When a straightforward player bets the flop and a tight player raises, you’re usually looking at two pretty good hands. If you’re looking at a spot where ranges are tight to begin with, you may need a hand very close to the nuts in order to justify getting involved in the pot. That’s good poker. When two people like their hands very much, you’re not going to win the pot without the goods.
The mistake here would be to assume that whenever someone bets and someone else raises, they both hold strong hands. But like every decision in poker, you have to start by considering ranges. If both players are conservative, then it’s usually safe to assume they both have strong hands. But not all players are conservative.
When bad passive players lead out into the preflop raiser, they frequently have nothing. It’s hard to say why they do it, but bad players have a tendency to make the most irrational plays. That’s part of what makes them bad players (and so fun to play with).
Let’s look at a hand from a $2/$4 game.
You open raise to $12 from the cutoff with Q♠ J♠ . A terrible player cold calls in the small blind, and the super- aggressive big blind comes along as well.
The flop comes out T♠ 8♣ 2♦ and the terrible player leads out for $22 into a $36 pot. The hyper-aggressive player in the big blind raises to $73. With just queen high, this may look like an easy fold. That would keep you out of trouble, but is there a better option?
Calling doesn’t appear to be very good. It’s hard to say what the big blind will think you have if you call, but being aggressive, he’s likely to jam the turn, or at least make a bet large enough to commit himself if he has a sliver of equity. So calling’s out.
But what about raising? We’ve already established that the small blind will rarely have a strong hand here. The big blind knows this, so he can be raising with a lot of nonsense as well. Despite the fact that their ranges look weak to you, an all-in shove will look strong to them. You should take the pot down immediately 8 times out of 10, which is more than the 75% necessary to make the bluff profitable even if you were drawing dead every time your opponent called.
In this scenario, however, you’ve got two overcards, a gutshot, and a backdoor flush draw. That’s good for 17% equity against a set, and 41% against a hand like top pair top kicker. That equity provides a substantial discount on your bluff.
This hand was taken from a real game. The big blind wound up calling with J♦ 9♦ , the turn and river came 4♥ and K♣ , and the player with Q♥ J♥ took it down with queen high. Sometimes there are even more ways to win than you initially estimate.
A disclaimer to this play is required. If you’re playing the micro-stakes or at a table with several fish (including the flop raiser), this play is much more dangerous. Use discretion when trying to pull off these big moves.
In games at the “professional level” online ($.50/$1 and higher), most games only have a single bad player at the table. A dynamic develops where the five skilled players are fighting tooth and nail for the fish’s money.
Here’s a hand played by Dusty that illustrates this dynamic:
The keys to this hand are the small blind’s donking range, and the big blind’s perception of that range. As observant and experienced players, Dusty and the big blind both realize that the small blind is donking this flop primarily with garbage. Sure, he can hold a pocket pair or a five. But it’s rare that he’ll lead out with trip kings or a full house. It’s hard to make those hands, so the fact that he’ll usually check with them makes it very unlikely that he has a strong hand.
Armed with the read that the small blind’s range is weak here, the big blind’s logical play is to raise, trying to take down a medium sized pot. If Dusty were cruising on autopilot, this would work. Without holding a strong hand, few players will get involved in a multiway pot facing a flop raise. But just as surely as he knows the small blind’s range is weak, Dusty knows that the big blind’s range is weak. After all, why would he raise the flop with a strong hand? The big blind is a strong player and raising the flop with a big hand would be a bad play. What could possibly pay him off?
Knowing that both of his opponents have weak ranges, Dusty chooses the play that should scare his opponents the most. He calls. Using the same logic we just applied to the big blind’s play, why would Dusty re-raise with a strong hand? He can’t get paid unless he has something like king- five against pocket fives. It makes more sense for him to play it slow and allow his opponents to bluff back at him. When the small blind folds the flop and the big blind checks the turn, Dusty bets and wins the pot.
Accurately recognizing situations like this one can make a big difference to your bottom line.