Before the flop, the game is always the same. Everyone gets two cards. The best hand is always A-A. Next is K-K. And so on.
Once the flop comes, everything changes. Or, rather, two things change. First, the order of hand rankings change. Unless the flop comes ace high, A-A will no longer be the best hand. Usually top set will be the best hand. Then middle set. Then bottom set. Then top two pair. And so on.
Second, the relative equities of the hands will also change. This is perhaps a tricky concept.
Before the flop, for example, A-A is the best hand, and K-K is the second best. But A-A is actually much better than K-K. Q-Q is the third-best hand, but the difference between it and K-K is smaller than the difference between K-K and A-A.
T-8 suited is a better hand than 7-5 suited. They aren’t separated in the rankings by just a single hand. There are several hands between T-8 and 7-5 suited. Yet, they actually run close together in equity—there is much less difference in real strength between T-8 and 7-5 suited than between K-K and Q-Q.
So, pre-flop, you could rank hands from best to worst, but numeral rankings wouldn’t tell the entire story. The relative equities of each hand are also important.
The flop not only changes hand rankings, but also changes the strength differences between them. The study of how each flop (or board) type alters hand rankings and equities is referred to as the study of board texture.
Board texture is the primary wrinkle in this game. It’s the reason no-limit hold ’em is a complex, difficult game like chess, and not a simple one like blackjack.
The better you understand how board texture affects hand rankings and equities, the better you’ll become at making barreling and value-betting decisions. And the better you’ll be at no-limit hold ’em. And the better you’ll get at making money.
STATIC VERSUS DYNAMIC BOARDS
In no-limit hold ’em there are 22,100 possible flops. Each of these flops creates a unique ordering of hand values for the cards held by each player at the table, and a unique distribution of hand equities. If you had a central processing unit implanted in your brain, you could study each of these 22,100 flops independently to understand perfectly how each affects hand ranking and equity distribution.
If you’re not yet enhanced with unfathomable computing power, twenty-two thousand unique outcomes is just way too much information to calculate and retain. It makes sense, therefore, to put different flop types into groups, where a given group of flops tends to behave in a certain way.
The most important grouping is the distinction between static and dynamic flops. A static flop is one like K♠7♦3♥—where the hand values (particularly hands near the top of the pile like 7-7, K-7, A-K, and K-Q) are relatively unlikely to change on the turn or river. If you’re ahead on the flop, you’ll probably still be ahead on the river. In this example, either you hold a king or you don’t. There’s no flush draw available. And the only straight draw is a gutshot between the 7 and the 3. Only one overcard (an ace) can come on a subsequent street to beat you if you hold the king.
A dynamic flop is one like 9♣7♠4♣—where hand values (again, particularly the ones at the top of the heap like 4-4, J-J, A- 9, and T-9) are likely to change significantly on the turn and river. Several factors can make a flop dynamic. But the most important one is a “low highest” card—meaning, where the highest card on the flop is a relatively low card. When the highest card on the flop is a 9 or lower, as in this case, your flop is dynamic, since it’s likely one, or possibly two, overcards will come by the river. These overcards can completely upset the ordering of hands.
Flush and straight draws can also make a flop dynamic. But players tend to overestimate the importance of draws, compared to simply the rank of the highest card on the flop. As you know, a pair of jacks beats a pair of nines just as surely as a flush. But it’s a lot easier to make a pair of jacks, so the reordering of hands is more drastic when an overcard hits the board than a flush card.
Here’s the math behind a jack hitting versus a flush completing. Say the flop comes 9♣7♠4♣. There are 55 total possible flush-draw hands, and if I started counting them all for this flop—A♣K♣, A♣Q♣, A♣J♣, A♣T♣, A♣8♣, etc.—and I counted every possible combination, I’d get 55 hands.
In hold ’em, this is always the number of possible flush-draw hands when two of any suit hit the flop. 55.
There are a total of 180 possible hands that have a jack in them (excluding J-J). That’s more than three times as many flush- drawing hands.
