Limit Texas Holdem PokerThis is the introduction to a set of articles designed to give you some idea of what to consider when faced with flop decisions in hold 'em. The purpose of this introduction is in part to act as a reference for some of the concepts I make use of in the series, as well as act as a form of disclaimer; No article or book on poker is going to be complete and full-covering, and for stringency it's important to declare where the limits are drawn.

Limit Hold 'em Heads-Up Flop Considerations

To help us find the right action to take, I'm going to mostly be using the Fundamental Theorem of Poker. If you're not familiar with it, it - for the purpose of this series, at least - basically means this: Whoever makes the fewest and least costly mistakes will be the one who profits. It applies specifically to heads-up situations, which fits this series perfectly.

Heads-up limit hold 'em is a battle of mistakes. By "mistake" I mean putting in money when you shouldn't, and failing to put in money when you should. If you can get your opponent to put in money when he shouldn't, you'll profit. If you can avoid putting in money when you shouldn't, he won't.

When poker comes down to a battle of mistakes, hand reading is vitally important. Since we'll only usually have one street worth of information (preflop), and on top of this my examples are from online poker rooms, we'll have to settle for a mathematical approach based on percentages given by PokerTracker stats (see below). If we don't have even that much ("playing against an unknown") we have to base our actions on what the average player is like and act accordingly.

Limitations

The heads-up situations are presuming that only two players see a flop, not that there are only two players at the table. This is a very important distinction because of the effects it has on the possible hand ranges. See below regarding blind steals.

Unless otherwise stated, I presume that the opponent in the examples I show is a decent - not expert, not awful - player. The kind of mistakes that such a player will make include being a little too loose preflop, a little too loose on the flop, bluff too often and slowplay too often.

Blind steals are not included. The goal of the articles is to illustrate aspects to take into consideration when two real hands are up against each other on the flop. In a steal situation, one or both players will often have nothing, and even weak nothings. Knowing how to play in these situations is important, but is not a part of the scope of this series. See this Blind Stealing article for an introduction to blind steals.

Concepts Used

Pot odds

You need to know what this is, and not just when it comes to limit hold 'em flop decisions. There are two articles at CardsChat.com that discuss pot odds:

Poker Odds For Dummies

Concept: Pot Odds

Equity

Another fundamental concept. See the Poker: Equity article for an introduction to equity.

Donkbet

In limit hold 'em, especially in heads-up pots, the preflop raiser will virtually always make a continuation bet. Therefore, many players like to check-raise (or just smooth-call) when they flop something good, and, for reasons I will not speculate about, when a player instead decides to bet into the preflop raiser, this is often called a "donkbet" or "donking the flop." As a sidenote, the term works for the turn and river as well - it basically means betting into whoever has the initiative. This, of course, can only be done by the player out of position.

Free card

There are two different free cards plays, both requiring position: Opting not to bet in position on the flop to see a cheap turn, and betting the flop, leaving open the option to check behind on the turn to see the river.

PokerTracker statistics

Some reads are presented as pokertracker stats, e.g. "35/12/1.5" and these numbers mean, respectively: VP/PFR/AF.
  • VP: Volountarily put money in pot. A percentage indication of how loose the player is preflop. This value does not automatically equal "number of flops seen" since a player checking the BB will not get "points" on this scale.
  • PFR: Preflop raise. Percentage of hands this player has raised with preflop.
  • AF: (Postflop) Aggression Factor. Sum of bets and raises, divided by number of calls, i.e. a ratio. This ratio, as the name implies, says something about how passive or aggressive a player is.

In order to properly understand the numbers, it helps to have some idea of what "normal" play means. At 6-max tables, good players usually range from 20/14/2.5 to 30/20/1.8. Note that VP and PFR usually go hand in hand as they go up, whereas the postflop aggression factor usually goes down with an increased VP. The reason for AF going down is simply that good players will not put in as much money when they're behind as when they're ahead, and a looser player will be behind after the flop more often than a tighter player. A semi-loose player usually ranges VP 30% - 40%. Loose players around 40%-50%, and then there's the "fun" players who play 50-60% of their hands. Once in a blue moon, you find a player who will literally play every hand, but they're so rare that trying dissect hands that contain such players is not going to be worthwhile*.

There are, of course, other ways a person can be a winning player without being specifically within the range of stats I list above. But they're the exception, not the norm - and as a general rule of thumb, if someone deviates by a fair margin from these numbers, you can be pretty sure that they're making mistakes somewhere, and we will discuss how to exploit those mistakes on the flop. Having said that, stats can be argued indefinitely, but this is not the focus of this series.

One other stat that I will sometimes look at is WTSD which stands for "Went To Showdown" and is a percentage showing how often a certain player, once she sees a flop, actually gets to showdown. This is sort of the postflop equivalence of VP; how loose a player is once they decide to continue preflop. As with AF, this value has different meanings depending on VP. Someone who sees a LOT of flops, would do well not to go to showdown very often. Someone who - and I take the extreme example - folds everything but AA and KK would do well to go to showdown virtually always. A certain value of WTSD isn't "good" or "bad" on its own, it's a product of how loosely you play preflop.

* Ironically, however, the very first hand analyzed is in position against a 76/16/1.1 player.

How To Play Overcards

Villain in this example is 76/16/1.11; He plays virtually every hand, but has roughly the same raising requirements as a good player does. His postflop aggression factor, coupled with his VP, is basically through the roof. This is a player who will raise with very mediocre hands postflop.

Poker Stars
Limit Holdem Ring game
Limit: $5/$10
6 players

Pre-flop: (6 players) Hero is Button with K♥ A♥
UTG folds, UTG+1 calls, CO folds, Hero raises, SB folds, BB calls, UTG+1 3-bets, Hero caps, BB folds, UTG+1 calls.
Flop: 4♦ 9♣ J♠ (10.4SB, 2 players) UTG+1 checks, Hero ...

So what's the move here?

Well, let's make a few things clear:

1. Who is our villain? It's a guy who's as loose as they come, and he seems decently aggressive to boot. This is NOT a typical opponent.

2. What do we know about his range? Well, he limp/re-raised preflop. Some people do that with monsters. Some people do it with any hand they figure might be best heads-up (often pocket pairs, sometimes hands like AJ) and some really wild players do it with virtually any hand that they've limped and that now got heads-up; they think it's fun. His stats suggest that he will play any-two, but given that the did limp-reraise we should probably at least narrow it down somewhat. I'm going to say that he would do that with any pocket pair, any suited connector JTs and up, any ace with a nine or better kicker, and KQ. That's pretty wide, but is often actually not wide enough. In this case, I'm probably erring on the side of caution, however.

3. How does our hand fare against his range on this flop? A lot of hands he has fit in with that J or 9 one way or another. In fact, this is a really bad flop for us, because if he has an ace, he - with the range we gave him - have to have specifically AQ or AT, otherwise he's ahead of us (or splitting with AK). We don't even have a backdoor flush draw.

4. What would it look like we're holding? This is a tricky question. We can't expect a player this bad to actually pay attention to anything we do, but even the very worst usually pay some kind of attention when the betting gets capped. We've told him we have a huge hand and unless we've been seen raising with trash recently, I don't think he has any reason to doubt that we do. Unfortunately, using PokerStove and feeding his range into it, we find that he's actually a 2:1 favorite over us on this flop.

5. What's the pot like? One of the most important considerations in poker is the size of the pot. The larger the pot, the more actively we must try to win it.

So what should we do?

Betting

The pot is big, so we should first and foremost consider betting; it's the default play in big pots. Going back to the Fundamental Theorem of Poker, what mistakes might our opponent make if we bet, and how bad is our mistake to bet if we actually have the worst hand at the moment?

