Skill #4. Barreling – P5: MULTI-WAY POTS AND LOOSE PLAYERS

To recap from our earlier discussions, the skills we learned at the 1-2 level dovetail well with multi-way pots and loose players. With loose opponents who play every other hand, sticking to a tight, effective pre-flop strategy that includes lots of raising is your best approach. And when your opponents come out betting and raising big in these games, it’s usually a sign to fold. In multi-way pots with loose players, these two skills rise in importance.

So does getting proper value for your hands. It can be frustrating in these games when loose opponents (or ones you consider bad or reckless) draw out on you. But always remember you don’t need to win nearly as often in a game like this to make a profit. When you play a heads-up pot, you need to win roughly 50 percent of the time (give or take) to show a profit. When you play a three-handed pot, it’s roughly 33 percent of the time.

When you’re playing five- and six-handed pots, you only need to win 20 and 17 percent of the time (again, give or take, since the hand moves beyond just pre-flop action) to show a profit. Indeed, it’s unreasonable to expect to win 50 percent of the time in five- and six-handed pots. It’s unreasonable even when you have a good hand pre-flop like Q-Q, or a good hand on the flop like top pair.

The beauty of Skill #2 from our earlier discussion is you don’t have to pay people off when they have you beat. On the flip side, other players are likely to pay you off at least some of the time when you have them beat. So not only do you win more than your share of pots by playing better hands, the pots you win are bigger on average than the pots you lose.

When you play multi-way pots against loose players according to this framework, it should diffuse some of your frustration. No, you won’t win all the time. Most of the time, someone is going to make a hand, bet you out of the pot, and take it down. That’s how it works. Your main job is to get out of the pot when in fact they bet you out. Then bet your hand like crazy when you’re the one likely to be in front.

And you’re even allowed to lose a fair percentage of the time when you’re aggressive and betting like crazy because you think you’re ahead. This is the way multi-way pots work. As long as you adhere to the first three skills, you’ll do just fine.

So now we can integrate the first of our 2-5 skills, barreling. There’s no question that barreling loses importance when you play multi-way pots against loose players. It’s much harder to push five opponents out of a pot than just one or two. But frequently I hear the advice, “Man, you should never bluff in a game like that.”

This is poor advice indeed. I bluff in loose games with multi- way hands with regularity—albeit less than in a “normal” game.

I’ll start by highlighting the many spots you likely shouldn’t barrel in looser games. First, as a general rule, don’t C-bet flops you miss into four or more opponents unless there’s money behind and you have significant equity-when-called. With that many players in the hand (even with only three opponents), it’s likely someone hit the flop.

For example, say you’re playing 2-5 with $400 stacks. You raise pre-flop to $25 with A♥K♦ and get called in four places. There’s $125 in the pot—and there’s a relatively shallow stack-to- pot ratio of about 3. The flop comes J♦9♣5♣. You probably shouldn’t C-bet the flop. You’re almost certain to get called on a flop like this one (possibly in multiple spots), since many hands might connect with the jack, the nine, and the clubs. And if you do get called, you won’t have much money left to barrel effectively on the turn.

Furthermore, it’s not entirely clear which turn cards would be good to barrel. Would the 2♥ be a good card? It’s probably about as good as you could hope for. But I wouldn’t expect anyone with a jack to fold. And you might even get calls from hands like A-9 or K-9.

The situation is different, though, with deeper stacks and when your hand has equity-when-called. Let’s say you’re playing $1,000 stacks instead. You raised pre-flop to $25 with A♣K♣ and got called in four places. There’s $125 in the pot, but this time the stack-to-pot ratio is about 8. With the higher stack-to-pot ratio, you’ll be able to fire multiple barrels if you’d like. Your chance to win the pot doesn’t evaporate just because someone called on the flop.

Say the flop comes J♣T♠3♠, giving you a gutshot, two overcards, and a backdoor nut flush draw. If everyone checks to you, you might want to C-bet this flop.

You’ll get called, sure. The jack, ten, and spades connect with too many hands to expect four folds. But this bet is not designed to immediately win the pot. It’s designed for other things:

  1. Your bet thins the field to prevent someone from spiking an unlikely set or two pair on the turn that they will never fold.
  2. Your action sets up betting on future rounds and keeps the nuts in your range. With this bet, you’re telling the story you could easily have a set of jacks or tens, but if you check the flop you essentially deny the possibility you’re holding these hands.
  3. It builds a pot worth stealing, and takes advantage of even loose players’ tendencies to get skittish when playing enormous pots. Most loose players know that J-7 is probably not good on a J-T-3 flop if someone else wants to put $1,000 in the pot by the river.
  4. It gives your opponents a chance to raise if they flopped big, thus giving you information and allowing you to fold out of the hand if that’s your best action to take.

This fourth point is important. In multi-way pots, people don’t like to slowplay big hands when draws are out there. They’re much more inclined to raise early to protect their hands and to charge other players who they believe are drawing.

An opponent’s raise can be considered an early warning system for your barreling attempts. Instead of picking you off while you vainly fire three barrels totaling nearly $1,000 at this $125 pot, the player with J-T or A-J or a set on a J♣T♠3♠ board is usually inclined to let you off the hook for just the price of your C-bet. You bet the flop, they raise, and you say, “Thanks for not sandbagging and hiding your hand to the turn and river.”

