– Doyle Brunson, Super/System
Despite the fact that poker is played by men, women, children, and non-gendered computer programs, there is still a lot right with this statement. Forcing your opponent to make a decision for all of his chips is a powerful play. What people get wrong is thinking only an all-in bet puts them to this decision.
The most critical decision you can make in No Limit Holdem is whether or not to commit all of your chips to the pot. As we’ve seen in the previous chapter, this is not a decision you should wait to make until you’re facing an all-in river bet. It’s a decision you should usually make on the flop as part of your plan for the hand.
Making your commitment decision early will keep you out of a lot of trouble and form the basis of your plan for future streets. But how exactly do you go about deciding whether to go down with your ship, or to bail early? There’s no magic compass, but there are some general guidelines that can help.
When you see a flop, begin by figuring out which of these three categories your hand falls into:
1. A strong hand which you want to get all in with.
This category is made up of your strongest hands: straights, flushes, sets, sometimes top two pair.
2. A hand which you’re willing to get all in with.
Exactly which hands fall into this category depends on a number of factors. It’s all about relative hand strength based on the board, your opponent’s range, and how he’ll behave when you put action in. This could be top pair or a big draw against super aggressive opponents, or three of a kind or better against passive players. You know your opponent better than we do. If you flop a hand that you’re not going to fold against this player, you must be willing to put the action in.
3. A hand too weak to commit your stack. Aside from outright garbage, this category includes all the hands where you’re doing well against your opponent’s overall range, but not the range of hands he’s willing to put a lot of action in with. You want to get some money in with these hands. You just don’t want to get all in with them. Here are a couple examples of this category:
Top pair is doing well here against your opponent’s preflop range. If your opponent had called, you would be happy to make another value bet on the turn and/or the river. But when he raises, you’re now against a much tighter range. If you only had to call this one bet, you might be getting the right price. But you can’t commit to this hand, since your opponent still has $850 that he can bet on the turn and river.
Again, you’re doing well against your opponent’s preflop calling range here. But once your opponent check/raises, your hand shrinks up. With $850 left behind, you should not commit against most opponents.
Sometimes it will be extremely obvious which category your hand falls into. When you flop the nuts, you want to get all of your chips in. When you flop nothing, the only time you should ever get your whole stack in is as a bluff. Poker would be easy if every hand fell into one of those two categories. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of middle ground. You’ll have to use your judgment developed from experience. It’s actually fortunate that there is so much middle ground, because that’s what makes poker profitable. If these decisions were all easy, then everyone would make the right choice every time. The difficult decisions provide you an opportunity to make a better decision than your opponent would have made.
One vital consideration in deciding whether to commit to your hand is stack size, and its relation to the size of the pot. Both examples listed above had typical 100 blind stacks. If instead the stacks were 20 blinds, it would be an easy matter to commit with both hands.
In general, the deeper the stacks, the stronger the hand you should require to commit. You need stronger value hands and more powerful draws. With very deep stacks, the line between hands that are willing to get it in and hands that want to get it in fades away. You should usually have a hand that you’re happy to commit 250 blinds to if your plan is to commit 250 blinds.
When you think you’re ahead of the range that your opponent is willing to commit his chips with, you want to get all of your chips in. Your primary task is figuring out how to get them in against as weak a range as possible. Just because you want to get your chips in doesn’t mean you should always shove. Take the following example:
In the above hand, your opponent is very aggressive and is likely to feel put upon by you. Calling the flop bet and raising the turn would be a reasonable option. If he held a hand like K♠ Q♠ , you might have a chance to get this opponent’s stack. But your read on this opponent indicates that he’s likely to hold a ton of bluffs in his range. You’d like to let him put as many of his chips in with as many of his bluffs as possible. With some opponents, just letting them barrel off (then shoving the river) would be the best way to do this. But this guy doesn’t like to fire the third barrel, so you’re likely to only get one more bet from his bluffs that way.
Instead, you make a moderately sized re-raise, leaving your opponent room to shove all in as a bluff. The combination of a bluff-happy opponent whom you’ve been pushing around and a dry board where it’s hard for anyone to ever have a hand makes this an ideal situation to induce an all-in bluff. If you shoved all in yourself, your opponent would have to fold his bluffs. The only way he’ll put in all his chips with those hands is if he thinks he might get you to fold.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to get as many chips in as you can with your good hands. The best line to take will always depend on the board, your opponent, and the dynamic between the two of you. What you have to do is think about your opponent’s range and decide which of your possible actions will inspire him to put in the most chips with the most hands.