Although it will happen very rarely, there IS a chance that our opponent's range is wider than we've given him credit for, and he completely missed this flop. If that's true and he simply folds a hand like Q5s, then he's - unknowingly - making a mistake. He has six outs to beat us, and he's getting 9:1 on a call. We should be very happy almost regardless of what he folds, the few times that he will.

What if our hand is worst? If he gives us credit for a monster, he might simply call with a hand like 6-6 (this kind of player does not fold a pocket pair here, virtually for certain). We only have 25-30% equity against medium pocket pairs, so most of the money going in on the pot will never make it back to our pockets, unfortunately.

Will he call with a worse hand than ours? He certainly will. Very rarely will he be able to fold AQ, AT, KQ or QT on this flop (although QT is basically a coin toss against our hand) so that's good. His really strong hands, QQ+ and sets, he will probably checkraise and we'll know something about his hand when he does. Be warned that this kind of player may well checkraise with QJ as well, so while we may want to slow down if we get played back at, there's no way we're folding on this flop. We may have to leave the option open for the turn, though.

Checking

Since we're likely behind, we need to also consider checking. Upsides to checking here is that the majority of the time that we're behind, we're getting a free card to outdraw him. Getting a free card in a big pot with the worst hand is very good for us. This is really the only big upside to checking, and I think we should have more upsides than just this one to warrant it, because there are some not-good downsides in play here:

We are basically turning our cards face-up for the rest of the hand. What hand caps preflop but then checks behind on the flop? AK that didn't improve. Sure, sometimes it will be JJ that flopped a set and stupidly tries to slowplay in a big pot, but unless our opponent is not paying attention at all, he's gotta think that the chance of us having AK is enormous if we check. We're fighting a battle of mistakes when we're heads-up on the flop, and reducing our range that much is usually a really bad mistake. We can opt to take a free card on the turn if we get a turn that warrants it (a ten or a queen comes to mind), and checking the turn may even induce a bluff from a hand we can beat, on the river. But checking the flop is, by any standard I can apply to this problem, not good.

Conclusion

This is a curious hand, with a potentially curious suggestion on my part: I state very clearly that we're likely to be behind to his range, and I still suggest that we bet. The key element here is the size of the pot combined with what we know about our opponent. With a hand as "good" as ours against this guy, we should really be looking to get to showdown though, since he will play a lot of hands, and 25% chance to win a big pot isn't something to give up easily. By betting, we're giving ourselves the option of checking behind on the turn and getting what's likely the cheapest possible showdown. Checking the turn, however, is not an automatic decision; but this is not a discussion on turn play.

Example 2: AQo on a paired board

Again, our villain is really loose, but this time he's a lot more passive: 60/7/0.61. The only hand I've seen him raise preflop and showdown was AK, so the 7% preflop raises probably constitute real hands. He goes to showdown 32% of the time, which is a whole lot given that he sees 60%+ of flops. I don't think he pays attention to anything other than his urge to see the next street.

Poker Stars
Limit Holdem Ring game
Limit: $5/$10
5 players

Pre-flop: (5 players) Hero is Button with Q♦ A♠
2 folds, Hero raises, SB folds, BB calls.
Flop: 5♦ T♠ 5♠ (4.4SB, 2 players) BB checks, Hero...

Another missed flop, but this flop is a whole lot better for us than the one in the previous example. Looking at the "texture" of the board, there are a few key differences between the two hands:

This board is paired. Whereas an unpaired board that misses us has three cards that may have paired our opponent's hand, a paired board has only two. Or more accurately, an unpaired board has nine cards that we have to "dodge" in our opponent's hole cards, a paired board has only five. Based on this alone, this flop is almost twice as good as the last one!

We have a backdoor nut flush draw. Backdoor flush draws don't come in often (about 5% of the time) and our hand won't be disguised at all if we hit, but they still add value to our hand.

Let's look at the same check list as before:

1. Who is our villain? He's a loose, showdown happy guy. He's not very aggressive.

2. What do we know about his range? It's very big. It's a bit unlikely to be a premium hand, since he has shown himself capable of raising with those, but some players don't like to raise from the BB even with hands like QQ. But really, out of the BB, he will play any two.

3. How does our hand fare against his range on this flop? We're a big favorite. If he does indeed play any-two from the BB (and we have every reason to believe he does) we're close to a 2:1 favorite on this flop, which is about as much as we can hope for when missing.

4. What would it look like we're holding? I don't think he's really aware that he has an opponent in this hand, so I don't think he thinks much about our range at all. Trying to think on the second level (zeroth level: what do I have?, first level: what does he have?, second level: what does he think I have?) is a waste of time against players who don't themselves think on at least the first level. In fact, it's worse than a waste of time, it can actually lead to worse decisions than not thinking about it at all.

5. What's the pot like? Four small bets isn't something to be all that excited about. Against a passive player, we should look for reasons to fold if we get played back at. This is a small pot, and a small pot is a good reason to fold if we run into resistance.

So what should we do?

Betting

A key difference between this hand and the previous one is the size of the pot. This is a small pot, the last one was a big one. In a really big pot, our opponent would be correct to call a single bet here with any two cards. In this really small pot, he will only be correct to call with a hand that's actually better than ours. Why is this so important? Because when we bet the flop in the last hand, we were rooting for our opponent to fold. Now we're rooting for him to call with a worse hand. It's really unlikely he will fold a better hand than we have (very few people fold a hand like 2-2 on a paired rag board), but it's not far-fetched at all to think that he will call with a lot of hands that are worse than ours. J9, A-x, K-x, Q-x... We know that he's loose, and the best way to exploit that mistake in this hand is to bet and hope that he calls with a worse hand.

Checking

We missed the flop, after all. If we take a free card, it's possible that it will give us a queen or an ace and produce the winning hand over a holding like JT or a pocket pair. This, however, is only correct if we're likely to be behind. Are we likely to be behind? No, we're not. Someone who will happily (well, I guess I technically don't know that he does it happily) pay to see 60% of flops on average in all positions must be likely to be playing any two cards from the big blind. If he plays any two cards, we're about a 2:1 favorite over him, with two cards to come. Don't get me wrong, checking isn't a hugely expensive mistake - but it's a mistake. Giving him a free card to beat us is bad and all that, yada-yada. But that's thinking like a tournament player. A cash game player should be more worried about profit, and that's the reason to bet. We're missing out on some money by failing to bet! We're reasonably sure that he will call with worse hands, and we're reasonably sure that we're ahead of his range. We must bet, and take those fractions of a bet away from him!

Conclusion

We really need to bet here. This has nothing to do with "protecting our hand" in its most common usage. This has to do with us making sure that we exploit the mistake a loose opponent makes the most: Calling with the worst of it. Because the pot is small, he cannot profitably call with very many hands here, but he still will. Just because we missed the flop doesn't mean that he didn't, too. Especially when the flop paired. If our hand was best preflop, it's likely still is - and our villain will pay us off another small bet. Take his money.

Example 3: AKo against a decent opponent

The first hand example was AKs against a very, very loose opponent. This time, we're up against someone considerably tighter. In fact, with 6-max standards, this guy is squeaky tight. He's very aggressive when he does enter a pot though, but his preflop hand selection looks a lot more like "by the book" with full-ring measurements. His stats are 17/12/3.4. Notice the through-the-roof aggression factor. Most solid players are around the 2.0-mark. This guy does not like to call; he wants to raise or fold.

Poker Stars
Limit Holdem Ring game
Limit: $5/$10
6 players

Pre-flop: (6 players) Hero is UTG+1 with K♣ A♠ UTG folds, Hero raises, 3 folds, BB 3-bets, Hero calls.
Flop: J♣ 7♠ 9♦ (6.4SB, 2 players) BB bets, Hero...

