At my home game a while back a friend caught me counting my chips when making a decision to call a raise preflop. It was one of those times when, lost in a friendly game, you haven’t noticed that your stack has whittled down and it’s way past the time to rebuy.
The discussion that ensued followed along the lines that I shouldn’t really need to count my stack in comparison to the blinds outside of a tournament. In cash games other concepts such as position, hand value, player type/image, etc. have just as much significance. True, all these factors do need to be taken into account when making a decision, but none is more important than assessing one’s implied odds.
In fact, it’s the overriding factor that ties together all other factors when calling or making a bet. I’d go as far as to say that aside from the skill to know when to bluff and when to call down an opponent’s bluff, the thing that separates a truly great player from a merely ordinary one is the ability to correctly assess one’s implied odds in a given situation. This is real risk assessment. You’ve got to develop a picture of what your opponent’s going to do if and when your card hits. If you draw to a full house and when you hit, your opponent merely folds their flush now that the board is paired, you have simply wasted you money calling that bet. By knowing your opponent you should be able to guess roughly how much you can get out of them when you hit. Some opponents will be more generous than others – but even then they won’t pay off all players alike!
The simplest way to conceptualise your implied odds is first to work out the total amount of money you could possibly win and divide it by the amount you have to call. Remember of course that the shorter of your or your opponents’ stacks will be the limit of what you can win, and note that if there is more than one player in the pot, that amount could double, triple or whatever. Let’s say you’re calling with an inside straight draw (to the nuts) on a non-flushing board. If it were $8 to call, there was $24 in the pot and both you and your (one) opponent had $200 left, then the maximum possible you could make from that hand would be $224 dollars, or 28 times what you needed to call. That’s 28 to 1 for an 11 to 1 shot – maybe worth a go you might think, but how do you really work it out?
The skill comes from being able to assess whether your opponent will actually pay you off that much if you hit. A loose aggressive player, who doesn’t have you figured for the kind of chump who would draw to an inside straight just might do, especially if you make a little song and dance about raising him to show you won’t be pushed around.
That’s probably the simplest example: a hand that if it’s hit, stays hit; an opponent who keeps betting into you and won’t be perturbed by you raising; and a clear cut idea of what you’re drawing to. The darker art is to make these decisions with hands that may or may not be winning – even if they do hit. Or against opponents who may decide to slow down, or whose hand may well have redraws against yours so that the odds you thought you had are actually diminished.
A great player can take all these things into account when speculating about a call. Throw in the chances that he or she can bluff off an opponent when a scare card comes, or might pick up another draw, and you’ve got the full picture. No wonder they spend so much time in the tank.
Let’s look at another example to get the finer points. In Omaha, you call a bet in position from an early raiser and there is another caller in front of you. The board comes T – 9 – 8 with two diamonds and you have K – Q – T – T (no diamonds). The preflop raiser bets the pot, a bet of $22 and the other caller thinks for a bit and flat calls. It’s to you.
At the simple level, this is a text book implied odds example. In the first instance, let’s just consider the chances of hitting the over full house here (ignoring the straight draw for the time being). With a straight on the board and a bettor and a caller, you have odds of 3 to 1 and seven outs to fill up. In Omaha on the flop, seven outs is 38 to 7 or just less than 5.5 to 1. First, note that if you’re putting at least one of your opponents on the nut straight (it’s likely that at least one of the bettor or the caller has it), then you can discount two of the cards in the pack as out already. So maybe it’s 36 to 7 or just over 5 to 1. If one of your opponents was weak and loose, perhaps you would venture a call just on what we’ve considered so far. A pot-sized bet one the turn for example (at four times the flop bet), would be enough to justify your speculative call, giving you odds of 7 to 1 once you’d hit. If you and your opponents were relatively deep and you figured your opponents for loose players, you might go for it.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, however. First, you’ve also got an inside straight draw to the nuts by hitting the non-diamond Jack. Granted, if someone is betting the nut straight on the flop, then there may only be two of these left in the deck, but that is another two outs which take you down to 34 to 9 or less than 4 to 1. More importantly, some players might be weak enough (for example if they’ve recently migrated from hold ‘em) not to put you on the higher straight. Hence, they might actually pay you off with their inferior (and dead) under straight. By comparison, a paired board might look scary to someone committing their stack with a straight. That’s not all; if you’re really lucky, the Jack will also give your opponent the higher straight (if they had K – Q – J – X for example). Now they believe they have the mortal nuts; you do too, but you’ve now got a further nine redraws to a full house! To summarise: some of your outs will pay you off more handsomely than others, and this needs to be borne in mind when you assess your hand.
