This skill marks a change from the first three we’ve discussed. Each of the first three skills required you only to evaluate the strength of your own cards.
To recap, Skill #1 suggested that with pre-flop play, you look at your own cards, and compare them to a set of playable hands in a given situation. In Skill #2, when you refuse to pay people off, you look first to the size and context of an opponent’s bet, and judge against your own cards. You base your decision off mainly those two variables. Using Skill #3, when you assess the value of your hand, you look one more time only at your cards and how strong they are compared to the hands you expect opponents to call with.
Instead of calling these three skills the 1-2 skills, I could just as easily have called them the “playing your cards” skills. They’re important. Fundamental even, one might argue, to good play. But every poker enthusiast knows there’s a lot more to the game. If you just played your own cards, you’d severely limit yourself strategically and the possibilities for long-term profit.
With this next skill, we begin to look away from what we hold, and instead focus on what our opponents might have. It’s a critical transition in our thinking.
In general, 2-5 skills focus on figuring out when opponents might be strong or weak and acting accordingly. We aren’t so worried about our cards. Once you’ve mastered these 2-5 skills, you should be able to play a session or two completely blind— without ever looking at your cards—and not lose too badly. You’ll have the tools to “turn nothing into something” on a regular basis.
This all starts with barreling. Barreling is a simple strategy. Let’s say you raise pre-flop and your opponent calls. They check to you on the flop and you bet. Your opponent calls and then checks the turn. You bet again. If your opponent calls and checks the river, perhaps you bet one more time.
You’ll start to make these bets without much regard to what you hold. Sometimes you’ll choose to barrel because you hold a hand with certain features. But, especially at the 2-5 level, these decisions have much more to do with what your opponents might have and how they tend to play.
To get you started with the concept of barreling, I’ll quote from an article I wrote in 2013:
Say I’m on the button and everyone has folded to me. I raise pre-flop and get one call. Let’s say for the sake of keeping the numbers easy that I’ve made it $10 to go and was called. (Let’s also assume that any extra dead blind-and-ante money gets raked away.)
The pot is $20. My opponent checks the flop, and I bet $10 (half-pot). Half the time my opponent folds, and half the time he calls.
Say he calls. The pot is now $40. My opponent checks the turn, and I bet $20. Again, he folds half the time and calls half the time.
Say he calls again. The pot is now $80. My opponent checks the river, and I bet $40. One more time, he folds half the time and calls half the time.
If my opponent and I play ten thousand hands using these strategies, who do you think comes out ahead?
Notice I haven’t mentioned specific cards at all. That’s because I’m discussing two strategies, not individual hands. To get really good at poker, you must learn to zoom out from thinking about specific hands and think instead of one strategy versus another.
So who wins?
My opponent folds 7/8 of his hands and calls to showdown with 1/8 of them. Let’s assume that the 1/8 of hands with which he gets to showdown are always the best possible 1/8 of hands (not a fair assumption, of course, as it assumes that my opponent is able to predict perfectly on the flop where his hand will fall by the river). In hands that get to showdown, therefore, I’ll win 1/16 of the time and lose 15/16 of the time. (That is, I’ll luck into a hand that beats his average showdown hand 1/16 of the time.)
Let’s break it down. Half the time, I win 10 when he folds on the flop. One-fourth of the time, I win 20 when he folds on the turn. One-eighth of the time, I win 40 when he folds on the river. At showdown, I lose an average of 70 (accounting for the chance I luck into a winner).
On average, how do I fare playing this game?
EV = (0.5)(10) + (0.25)(20) + (0.125)(40) + (0.125)(-70) = 5 + 5 + 5 – 8.75
I win an average of $6.25 per hand. That’s more than half the pre-flop raise size.
All I’m doing is betting half-pot whenever my opponent checks. I’ve given my opponent the benefit of psychic powers, and yet my couldn’t-be-simpler strategy crushes his more considered strategy.
What’s my opponent doing wrong? He’s folding too much, of course. He’s also not raising enough.
“No one actually plays like that,” I can hear you say.
I disagree. Lots of people play like this, at least in 2-5, and to a lesser extent, 5-10 games in Las Vegas. Sure, no one plays precisely like this with exactly these ratios. But plenty play closely enough that a strategy to simply bet half-pot whenever checked to beats them.
[Revised and excerpted from “You Check, I Bet,” published originally in Card Player magazine, vol. 25 no. 3.]
Say you were a no-limit hold ’em player who learned to play not from books, but from watching others play, and through trial and error. Because everyone else plays way too loose pre-flop, you would also learn to play way too lose pre-flop. In the beginning, because you played too many bad hands, you flopped a lot of marginal hands like bottom and middle pairs, and top pairs with kicker problems. Those times you actually flopped a decent top pair or better, turn or river cards often came that threatened you with possible straights and flushes.
Frequently, when you held these hands, you found opponents betting into you. You weren’t sure what to do. So the first thing you tried was calling. You called a lot of bets and got shown a lot of hands. You lost a few buy-ins and decided to change the way you played.
You decided to stop calling. You started folding instead. If someone really decided to crank up their bets against you, you’d fold all your marginal one-pair hands. If someone represented a made flush on the river, you’d believe him.
This change saved you a lot of money. And you stopped losing so much. So you stuck with the strategy. Since you weren’t losing as much anymore, you didn’t try to change anything else about your approach.
If you play 2-5, you’ll find many regular players at this level of their development. They play too many hands pre-flop. But they’ve learned they can also fold to post-flop pressure and not get hurt too badly.
The only reason these players don’t get hurt too badly is because their opponents don’t take advantage of their mistakes. By and large, their opponents are at the same level. Everyone’s playing too many hands. And everyone’s folding to each other’s big bets. In the end, they all hope to pick off enough marks who will call some of their bets so everyone can share in the profit.
Yet, as I talked about above, these players are often beaten by the simplest of all strategies—i.e., when they check, you bet.
This works for two reasons. One, as I’ve said many times before, these players play too many hands pre-flop, which causes them to get stuck with too many bad hands after the flop. Two, these kinds of players are trained by their opponents’ styles to assume that people aren’t bluffing when they bet a certain way. It’s specifically this assumption, indeed, that saves these players from being hopeless losers. (It’s also the exact assumption I suggested in Skill #2 that you make and obey in order to accumulate chips. It’s a good assumption because it can save you many buy-ins over the long-term at 1-2 and 2-5.)
I told you to assume that your opponents aren’t bluffing with big turn and river bets and to fold. And by the time you get to 2- 5, many of your opponents will assume the same about you—that you aren’t bluffing. Your job is to violate that assumption with your play relentlessly and mercilessly. You’ll be the one who bluffs constantly and in all the situations where no one else bluffs.
When you combine these two factors—loose pre-flop play with a general trust of large bets—you get many situations where you can close your eyes and bet whenever your opponents check to you and show a profit.