Well, here we are again, staring at a missed flop. You may disagree with me not capping the betting preflop with AKo, but there were a couple of reasons for that. One is that I don't always cap preflop with AK against solid players. It's partially a way to mix up my game a little bit, but in this case, it has more to do with the fact that the guy in the big blind 3-bet me. If it had been the button - or if I myself had opened from the button - things would have been different. I was just 3-bet by a very tight player from the big blind when I opened from middle position. People don't generally 3-bet without very strong hands from the big blind (unless it's a blind steal situation, which this isn't) and squeaky tight players do it even more rarely. I have reason to believe I'm up against a real hand. I think his range is JJ+, AQo+, give or take a few hands. I think we're ready to move on from the check list employed in the first two examples now, so let's just look at our options:

Folding

This wasn't even an option in the first two cases. Is it in this hand?

Well, an argument can be made for it. Part of our problem in this hand is that there are few holdings in his range that we're actually ahead; rather, there's one: AQ. We split with AK, but given that we have one of the kings, that hand is even less likely than AQ. The rest of the time, he either has us in bad shape (QQ), or he has us crushed (JJ, KK and AA). That said, even with the likelyhood of being behind, we need more than just "we're probably behind" when we're being offered better than 7:1 on the flop. We must be almost dead certain we're behind to one hands that crushes us if we are to fold here - and I'm not that certain.

Raising

The aggressive option. As I said above, we're not ahead a majority of the time here. But that doesn't automatically make raising a bad play since there are fringe benefits to be reaped even when we're behind. So what's the deal in our case? What benefits do we have from raising all those times that we don't have the best hand (since clearly raising is great if we happen to be up against AQ)? This pot is getting big. Remember, folding is mostly out of the question. By raising now, we're investing an extra small bet into a 8 SB pot - it will be 8 small bets after we call and before we raise, so to speak - for the following two Good Things:

1. We may get an inkling of what kind of hands we're up against. He will probably 3-bet us with most hands that beat us, but perhaps not AQ. Perhaps not AA or JJ either, as he may opt to checkraise us on the turn with those two particular hands. Why is that good for us? Because...

2. ... We may choose to take a free card on the turn the times that he just calls. In a pot this big and with a hand as strong as ours - even if it IS often behind - we don't want to give up without seeing the river, at least not always. AK is a powerhouse in six-max, and while it's not a hand that we should always go to showdown with, we should at least try to get close to a showdown. We may have as many as six outs in a big pot (against QQ) and it'd be a pity not to let that get a chance to materialize on the next two streets.

Also, we haven't said much to him about our hand yet. Most players will cap with AK in position preflop, but we didn't. When we raise and then just call his re-raise, we're not being more specific than just "I have a decent hand." By raising here, we're telling him - admittedly a lie - that this flop connected with our hand in some way. He might believe that; this board will connect with a lot of hands that are worth raising but not capping.

Calling

So folding is out of the question and raising looks like it may have some upsides. What about calling?

Well, while raising may give us the benefit of seeing the river for only two small bets, the operative word is still "may." If we raise now, we may get 3-bet and end up being forced to either pay three small bets and one big bet to see the river, or we may end up calling three bets and folding on the turn. Three bets without even seeing the river sounds like a failure to me. Of course, calling doesn't narrow down his range much, so that particular benefit we're still missing out on.

But here's another argument against raising: This flop is somewhat coordinated. A lot of hands in our range will have a straight draw + overcards, stuff like AT, KT and QTs. I sometimes raise JTs from middle position, so if he's picked up on that, he definitely knows that I may have a decent hand here. Do you understand why the coordinated flop is an argument against raising in this case? It's perhaps not obvious. The standard lesson that most learn when they start out is that they should be protecting strong hands from possible draws, and here I'm suggesting that specifically because of the draw heavy board, raising may be bad.

The problem lies in the fact that we're playing a guy who knows something about what he's doing, and he's very aggressive. If we raise, he will realize that a lot of the time we're actually semi-bluffing with an AT-type hand, and he will simply make it expensive for us by 3-betting and lead the turn. Because the board is coordinated, our attempt to raise to steal initiative will be taken at face value a lot less often. He may even decide against slowplaying JJ if we raise, because he wants to protect his hand against possible draws.

The downside to calling is of course that it fails to extract value from worse hands. He will definitely call a raise if he has AQ. What we should consider when we talk about "failing to extract value" is how dangerous giving a free card actually is in this spot. The answer is, "not very." If he has specifically AQ, his best chance of beating us comes from turning a queen. That's only going to happen about 6% of the time, so we don't have a whole lot to worry about there. Besides, if my range estimate is correct, AQ accounts for "only" 30% of his range of hands* meaning that the combined chances of him both having AQ and outdrawing me on the turn are less than 2%. I shouldn't worry too much about it.

Conclusion

There's a very good argument to be made for just calling here. Given our opponent's aggression, the fact that we're behind just about half the time and factor in that we're in position and therefore can make better decisions than him on later streets, raising probably sets us up for more pain than gain. If our villain had been much more loose and aggressive, raising would have been much better since we would have had a much better chance of being ahead of his range. Here, however, we're up against a tight and aggressive player, with a hand that we're realistically only still in because of the size of the pot.

* Remember, I have one of the aces and one of the kings. That leaves 12 ways for him to make AQ, 9 ways to make AK, 6 ways to make QQ, 3 ways for KK and 3 ways for AA, for a grand summary of 12 + 9 + 6 + 3 + 3  = 33 possible hand combinations. 12 out of 33 is roughly 30%.

Example 4: Defending the Big Blind and Missing with QJ

Poker Stars
Limit Holdem Ring game
Limit: $5/$10
6 players

Pre-flop: (6 players) Hero is BB with Q J♣ 3 folds, Button raises, SB folds, Hero calls.
Flop: 2♠ 4♠ 7 (4.4SB, 2 players) Hero checks, Button bets, Hero...

My last example is relatively short, but it's a very common scenario. I won't give you the read this time, because I think we can discuss our way through this without knowing exactly who we're up against. We clearly can't fold the big blind from a button opening, almost regardless of who sits there, though. Getting 3:1 (and then some) we really need to at least look at the flop.

This, unfortunately, was not the flop we were hoping for. We were hoping for a top pair or a straight (-draw) kind of flop, and this wasn't it. Instead, we're looking at weak overcards to a rag flop. There are three defining traits of this hand:

1. It's a small pot.

2. We're out of position.

3. We can't go to showdown without improving our hand.

I know that there's a chance that our hand is actually still best. A lot of players open from the button with 98 and other similarly weak hands. Some open even lighter than that. But the combined chances of him either having a bigger hand than ours (and that's hardly difficult - any king, any ace, any pocket pair, any seven, any four, any deuce) or outdrawing us or even simply forcing us to fold by betting three streets when we don't hit makes this a really, really bad situation for us.

We can't continue every time we suspect that our opponent is stealing, because this is limit not no-limit, and the option of outplaying him by using larger bets doesn't exist. And with a pot this small, we're not even getting proper odds to take even one card off. If we could peak at his cards and see that he had a hand like 99 or A7, taking one off could be worth it because we'd be able to extract a decent amount of money from our implied odds when we hit a queen or a jack on the turn, but as it stands right now, the risk is just too high that our hand is either hopelessly behind already (AA, KK, QQ, JJ, any set, AQ, KQ, AJ, KJ) or that we won't get paid off when we actually hit our out. We have reverse implied odds in this hand, and that absolutely sucks.

Also, and don't underestimate this, there's a flush and straight draw on this board, but they're not available to us. Sure, our villain won't have A5 or two spades very often, but he will have it sometimes. And we don't have a queen or a jack in spades, so even if our hand is not dominated, we still won't be very happy to pair up at the same time that the board turns three of a flush.

No, as much as it hurts to lay down a hand that may well be best, when the pot is offering us 5:1, I will have to quote Inspector Closeau: "Zis is not ze time, Cato." Fold. The pot is small, so who cares anyway, right? Just fold.