Actually, don’t say that. Just think it. Don’t talk about strategy at the table. It can be annoying to other players, you reveal too much about your strategies, players often respond with information that’s not true, and in general nothing good can come of it.

But to get back to the point at hand. These are the justifications that support your C-bet barrels at looser tables. The goal isn’t to get everyone to fold immediately, because that probably won’t happen. Can the bet still make sense even if you’re fairly sure someone will call? Yes. As long as it likely sets up future barrels that can help you steal a pot. If not, it’s nearly always best to forgo a C-bet.

For example, say you bet a J♣T♠3♠ flop for $100 and get called in two spots. There’s $425 in the pot, and you have two opponents.

In a loose game, there’s no reason to assume your two opponents have any particular type of hand. On a J♣T♠3♠ flop,

callers could have jacks, tens, threes, spades, and straight draws (including gutshots) around the jack and ten. That’s a lot of hands, many of which aren’t particularly strong.

Also, flush draws specifically are a relatively small subset of all possible hands. You can’t safely assume that someone has the flush if the flush card comes on the turn—in fact, a card like the 5♠ may be a great card to barrel, since if your opponents don’t have the flush, they may be loath to call.

But say the turn is the 7♣. This card conveniently gives you a flush draw with your A♣K♣. This possibility is an important reason you would barrel a pot like this to start with. The backdoor flush gives you the chance to catch a big draw on the turn. It’s also a disguised draw. If the backdoor flush hits the river, your opponents may not give you credit. It’s the type of pot that can win you their entire $1,000 stack, while there’s relatively little threat to your whole $1,000 stack.

Say your opponents check the turn, and you bet $300 into the $425 pot. This leaves you about $575 for a river bet, which would be a very credible final barrel if it comes to it. In the meantime, it’s a stiff proposition for your opponents to call $300 from out of position in a 2-5 game with nearly $600 behind. Even if they are that loose, they’re unlikely to call this bet with a weak jack, ten, or a gutshot. They might even fold some hands stronger than these.

Even if you know these players and they usually call to the bitter end, they might surprise you. Often players make the mistake of assuming something never happens when it actually happens rarely, like ten percent of the time. There’s a big

difference between never and ten percent. These small percentages can add up to great significance when you analyze situations properly.

So barreling isn’t a complete no-go in multi-way pots and loose games. But, you want to slow down blind barreling, where you bet any two cards because opponents happened to check. A blind-barreling strategy works well in games where people generally like to fold their extra weak hands. But when they’re always calling, it’s often a poor strategy and earns you neither chips nor folds.

But you still want to attack pots when stacks are deep, when you have equity-when-called, and when the players who call are unlikely to have a strong made hand.

Getting it right will take some experimentation. You’ll need to push a few hands to the limit to see how far your opponents will go to call you down. You may find your opponents are absolute slaves to the call, unwilling to let anyone win a hand without a showdown. But you’re more likely to find opponents who will indeed fold to barrels. As long as you pick your spots with some care, you should be able to use this skill to improve your win rate, even when half the table sees every flop.

FINAL THOUGHTS

In Skill #4, I haven’t given you a lot of guidance about when to barrel and when not to barrel. That guidance begins with Skill #5. But barreling in general is a profitable strategy in any game type

where your opponents are playing too loose pre-flop and not seeing a ton of showdowns.

Here’s a quick test to decide if barreling will be profitable. Watch twenty hands. Count how many go to the flop multi-way (i.e., three-or-more handed). Also, count how many go to showdown—and not just get checked down to showdown, but where someone had to call a significant bet along the way. If more than half the hands play multi-way, but four or fewer go to showdown, there’s a great chance that barreling will be a profitable strategy.

When a lot of players see flops, but most hands don’t get to showdown, players are too loose pre-flop, and they’re folding many of their weak hands post-flop—exactly the dynamic you can exploit for greater profit.

In fact, unless the game is really wild, with players getting all- in constantly with pots, and side pots, and side-side pots (if you’ve played casino poker for more than a few dozen hours, you know what I’m talking about) there’s a good chance that barreling will bring you more chips.

Beginning with our 2-5 skills, improving at no-limit hold ’em gets tougher. I promised in this book to make the game clearer and more accessible. And my goal is to do just that. I want to give you an understandable framework so you can improve step by step.

But in reality, no-limit hold ’em isn’t tic-tac-toe. There’s a lot to it. And quite frankly, it’s complicated. You aren’t going to read one book and understand it all. So from now on, I’ll recommend

books (mine and others) should you want to learn more about the skill we just covered.

To learn about barreling in greater depth, I recommend another of my books, Playing The Player. If you’re working on understanding when to barrel, when to back off, and when to challenge opponents who may be barreling at you, Playing The Player covers the topic in great depth, but also in plain language without a bunch of equations. If you can read and understand this book, you’ll get a lot out of Playing The Player. In fact, I recommend you read that book next.

But I’m not going to leave you with just a recommendation. In the next skill, you’ll learn how board texture can affect the success rate of the barrels you’re learning to fire with confidence.

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