The Misuse of Pot Odds Pre-Flop
After a summer of heady WSOP dreams and Vegas simulations, it’s time to get back to the classroom. The nights are drawing in, it’s raining outside, and it’s time to do some maths.
My subject this month is a mistake that I think a lot of amateur poker players make. It concerns the belief that one has the odds to call a raise based on the textbook odds of one hand against another. Let’s just have a recap of some of those odds to be sure:
|Hand A||Hand B|
|K-4s||(33%)||v||7-7||(67%)||(over and under versus a pair)|
|J-7o||(39%)||v||A-5s||(61%)||(unpaired cards versus over and under)|
|8-5o||(35%)||v||A-Ko||(65%)||(unpaired unders versus unpaired overs)|
Imagine in each case, Hand B is doing the raising preflop and Hand A is doing the calling. All of Hand B’s holdings are ones which we would reasonably expect to raise with, especially if bringing it in from late position (e.g. the cutoff or the button). The holdings in the Hand A column are usually considered trashy, and are not necessarily recommend for play out of position (e.g. in the blinds) to a raise.
Yet many players take a look at the percentage figures of the respective match-ups and say “hang on a minute, my hand is only slightly behind, even if my opponent raises to 3x pre-flop, if I’ve already posted some money in the blinds, I’ve easily got the odds for a call”.
The maths of this proposition is flawed for the following simple reason: the action isn’t over yet. By all means, if you’re calling all in (notwithstanding if you’re on the bubble of a tournament – which brings yet more complications) if you have the odds for the call, it’s a trivial problem. However, in cash games, and in many tournament situations, there’s plenty of money behind. When you make the call, you have two factors to think about:
- Reverse implied odds
- The “text book” odds are to the river, not on the flop
Reverse implied odds
Put simply, reverse implied odds considers the amount of money you lose if you hit your hand, and yet pay off your opponent because his hand is still better. Text book examples include hitting a flush with a card that pairs the board and gives your opponent a full house. Money is lost this way (especially in tournaments) in the much more common scenario of hitting a pair and paying off your opponent who has a better pair. For example you could have A-7 against your opponent’s A-J or 8-8 on a J-7-2 board.
Creating an abstract risk profile of all the boards you hit, all the amounts you pay off your opponent if he beats you, and all the amounts he pays you off if you beat him, is not an easy business. I’ve claimed elsewhere (see my article “The importance of implied odds in big bet poker”) that correctly assessing this is what separates merely good players from great players. Suffice to say, that if the net risk of making the call is -EV (as it likely would be against Aces for example), then you should factor that in to the express odds of making the call pre-flop – something that amateurs rarely do. Certain hands, such as Ace-rag and low unsuited connectors can be real leakers if you don’t know how to play them well.
The text book odds
The odds you’re given in books and with poker software are “hot and cold” – that is, all in and to the river. The chances of A-8 suited beating 9-9 may well be around 30% according to the odds, but if there’s a fair amount of money behind, it’s the odds of hitting the flop that are important. The A-8 will hit the Ace on the flop about 18% of the time (and the 8 about 18% of the time too – which is bad news of course) and at that point your opponent might not like his 9-9 any more. You’ll hit your flush draw on the flop about an eighth of the time, but what do you do – stack off? You’ll only hit your flush a third of those times. The EV of this proposition is not a done deal on the flop by any means.
The immediate upshot of this seems to be that you should fold a lot of your marginal hands when out of position to a raise. Unfortunately, if everyone follows this advice, it makes it rational for players bringing it in on the button to raise 100% of their hands. Let’s put some maths to that statement. Imagine after reading my comments above, you (in the big blind) and the small blind are both uncomfortable playing marginal hands out of position. You both resolve only to play your top 10% of hands for value if raised from the button. From the button’s point of view, he can make a standard raise to 3x the blind in order to steal the blinds (a total of 1.5x the blind). The chances he will get a fold from both blinds is:
90% x 90% = 81%
Because you and the small blind are folding all but your top 10%, right? He’s risking 3 BBs to take down 1.5 BBs, so he only needs to make it work 67% of the time to show a profit. But since he takes down the blinds a staggering 81% of the time with a standard raise, we know that he should do it every time – i.e. with all his hands!
So what to do?
As I’m sure you know, the story doesn’t end there. When you’re relatively deep in the small or big blinds (let’s say 30BBs or more) different strategies have to be used to combat the opponent who’s raising too light from late position. I’ll summarise a few of the most popular ones here:
- 3-betting from the blinds
- Calling preflop with the intention of (i) weak leading, (ii) check/raising, (iii) reverse floating on the flop.
3-Betting from the blinds
There’s no question that learning to do this is a bit hairy – especially if you’re a nit by nature (like me). However if you want improve your game, I suggest you learn. I advise you to do so at lower stakes than you’re used to, so you can spew to your heart’s content. Caveat emptor: this is going to be high volatility!