In Closing

Playing overcards is never easy, because it's a situation where we're in the limbo of being either ahead with a fairly small margin, or we're behind and have a draw that may be dominated. In short, it gets expensive if we don't play these situations properly. Of course, immediately folding any flop that doesn't hit us is a recipe for disaster as well as any opponent with at least one functional eye will pick up on this very quickly and simply bet every flop that we're in and yield whenever we play back. That won't work.

So we need to carefully navigate the waters when we have such a fragile hand. Sometimes, it's best to be aggressive. Sometimes passive. What's so interesting about playing overcards is how common these situations are, and how difficult they still are. And if they're difficult, they are - by definition - the place where most of the mistakes take place, and our job is to spot those situations and be the players that make the most of it. There's tremendous profit to be made in exploiting a systematic mistake of our opponent like always peeling the flop with just overcards. Similarly, being able to make better guesses as to when to fold and when to continue than our opponents is a way of denying them the same profits that we take from them.

How To Play Top Pair

PokerStars 5/10 Hold'em (6 handed)

Preflop: Hero is BB with J?, A♦.
2 folds, CO raises, 2 folds, Hero 3-bets, CO caps, Hero calls.

Flop: (8.40 SB) 9♣, A♠, 4♥ (2 players)
Hero...


I want to look at this hand in a vacuum, which is why I'm not supplying any reads. This hand is a good example of a "way ahead/way behind", or WA/WB situation. What that means is that if our hand currently is best, then our opponent has very little chance of outdrawing us (probably no more than three outs) and if our hand is currently worst, then we are the ones who have very few outs to improve.

Barring any reads, we should at least be careful enough to give the other players some credit for being able to think. Maybe not Einsteins, but we shouldn't presume that we're playing against untrained monkeys, either. So against an opponent who's somewhat aware of his surroundings, what is he thinking about the situation right now? What range of hands can he have? Well, when players cap preflop they tend to have a huge hand. He did cap in position though, so that opens it up a little bit, but generally speaking we're looking at a big pocket pair or a big ace, i.e. TT+, AK/AQ, against a tight opponent. Against a wilder opponent, we'll see a lot more hands - some people cap any pocket pair, for instance, and even A-x. Given that, how should we act on this flop? Does he like seeing that ace on the flop, or did he just realize that he's screwed?

Betting

Given that betting was capped preflop, betting out here isn't really a "donkbet." It's more of a "fifth bet." When our opponent raised the first time, his range may be very wide. When we 3-bet him, we said "hah, I have something, too!" and then he capped, seemingly saying "I fear nothing." Our range, in his eyes, is still defined merely as "I have something." If we bet out here, we're picking up where we left off before the flop and we further define our hand, this time much more narrowly.

What's the upside to betting? Getting more money in the pot with top pair, third kicker, of course. Our villain is not going to fold KK immediately on the flop, so we get another bet in right away. In fact, it's not unheard of that people will raise with KK here, because they think that it's the "aggressive move." Whatever. But generally speaking, the upside to betting is that against most hands, we're putting in a winning $5 here, and our villain will call almost always. KK will even often call down.

The downside then, what's that? We're handing over the steering wheel to our opponent, is the problem. This, I believe, is a common misconception: That by betting out, you're "taking control" of the hand. Out of position, this is not true at all. By leading this flop, we're giving our opponent lots of options to play well against us: We're essentially telling him we have an ace. If he has AK, he's going to put in a raise somewhere, but not necessarily on the flop. He may opt to wait for the turn. If he missed the flop completely (and was getting out of line with KQ, for instance) he's getting away cheap by folding. Or if he's a smart player holding TT and realizing that we'd never 3-bet preflop and lead this flop with a weaker hand than he has, so he's now drawing to two outs - he may again choose the cheap option of folding.

Checking

Is checking better? It has the benefit of not revealing our hand quite yet. We may induce a bluff from our opponent, making him bet with an overplayed KQ, hoping that we have a small pocket pair and will fold now that there's an ace on board. The smart player with TT I mentioned above may bet, afraid to give a free card to us in case we hold KQ. Also, the board is drawless. The only four hands we're realistically behind to are AA, AK, AQ and A9. A9 is a bit of a stretch given that he capped preflop, but these players do exist, and they're not that rare. If he checks behind and we end up giving a free card, it's not the end of the world. Some rare times, it's going to be a weirdly slowplayed AK that checks behind on this flop and it's actually we that get a free card to beat him. But checking does give a free card, and we do have a very strong hand.

Conclusion

What conclusion? Neither checking nor betting seems to be overwhelmingly good options. By betting, we give our opponent the chance to trap us and by checking we risk giving a free card in a large pot - even if it is unlikely that he has many outs. That's quite a dilemma; how do we determine what to do when both options seem to be roughly as good or bad? Often, we fall back on a read we have. Against very aggressive opponents, we seek to trap him, often by going for a checkraise on the flop. Against very passive opponents, we might bet because he will call down with, for instance, QQ but not bet it himself.

But barring any reads, how do we determine our course of action? We look at the bigger picture.

The bigger picture in this hand is this: We have a hand that's either clearly best, or hopelessly behind. We're out of position. It's a big pot. If we know nothing about our opponent, getting into a raising war with a hand like ours - which gives implied odds but doesn't get it - means that we'll lose a lot when we're behind and win a little when we're ahead. As weak as it may feel, I believe that getting to showdown cheaply is a good idea for this hand. I suggest checking this flop, and calling down if he bets. If he bets the flop, but checks behind on the turn, we should consider betting the river. Very few people will bet AA/AK on the flop and then "miss" the big bet on the turn, so our hand is likely best if that happens, and we are often going to be looked up by KK.

It feels weak, I know. I'm never happy when I take the passive line against an opponent who then shows down AT and I realize that I've missed out on at least one big bet - but it's often the sensible thing to do because hands that are simultaneously weaker than ours and willing to give action, are few and far between. So in essence, when you're not sure what line to take but your hand isn't vulnerable, going passive doesn't have to be awful. In fact, if we could somehow prove that in this situation we will show an expected value of exactly 0 regardless of if we check or bet - and I think a strong argument can be made for it being at least close to zero in both cases - then checking is definitely better. No sensible poker player should want to increase his variance without getting any money for it.

Example 2: QTo and a Free Flop

Villain in this hand is 57/26/1.55, which doesn't make him a full fledged maniac, but not far from it - he's very loose and very aggressive. An additional interesting stat that I want to share is WTSD (see the Introduction if you don't know what that is), which in his case is 38% - very high for a player who sees most flops. My notes on him read:

"Very aggressive.
Raised Q9s from BB with two limpers. Did however check a completely missed flop.
Donks flushdraw in three-way pot. Got raised, missed the turn and check-raised heads-up.
Slowplays trips heads-up against preflop raiser, but donked turn. Possibly because he was afraid of the straightdraw.
Now confirmed: He donks in fear of giving free cards to draws."

Now, before we get to the actual hand, let me say a few things about the notes I take. First of all, my notes are of course in Swedish not English, so this is a translation. Secondly, I don't actually write them as the "mini essay" as I have here; I naturally use a lot of abbreviations and some words and phrases that probably only I know what I mean by. What you see here is how I interpret my own notes.

Thirdly, and now we get to something important: My notes are pretty specific, and with the exception of him raising Q9s from the BB, I focus on postflop moves. If you're using PokerTracker and some kind of HUD, then it makes little sense to take notes of someone that raises T9o preflop, if this is standard for him. What else do you think a stat of 30% PFR means? It means he raises hands like that, and you don't have to waste time jotting it down. The more interesting bit of information is how he handles that T9o postflop.

Having gone through that lecture, let's move on to the hand.

PokerStars 5/10 Hold'em (5 handed)

Preflop: Hero is BB with Q♠, T♣.
3 folds, SB completes, Hero checks.

