Skill #3. Assess Your Hand Value – P1

Now it’s time to actually make some money. The first two skills we talked about are primarily folding skills. First, you tighten up, and fold most of your hands before the flop. Second, you fold whenever an opponent bets big, especially on the turn or river.

These folding skills are critical to becoming a winning player because they protect you from losing money in spots where most 1-2 players lose. But as I’ve said repeatedly, folding doesn’t put money in your stack. In order to win, you need to take positive actions. This skill helps you do just that.

Say you flop top pair. How much is that hand worth?

It’s a tough question to answer. There are so many unknowns. If you bet, how many opponents will call? Of the ones who call, how often will one of them draw out on you? Of the ones who call and don’t draw out, how often will they call again? And is your top pair even the best hand to begin with?

And what about bet sizing? Do your choices change the value of your hand?

You should ask yourself these questions every time you see a flop. For the most part, they’re difficult to answer with precision. But you can estimate the answer using all the available information to give you an idea of what your hand is worth. From that point on, your goal is to try to get as much value out of the hand as possible (without pushing it too far).

Before we answer these questions, I want to dispel a huge misconception most players have about playing value hands.

When you flop a good hand, you don’t want your opponents to fold so you can win the pot. You want to get the hand to showdown. And, along the way, you want your opponents to pay you.

I’ll say it again. When you flop a value hand, you don’t want to push everyone out of the pot so you can win it. Regrettably, this thinking has fatal flaws. Let’s break it down with a common example of bad play.

A player raises to $10. Two players and the blinds call behind. There’s $50 in the pot.

The flop comes J♥T♥6♠. The blinds check, and the pre-flop raiser bets $70 into the $50 pot. Everyone folds, and the pre-flop raiser shows A♣J♣. “Couldn’t let y’all draw out on me,” he says.

This is exactly the wrong idea.

What value does a good hand have in poker? Just this: when you get to showdown, you turn the hand over. If no one can beat your hand, you win the pot.

That’s it. That’s the sole value of a good hand. It comes only at showdown. If there were no showdowns, all hands would be equally valuable.

So why would you want to take a hand that has special showdown value and play it in a way designed to avoid a showdown at all costs? If this makes no sense to you, good. It shouldn’t make sense. Because it’s not logical.

Which hands should avoid a showdown? You want to avoid showdowns with the hands that will lose if you get to showdown. Bad hands hate showdowns. Not good ones. Good ones like showdowns. Not complicated.

“But Ed,” you might say, “it’s not the showdown I’m worried about with top pair. It’s the turn and river cards. I’d be happy to show the thing down if I could prevent the turn and river from coming.”

Of course. But the way this game works, you can’t get to showdown without seeing the turn and river. Yes, you have a hand that has special value only at showdown. And you can see showdown only if you first see turn and river cards. Therefore, in order to play good hands optimally, you must embrace the turn and river cards so you can get to a showdown that actually gives your hand value and pays you off.

Let’s simplify. Say you can flop one of two hands. One hand is top pair. The other is ten-high. You get to pick one hand to bet, and one hand not to bet (and therefore check down to showdown). In this exercise, you aren’t allowed to bet both hands or check both hands. You have to pick one for betting and one for checking.

If you bet, usually your opponent will fold. Which hand should you bet (to get a fold), and which should you check (to see a showdown)?

If you bet top pair, your opponent will fold and you’ll win. But you’ll lose nearly every time you have the ten-high.

If you check top pair, you’ll still win fairly often with that hand. Sure, you get drawn out on some. But if you were ahead on the flop, you’ll still be ahead most of the time on the river. That’s part of the basic math of hold ’em. But now, you’re also winning with ten-high. When you bet it, your opponent folds, and you win.

By choosing to check top pair and bet ten-high, you have gone from having one winning hand and one stone-cold loser, to having two winning hands. The top pair usually wins at showdown, and the ten-high usually wins as a bluff.

While I simplified the rules of the game for this illustration, the basic idea holds in real play. When you hold a hand with real showdown value, you don’t want everyone to fold. You want to take the hand to showdown, and you want your opponents to pay you along the way. Your hands without showdown value are the ones you want to bet so much your opponents all fold.

What if you get drawn out on? Don’t sweat it. It happens. That’s part of the game.

What if a scare card comes and your opponent puts in a big raise against you? We learned the answer to this one in the last chapter. You fold. And you don’t think twice about it.

Some will think I’m nuts for saying it, but one of the beauties of 1-2 is you don’t have to worry so much about getting outdrawn. If someone draws out, they’ll likely make a big bet, and you can just fold. The player with the winning hand will give you that information.

Yet, I assure you, that getting drawn out on in bigger games against tougher players is much worse. Because tougher players are willing to bluff. And because they’re more aware of the composition of their hand ranges at any given time, they will make big bets you’re forced to pay off. They will bluff the flop and turn with a gutshot, then shove the river when they get there, and you have to pay the whole way.

In small-stakes games, because players don’t bluff enough, you get to save that final bet. When someone draws out against you, it’s not such a big deal.

So when you flop a hand like top pair or two pair, your goal should be to bet your hand such that your opponents with weaker hands will pay the maximum to lose at showdown.

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