Right, the first thing is, we’re talking about 3-betting light here. Anyone can 3-bet with AA, KK, AK and QQ – you’re doing that for value, and if that’s all you’re doing it with (i.e. your top 3% of hands), your opponent has nothing to worry about. He can simply raise you 100% of the time and if you reraise him, throw away his hand or call for implied odds if the stacks are deep enough. As Annette Obrestad likes to put it: “you might as well turn over your hand at that point”.
So what to 3-bet light with? A good rule of thumb is not to do it with hands that might be marginal in big pot situations. You don’t want to hit your Ace with A-9 if your opponent has called your 3-bet with a better Ace. The secret is what’s known as “polarity”, namely hands that you can bet as monsters or air on the flop. Suited connectors and low pairs are good candidates for this – they can either flop big or not at all. The point is that it’s less likely that they will find marginal flops (as the A-9 would do on an A-K-T board for example). Imagine instead that you 3-bet with 5-5 from the small blind. If you c-bet on that same A-K-T board, you know that if your opponent calls, he has you beat. Moreover, you might get him to fold better hands such as 7-7, T-9, a few K-X hands, etc.
Similarly, on a J-7-5 board, your opponent might pay your 5-5 off, for example with a Jack if he puts you on A-K or T-T. That’s polarity: you’ve created a situation where you know where you are and your opponent doesn’t. Moreover, you’ve created a reversal. Now your opponent is paying you off with worse hands or folding better ones – exactly what the fundamental theorem of poker dictates.
Calling out of position to do something on the flop
If you thought 3-betting light was risky and volatile, hang on to your hats. Calling to do something tricky on the flop can be chip haemorrhaging. Some of these moves are better than others – but I would say that all of them are context specific. Learn which moves work against which opponents.
Weak leading. Also called “donk betting”, this is when you call out of position only to bet (into the raiser) without much of a hand on the flop. I remember a time when I was one of the few players I knew doing this. People would begrudgingly say something about me being a nit and give me the pot. At the last EPT London and Unibet Open I saw more weak leading than ever before. It’s seriously in vogue right now. Which probably means you’ve missed the boat if you’re not doing it yet (I’ve actually stopped doing it for the most part!)
Either way, note that the clever thing about weak leading is it puts the onus on your opponent to inflate the pot. If the stack sizes are right, your opponent is putting himself in hot water by taking the initiative and raising on the flop, because now he’s made a big pot with what is likely for him to be a marginal hand (he opened in late position remember). If he reraises you on the flop, you can either 3-bet shove on him and he’ll give up a lot of value. If he flat calls behind, you can barrel the second time on the turn and he’s really none the wiser. He really doesn’t know if you’re bluffing or value betting, but with the initiative gone, it looks like it’s going to be an expensive decision for him.
Check/raising the flop. I’m talking here more about check/raising as a bluff than for value, but either way, this move has become rarer in the last year or so. Certainly, getting it wrong is bad for your stack. However, against opponents whose c-bet percentage is in the 75% region, it’s not a bad move. You’re usually risking about 30-50% more chips than you’re winning to make this move work (i.e. imagine there’s $30 in the pot; your opponent bets $20; you check/raise to $65; you’re risking $65 to win $50). That means the move needs around a 60% chance of working to break even. Against a 75%+ c-bettor, that’s +EV. Remember to put your real hands in here too – i.e. check raise your two pair hands and pair-plus draw hands (but possibly not your sets and other monsters) so that your opponent knows that you can have the goods when you make this move.
Reverse floating. Now we’re getting to the top shelf in the dusty corner of the library. Reverse floating is calling a c-bet on the flop (after having flat called a pre-flop raise out of position) with the express intention of taking the pot away from your opponent on a later street, and either not having a hand or maybe having something very thin – such as a gutshot straight draw – into the bargain. In order to pull this off you’re both going to need to be deep (100BBs+ starting stacks), know your opponent quite (very?) well and be prepared to risk a lot.
In other words, you’re now playing four-street poker, quite possibly for your whole stack, and on a bluff too. I’ll state it clearly: pick your spots wisely. You may see those internet kids on TV doing this stuff for fun, but (a) they’re better than you and their meta-game skills are fantastic, and (b) the TV doesn’t often show the times when it all goes wrong.
One thing I’d say about all these moves is don’t lose your head. The old adage about pulling off a major bluff once every hour, or maybe session, is true. Even that super-aggressive Scandi is playing value poker most of the time (I’m serious: 50% of the time or more, he’s got something decent in these spots). Going mad with these moves is a quick way to go broke. Practice them in the quiet of your own home game or online, at lower stakes, so when you have to get the big guns out in a major live tournament, you don’t feel completely green.
I’ll end by repeating the secret of it all: get your opponent to make mistakes (according to the fundamental theorem of poker). You’re doing this so that your opponent will be more likely to pay off your good hands and fold to your bad hands.
This article first appeared in Bluff Europe magazine.