Flop: (2 SB) 8♦, 2♣, T♦ (2 players)
SB bets, Hero...

Free look at the flop, and we find ourselves with top pair, decent kicker and a historically proven aggressive player who donks when he fears draws as well as when he's drawing. In this case, he's not so much "donking" as just betting though. No one raised preflop, so this pot belongs to anyone at this point. In fact, if he had checked to me I probably would have bet with many hands worse than what I have now. What does it mean when he bets?

It can really mean anything at all, except he's unlikely to have a strong preflop hand like AQ/KQ or a big pocket pair. But in terms of how weak his hand may be, we're moving all the way down to 32o. Given this, we can be almost certain that we're ahead now. What are our options?

Folding

No, get real. Admittedly it's a small pot and we have what will often be a marginal hand, but he will play any two before the flop in this situation, and he will bet most of those hands since we checked behind him PF. Our hand absolutely crushes his range; folding is borderline criminal.

Calling

If we're calling when we're almost certain that we have the best hand - and we should be - then we should have a clear plan of what we're hoping will happen on the turn. For instance, calling might be okay here if we're up against someone who's a compulsive bluffer but will give up if he's raised. Against such a player, we may consider calling and hope that he bets again on the turn. Slowplaying a vulnerable hand - and ours certainly qualifies - is generally speaking a no-no, but if it's our only chance of getting value out a player in a small pot, it may be worth it. However, this is not a player who has shown to be giving up very often (I refer back to the fact that he goes to showdown almost 40% of the time) so calling to avoid scaring him off is not a good reason.

What else could we be hoping for when we're calling? We might be saving money if we're up against a monster, I suppose. But seriously, what monster is lurking under the bed? The strongest hand he could possibly have given his stats and aggression is T8. He'd have raised any pocket pair, so he "shouldn't" have a set (never say never, but we have to be realistic as well). But no, calling seems to have very few upsides against this opponent on this board.

Raising

So what if we raise with our actual hand? The downside is that we're telling him we have something, so according to the Fundamental Theorem of Poker, we're equipping him with knowledge of our hand thus allowing him to play better against us. But wait - are we actually giving our hand away?

Look at it from his point of view. There's a ten and an eight, both in the same suit here, and I checked my option in the big blind. My range of hands, while wide, at least seem to exclude big pocket pairs and AK/AQ. I may well, on the other hand, be raising with a draw such as a flushdraw or a straightdraw. You think this sounds far-fetched? It isn't. When I raise a pair on a two-flush flop, I very very often get raised by naked aces who are "protecting against the flushdraw." It seems that everyone has read Ed Miller's book (and misunderstood it) so they all presume that when someone raises a flushdraw flop, they have to have the flushdraw.

Will he call? He certainly will, with just about any-two. Our plan for the rest of this hand should be to bet until he raises us, and then get to showdown. This guy, according to the read presented, will raise with air on the turn very often so we should never fold this hand, but we can't go into call-down mode just yet. Top pair heads-up in position against a player holding almost any-two is virtually a monster.

Also, and let's not forget this, we should be looking to get money in with the best hand, here. A lot of the time, he will have at least one overcard (but rarely two, since he raises so frequently) to our pair and while we're not technically "protecting" it - he will always call - we are denying him the appropriate odds to call our raise. So when he does, we profit.

Conclusion

Sometimes decisions are easy to make, and this is one of those situations. Raising here seems trivial, but I do notice a lot of people getting confused over why exactly this decision is trivial. It's not because we have top pair, it's because we have top pair against this particular opponent on this particular board in position. It's important to make the right decisions for the right reasons.

Example 3: JJ on a Ragged but Drawy Flop

We have no reads on villain.

PokerStars 3/6 Hold'em (5 handed)

Preflop: Hero is Button with J♥, J♦.
UTG calls, 1 fold, Hero raises, SB calls, 1 fold, UTG calls.

Flop: (7 SB) 6♦, 2♣, 7♣ (3 players)
SB bets, UTG folds, Hero...

Now, before you automatically mash the raise button, consider first why you think it's the best move. Take a second to think about what your opponent may have and try to come up with a plan for how you want to play the rest of the hand. For the record, I think raising is almost always the correct play in this situation, but the "why" is usually more interesting than the "what" anyway. So.

You're in position. The pot is three-way. The player in the first position lead out (donked) into the field on a two-flush, two-straight type ragged board, after having cold called a button raise from the small blind before the flop. What kind of hand fits?

With an unknown villain, it can be a lot of hands - virtually all of them - but based on experience, they're more likely than not to be found in one of these three categories:

  • A small/medium pocket pair. Something like 44 or even 99. He bets because he figures that that flop didn't help anyone and in that case his small pair is best.
  • A straight and/or flush draw. He's Miller Generation, e.g. he read in Small Stakes Hold 'em that it's +EV to pump strong draws on the flop, so he hopes that by leading into the field he'll get lots of callers and maybe even a raise behind him.
  • A hand like K7 or A6, and "betting to protect" his hand. He sees the straight and flush draws and figures he should avoid giving a free card.

Very rarely will you be beaten on this flop. Some rare times, it's a flopped two pair (e.g. 76) or a set that's being unusually straightforward, but generally speaking, people slowplay flopped monsters, and unless you know otherwise, you would probably do best to treat your opponent as a standard player. You have him crushed.

Raising

But having someone crushed isn't a good enough reason to raise. Getting the most value out of him with the best hand, on the other hand, is. So what are the arguments for raising?

  1. For value. You strongly believe you have the best hand, and he's going to call with most hands that he bet with. Get him to put in an extra bet right here, right now.
  2. You're not going to make him fold a worse hand very often. The only hands you'll shut down are hands that weren't going to put in any more money anyway; you won't "lose your customer" by raising.
  3. There are a lot of scare cards that can come on the turn that may force you to slow down. Any queen, king or ace is going to look potentially dangerous, and any club, T, 9, 8, 5, 4 and trey completes one of the draws out there. Also, since he may be doing this with just a pair, every 7, 6 and deuce is also a potential problem for you. The only card you'll feel completely safe in seeing is one of the two remaining jacks! Now, this is not a reason to be completely paranoid and stop betting no matter what comes on the turn (unless it's a jack) but I'm trying to make a point: You're not going to be thrilled about the turn card. Raise now, when you're still happy.

Incidentally, the third reason for raising doesn't apply at all as much if your hand had been the black aces instead of the red jacks, because you are a lot less likely to make expensive mistakes on the turn with A♠A♣.

Calling

Calling, then. Should you just call? Very rarely. In fact, never. There's no good reason to call here at all, unless you know that your opponent is the kind who will only donk with flush draws and that he will bet the turn unimproved as well. Yes, these players exist. In that case, you could consider calling now and raising the turn, since he will be forced to call two big bets with nothing but a flush draw, and you can put in the minimum when you know you're losing. It's an elegant play, but it has no business against an unknown opponent with a hand as vulnerable as jacks.

I won't even go into folding.

Then what?

So you raise. Now, like I said, you should have a plan for what you will do once you've raised. Against an unknown opponent, you should probably give some credit to him for having a hand if he makes it three bets when the action comes back to him. I'd still believe I have the best hand, though, but I would now seriously consider slowing down. With this hand, you want to get to showdown (or win uncontested) but if you think there's a risk that you're actually beat, at least try to get there cheaply.

If your raise is just called, you should bet any turn. If the turn is a really nasty card (e.g. a club or an ace) and your turn bet is called, I'd consider checking behind on the river. Busted draws won't pay you anyway.

If your raise is just called, and your turn bet is checkraised, you should probably call down, regardless of what the turn was. With a better read on your opponent, you might be able to make an expert laydown, but there is no turn card that is scary enough that I don't think it will be at least neutral EV to call down getting 4.5:1 effective odds (6 small bets preflop, 4 small bets on the flop, 1+2 big bets on the turn - your bet and his checkraise - makes for 8 big bets, he will put in another one on the river, and it'll cost you a maximum of two BB to call down).

