Two of the most difficult challenges in No Limit Holdem are learning to play marginal hands for a profit and handling being out of position. In fact, being out of position is what makes many hands marginal in the first place. We’ll start with a basic scenario:
This is a frustratingly tricky spot. You have a strong hand relative to your opponent’s range, but you’re not doing so hot anymore if you play your hand fast and all the chips go in. You can’t start thinking of folding hands this strong, but how do you make money off of it? How do you go about reducing your positional disadvantage? Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. That’s why you should play tight out of position. But no amount of tight will eliminate situations like these completely.
Back to your pocket tens. There are downsides to every option. Checking and calling allows bad cards to come off the deck, giving your opponent a chance to outdraw you or move you off the best hand when the board gets ugly. Checking and raising almost turns your hand into a bluff, where better hands will call or re-raise and worse hands will fold. Folding forfeits all of your equity and lets your opponent run wild over you. What about leading out into the preflop raiser, making a so-called “donk” bet? This may sound reasonable enough. After all, you’ve heard it on television a hundred times from World Poker Tour announcer Mike Sexton and others. But the strategy is unsound.
Start with the etymology of the donk bet. Donk is short for donkey, a not so affectionate term for a bad player. Since donking is something that donkeys do, it stands to reason that you shouldn’t do it. While there are exceptions to this rule, it’s not a bad place to start.
The intentions behind this flop donk are benign. Your hand is pretty strong, and checking feels like it misses value. Perhaps you can reduce your positional disadvantage by seizing the betting lead. Perhaps you can collect value from all of your opponent’s weaker hands, preventing him from checking back for pot control.
There’s one problem with this line. It doesn’t work. Maybe it’s okay against weak players who will call down out of curiosity and only raise when you’re crushed. But good players will generally exploit the dickens out of you.
First of all, you won’t pick up c-bets from the weak hands in your opponents’ range. They’ll either fold their air immediately, or play back at you on the flop or turn with it. The only reason to donk with a hand like this against a good player is to incite action from him, hoping to get it in against a wider range than you would with a check/raise.
Donking and folding is not a good option, since you’re essentially telling your opponent that you have a marginal hand. You can try to balance this by also donking sets, but there are two problems with that. You might lose value with your strongest hands, and you don’t flop that many of them.
So if donking is out, what are you left with?
Against a hyper-aggressive opponent, you can check/ raise, hoping to get played back at by either top pair, a flush draw, or total air. That’s the exception, though.
When facing a player of no more than average aggression, you’re left checking and calling the flop. You can usually check/call the turn again, unless it’s a complete disaster. When your opponent barrels the river, though, you should usually fold. Yeah, they can be bluffing, but they’re not betting worse hands for value, and they’re not bluffing often enough to justify a calldown unless they offer you fantastic pot odds.
Just because you’ve played the flop passively doesn’t mean you have to stay in the back seat for the turn and river. Let’s look at another example:
After calling the flop in the hopes of a cheap showdown, you watch one of the ugliest possible turn cards slide off the deck. The A♥ hits your opponent’s range hard, so you could make a strong argument for check/folding here. In fact, that’s what you’d normally do. So why did you decide to check/raise your marginal hand on the turn, after explicitly being told not to do that on the flop?
The answer is that your opponent knows that this turn card will look scary to you, so he’ll bet it approximately 100% of the time with 100% of his range. That means two things:
1. You can put your opponent on a very precise range
2. Despite having a large number of top pair combinations, your opponent’s overall range is quite vulnerable
Put yourself in your opponent’s shoes for a moment. He’s bet flop and gotten called. Now he bets the turn and gets check/raised. Unless he holds a set, he can only beat a bluff. He has no draws to call or re-bluff with. You could be bluffing, but does he think you’re doing that often enough to justify calling the turn raise and likely river shove? Unlikely. There are no semi-bluffs in your range. You would have to be turning a made hand into a bluff or floating out of position. Few players do either with any level of frequency. It’s true that you’re representing a narrow range, since you basically have to have slowplayed a set or hold ace-ten. That’s a drawback to this play. But if he thinks there are no bluffs in your range, then he has to give you credit for that narrow range.
Putting your own shoes back on, this awful turn card actually looks like a pretty good place to bluff now. Even if your opponent always calls with top pair or better, he’ll still be folding two-thirds of his range. And there’s a good chance that he’ll bail with his weak aces, knowing that he can only beat a made hand that was turned into a bluff.
Your check/raise risks $250 to win $235, so it needs to succeed just over half the time. Unless your opponent suspects that you’re getting out of line, you’re likely to win the pot immediately over two-thirds of the time. The play is clearly and immediately profitable. Even if your opponent calls, you have a 4% chance of spiking an eight, giving you a good chance to win your opponent’s stack. That’s not a major factor, but it does provide a small discount on the bluff.
“But hold on,” you might say, “assuming that the button is open-raising the 55% range recommended in this book, then betting the flop and turn with 100% of that range, don’t pocket eights have 51% equity on the turn? What about check/calling?”
That’s a reasonable question, and we’re glad you asked. If there were no more money left to bet on the river, check/ calling this turn would be a profitable play. Getting 2.6-to-1, you only need 28% equity to justify a call. But there is one more street to play. Your opponent can draw out on you and value bet the river. He can give up with his bluffs. Check/ calling the turn can be profitable, but check/calling the river can be a costly mistake that cancels out the profitability of the turn call. In other words, you suffer from reverse implied odds here.
“But what about calling the turn and folding the river?” you press. Well, now your opponent can bluff the river and get you to fold the best hand. As we’ve seen in earlier examples, it doesn’t matter how much showdown value you have if you can’t get to showdown.
The trouble here is that you don’t know which approach your opponent will take. If you have a strong read on a particular player, then you can try to play the leveling game. But you’re playing with imperfect information on the river. On the turn, you should have a very clear vision of your opponent’s range. This almost perfect information gives you the opportunity to grab some value now. You should seize it.
Note that if your opponent does call your turn check/raise here, you should usually give up on the river.
You won’t always have such a clear idea of your opponent’s range. So how do you reduce your positional disadvantage then? There’s not a lot that you can do. Your best course of action is to try to get to showdown for a reasonable price, and keep your eyes peeled to take an occasional shot at an off-balance foe.