Skill #2. Don’t Pay People Off – P1

By now, you should feel like you have a reasonable pre-flop strategy. It’s not perfect by any stretch, and I haven’t discussed in detail how to alter it based on table dynamics, or what changes to make against tougher players. But that stuff isn’t all that important right now. At 1-2 (and even at 2-5 and 5-10), the main idea of pre-flop play is playing tight. You should play tighter against raises, and raise a lot yourself. The other main thing is avoiding offsuit hands. Once you have these ideas down, you’re ready to start earning money post-flop.

With our first post-flop skill, however, we’re not yet going to earn money. Instead, we’re going to avoid bleeding money. Your first post-flop skill is actually a folding skill. But it’s a relatively easy one to acquire. And if you don’t have it, you really don’t have much of a shot.

Here’s the short version: if someone makes a big bet or raise, fold.

Here’s the slightly longer version: if your opponent has played in a way that suggests a strong hand range, fold all your hands that can’t compete with that range.

Consider this example. It’s a 1-2 game. You have $200 stacks.

You open to $7 with A♦K♠. Two players call behind, as do the blinds. There’s $35 in the pot.

The flop comes A♥7♥6♠. The blinds check, and you bet $30. A player behind you calls, and the small blind calls. Now there’s $125 in the pot, and $163 left in the stacks.

The turn is the 8♥, putting three hearts and a three-straight on board. The small blind moves all-in.

Here’s the important post-flop skill to learn in action: you fold. Don’t think twice. Most 1-2 players would hem and haw on this decision. They might fold. They might call. But they’d be unsure of what to do.

I’d fold in a millisecond. There’s absolutely no question about it. Fold. Fold. Fold.

Here’s how to break it down. If your opponent held A-Q, would she make this bet? (For the vast majority of players, the answer is clearly no.) She wouldn’t bet A-J or A-T this way, either. With any of these hands, your opponent would be just as concerned about the turn card as you are. It’s possible she’d get confused about what to do, and bet a hand like A-Q. But typically in such a case, you’d see a bet like $40, not all-in for $163.

When your opponent bets all-in for $163, she’s representing a strong hand. She could have a flush. She could have a straight. It’s even possible she could have a set or two pair. What she doesn’t have is an ace you can beat.

The other option, of course, is that your opponent is bluffing. Maybe she’s recognized that this card would be scary to someone holding A-K, and she’s decided to try to move you off your hand.

Here’s a rule of thumb that works 90 percent of the time for small-stakes players. They aren’t bluffing.

More specifically, they don’t bluff frequently enough to make you want to call and find out. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s take a simplified example. It’s the river. There’s $100 in the pot, and your opponent bets $100. You have top pair. You determine that if your opponent isn’t bluffing, he can beat top pair. (This is the conclusion we came to in our previous example.) If you call, you win only if your opponent is bluffing. How often does your opponent have to be bluffing to justify the call?

You’re calling $100 to win $200. So if you call and lose, you lose $100. If you call and win, you win $200. Therefore, if you catch your opponent bluffing one-third of the time, you break even. You can lose twice for every time you win.

If you suspect your opponent is bluffing more than one-third of the time, you should call every time. If you suspect your opponent is bluffing less than one-third of the time, you should fold every time. That one-third frequency is the magic number. It’s where you flip from folding every time, to calling every time.

In small-stakes games, you should nearly always assume that your opponents are bluffing less frequently than that key percentage. Therefore, you should always fold whenever your hand cannot beat any of the hands your opponent is representing with the bet.

When your opponents make big bets on

late streets in small-stakes games, they nearly always have it, and are bluffing less frequently than they should. This means you should fold every time you cannot beat the hand they’re representing.

The above idea is gold. It applies the vast majority of the time in small-stakes no-limit hold ’em games. It’s absolutely critical you understand this principle and use it religiously.

I’m going to qualify the idea now, so you understand when it best applies.

  1. This idea comes into play most on the turn and river when your opponents make large, or stack-committing, bets.
  2. In this context, a bet is large if it’s a size you would only see once or twice an hour playing at the game. If you’re playing 1-2 and someone at the table busts out an $80 bet only once or twice an hour, it’s a large bet.
  3. A bet is stack-committing if you cannot imagine your opponent folding after making the bet.
  4. Big bets on the flop are sometimes bluffs. With two cards to come, many players are willing to gamble for stacks with hands like naked flush and straight draws. Once the turn bricks, however, few players want to shove a stack with these hands. And once the river bricks, very few players are willing to make large bets on a cold bluff.

5. In particular, this analysis doesn’t apply to small- and medium-sized flop bets. Do not assume all players have the goods just because they throw a few chips out on the flop—even if they raise your bet. The flop is the betting round players use to posture and try to “see where they’re at.” Bets on this round are not reliable indicators of strength.

Here’s the bottom line. If a 1-2 opponent makes a large, or stack-committing, bet on the turn or river, assume it’s not a bluff. Even if you suspect your opponent might bluff sometimes, very few small-stakes players bluff frequently enough (i.e., more than one-third of the time in our simple river example) that you’ll want to call. If they’re going to bluff 10 or 15 percent of the time, you just have to give them those bluffs. You cannot call and be wrong 85 to 90 percent of the time. You just have to let it go.