Conclusion

You must raise. A lot of things can still go wrong in this hand, but right now you must feel very certain about what the right move is.

Limit Heads-Up Draws

Limit Hold'em Flop DecisionsThe fundamental strong draw is the nut flush draw. This is the "Generation M" draw - M for Ed Miller, author of Small Stakes Hold 'em - where people seem to go overboard and bet, raise, 3-bet and even cap the betting with any flush draw. It's true that raising with a draw on the flop is a powerful move, and most definitely +EV in the right circumstances, but not always and it's definitely not always what gives the highest expectation, even when it's positive.

The idea behind raising a flush draw on the flop is one that is rooted in equity. Because flush draws hit so often - about a third of the time when there are two cards to come - and because flushes almost always win, it's usually safe to think of a flush draw on the flop as 33% to win. If you have two or more opponents in the pot with you, any bet that is made will be matched with at least two more bets so therefore you're at the very least neutral about putting in any amount of money on the flop. Did that make sense? Let me rephrase.

Ignore the cards for now, and just focus on the pot. The pot is a pile of money, and when you say that you have 33% equity, what you mean is that when all is said and done, you get to keep one third of the money in that pile. So in order to make money, you just need to put in less than one third of the pile to come out ahead; if the share that you put in is less than the share that you take out, you win money. Isn't that obvious? You know that the share that you take out is 33% - because that's what your chance of winning is - so all you need to do is make sure that the share you put in is less than 33% and you're solid. Since everyone puts in as much in hold 'em (barring the event where someone goes all-in) you know that if you have two opponents you will put in a third of the money, and you will essentially be break-even on the flop, as far as betting and raising goes. And if you have more than two opponents, you should be happy to put in any amount of money because your share to take out is still one third, but your share to put in shrinks for every player that's in the pot with you; with one opponent you're putting in 50%, with two opponents you put in 33%, with three you put in 25%, etc.

Now back to the cards. Our conclusion is that with a flush draw on the flop, you should be happy to put in lots of money with a flush draw when you have three or more opponents, and at least neutral about putting in money with two opponents.

But there are so many of the players at my tables who will not only bet and raise with a flush draw, but also 3-bet and cap when it's just them and me! So if they need to hit their flush draw to win, they're putting in half the money but will only take out 33% of it. Why are they raising? I'm certain it is because they read somewhere that it's +EV. But what's worse is that they do this betting and raising only with (strong) draws. It's extremely predictable with some players: They slow play monsters (sets, etc.), they bet/call or raise with decent hands, and they bet/raise/re-raise/cap only with draws. I'm not sure if they realize how transparent that makes them. Let me put it like this: If I'm holding AK on a K-7-2 board, two hearts, and my opponent who fits the above pattern caps the betting, he may as well play the rest of the hand with his cards face-up. And that's bad for him because he won't get paid off when he hits his flush, and I'm going to force him to put in as much money as I can on the turn as well.

But it doesn't have to be that extreme for it to be a less than optimum move. Let's say that you're playing with two opponents who are decent but don't know you at all. You're on the button. One player limps, and you raise with AJ of spades. The tight big blind makes it three bets, and you and the limper call. The flop comes K-8-5, two spades, and the big blind leads out, the limper calls and you...

... raise? It's doable. Given that you have the nut flush draw, you're probably at worst break even when you raise here since it's likely that both your opponents will call when the action gets back to them. But it's only "likely," not certain. Two bad things can happen:

  1. The big blind makes it three bets to go and the limper folds. All of a sudden, you're not putting in "one third" of the money anymore, but half of it. What before was a profitable call has now deteriorated into putting in two bets too much.
  2. Both call, and you hit your flush on the turn, and they both check to you. It seems reasonable that they would check to you since that's what people like to do. And instead of you getting to trap big bets on the turn, they're now just checking and waiting to see what you're going to do. You've lowered your implied odds.

Sometimes people will cite other reasons for why raising in this situation is good. Stuff like "for information" or "to stay aggressive" and "take control of the hand." But if a reason for making a play doesn't at least attempt to explain how you make more money off of it, it's possible that it's not the best reason. What information do you get from raising, and how are you going to use that information to play the hand any differently?

"Staying aggressive" is the tool, not the goal. Playing an aggressive style is recommended because it generally wins the most money, but the formula "aggressive = win most money" is not automatically true.

But taking control of the pot may be a good reason. It can be good, if we decide to check behind on the turn when we miss our flush. Unfortunately, such a move tends to make our hands very obvious to all but the blindest hand readers, but that may still be okay. So if we're somewhat certain that the big blind won't make it three bets and then lead the turn, raising the flop may be good - if we're also happy to check behind on the turn when we miss.

Example 1: Nut Flush Draw, Out of Position

PokerStars 3/6 Hold'em (6 handed)

Preflop: Hero is UTG with 9♠, A♠. 
Hero raises, MP 3-bets, 4 folds, Hero calls.

Flop: (7.33 SB) 8♠, 6♠, 2♦ (2 players)
Hero...

This is about the best flop we could hope for. When MP made it three bets before the flop, it's clear - against all but the most aggressive or tricky opponents - that we're behind his range. Very few will make it three bets with less than A-J. Of course, an ace would perhaps have given us the best hand - he may have a big pocket pair - but we wouldn't feel too comfortable playing such a hand since a lot of his range includes aces with bigger aces than ours. So here we are, with overcards on a ragged flop and the nut flush draw. What should we do?

Let's establish something before we look at our options: We are not in bad shape, here. If we think he has a pocket pair 77 or larger, or AJ or better, at the minimum, we are just slightly worse than 50/50 to win this pot. Poker Stove says 45%. There is no (reasonable) set of hands that our villain will go 3 bets with preflop that we can currently beat, however. Now let's look at our options.

Betting

Given that we have an average equity of 45%, betting and raising on this flop won't cost us much. We only "lose" 5 cents of every dollar that we put in, which is fairly cheap if we can reap some other rewards, such as deception or fold equity (fold equity comes from our opponent folding a hand that has some chance of beating ours). However, we have no direct fold equity on this flop. There's absolutely no hand that an opponent will 3-bet with preflop and then fold to a rag flop donkbet. I know, I know, you should never say never, but realistically speaking, our opponent will virtually never give up right here on this flop. Of course, he may just call now and fold on the turn but we can't really know that yet. If he just calls the flop, it may be as a slowplay with a big pocket pair, where he plans on raising us on the turn. So if it's fold equity we're after, we need to bet both the flop and the turn - and possibly even the river. While we're in great shape on this flop (again, about 45% to win) this is not the case if the turn is not a spade. All of a sudden we're reduced to 20% equity, and now putting in big bets is going to be expensive.

Being out of position, fold equity is not going to come cheap in this hand. For betting to be correct, we need some other benefit to make up for the 5 cent loss. What about deception? Deception can make us a lot of money if our opponent will make big mistakes later on in this hand because he doesn't suspect a flush (when we hit). For instance, if we lead out on this flop and he decides to slowplay a hand like AA or KK, and then raises us on the turn, he will almost certainly pay us off dearly the times we hit our flush. That would certainly be worth the 5 cent loss right here, right now.

Here's the problem with deception, though: It requires that we're actually as sneaky as we think we are. Consider this: What kind of hand is our opponent going to put us on when we decide to donk a ragged flop with two spades on it? In my experience, people tend to do this with (almost only) two kinds of hands: small/medium pocket pairs, and strong draws. If we fit this pattern, a thinking opponent with AA/KK is going to be able to play very well against us. So if we are to bet out here with our nut flush draw, we should do it often with other hands as well. Perhaps hands like A8, sometimes as "bluffs" with KQs, etc. An action isn't deceiving if it fits a pattern.

