All great hold’em players have a feel for the game. Whether you
call it card sense or intuition, it’s clear there’s more
to hold’em than knowing the odds, and reading your opponents.
While you can’t see it, touch it, or bottle it, poker intuition
is like a sixth sense. But it’s not really exotic; it’s
more like poker-specific common sense. And it’s not limited to
poker, either. Crafty boxers are described as “ring-wise,”
and clever basketball players are said to possess great “court
But in hold’em, there’s a lot of strategy that’s
counterintuitive. Until recently I’d never thought much about
this. Frankly, I don’t think most other players have either. But
once I became aware of this and the gates opened, a veritable flood
of ideas poured in. Here are some you might want to ponder.
With a weak hand you frequently have to bet in order to win;
with a stronger hand, you can afford to check:
This is certainly counterintuitive. After all, most of the time you
bet the strong ones and fold the weak ones. But not all the time, and
not all that infrequently either. Consider this: You hold A-K and raise
before the flop. Three rags fall and you’ve got two opponents.
What do you do? Bet. How else are you going to get anyone holding a
small pair to credit you with an overpair and release their hand? When
the turn is also a blank you bet again. Once again both of your opponents
call. The river card is a king. Now you’ve got top pair and the
best possible kicker.
You could come out betting, but you were called on the flop and the
turn by two opponents. One of them must have something. And if that
something is two pair or a set, you’ll lose two bets instead of
one. But here’s counterintuitive strategy at work. You made a
legitimate hand, and now you can afford to check. If everyone checks,
you’ll win the showdown. If your check induces one of your adversaries
to bluff, your call will snap that bluff off. This enables you to win
a bet you wouldn’t have if you came out betting and your opponents
released their hands.
This gives you the best of both worlds. You save a bet whenever an
opponent holds a better hand and is planning to raise; and you earn
an additional bet if your opponent bluffs in a situation where he would
have folded if you were the bettor.
Weaker kickers can be preferable to bigger ones:
Suppose you’re the big blind and the pot’s been raised.
Five players call. So do you. Would you rather be holding: A-7 suited
or A-3 suited? Common sense suggests A-7, since it would be a heavy
favorite in a heads-up confrontation. That’s intuitive, but not
counterintuitive. Think about this. Your kicker won’t matter if
you make a flush. You’ll have the nuts regardless of your side
card. If an ace flops and there’s any appreciable action, either
side card is probably outkicked. But you can make a straight A-3 suited.
You can’t with A-7 suited
It’s a real long shot, I’ll grant you that, but it is enough
of an out to make counterintuitive strategy preferable to surface logic.
You don’t necessarily want to make the biggest hand:
This concept takes a variety of shapes. Suppose you’re holding
A-J, when suddenly the skies darken, there’s a loud clap of thunder,
a shaft of light pierces the sky, a hand the size of a cloud points
directly at you, and a deep voice intones, “Sinner, I offer you
two flops: J-7-4 or A-7-4. Choose between them.”
What would you do? A pair of aces is certainly bigger than jacks. But
consider this. With
A-J you won’t be sure you have the best hand anytime an ace flops.
And if the pot was raised before the flop, your doubts would be magnified.
But with J-7-4 you have top pair and the best possible kicker. Concerns
about straights and flushes not withstanding, your only worry is a king
or queen appearing on the turn or river. If an ace comes up you’ll
have two pair, and will be a heavy favorite. I realize that if there
was a preflop raise your opponent could have a pair of aces, kings,
or queens, but if he’s the type of player who raises with any
pair of nines or higher, as well as AK, AQ, AJ, or KQ you probably have
the best hand right now.
In hold’em, you don’t necessarily want to make the best
possible hand, you want to make a hand with the best possible chance
of winning — and in many circumstances that means a big pair with
the an ace kicker, rather than aces with a weaker side card.
This concept comes up quite often with straight and flushes. Suppose
you’re holding 8h-7h on the button with seven active players in
an unraised pot. You call and miraculously flop the nut straight when
you see 6h-9c-Th hit the board. Not only have you flopped the nut straight,
you also have a draw to a flush. Even a straight flush is a possibility,
though it’s quite a long shot.
You’d be happy seeing a couple of blanks on the turn and river.
Anyone else who might have flopped a flush draw will pay you off until
the river, and you can expect action from anyone holding J-10, A-10,
overpairs, sets, or two pair. But if a flush were to come and someone
bet, you’d be on the defensive. Sure, a flush is higher than a
straight, but in relative terms, your hand just decreased in value —
going from the nuts to the fifth best flush. Now you won’t be
able to raise, and any call you make will be with a certain amount of
trepidation. Unless you get very lucky and catch the nine of hearts
for a straight flush, you’ll be on the defensive for the remainder
of the hand.
With strong starting hands you want few players, with weak
ones you want many:
Doesn’t this seem strange when you first think about it. It seems
logical that you’d want all the opponents you could gather with
big hands. In fact, the opposite is true. Here’s why. With two
starting hands the biggest hand you can be dealt is a pair of aces.
Pretty as they are, aces aren’t that big. The flop can easily
take someone from underdog to favorite, and the more opponents you have,
the better the chance that at least one of them will leave you in his
lurch by the hand’s conclusion. By eliminating opponents, you
are increasing your chances that your big pair can win without improving
But with hands like 9s-8s you want a large number of opponents to provide
money odds sufficient to offset your rather long odds against improving
to the best hand. In other words, with 9s-8s you want to make absolutely
certain at you’ll get paid off if you make your hand — because
you won’t make it that often. Most of these hands, if fact, will
be thrown away on the flop.
Flopping sets is another example of this phenomenon. If the flop is
A-9-4 and someone came out betting, you’d probably just call on
the flop if you held A-A. 9-9, or 4-4. But if you held a hand like A-3
or J-J you’d have to think about raising for two reasons. First,
raising might force someone who holds a slightly better hand to throw
it away. Second, raising on the flop helps define your hand in comparison
to your opponent’s while the betting is still inexpensive. With
a set, the last thing you want to do is chase customers away before
you’ve extracted your pound of flesh. This holds true even if
there are two suited cards on the flop. After all, your raise is unlikely
to eliminate anyone with a flush draw. It will only succeed in chasing
the cash cows home.
We’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg in this article.
Look around. You’ll find numerous other examples of counterintuitive
strategies in hold’em. Who knows, maybe there’s a follow-up
hit for Kenny Rogers in all of this — something about betting
like you’re holding ‘em, and checking like you’re
planning to fold’em. The lyrics will fall right out of this article.
All we need now is a singable, syncopated, country tune.
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