Before getting to the excerpt below, let me tell you a little about how Decide to Play Great Poker (written by me and my wonderful coauthor John Vorhaus) works (pre-order the book on Amazon). The first part of the book covers pre-flop decisions. The second section of the book covers post-flop play and take a pretty thorough and unique approach to the topic. It covers five broad categories of hands: Big Hands, Big Draws, Small Draws, One Pair and Bluffs. The way I handle each category is to cover a hand and then show how small changes in a situation will completely change the lines of play that make sense for a hand.
I start with Big Hands, hands like two pair or a set. In the book that is A9 or 99 on a board like A93, for example. The Big Hand section starts by covering flopping a huge hand when you are heads up, in position, on a board that isn’t scary at all and you are the preflop raiser. That is the section excerpted below.
The book then methodically changes the situation. The next section covers what happens if your opponent is the preflop raiser. Then we take you out of position and cover that situation both when you are the prelop raiser and when your opponent is. Then we add more players to the table. Then we take it back to heads up but change the board to a scary one, like AsTs9h and go through each situation again.
What this approach allows is for you to get a deep understanding of how much small changes in a situation can have a huge effect on your decision making process. This is why when you ask a professional player how they would play a hand like JJ, they always answer, “It depends.” As you can see from the excerpt below, Decide to Player Great Poker is an attempt to give you a deep understanding of what it all depends on.
Big Hand, Heads-Up, In Position, With the Lead, Untextured Board
We start our close examination of on-the-flop play by looking at what happens when you flop top two pair or better. For the purposes of this discussion, we don’t care whether you have top two pair, trips, a full house, or even quads. The point is, you’ve flopped huge and now you have to figure out how to maximize value and avoid pitfalls, if any.
To start things off, we’ll say that you took the lead before the flop, you’re heads-up in position, and the board is fully dry: no straight or flush draws, nada. To help you visualize the situation, your hand is A♦9♣ and the flop comes A♣-9♦-3♥.
Note that if you had pocket 9s, you’d be roughly equally strong. I ask you to note this because, again, I’m giving you guidelines for certain situations that you can apply to analogous situations, even though the hands might not be precisely the same.
The first question is: How did you get involved in this hand? The likeliest answer is that it was folded to you in late position, you raised, and the big blind called. That’s typically how you get involved with the lead in position: You raise late and get one caller. Also, typically on the flop, our old friend “check to the raiser” shows up.
So now you have two pair and the lead. Are you ready to act? Not quite yet. First, you have to set your goal for the hand. In this case, with a monster hand and a dry board, you have the luxury of focusing only on how to make the most money, with no need to protect against … well, anything.
Understand that most people’s instinct here when they flop huge and their opponent checks to them is to be “tricky” and check, for the obvious reason that they think they’ve got a big fish on the hook and they’re reluctant to let it wriggle away. The problem is, that thinking is completely wrong (and this isn’t the last time you’ll hear me say it). Let’s talk about why.
First, consider a situation where you’re up against someone who has absolutely nothing. If he checks and you check, all you’ve done is alert him that something weird is going on; why would the pre-flop raiser fail to bet on the flop in position? That is a very unusual action and unusual actions tend to sound alarm bells. The continuation bet called for here will happen nearly 100% of the time, so your failure to make it is bizarre. Consider that if you had a semi-strong hand like Ax, you’d certainly be betting here. And even if you completely missed, you’d also be betting. After all, why did you buy the lead pre-flop if you don’t use it to try to pick up the pot after you miss the board? Therefore, when it’s “checked to the raiser” in a heads-up pot, you’re expected to bet and it’s highly unusual when you don’t. And an unusual action with an unusual holding gives your hand away.
Look at the story you’re telling. Your pre-flop raise said, “Strong!” But your post-flop check is trying hard to say, “Weak!” And what does that bizarre sequence add up to? Aha! A strong hand played weakly! Your opponent with nothing is now easily done with the hand and you get exactly what you would have gotten if you’d bet on the flop and he folded: zero. So against an opponent who has nothing and will see through your ruse, there’s simply no upside to checking behind. If he’s done with the hand, he’s done with it.