Checking with the intention of raising

Betting out is a "strange" move in the sense that most people tend to check to the person who was last to raise preflop. For that reason, checking is a little bit like acting in position; he will (almost always) bet when we check to him and he has to do so without knowing what we are going to do. If we check to him and checkraise his continuation bet, that sends a powerful statement. A checkraise says "hah! gotcha!" in a way that betting out doesn't, and perhaps suggests that we have an overpair to the board or otherwise believe we have him beaten, or a strong draw, Checkraising is, I feel, more deceptive than betting out. When big hands collide - and both us and the villain raised preflop, so this situation qualifies - the flop will often be checkraised. If he has a big ace and missed the flop, he will probably just call our bet. Some players are ultra-aggressive and will make it three bets with AK unimproved, but they're not that common.

Again, however, I must point to the fact that we're not a favorite to win. If we checkraise - and willingly take a slight direct loss - we must have a way to make up that loss later on in the hand. Are we being deceptive? Do we have fold equity? As before, I believe we cannot trust fold equity to make this a profitable play. Most hands that beat us will go to showdown on a flop like this, believe it or not. You may argue that not all players will call a flop checkraise and turn AND river with just AJ, but I will argue back that players who make it three bets with them preflop most often do. Not always, of course, but we will lose a lot of money all those times that he doesn't fold, or has a really big hand and play back at us.

We are also more or less committing to leading out on the turn, as well. That is going to be expensive for us every time that the turn is not a spade since we do not figure to hold the best hand for any other card (barring maybe an ace or a nine), and since we will sometimes be raised on the turn and forced to call, as we will have ample odds to try to hit our flush on the river. Sure, we can reserve the right to checkraise the flop and then check a non-spade turn but then that is something that needs to be done only occasionally. If this is how we play our nut flush draws every time we're out of position, this will be the first and last time this particular opponent will ever fall for it, if he takes notes. How to play deceptively and mix up your game is not the scope of this article series, however.

I'm going to suggest that checking with the intention of raising is not the most profitable play. Then what is?

Checking with the intention of calling

This is what a real beginner would do. They'd flop a nut flush draw, figure "hey, I might hit a flush on the next card!" and then happily take one off. It's cautious. It's passive.

It's profitable.

In today's online games, especially the shorthanded ones, players rarely fold big hands because the games are so aggressive that they get raised and re-raised with air often enough to make calling any heads-up action down with AK unimproved. Without fold equity and without anything particularly good coming from disguising our hand by playing it like we think we have the best hand, we can just call when we can't fold. Clearly, folding is not an option since we have a draw to the nuts and more than ample pot odds as incentive.

Here's the irony, though: Check/calling the flop with the nut flush draw is so rare these days that it's probably doing a better job disguising your hand than betting or raising ever would.

Conclusion

And that's our conclusion: We do not have sufficient equity to make betting and/or raising profitable on its own on the flop, so to warrant putting in more money than we have to, we must find other benefits. I do not believe these benefits are enough to make it more profitable than the obvious play - checking and calling.

Sometimes poker is easy. Don't make it harder than it has to be.

Example 2: An Inside Straight Draw, In Position

PokerStars 5/10 Hold'em (6 handed)

Preflop: Hero is UTG with K♥, J♥.
Hero raises, 3 folds, SB 3-bets, 1 fold, Hero calls.

Flop: (7 SB) T♠, A♣, 3♠ (2 players)
SB bets, Hero...

I made a really long introduction to the last hand, but I'm hoping to make some of that back now. I'm not going to explain all about equity and such again, but simply point out that we do not have the best hand here. However, there are a few things that are drastically better for us in this hand than in the last one:

  1. We're in position.
  2. Our draw is not obvious.
  3. We may have great implied odds when we get there.

The third partially follows from the second, but not only. That ace may well have helped him (it didn't directly help us) so if he's playing a hand like AK or AQ or even AA, we're looking at quite some action. Now, all we realistically have is an inside straight draw. Some of the time, he will have 99, JJ or QQ, granting us a three or six extra overcard outs, but these outs are really not worth much.

We're getting 8:1 on calling, and we're only about 10.5:1 to hit our inside straight. Hopefully you realize the importance of implied odds in a situation like this, though, that we stand not to win just the bets in the pot right now, but often many more bets from our opponent. It's surely a mistake to fold in this spot.

But do we raise?

Raising

As I said above, we do not have the best hand. A raise in this situation is not "for value" as our equity in this hand is only somewhere around 20% at best. A raise costs us a lot of money - so can we make that money up elsewhere?

First and foremost, we're in position. This factors in when we raise and makes the raise a bit "cheaper" than it would be otherwise. If our opponent has a really big hand (TT, AA, AK), he will often slowplay it on this flop and attempt to checkraise us on the turn. But we're in position; we can choose to take a free card on the turn if we miss (and, in fact, if we raise and get called we should take a free card on the turn). This is worth quite a lot, and makes the relative price for a raise go down a little.

The unfortunate thing about taking the free card on the turn, however, is that kills our fold equity. Some of the time, our opponent will call a flop raise and fold the turn with his weaker hands like 99 and JJ, but not if we check behind. I still think that taking the free card is better than betting again (and opening ourselves up to being checkraised) but it's a danger that we need to consider. Sometimes, albeit rarely, we will be up against an opponent who immediately folds his medium pocket pairs when we raise an ace-high flop. We did, after all, raise preflop. If you're in villain's shoes and get raised on this flop, wouldn't you feel that an ace is a very likely holding?

All that said, raising is a play that is only useful if we play our big hands fast as well on a flop like this, e.g. AQ and TT. If we routinely smooth call flops with big hands, then a thinking player will soon become aware that we only raise with mediocre hands, and be quick to adjust. So while raising this flop may be good, it's only feasible is our standard play is to raise with very strong hands.

Calling

The more passive play. As I've pointed out, we do have the implied odds to warrant a call. We miss out on the chance of raising for a free card on the turn - a play that may fail anyway if our opponent decides to 3-bet and lead the turn - but we will sometimes get a free card anyway. Sometimes, our opponent will give up (and call down) with a hand like KK and similar when we call the flop, when he's convinced that we sucked out on him with some ace-high hand. When he checks the turn, we check behind.

If we call this flop we must be prepared to fold a non-queen turn. We are getting 8:1 now on the flop, but on the turn we will only get 5.5:1. This is not good enough for us, and we will need to give up.

Conclusion

As with the last hand, I recommend calling as the standard play, but on the other hand, I'm going to strongly recommend raising as an occasional mixing-it-up play.

If you're up against a player who 3-bets very lightly preflop, you may consider raising just to avoid being pushed around too much. There are some players who are extremely aggressive preflop with (sort of) semi-bluffing hands like 98s and the likes, and they will often give up if you play back at them on an ace-high flop. And remember, if he has any hand that has more than five outs against you (basically any hand combination not including a K or a J), you will be happy that he folds. He's technically getting correct odds to call but doesn't realize it, so he makes a mistake in folding. This is great for you. But, again, this only applies if your opponent is very aggressive preflop with hands that you clearly beat. If you think he has a hand that's too strong for him to fold, raising is not the best move since the benefit of taking a free card alone is probably not enough. You need to compensate for some of the cost of raising by occasionally gaining some fold equity.

Limit Heads-Up Misses

You can miss the flop in more than one way in hold 'em. We've already covered the basics on how to play overcards, and overcards can surely be seen as a missed flop. Here, however, we're looking at flops where even pairing up on the turn isn't going to make us feel good about our chances.

What are the important parameters to look at in situations like these? Besides position, reads on opponents and the other usual stuff, we should now look increasingly to two things:

  1. How does the board texture match what I believe my opponent has, and
  2. Is there a reasonable chance that my hand is best?

