“Amateurs would be better off removing the call button from their computer.”– Chris Moneymaker, 2003 WSOP Champion
“Be Aggressive!” you constantly hear poker authors and coaches shout. “When you bet, you have two ways to win!” This is true. You can show down the best hand or everyone else can fold. Either way, you win the pot. But poker is not about winning pots.
“The secret to successful poker is being aggressive!” Once poker commentators began spouting this off on ESPN, it became much less of a secret. Still, there was a lot of truth to this statement. If you take a typical recreational player, the quickest way to make them stop losing is to say, “Bet when you have it. Fold when you don’t.” Easy game, no? Well, no. The secret here is knowing what exactly “it” is.
Properly applying aggression is integral to playing winning poker. When it comes to value betting, it’s critical to know whether you’re ahead of your opponent’s calling range. This requires judgment and experience. When it comes to bluffing, you need to correctly assess how often your opponent will fold and compare that to the odds you’re getting on a bet. So yes, be aggressive when it’s your most profitable option. But knowing that betting is profitable doesn’t mean that it’s more profitable than checking.
Knowing that raising is profitable doesn’t mean it’s more profitable than calling.
Good players call a lot.
Calling can be very powerful, especially when you have position. Compared to raising, calling often gets you to the river with an opportunity to outmaneuver your opponent.
Let’s say you are on the button and cold call a cutoff open. Your opponent bets 5 blinds on the flop and you raise to 17 blinds. With 100 blind stacks, you’ve essentially put your opponent to a decision for all his chips, which is supposed to be a very powerful play. He has to decide right there whether or not to commit his stack. If he calls your raise, he has to know that there’s a good chance that you’ll put the rest of the stack in on the turn and river. If his hand is good enough to call, he’ll often prefer to just get the money in on the flop. Making a small raise to 40 blinds would mean investing almost half of his stack, committing him to the hand. (Re-raising to 40 blinds and then folding to a shove would be a terrible play with almost any hand.)
In this situation, many players are either going to shove or fold. Here’s the problem: good players are going to play very well in this spot. They’ll get it in good against your range and get away from their troublesome hands with ease. They won’t be making huge mistakes. As a result, you’ve created a huge pot where you’re not going to have a huge edge. It’s fine to take a small edge now, but not if you can find a bigger one later in the hand.
A good way to create bigger edges for yourself on later streets is to call. Now, if you’re calling a lot, you’re going to let cards peel off all the time. You need a plan for different ways the board can develop.
Yes, there will be some volatility. Sometimes you’ll get outdrawn by an opponent who would have folded the flop. Sometimes the board will get gross and you’ll wind up folding. That’s okay. There’s a lot of volatility in playing large pots on the flop as well. Sometimes you’ll hate the way the board comes out and wish you still had the option of folding.
One spot where it’s a good idea to call instead of raise is when you flop a strong hand, but there’s no great way to put in action and expect to get paid. If your opponent is betting the turn with more hands than he would call your flop raise, then you get more value by calling both streets than by raising the flop. Here’s an example:
Top-pair/top-kicker is a strong hand on that dry flop. It loses only to overpairs and sets, which is a total of 28 combinations of hands. There are some decent second best hands that the cutoff can hold as well – king-ten, queen-ten, jack-ten, and ten-nine. But none of those decent hands will feel very good when they get raised on this flop. They may call the raise and fold the turn, but a lot of times they’ll just fold the flop outright. If there were a flush draw possible, or a straight draw you could hold, the cutoff might talk himself into committing with a weaker hand. But when you raise this flop, you’re either bluffing or have him crushed.
By calling the flop and again calling on the turn, you let him stay in the pot with those hands. He won’t have a lot of outs. When he finally gets to the river with a decent hand, he can’t help checking and calling, since he feels so close to the showdown. By playing passively, you’ve gotten three streets of value from your hand. But those were aggressive calls. You were extracting the maximum from your opponent by exploiting his tendencies and using his own aggression against him.
Always ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish with a given play before you make it. Most of the times you raise, you should either be bluffing or going for value.
Occasionally you will be raising for information, but even then there’s a value component to the play.
A word of caution: this chapter is not about taking a generally passive approach to the game. Do not start calling all the time because it’s always better than raising. It’s not. It depends on the situation. There are many situations where calling will allow you to get more value out of both your bluffs and strong hands. There are other situations where betting and raising will do the same. The “secret” to successful poker is learning to tell the difference.
- Don’t call without a plan. Don’t call because you don’t know what else to do. Make sure you have a solid reason for calling and a plan for the rest of the hand. Here are a few reasons to consider calling:
- You’re out of position with a hand that is too strong to fold, but not strong enough to raise (e.g. you have a value hand that’s doing well against the range of hands your opponent’s betting, but poorly against the range of hands he would call a raise with).
- You’re out of position with a draw that’s strong enough to call, but you don’t expect your opponent to fold if you raise.
- You’re in position with either of the two types of hands above.
- You’re in position and think you can represent a hand on later streets. This works well on draw heavy boards where your opponent is making a mistake to bet into you, since he’s not going to be able to barrel off.
• Your opponent is straightforward, will bet the flop a lot, but only continue on the turn when he has a strong hand. You can float almost any flop, since he’ll check/ fold so many turns.
• The flop is unlikely to have hit your opponent (e.g. 9♣ 5♦ 2♠ against a hijack opener – all of his overcards have whiffed, so only his pocket pairs are any good here).
• Weak draws with strong implied odds. Take the following example:
If the cutoff holds a strong hand like an overpair or a set, you can often win a whole stack when you spike a 3 on the turn. When your opponent has a weak hand and you both miss the turn, he will often check, allowing you to take the pot away with a bet. This lets you take it down with much less risk than a flop raise, and ensures that you’ll always see the turn. In other words, your opponent won’t have a chance to blow you off your draw with a flop re-raise.