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Texas Holdem Poker

COUNTING HEADS


by: Lou Krieger

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 hand.

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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