When I say \"a completely missed flop,\" the implication is that our hand is unlikely to be best at this time. But unlikely is a little vague, it only implies that there's a worse than 50% chance that we have the best hand. So for the answer to question #2, I'm looking more for a \"only once in a blue moon will my hand be best.\" For instance, if we raise 76s on the button (as we do in the first example), get called by the big blind, and the flop comes J-T-4, then it's fairly safe to say that our hand is (virtually) never best.

The reason why that's even interesting is that if there's some chance of our hand being best, but not greater than 50%, then checking (in position) is almost always better. If we don't know whether to bet to protect our hand or bet as a bluff, it's better not to bet at all, because being raised in that situation is awful. This is not the case when we have a hand that is likely to be best - because then calling comes easy. It's also not the case when we have a hand that is all but doomed - because then folding is the obvious next step. But when we're holding a hand like JT in the big blind on a board of 6-6-2 where it's just us and the small blind - and he checked - I wouldn't bet. I'd rather take a free card.

What about board texture? Analyzing this can be done by employing some basic statistics; or rather, common sense. If we missed the board, it's much more likely that our opponent missed as well if the board paired up. If the board is 9-9-3, it's much more likely that our opponent missed (and may fold if we try to take it away) than if it is 9-T-J. Let's count some cards:

Besides pocket pairs, our opponent needs to have a 9 or a trey in their hands to hit the first flop. But any 7, 8, 9, T, jack, queen or king can be said to have \"hit\" the second flop. admittedly, a 7 only has the sucker end of an inside straight draw. But when playing missed flops, we're bluffing when we're not folding and bluffing someone who is very likely to call sucks, because then we have to invest another bet on the next street to find out if we're good or not.

Basically, when it comes to flop texture, we're looking for cards that mean that if we get called, we might as well give up completely.

Before continuing with the examples, I want to stress that often, the standard play in two of these is to just check or fold. Deviating from this strategy has its places, and we should, but only when we think there's a considerable chance that it will be profitable. Here, we're playing for fold equity.

Example 1: Raising Trash from the Button

The blinds are reasonably tight and you haven't played a hand for awhile. Everyone folds to you on the button and you're holding 7-5s. Raising, while perhaps not standard for everyone (although it is for me), is at least very conceivable given the recent action and the two players in the blinds.

Unfortunately, the big blind calls. Let's take it from there.

PokerStars 5/10 Hold'em (5 handed)
Preflop: Hero is Button with 7♥, 6♥.
2 folds, Hero raises, 1 fold, BB calls.

Flop: (4.40 SB) J♦, T♣, 4♠ (2 players)
BB checks, Hero...

Board Texture

As I said in the introduction to this chapter, we're looking for boards that are unlikely to have hit our opponent. How does this one rate?

Honestly, I'd prefer it to not have been connected. JT on the board means that any combination of two high cards are likely to have hit at least some part of it. With the big blind being somewhat tight, it's likely that he has some hand selection. At least the flop is rainbow (meaning that each of the three cards are of different suits). Also, the third low card (the four) doesn't hurt us much. All things considered, this is an average board for us.

Chance of Our Hand Being Best

Very unlikely. I hate to say \"never,\" but this is pretty close. This gives us strong incentive to bet.

Betting

Clearly we're hoping that our opponent will fold if we bet. We're, as it's called, bluffing. Although not as spectacular in limit hold 'em as in no-limit, it has its definite places. Might this be one of them?

The pot, at this time, contains about 4 bets (depending on rake) and we're betting one more hoping to take it down. We're offering our opponent 5:1 and we're getting 4:1 ourselves. Our plan should be to drop the hand immediately if we get raised, so if our opponent folds only 20% of the time, we're breaking even on our bet. We may even get away with less than 20%, since some (admittedly small) percentage of the times we get called, we'll end up with the best hand on the river. That gain can be mostly discarded from the flop analysis, however.

Checking

Since we're almost certain that we have the worst hand, checking (and taking a free card) must be considered, as well. Here, however, I do not feel that it's the best play. We already know that we won't like whatever comes on the turn anyway, and in fact the free card may end up being the most expensive card in the deck: One of the three remaining sixes. If a six comes off, and our opponent checks the turn, do we bet? If we do and he calls, then what. No, while it's nice to take free cards on the flop, it's better if we do it when we actually know what we're hoping will come. And unless a free card can save the day, what reason is there to check when we've already established that we show a direct profit on this flop by betting if our opponent will fold more than only 20% of the time? None.

Conclusion

We have a hand that we can easily get away from, a flop that is only somewhat coordinated. This flop is a clear bet. Out of position, things might have been different, but here there's no question about it.

Example 2: 94o in the Big Blind

Here, our opponent limps UTG and we get a free flop from the big blind. We have no reads on the opponent since is our first hand at the table.

PokerStars 5/10 Hold'em (5 handed)
Preflop: Hero is BB with 4♠, 9♥.
UTG calls, 3 folds, Hero checks.

Flop: (2.40 SB) T♣, A♠, 3♠ (2 players)
Hero...

Texture

This is not a good board for us. Although that ace can be used as a scare card (and possibly make him fold small pocket pairs if we bet), it's also one of those cards that people like to play. So we at least have to acknowledge that there is a better-than-average chance that he has an ace in his hand.

Furthermore, any two broadway cards have flopped at the very least an inside straight. And to round things off, the board is double-suited. This flop is fairly coordinated.

Chance of Hand Being Best

This is statistically unlikely, but as already pointed out, we don't know what our opponent limps with. It's not quite as clear-cut as the 76s hand above, but it's at least close. Our hand is not going to win a showdown very often at all.

Betting

In the last hand, our opponent only needed to fold 20% of the time in order to make betting an option that breaks even. Here, the pot is only a little over two bets big, so our opponent would need to fold about a third of the time for us to gain from betting. While I agree that it doesn't seem all that far-fetched to believe that he would, in fact, fold that often, it's not as clear cut as the last hand, especially given that we have on read to help us out.

Checking

This should surely be the default play, given that we've established that our hand has no real value, that we're not sure our opponent will fold often enough and that we're out of position. More arguments for checking aren't really needed.

Conclusion

Betting here is a big risk taking, and should be done sparingly. Certainly not as a default play. It can work as a balancing meta-game bluff, where we bet the flop but check the turn and the few times that our opponent checks behind both the turn and the river, we'll score some points in future hands where someone may call us down with king high when we lead the flop on an ace-high board. Presumably, we're smart enough not to run the same bluff twice, so that it actually is to our advantage.

Still, if we want to make a stab with a worthless hand to achieve some image of a madman, there are probably better times to do it. If the board had been A-9-3 instead of A-T-3, we wouldn't be in the situation that any two broadway cards had a straight-draw, and the board would therefore have been a lot better for us. This is less than ideal, and when looking for places to make weird but well-timed bluffs, we should look for ideal scenarios.

Example 3: QTs Gets 3-bet Preflop

In this last example of this series of flop play, I've been deliberately mean. I've placed us in a tricky situation and I don't intend to give a definitive conclusion, but to encourage you to think for yourself.

Villain is loose and aggressive, preflop as well as postflop.

PokerStars 5/10 Hold'em (6 handed)
Preflop: Hero is CO with Q♠, T♠.
2 folds, Hero raises, Button 3-bets, 2 folds, Hero calls.

Flop: (7.40 SB) 4♣, J♣, J♠ (2 players)
Hero checks, Button bets, Hero...

Analysis

I won't look at board texture and likelyhood that our hand is best this time, because you should practise that yourself for this hand. Instead, I'll point out three things about this hand that makes it different from the other examples:

  1. We have two backdoor draws; both a straight and a flush draw.
  2. We have an overcard.
  3. The pot is 8 bets big when it gets back to us.

Conclusion

Out of the three options available to us, I believe two are almost identical in value, and one is out of the question.

What do you think?

Limit Hold'em Series by F Paulsson

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