Posting hands on poker forums is a great way to improve your game. Hearing how your fellow players would handle a tough spot and what they think about your play can be helpful. Just look out for advice like the following: “Call the flop. Re-evaluate on the turn.”
This is a common, well-intentioned suggestion, but it’s also bad advice.
Let’s say you open-raise A♦ J♦ from the hijack and one player calls behind you. Both blinds fold, and you see a flop of A♠ 9♣ 2♥. You bet for value and get raised. What do you do?
Against an insanely aggressive player, it’s easy enough to call the flop and allow him to blow off the rest of his stack on the turn and river. Against an extremely conservative player, it’s easy enough to fold, since you would be lucky to have three outs against any of the hands in his range. Against anyone in between these two extremes, this is a difficult spot.
Many players will suggest that you should call the flop and decide what to do next after the turn falls. Six percent of the time a jack will hit the board and your hand will improve from weak to marginal – you pull ahead of ace- king, ace-queen, and flopped two pair, but still lose to sets. The other ninety-four percent of the time you will check, your opponent will usually bet, and you’ll be playing the same guessing game you played on the flop, but for higher stakes. If you call again, you’ll face a similar and similarly larger decision on the river.
There’s an easy way to avoid this game of shells for growing stakes. Make your decision on the flop. Instead of calling and hoping that your opponent will give up, make a plan now. Your plan should not rely on something unlikely occurring. You wouldn’t jump out of an airplane at 32,000 feet without a parachute just because one guy did it and walked away unscathed. Plan for the rule, not the exception.
In this particular example, you’re either way ahead or way behind. When you have the best hand, your opponent will have at most five outs (e.g. T♥ 9♥ ). More often he’ll have three, two, or zero outs. When you don’t have the best hand, you have six outs against A2, three outs against A9/ AQ/AK, and zero outs against 99/22. There will be a few backdoor outs here and there, but that doesn’t change the overall situation. This hand is not about improving. It’s about whether or not you have the best hand right now.
Few players will have more bluffs in their range than value hands. Since you beat no legitimate value hands, you should fold against all but the most aggressive players.
This may sound like “weak” and “exploitable” advice. Worrying about being weak and exploitable will only get you so far. It’s more productive to think about being profitable.
When you find yourself in a difficult situation like this one, ask yourself, “Is this a profitable situation? Why is it profitable? How can I make money from my hand?”
If you can’t come up with a coherent answer to these questions, then you’re better off bailing out now. Poker is about finding opportunities to make money. You find these opportunities, you don’t create them.
There are spots where an expert player will find value (either by bluffing, betting for value, or finding a cheap way to showdown) that seems to be created out of thin air. But they’re not actually creating these opportunities. These opportunities are there for everyone. The expert player is just better at recognizing them and taking advantage. What they’re not doing is forcing the action.
There are a few opponents who will raise the flop with a wide range and then shut down on the turn. It’s okay to call the flop against these players with the intention of folding to a turn bet. That’s different from re-evaluating on the turn. It’s making a plan for the turn based on your opponent’s playing style.
Most players, however, will not shut down on the turn. Most players will keep betting their strong hands for value. Most players will either decide on the flop, “This guy’s rarely going to have better than one pair, so I’m going to bomb all three streets and get him to fold,” or they’ll fold their air right away. So you have to make a decision right away. Is this hand worth a lot of chips?