Many of the letters I receive and much of my e-mail comes from readers
who ask questions like this: “What should I do when I raise with
A-K, but the flop misses me?” These inquiries deal with a common
dilemma: Should one be aggressive or passive when the flop is no help?
What’s your approach when the flop doesn’t fit? Do you
meekly check, and surrender your hand if someone bets? If an opponent
bets before it is your turn to act, should you fold, or does it pay
to take another card off the deck in hopes of catching an ace or a king?
What about betting? Is that a good idea? How about raising an opponent
who bets into you? If you’re aggressive, will your opponents believe
you have a big overpair and lay his hand down?
These questions are not easily answered. Neither I, nor anyone else,
can provide a recipe for you to follow. You’re smack in the midst
of the gray zone where even the very best players err in judgment. They’ll
err more often than you realize, too. If you expect perfection in the
gray zone, you’ve set yourself up for disappointment.
Most of the time your decisions will be predicated on the nature of
your opposition and the game’s texture. Are your opponents prone
to bluff, or are they players who seldom come out betting unless they
have a real hand? What about the game itself? Is there’s a maniac
at the table who’s raising with any two cards? If you raise, are
you likely to be three-bet by a loose, wild player? Decisions made in
wild and aggressive games should be quite different that those made
in a more temperate environment.
What if you’re a stranger in town? Suppose you’ve never
played in that card casino before and know nothing about your opponents.
How will you decide the best course of action when the flop doesn’t
help your big cards? Here’s an analogy that might help.
Imagine yourself the officer in command of a small force armed with
machine guns. If the battlefield is level, you’re certainly favored
to defeat an similarly-sized group armed only with rifles. You might
even be able to defeat a larger force that can’t match your fire
power. But you certainly wouldn’t want to engage a larger force
with equal or greater fire power, would you? Courage in battle is surely
a wonderful thing. But foolhardiness is not. Civil War buffs need only
recall Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg to realize that there’s
often a fine line between courage and foolhardiness — and transgressions
can be dreadful and deadly altogether.
Any commander about to confront the enemy should assess his forces
and those of his adversary. All else being equal, with an edge in men
and firepower it’s usually time to attack. Poker isn’t much
different. Count your opponents. If you raised with A-K or A-Q and you’re
facing a lone adversary, you might as well come out betting even when
the flop misses you entirely. You may even have the best hand. Face
it, if you raise with two big cards, the flop will hit you only one-third
of the time, and against one opponent you simply can’t afford
to surrender or play passively every time the flop is fickle. After
all, the flop probably missed him, too.
If your opponent is prone to see the turn with a lesser hand, make
him pay for the chance to draw out on you. Fire away on the flop and
again on the turn. Give your opponent an opportunity to lay down his
What about a family pot? Suppose six players called the blind before
you raised with A-K, and everyone calls your raise. Now you’re
facing a sizable force. You might have them outgunned, but your small
force is certainly outnumbered. What should you do if everyone checks?
Betting doesn’t seem to have much going for it. With a table full
of players the flop probably managed to hit at least one of them. That
player might not have a powerhouse, but he’ll call if you bet.
Checking is not necessarily an indication of a weak hand. If one of
your opponents started with a pair and was fortunate enough to flop
a set, don’t you think he will check the flop and try for a checkraise
on the turn? That’s what you would do, isn’t it? Most aggressive
players will check the flop with a set, intending to reveal the true
strength of their hand on the turn, when the cost of betting doubles.
When you are outnumbered or outgunned, your decision is an easy one.
Be wary, be careful, and minimize your losses.
While it’s easy to develop a strategy that’s effective
on the extremes; what should you do in that gray area — where
the choices are murky?
My particular gray area is when I’m facing two or three opponents.
Unless I have reason to believe otherwise, I am going to assume I have
the best hand against a single opponent, and I’ll generally come
out betting. I’ll fire again on the turn, and quite possibly on
the river, although the texture of the board might induce me to check
once all the cards have been dealt. After all, in a heads-up situation,
my two overcards are probably favored.
I might favored against two or three opponents too, but I’m not
sure. In fact, I’m less likely to be the favorite with each additional
opponent. While I’m prone to assuming I have the best hand against
one opponent, I won’t make that assumption against two or three,
unless I have reason to think otherwise. If I raised with A-K and the
flop was Jh-5h-6c it’s quite possible that one or both of my opponent
were on a flush or straight draw. In that case, I might assume I have
the best hand, and continue to bet. I might even bet the river too,
just in case one of my opponents backs into bottom pair. While that
hand would beat my overcards in a showdown, my opponent might not call
with it if he missed his draw.
But if the flop contained cards like T-9-7, I’d probably check
and release my hand if there’s a bet. There are just too many
hands that could beat me. One of my opponents could have flopped a straight.
I could also be up against two pair, or a hand like J-T or J-9. If one
of my opponents holds K-9 or A-9 then I’m dead even if I catch
an ace or a king later on.
There are no sure fire rules here. Anytime I have two or three opponents
I know I’m in the gray zone. It’s a time to be careful —
not necessarily cautious — but careful. If you’re not sure
how you stack up against your opponents, you can wind up falling into
any number of traps. In the gray zone, an ounce of prevention can be
worth a pound of cure. So be aware, be careful, be able to count to
three, and then act accordingly. And remember this old Irish proverb:
Ni bhionn an rath ach mar a mbionn an smacht. (There is no luck except
where there is discipline.)
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