So, say I hold A-9 on this 9♣7♠4♣ flop. More hands leapfrog me in the rankings if a jack hits than if a club hits. When a club hits, only 45 hands improve to beat A-9 (plus a few stray two pair hands). It’s 45 hands, not 55, because the appearance of a third club eliminates the possibility of hands using that card. That is, if the turn is the 2♣, no one can hold A♣2♣.
But when a jack hits the board, any two cards that include a jack improve to beat A-9. That’s 135 possible combinations—far more than the 45 possible flushes. Of course, sometimes the flop action will eliminate many of the hands with a jack and another random card. But sometimes the flop action won’t eliminate many hands—if it goes check-check, for instance. Or if someone makes a C-bet, he could be betting any two cards.
In any event, an overcard hitting the turn will usually overturn the ordering of hands as much if not more than a flush card.
There’s more to say on this topic. For now, keep in mind that static flops are ones where hand rankings—yours and your opponents’—are unlikely to change much on the turn and river. Dynamic flops are ones where hand rankings are likely to change significantly on the turn and river.
Static flops—K-7-3, K-Q-4, A-9-5, Q-J-2, K-6-6—will typically feature one or two high cards. These flops become semi- static when there’s also a flush draw present. And when the flop also contains a straight draw, or is all one suit—flops like A♣Q♠9♣ or K♦7♦6♦—then they’ve slid toward a gray area between static and dynamic. Even on flops such as these, there’s a good chance the player who flops top pair will continue to hold the best hand by the river. But clearly, added straight and flush possibilities muddy the situation.
On the other end, a rainbow 8-4-2 flop is dynamic, even without flush draws. It’s just too likely an overcard will hit on either the turn or river. When you add a flush draw, it gets even more dynamic. If you straighten the cards like 8-7-5, it also gets more dynamic.
Remember that with static flops, there are large equity differences between the various hand levels. If you flop a set on a static board, you’re nearly a lock against anyone else. If you flop two pair including top pair, you’re a big favorite over any one- pair hand. If you flop top pair with a good kicker, you’re a big favorite over someone with a lesser kicker, and you’re a pretty big favorite over middle or bottom pair.
As you move down from the best to the worst hand, the equity differences between each set of hands is large.
On dynamic flops, equities tend to run closer together. For instance, take a dynamic flop like 8♣7♠5♣. And consider three hands playing this flop—A♣Q♣, J♠J♣, and 8♦6♦. Each of these
hands comes from very different hand tiers. But all three of them have equity against one another. There’s no clear ordering of best to worst, and it would be difficult to convince the player holding any of these three hands they’re so far behind they might as well give up.
The strategic implications of static versus dynamic boards are many. But for now I’ll drill down on one last idea. On static boards, if you bet, you’re presenting a clear threat. “Whatever hand you have,” your bet says, “I have a better one. And against a better hand you have little chance to win.”
On dynamic boards, however, a bet doesn’t carry the same threat. At best, a bet says, “I have a hand that has a good chance to win,” to which an opponent easily could say, “So do I.” And there’s a call.
So what does any of this have to do with Skill #4, barreling?
In general, on a static board, you need fewer barrels to “get the job done” than on a dynamic board. Seen the other way, if your bluffs haven’t worked after betting the flop and turn on a static board, there’s a good chance you should give up. But if your bluff bets haven’t worked on a dynamic board, you may still want to give a river bluff a shot. It’s likely your opponents are still drawing and by the river, have missed everything. That, or they’ll worry that your river bet means you outdrew them.
Consider these examples:
In both cases, it’s a 2-5 game with $1,000 stacks. Two players limp. You make it $25 to go on the button and the limpers call. There’s $82 in the pot.
First, the flop comes K♦Q♠3♥. Your opponents check, and you bet $60. The first limper folds, and the second limper calls.
The turn is the 6♥. Your opponent checks, and you bet $160. He calls.