This can cut both ways. You might have been slightly concerned by the flat call on the flop. Yes, it could be a diamond draw, but it could also be another set. Imagine your other opponent had trip nines. Not only does this mean that you have three fewer outs than you thought you did, it also means that if the second nine comes on the turn and you get action, you might not be shoving your whole stack in with gusto. Against weak players, you should damn the torpedoes and go right ahead. However, the point remains that in advance of making a speculative call, you should be rehearsing in your head just how comfortable you are sticking in your entire stack when certain cards hit.
Simple enough? This is what makes poker such a great game, and makes great players truly great. The ability to make all these calculations and assessments – based, of course, on mathematics, but also based on instinct and a keen judgement of your opposition – is what it’s all about.
Going back to hold ‘em, you may have heard that certain players like to have implied odds of about 20 to 1 before calling a preflop raise with a small pair. The reason is that although one is only about 7.5 to 1 to hit a set with said pair, you’ve still got to be paid off accordingly when you hit it. In other words, not every time you hit a set will your opponent have an overpair which they fancy to be in front and are prepared to move with.
The straightforward 7.5 to 1 calculation will thus lead you up the garden path a bit. You will need to take into account both the chances that your opponent has a hand that they like, and that they like it enough to commit their whole stack with it. The 20 to 1 figure comes, I suppose, from the idea that a raise in early position is approximately 2 to 1 to be a high pair (versus high cards, that is), and that you will stack your opponent if they have the former, but not the latter. An opponent is also less likely to commit all in with say TT, but might commit with something like AK suited. On balance, hoping to stack an opponent one in every three times that a mid pair hits a set seems about right.
This is why certain players like to play mid pair a bit more aggressively in the middle section of a tournament. With a stack of only 20 big blinds for example, you will not be getting the correct implied odds to draw to you set if an opponent raises in front of you. Hence, you may have to take the law into your own hands and raise them – thus adding a semi-bluffing element to your play. If you do hit your set, all well and good: your subsequent namby-pambying as if you’ve missed the flop will doubtless have your opponent firing chips at will, increasing the chances that you will stack them.
The hold em example brings home just how important it is to know your opponent when making a call (in this case, to hit a set). Some weak players will pay you off with their AK even if it doesn’t hit the flop. At the opposite extreme, some players may be good enough to get away from a high pair without losing their entire stack. Your decision is thus not about whether you have 7.5 to 1, but whether you have 7.5 to 1 against that particular opponent.
When analysing a hand afterwards (and Harrington’s books are a useful reference for how to do this sort of thing), it’s easy to take into account the chances that your opponent might be bluffing, or that they might pay you off if you hit your draw. However, being able to do this kind of thing in the heat of battle is venerable indeed.
In my opinion, this ability is what many high profile players refer to with some sense of mystique as “feel” – namely the almost sixth sense like ability to know whether to proceed with a bluff, call or whatever. Well, I believe that “feel” is not so much of a mystery. It is essentially being well versed in the mechanics of implied odds calculations, perhaps qualified with a healthy sense of whether a bluff might work if you miss anyway.
This may also go some way to explaining why some successful poker players don’t seem to be so expert in the mathematical side of the game. If they can get these implied odds decisions right more often than not, they can be money-making without being an accomplished number cruncher. Personally, I prefer to do a little mental arithmetic if I can. Either way, there’s a lesson to be learned here – choose your battles wisely.
Overall, it’s a good discipline – in cash games as well as tournaments – to remain aware of how deep you and your opponents are. However, stack size is just one of many factors that will need to be considered in an assessment of your hand. Get used to thinking of all the applying factors as part of an implied odds calculation. Learn to think of the entire process as risk assessment, and the factors you take into account as the variables you include in your “model”. The better you get at recognising and determining those variables, the more accurate your assessment will be.