This can be hard. Many times, you’ll have flopped something good—top pair or better. Then turn or river cards put straights or flushes on board. And someone represents one of these hands with a big bet. I see players all the time unwilling to accept that an opponent drew out. “I gotta see it,” they say. And then, the vast majority of the time, they see it. And they lose.

You don’t need to see it. I promise you. You’ve got two pair. So what. If you cannot beat the hand your opponent is representing with that large bet or raise on the turn or river, you

should fold. While it’s possible your opponent is bluffing, it’s almost certain your opponent won’t be bluffing frequently enough to justify a call.

Consider a few wrinkles to this concept.

First, if the big bet or raise in question comes on the turn, there is a card yet to come and you may have outs. For example, say you have 4♦4♠. A player opens for $7 and another player calls. You call on the button. The big blind calls. There’s $29 in the pot.

The flop comes K♠Q♠4♥. Everyone checks to you, and you bet $30. The big blind calls, the pre-flop raiser folds, and the other player calls. There’s $119 in the pot.

The turn is the J♠. The big blind bets $70. The next player folds. If you call the $70, you’ll have another $150 behind.

You should call. Yes, your opponent is representing a hand that beats you (a flush or straight). But you have ten outs to beat those hands (any king, queen, jack, or four). Additionally, you have the 4♠, and it’s possible that a fourth spade will come, and you’ll make a flush that beats your opponent’s straight.

Finally, it’s possible your opponent has just two pair with a hand like K-J or Q-J, and is betting out to test the waters.

When you combine all these possible ways to win—filling up, making a small flush to beat a straight, and already having the best hand—you have way too much chance to win to fold to just a $70 bet in a $119 pot.

But say you make the call, the river bricks, and your opponent shoves all-in. Now you should probably fold. It’s unlikely your opponent would be so bold with two pair on this straight and flush board, and it’s almost unthinkable that he would bluff this way.

By the way, you may have heard along the way you shouldn’t call the turn and fold the river. If you decide you’re calling the turn, the advice goes, you should also call the river. This is hogwash—and it’s particularly wrong at smaller stakes. The above example shows exactly why that advice is so bad.

On the turn, you had multiple ways to win, including that your opponent was overplaying his hand and your hand was still best. By the river, most of the ways to win had evaporated. Your chance to draw out on a better hand is gone. And, beyond that, your opponent committed a final time to playing his hand for stacks. If he held just two pair, there’s a good chance he would have backed off on the river, just checking or betting a smaller amount. When he bet the turn, he could have held two pair. When he shoved the river, however, two pair became significantly less likely.

Never feel like you have to call the river because you called the turn. Maybe your turn call was justified. Maybe it was optimistic. Either way, the river is a brand-new decision point. You’re better off folding if your opponent makes a big bet, and you can’t beat the hand he’s representing. You’re never committed to calling a bet on the end if that bet is still a significant percentage of the pot (i.e., one-third pot or more).

Naturally, having outs is a good reason to call a large turn bet, even if you can’t beat the hand your opponent is representing. Another reason to call on the turn is maybe you can beat some of the hands your opponent is representing, but not others. This reason arose in the last example as well. The turn bet most easily represents a flush or straight. But some players would feel threatened holding a big two-pair hand, and decide they had to bet the hand. With a set, you lose to many of the hands your opponent represents, but you can beat some of them.

If you can beat only one or two represented hands, your best and safest action is still folding. But if you can list more than a few hands you can beat, it’s often a call.

Again, this analysis can change between the turn and river. When your opponent bets the turn, you might decide he could be betting hands you beat, so you call. But when your opponent blasts away on the river seemingly undeterred by your turn call, you might decide he likely doesn’t have those weakest hands. Now you fold.

This is a completely legitimate thought process. Far too many players feel “pot-committed” to hands where, by the time they’re facing a big scary river bet, they know they can’t be good anymore. But they call anyway because they think they’re supposed to.

Simply put, don’t pay people off.

This “don’t pay people off” concept also extends to pre-flop play in small-stakes games. Here, players rarely 3-bet pre-flop and even more rarely 4-bet. When they do 3-bet, they typically have very strong hands like aces, kings, and ace-king. Most players in these games rarely (if ever) 3-bet “light” with hands like A5s and T9s. (This is one of the many ways you will be different from your opponents.)

When you raise pre-flop, and you get 3-bet by an opponent who rarely makes this play, you should usually fold. When stacks are deep (200 big blinds or more), sometimes you can justify calling with some hands, knowing you’re behind. But with normal-sized stacks, you’re usually better off folding the hands like 66 and QJs and the like that can’t reasonably compete with a range of super-premium hands.

That’s it for this skill. In a word, small-stakes players rarely bluff. In particular, they rarely bluff for big money on the turn or river. And they rarely bluff with 3-bets and 4-bets pre-flop. Whenever you can fairly assume your opponent is not bluffing, and you can only beat a bluff, you should fold.

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