The river is the 6♦. Your opponent checks.
In a typical 2-5 game, you should probably give up if you’re bluffing. (Notice that I never told you what hand you held. For the purposes of this example, it’s not important.)
Why should you give up? On a K♦Q♠3♥ flop, when your opponent calls your $60, he could have a king or a queen or a straight draw—hands like A-T and J-T. He could have even better hands like two pair, or a set. And it’s possible (with some player types) that he’s got a hand weaker than a queen.
But it’s unlikely he called with too many weaker hands than a queen. It would not be normal for most players to call this flop with a hand like 9-8, or 6-4, or even 2-2. Therefore, the fact that he called has meaning. And since you’d expect your opponent to have folded a good portion of weak hands or hands that totally missed, the fact that he didn’t fold makes his average remaining hand considerably stronger.
In this example, the turn brings a brick. He checks again. You bet again—a largish bet for a typical 2-5 game. Your bet says something clear on this static board. “Ok, I know you flopped some kind of hand, but I really think I have you beat.”
When your opponent calls, in effect he’s saying, “I’m not sure about that.”
On a static board like K-Q-3-6, both the bettor and the caller are clearly saying they have made hands, and each person feels there’s a good chance their hand is best.
On the river, the board is now K-Q-3-6-6. The confidence in each player doesn’t change much. The caller still feels his hand is best. If you bluff, it’s a pure power play. A river bet says, “Ha! I’ve got a monster, and I’ve got you on the hook for the full ride.” For the bluff to succeed, your opponent must understand this implied dialogue (not a good assumption about many low-stakes players), and your opponent must also believe you. He must also have the discipline to lay down a hand you know he likes.
In general, this is a losing bluff strategy. You don’t barrel to muscle people off hands you know they like. The goal of barreling is to catch your opponent with too many bad hands, and watch them fold to get rid of them. In this hand, on your K-Q-3-6-6 board, the flop barrel accomplishes this (because many hands look pretty weak on a K-Q-3 flop). The turn barrel also does this by getting an opponent to relinquish all his marginal hands after he called a flop, hands like A-T and Q-9. By the time the turn is bet and called, the caller will have a small remaining set of fairly strong hands. Barreling time, for this pot at least, is over.
Consider a different board. It’s the same 2-5 game with $1,000 stacks and the same pre-flop action (two limp-callers).
This time, however, the flop comes 9♣7♠4♣. Your opponents check, you bet $60, the first limper folds, and the second limper calls.
The turn is the 5♦. Your opponent checks, you bet $160, and he calls.
The river is the K♦. Your opponent checks again on this 9♣7♠4♣5♦K♦ board
You might consider firing a final barrel of perhaps $300 into the $522 pot. Why is this situation different?
Because this board is dynamic. Your opponent could have been calling with a variety of different hand types. He could hold a one-pair hand like A-9 or T-T. He could hold a flush draw like A♣J♣. He could hold a pair, plus a straight draw, such as 7-6 or 6-5.
The implied dialog on this board is very different from the one on the static board above. When you bet the turn, you’re not representing any particular sort of hand. But because you raised pre-flop, many players will tend to give you credit for a hand like A-A or Q-Q.
More importantly (remember, barreling is mostly about what your opponents might hold), your opponent could hold anything from a pair to a flush draw to a straight draw, to a combination of two or three of those things. A player might call the turn on a board like 9♣7♠4♣5♦ for lots of reasons. And by no means do all of them imply the player feels they have a strong hand worth showing down.
The river card—the K♦—is likely a bad card for the caller almost no matter what hand he holds. If he has a flush draw, he missed. Likewise, all the straight draws missed. Even if he held a hand like T-T, he now has to worry you had something like A-K and have outdrawn him.
The bottom line? Because the flop started out dynamic, your opponent will likely have found more hands to call with on the flop and turn. But by the river, a significant percentage of these hands will have bricked out. Your opponent can still have plenty of weak hands he’ll consider folding out.