Moving Beyond the Fundamentals

Continued from: How To Play Pre-Flop Starting Hands

In No Limit Hold'em Poker, the quality of your cards is very important, and the pre-flop strategies I've listed are a pretty good foundation. This is how I would begin a game against a field of players that you've never played with before. During any session of poker it is extremely important that you carefully observe your opponents' various styles of play. Once you've started to get a feel for the table you're at, it may become correct to deviate from the theoretically correct methods and start to adjust your game for the situation. I'm going to list some very broad ideas for when and why this is true.

Poker Fundamentals

Manipulating Volatility in Poker

1) When you are playing against a table of very loose, weak poker players who see entirely too many flops, you should tighten up your opening requirements and raise with only very good hands for your position. To understand this you have to be aware of the fact that some of our value from raising before the flop comes from the number of times you will win the pot without a battle (uncontested). Against loose players it is usually very unlikely that you will be able to raise enough to drive all the players out without risking a great deal of money and adding volatility (money swings) to the game. When you believe you are the best player at the table you would like to reduce the volatility or variance of your plays rather than add to it. In contrast, if you are the worst player at a table, you don't mind increasing volatility to a play.

Continuation Bets and Continuation Bluffs

2) When playing against extremely tight players you should loosen up your play. That is to say you can open the pot with more hands than you normally would because you will win more pots uncontested. Even when you are called, you're more likely to be able to win after the flop with a sizable bet, as a continuation bluff. It is important to remember that this rule only applies when you are the first to enter a pot. If a tight player raises before you, you need a stronger than normal hand to call or raise.

When I am on the button at a table with very tight players in the blinds and it is folded around to me, I will usually bet with any two cards at all. In the rare case that a tight player calls my bluff, I will use a continuation bet after the flop if he checks it to me. If that bet is called you need to proceed with caution, but it will rarely be called. If you use a pot bet after the flop you will only need it to work 1 in 3 times to for the play to break even.

Let's say there is $100 dollars in the pot when you attempt this continuation bet. You bet $50. If the bluff is called twice (during two separate hands) you lose $100 dollars total. If it works once and gets your opponent to fold, then you will win $100 on that attempt. Therefore, if the bet works once in three tries it has a 0 EV - it is a break-even play. If you have correctly observed that your opponent is a tight player, the continuation bet will work more often than once in three times, probably more often than it doesn't. The continuation bluff against the caller in the blind has worked often enough in my personal experience that I use it almost without exception against tight players. As a matter of fact, just about any time I bet before the flop and it's checked to me, I bet again. Most of the pros advocate the use of this "continuation bet".

When Not to Bluff

3) If you're playing against very loose and weak players (calling stations) you should almost never bluff. Just play your cards and play the mathematics and play your position. If you suffer from "fancy play syndrome" (meaning that you like to "outmaneuver your opposition"), against a table of poor players you will lose the money you would have made by making the standard play, and you won't make up for it in deception because loose weak players are paying attention to what you do anyway. To be blunt, they aren't aware enough to be tricked. Just play fundamentally correct poker and you will beat poor players. There's no need to get fancy. Just get your money in when you've got the best of it (static advantage) and protect it when you don't.

Adapt Your Game vs. Different Players

4) Your game should also change, to a certain degree, based on how good you feel you are compared to the other players in the game. This is especially true of poker tournament play. As I mentioned before, in a game where you feel you are stronger than most players, you would like to lessen the volatility of each play. In these cases you would like to look for really large mistakes and big edges allowed by the inferior play of your opponents. If you are among stronger players you should feel more inclined to push every edge you can find, even small edges much harder.

Let's suppose you, an amateur player, are sitting at a table with Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth, Howard Lederer, and Johnny Chan (all world class poker players) and you are playing a tournament style ten-handed game. Now, let's suppose you are in the first hand and you look down to find AK of spades. You raise 4BB's, and two players, Doyle and Chan, call your bet. Let's say the blinds are at $25-$50 and you each started with $1,000. Both players called you from the blinds, so there is now $600 in the pot. The flop comes out 10d 5h 6h, Doyle bets $300 and Hellmuth calls. Doyle may be bluffing or may not be, and Phil might be on a draw, but in all likelihood you are behind in the hand and will have to hit you ace, your king, or your flush to win the hand. In fact there is a good chance that someone has trip already, negating (counterfeiting) your ace and your king as outs. There is now $1,200 in the pot and it costs you $300 to call; you are getting 4 to 1 on your money with a draw to the nut flush and two over cards. Even though it looks like your two over cards may not be live outs (cards that would give you the best hand), this is still at least a break-even call. The problem here is that if you call you are basically committed to calling for all of your chips even if you miss your hands on the next card (the turn).

What should you do? Well, I would call. I am in a break-even or better situation against stronger players and this may be my best chance to pick up some chips. If I make my flush I will make enough to have a chance to win despite the strength of my opposition. This is referred to as a "high volatility, break-even play." If the tides were turned, however, and I was playing tournament style poker against a lot of very poor players, I may elect to pass on this call. That is because I think it's likely that I will be able to take advantage of my players' mistakes enough to find better places to get my money in.

Drawing Hands and Odds

5) When playing in cash poker games against loose and poor players, drawing hands like suited connectors and AXs go up in value for a number of reasons. First of all, it is less likely that you will be raised out of the pot before the flop. Second, the probable presence of many limpers in the pot will make for more favorable pot odds. Third, if you flop a draw to your hand it is very likely that players will under bet the pot, giving you the correct odds to draw to your monster hand. Fourth, you will be playing pots with more players and will very often have to show down the best hand at the end to win; poor players don't like to fold. Finally, drawing hands have huge implied odds (the money you expect to win after you do make your hand) because players are more likely to call you down with inferior hands when you value your hand at the end. (A value bet is a bet you would like to have called and is made when you believe you have the best hand.)

♣ Continued at: Tournament Play vs. Cash Game Play

♣ Back to the index of Dead Money's guide to hold'em strategy.