Make drawing decisions one street at a time
The most common mistake of beginning players is playing too loosely. They play too many starting hands, continue too often with weak pairs on the flop, and chase unprofitable draws.
As players gain experience, they make these types of mistakes with less frequency. Some of these players will learn about odds and pot odds. They learn that their hand has a certain probability of improving, and they compare this probability to the cost of the bet and the size of the pot. They might even add some implied pot odds by looking at what they will win, should they hit their hand.
Unfortunately, some players make a critical mistake at this juncture: They make decisions on the flop based on the odds of improving with two cards to come, while failing to consider the total cost of drawing. Do not make this same mistake!
Let's look at a common example: You are playing limit hold'em and your opponent bets $1 on the flop, giving you 5-to-1 pot odds if you call. You have a gutshot draw. Your odds chart shows that your odds against hitting a straight by the river are 5-to-1, so you decide to call. Making decisions based on the odds with two cards to come is a major leak!
The main problem is that most players forget to include the cost of the turn bet. If you are going to draw to the river based on the odds against improving with two cards to come, you must include the cost of the turn bet in your calculation. In our example, the 5-to-1 odds against improving are based on seeing two more cards, so you must include the cost of receiving two cards in your calculation. Therefore, you need to be able to win $15 in order for calling to be correct ($3 times 5). With only $5 in the pot on the flop, it would be difficult to win the additional $10 from your opponents that's required to justify a call.
But even if you include the cost of the turn bet, you will still make incorrect decisions on the flop by using the odds with two cards to come. It is often correct to call on the flop and fold on the turn when the bets get bigger.
For example, assume that in the above scenario, there is $8 in the pot, and you are faced with a $1 bet. If you are using odds with two cards to come, you would calculate your cost to be $1 on the flop and $2 on the turn, for a total of $3. With your hand 5-to-1 against improving, you would determine that you need to win $15 in this pot to justify calling. It is doubtful that you would win an additional $7 on the turn and river from your opponents, so you decide to fold.
But, folding is a mistake. On the flop, you have to pay only $1 to see one more card. The odds of improving on the next card are 11-to-1. Therefore, you need to win a total of $11 to justify calling on the flop. With $8 in the pot, you are getting pretty good implied odds that you will win an additional $3 on the turn and/or river to justify a single call on the flop. It is often correct to call on the flop when the bets are small, and then fold on the turn if you miss your draw when the bets get bigger. Sometimes you eliminate this possibility when using odds with two cards to come.
Another mistake that beginners make when using odds with two cards to come is that they feel committed to seeing the river no matter what happens. This can be a mistake, as the turn may completely change the context of the board and eliminate some of your outs. You also might face raises from opponents who have yet to act.
So, this begs the question, "How should you make drawing decisions on the flop?" You should make them one street at a time. On the flop, calculate the odds of improving on the next card, and then compare them to the implied pot odds you are receiving. If you do not improve on the turn, go through the same process of comparing the odds of improving on the river to the implied pot odds. When you make decisions one step at a time, you will avoid mistakes and overcommitting to a pot when the situation might change.
You might ask, "Many poker books offer charts that include two cards to come. When are the odds with two cards to come relevant?" Odds with two cards to come should be used in all-in situations. This occurs frequently in no-limit poker, but is not so common in limit hold'em. In limit, you might use the odds with two cards to come if either you or your opponent is all in due to a small stack. Another application is deciding whether you can profitably raise a draw for value on the flop. But if you're simply deciding whether to draw or fold, always look at your draws one street at a time.
This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
Matthew is the owner of Dimat Enterprises, “Publishing Today’s Best Poker Books”. The Math of Hold’em by Collin Moshman and Douglas Zare is available now at pokerbooks.InternetTexasHoldem.com.