that an opponent has outdrawn him. The test is how realistic the threat is, because it is unfortunate to dog the best hand and lose a bet or more of profit. It is a huge swing if your failure to bet results in losing a pot you were supposed to win, either by getting bluffed, or having a free card provide a miracle drawout to a player that would have folded had you bet. The danger of a card is judged by two main factors; the likelihood of an opponent being helped, and the number of opponents. Against one opponent, if I had enough of a hand to like it on the flop, I am going to bet again on the turn. He does not have to be holding a flush-draw if a third card comes on suit, or a card in his hand of the same rank to pair with that overcard. Against a crowd, I am much more cautious when a bad card for my hand appears. The important thing to note is that against precisely two opponents, my betting behavior is a lot closer to how I would have handled the situation with only one opponent than how it would have been facing a whole crowd of people. If you bet and get raised you’re probably beaten. If you check-showing weakness-and someone else bets, then whether you opt to continue competing or abandon ship, it is hard to be confident you are making the right decision.

There are a lot of other factors affecting your play besides the three mentioned in this article, but these are three main areas that control whether you are a loser or a winner. Do your repair work here and watch your “luck” turn around.