When your hand is too weak to commit your stack, you should often take pot control lines. Sometimes you can plan to bet each street for value, but fold to a raise. This is a good line against players who will only raise you with their very strong hands, and will call down with a wide enough range to make your value bets profitable. For instance, if you raise K♠J♣ preflop and catch a flop of K♦7♥2♣, you can usually put in a value bet and fold to a raise against all but the most aggressive players. With a hand like A♥ K♥, you should be more willing to commit. You might not be excited to put all of the chips in, but it would be slightly profitable. This is where you need to find the line between hands you’re willing to get all in with, and hands you’re not.
An easy rule of thumb is to be willing to commit when you’re ahead of half of your opponent’s value range (i.e. the strong hands that are raising because they want you to call). This isn’t necessarily going to be a fist-pump get-it-in, but when there’s money in the pot and you get your stack in with 50% equity,3 you’re doing okay.
If you can’t think of a single hand you beat that your opponent could be raising for value, you should fold. There will be occasional exceptions to this rule, but your opponent needs to have a tremendously wide bluffing range, and you need a solid read on how often he will barrel off with those hands. If he has a properly balanced barreling strategy, it will be very difficult for you to find a profitable way to show down your bluff catcher. (It doesn’t matter how strong your hand is when you can beat no value hands; all you have is a bluff catcher.)
Note that being ahead of half of your opponent’s range does not equate to 50% equity, but it will usually be in the ballpark.
You should also be happy to commit your chips when you have a draw with huge equity. K♦ Q♦ on a J♦ T♦ 4♠ board would be an extreme example. Your draw doesn’t need to be quite so massive, but if you can get it in with very good equity, then go ahead and do it.
One time you’re likely to have good equity against your opponent’s all-in range is when you have an ace-high flush draw, particularly when there are straight draws on board as well. Now your opponent can call your shove or raise all in on his own with hands that you’re currently ahead of. A hand like A♦ 5♦ is doing pretty awesome on a K♦ Q♦ 4♣ flop against hands like J♠T♠ and 9♦8♦.
A similar situation comes up when you have the highest possible straight draw on a board with no flush draws. King-queen can get all in on T♦ 9♠ 5♥ against king-jack, queen-jack, queen-eight, jack-eight, jack-seven, eight-seven, eight-six, and seven-six. It has a commanding equity edge against all of those other straight draws. Even though your draw is only to a gutshot, your equity can be good on the strength of your high-card king.
A final reason to commit all of your chips to the pot is because your opponent will fold very often. When considering whether or not to semi-bluff all in with a flopped draw, you should weigh the following two factors:
1. How often will my opponent fold? The more often your opponent folds, the less often you’ll need to hit your draw to win. If your opponent will fold often enough, you don’t even need a draw to profitably bluff all in.
2. What will my equity be when he calls? One of the best things that can happen here is for you to get it in with an ace-high draw when your opponent holds a weaker draw. Now you’re not only drawing to the nuts, but you currently hold the best hand as well.
If you could make accurate assessments of these factors, you would simply plug them into the following equation:
Expected Value = fp + (1-f)(b-qt)
f is the frequency your opponent folds, expressed as a decimal.
p is the current pot size.
b is the money left in your stack, or the amount you must bet to be all in.
q is your equity when your opponent calls, or your chances of winning the pot when all the money goes in.
t is the total pot size after your opponent calls and rake is paid.
If that equation doesn’t make much sense to you right now, that’s okay. During a session, it’s good enough to think, “He folds a lot, therefore I can bluff. My equity will be pretty good when he calls, and he’ll fold sometimes, so I can bluff.” Or, “He’ll never fold but my equity is decent, so I’ll either call or fold, depending on my implied odds.”
The first thing you should ask every time you see a flop is whether or not you’re willing to get your chips in. You should actively look to get all in with the following hands:
• Strong hands that will be ahead of your opponent’s all-in range
• Strong draws with excellent equity
• Draws that can also be the best hand right now
You should take pot control lines with many of your marginal hands, and you should bluff when the folding equity is there.