All in all, the turn isn’t as pivotal a card as its name makes it seem. The flop holds the major moment of the hand, the river sets the stage for a victor, but the turn lies in the nether world. It’s a nasty place of bad economics where the prices double and the number of cards is reduced.
Poker wags like to say that the “turn plays itself.” That’s a statement that’s more true than it is false, but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about.
Watching a Hand Fill Out
Of all the cards you receive in Hold’em, the turn is the least momentous. Only the clinically insane would have stayed through the flop for a double draw — meaning, drawing two cards to a straight or a flush — so it’s unlikely that this is the point that your hand will suddenly be broken in that fashion.
However, bets double here and on the river, so if you make a mistake or a loose call here — as opposed to on the flop — it will cost you twice as much. And in the long run, the incorrect call on the turn is what will endanger your bankroll.
In broad terms, on the turn your hand will either be improving or getting worse. This isn’t quite as stupid as it sounds, because when you stop and think about it, if your hand is staying the same, it’s potentially degrading relative to the field (if there are a lot of players in the hand, it definitely is degrading).
Odds are that your hand won’t be improving on the turn because you have to either pair a card or improve a straight or flush. And in Hold’em, for any given hand, the odds are always against that improvement happening. Therefore, when you do improve, you’re very likely gaining with respect to the rest of the table, and (assuming that card isn’t helping your opponent even more) you may well be passing them.
That’s great because these are exactly the kinds of problems you want to have in Poker. This particular one being the what-do-I-do-when-I’m-winning problem. Your big decision is whether you should check-raise or bet.
To check-raise or bet: That is the question
Here’s a very good rule of thumb for check-raising on the turn: If you think your opponent behind you will initially bet and call your check- raise, you should check. If not, you should bet — and do it right now!
Looking at a hand that’s good enough to check-raise, say Q-Q on a rainbow 2-4-9-Q board (the best possible current hand), if you check and your opponent checks, you’ve lost a bet.
If you check, your opponent bets, and you raise, your opponent may well pass — check-raises tend to do that to people. And it’s true that you gained two units (remembering that the bet on the turn and the river is double what it is pre-flop and on the flop), but you’ve also given your opponent a chance to simply check. Your Q-Q may well have come with a pre-flop raise and a post-flop bet. For sure, people want to see another free card — and if you check, that’s exactly what they’ll get.
If you bet, people could call — in fact there is a whole classification of people who will call — but won’t make a bet if you check to them (for example, someone holding a tail-wagging K-9).
Made flushes: The notable exception
A flush is a big powerful hand that, if you’re lucky, has been made by the turn. (Dang. You are so lucky. It seems like you always do that.)
Consider, for example, that you’re holding J♣ 10♣ in eighth position, but the other two people still in the game are behind you in the ninth and tenth seats. You’re the first to act and the board shows 4♣ 7♣ Q♦ 2♣.
This is a great setup because you hold a club flush right now, and it’s possible that either person behind you (one of whom opened the betting on the flop) hit a pair of queens. Unless the player drawing with a pair of queens has another pair to go with it (or holds the queen of clubs), he’ll be drawing dead here. And even if he does have two pair, he still has to pair one of the board cards to make a full house on the river.
The lurking danger is a person holding something higher than your jack still being in the hand. The queen, king, and ace, to the best of your knowledge, are all still in play — and those are precisely the kinds of cards people hold and play (especially if someone paired a Q♣ in his hand with the one on the flop).
Betting your hand right now will force anyone on the draw to decide if the pot odds are such that a call is feasible. Your betting leaves lots of room for other players to make mistakes:
They may make a mistake calculating pot odds and fold when they should call (or do the equivalent of making a mistake by not knowing what pot odds are and simply making the wrong choice to begin with).
They may make a mistake calculating pot odds and call when they should fold. (Again, they may not know and may just make the wrong choice.)
They may try to bluff you by reraising right now with a hand that’s drawing dead.
If you do get raised when you bet a made flush, you should call and check-call on the river. It’s possible someone is trying to bluff you; if so, you’ll beat that person on the river. It’s also possible someone is holding a larger flush than yours (for example, K♣ Q♣), in which case you’re just unlucky — but you need to minimize your losses by not firing the first bullet on the river.
And, of course, the smaller your flush is (like holding a suited 2-3 — shame on you!), the more dangerous the four-flush on the river is.
Watching for “hidden” improvements
On the turn, you need to keep your eyes open for opportunities that are making your hand better in ways that you didn’t expect.
For example, if you were dealt 10♠ 10♣, a Q♣ 8♣ 3♥ flop isn’t very exciting. As long as no one seems overly perky to see that queen hit, and there seem to be a lot of stragglers, you’ve got good reason to be here for the turn card.
But when the J♣ turn hits, things are both better and worse. You now have a fairly good flush draw. Because the jack and the queen are both exposed, the only clubs over your 10 are the king and the ace. You also have a gut shot straight draw of any 9 (with the 9♣ being your beyond-magical straight-flush draw — worth mentioning for novelty only, but not likely enough to change your mind in the overall scheme of things).
This means there are
Nine clubs left in the deck that will make your flush. This wins as long as there isn’t one of the three bigger clubs sitting at the table.
Three more 9s left (we already counted the 9♣ above). This will be good enough to win as long as you’re not fighting a flush already on the table, or a stray K-9 that is barking up a straight (except for the super-great 9♣ that’s an automatic winner).
Two 10s left in the deck. This is probably good enough as long as someone isn’t playing a 9-10 for a straight (fairly unlikely because that means all 10s from the deck would have to be in play, and that last 10 would have to be paired with a 9, and someone would have had to play it). Not impossible, just very unlikely.
Assuming your pair of 10s isn’t any good right now (and it almost certainly is not if there are a lot of players — there’s both a queen and a jack on the board), that means you have 14 outs in the 46 remaining cards (not all guaranteed winners — depending on the composition of other players’ hands) on the draw.
This hand isn’t good enough to bet straight-out, especially against a bunch of players — but if you’re getting better than 31⁄4-to-1 pot odds on your call, you can stay in to see the river. Keep in mind that the odds are against you in this situation — this means you probably will lose the hand, but mathematically you’ll win money in the long run if you call here.
If you see betting and raising in this situation before the action even gets to you, you should fold. It almost certainly means you’re either drawing dead or you’re under-drawing (meaning that the same card that helps you also helps someone else who will end up better — say someone holding a higher club).