I know what you’re thinking. Wouldn’t checking behind on the flop encourage a bluff on the turn? Sure, but how big a bluff? Probably something like half our standard 1,000-chip pot, so 500. He bluffs, you raise, he folds, Merry Christmas. You won an extra 500 from an opponent who wanted to bluff. But suppose instead you’d bet 500 on the flop and your opponent decided to check-raise bluff. That happens, you know. You’re a late-position raiser; you could be in there with Swiss cheese. So maybe he’s the guy who wants to punish you for your thieving ways.
Ah, but look at the price of his bluff now. With 1,500 in the pot after you bet, he has to bet something like 2,000 total to bluff meaningfully. Now he’s committing four times as many chips as he would have with a lead-out bluff on the turn.
So no net loss to the player who’s done with the hand, but a huge net gain for you against the player who wants to check-raise bluff. And even if he check-raise bluffs less frequently than he’d lead-out bluff on the turn (which he might not do, with such a weird check behind on the flop), you’ll still end up making money when he loses so many more chips on the check-raise bluff.
Remember, this is a case where you want to get more money in the pot. It’s not going in there by magic, you know. It takes money to make money. In other words,
TO GET MONEY IN THE POT,
PUT MONEY IN THE POT
Or look at it this way: We’re always happy when our opponents make mistakes, right? Why not give them the chance to make big ones?
Setting aside the times when they have nothing, let’s think about the times when they have something. If you’re up against a hand like JJ, the check behind is disastrous, because you’re giving your opponent a free chance to hit his two-outer. Granted, he’s only a 4% shot to do so, but you just laid him infinity-to-1 to try. Never give anyone infinity-to-1 odds. Maybe that’s as close to a rule as we’ll come, but I hope you see now bad it is. And if you bet 500 on the flop, do you think those pocket jacks are going away? Not on an A-9-3 board against someone who raises frequently in late position. An opponent willing to randomly fold JJ on a dry board against a late-position raiser is not only bad, he is also rare. (So don’t be that guy.) You’ll get at least that 500 from the pocket jacks and you’re denying him a free shot at a kill card.
Why not just check and embolden those pocket jacks to bet on the turn? Apart from infinity-to-1, if he bets the turn, how much will it be? Again, probably around half-pot. So he’s committing on the turn the exact same chips he’d have committed on the flop when he calls. But you didn’t make him pay. If he’s putting the chips in anyway, you maximize your value by making him pay on the flop. Remember, he’s basically calling for two outs, so you’re giving him 3-to-1 on a 20-to-1 shot. That’s a terrible mathematical proposition for your opponent and a fantastic prop for your top two pair. And if you think your bet is going to let pocket jacks wriggle off the hook, let me tell you again that it’s a rare player who’s good enough—or, to be fair, bad enough—to lay down jacks there. Remember, you’re the pre-flop raiser. You could have anything.
And if you bet the flop, that player with JJ might just lose his mind and check-raise. As with the bluffer, your bet opens the door to the possibility of your opponent making a big mistake. If he’s not inclined to do so, then you’ll make either a little extra money or no extra money, just as you would have with the check-check scenario, but with none of the risk. In other words, against a hand that’ll give you action anyhow, making your continuation bet is all upside and no downside.
And when you’re up against a hand like AQ, it’s vital that you bet. He just made top-pair good-kicker, which ain’t so easy to do in hold ’em. And if he’s checking (we’ll talk in a minute about what to do when he leads), you can be damn sure it’s with intent to check-raise. At minimum, you get a call. No way is he check-folding. If you check behind, you’ve not only denied him the chance to make that big mistake, you’ve also alerted him, by your clear strong-hand-played-weakly line, that his AQ might in fact not be good.
Thus, when he leads the turn, it’s for 500 and your raise will send him right out of the hand. You played the hand with warning bells clanging, exactly the way he’d expect a monster hand to play. You got his suspicions up with the check on the flop and now, after he bets, the minute you give him any resistance, he knows you were playing possum. And trust me, if he’s not good enough to see the danger of your check on the flop, he’s not good enough to see the danger of your 500 bet either.
Now look what happens when that AQ checks and you bet. You happen to have a strong hand now, but you’d be betting your whole range anyhow. You’re heads-up in position with the lead, and you’d need a damn good reason not to make a continuation bet—like he exposed his cards and you know he flopped quads. So your standard c-bet does nothing to define your hand for him and your standard half-pot bet further says, “I always bet in this situation, no matter what I have, so you figure it out.” Now the AQ will generally do what an AQ (or AK, for that matter) does: check-raise. And there goes his 2,000 into the pot.