In poker your position always affects the starting hands you should play. But in tournaments, the structure also alters optimal starting hand selection. The advice in this chapter applies specifically to the fast multi-table no-limit hold’em tournaments. These strategies are not meant for non-tournament ring games, single-table satellites, or major tournaments with long, slow blind structures.
Read and apply “The basic strategy position plays” regardless of your cards. Now to your card strategy. Cards are the most complex of the three weapons in poker tournaments not only because there are so many possible hands, but because the best way to play these hands varies according to your position, your chip stack, the tournament structure, and the time point in the tournament.
To keep this discussion simple, we’ll start with the assumption that you are in a “competitive” chip position. You’re not short-stacked, nor are you gloating over some mountain of chips that’s terrifying your opponents at your table.
To be more precise about what I mean by a “competitive” chip stack in a fast tournament, I mean that your chip stack would cover the cost of at least 30 big blinds, but not more than 50 big blinds. For example, if you have $2,000 in chips, and the blinds are $25 and $50, your chips would cover 40 big blinds (2,000/50 = 40). You’re not desperate, but neither are you particularly chip-rich. You’re competitive. I will discuss how this changes when the antes kick in later. Now let’s talk cards.
THE VALUE OF YOUR CARDS IN RELATION TO YOUR POSITION.
In Texas hold’em, position is information, and in all forms of advantage gambling, information is power. When I have early position at a hold’em table, I have no information about what the other players may be holding preflop, yet I must make a decision about whether or not to bet, raise or fold. In late position, after other players have already acted, I know a lot.
Let’s say I’m holding an A10 under the gun, the first position to bet preflop. How do I play this hand? If I bet with it, then get raised, should I call? I’m in pretty bad shape if the raiser has an ace with a better kicker than my ten. And what exactly am I hoping for on the flop? If an ace comes down, and I bet, then get raised again, there’s a good possibility my kicker is already beat by the raiser. If instead a 10 comes down, and I bet and get raised, does the raiser already have my 10s beat? Did his preflop raise mean he already had a bigger pocket pair? Or is he just raising with a hand like AK or AQ, assuming my bet was just because I didn’t want to give up the lead? And what if the flop comes down K 10 5? Now if I bet and he calls, what does that mean? Does he have a king with a poor kicker? Is he slow playing a set, or calling on a straight or flush draw?
Under the gun, A10 is a throw away. It’s just too hard to play this hand without advance information on your opponents.
But, what if I’m in late position? First, if no one raises the pot, I can pretty well assume that there are no high pocket pairs at the table, and any aces in the hands of the limpers probably have poor kickers. If the flop comes down with an ace, and any player bets, I’ll bet my kicker is better than his and I’ll reraise him. If the flop comes down K-10-5 and no one in front of me bets, it’s a pretty good assumption that my 10s are the best hand. I’ll bet, and probably take the pot. If I’m called, it will likely be a player on a straight draw, not a player holding a king.
Late position to a hold’em player strengthens the value of every hand. Position provides information, and information spells money.
EARLY, MIDDLE , AND LATE.
Let’s define the positions at the hold’em table, from the perspective of playing your cards, rather than from the perspective of taking position shots to steal pots. First, the button is the strongest position. Preflop, the only players who have more information before betting are the blinds, and they immediately go to the weakest position after the flop. After the flop, and through the turn and river, the button always bets last.
The two seats to the right of the button are late position seats. At a 10-player table, with all hands in action, these players would be betting 8th and 9th after the flop and through the river.
The three seats to the right of them—the players who would bet 5th, 6th, and 7th after the flop—are in middle position.
The two blind positions, as well as the two seats to the left of the big blind meaning the players who will bet 1st and 2nd preflop, then 3rd and 4th postflop—are all early position seats.
In determining whether or not you should enter a pot, and then whether or not you should continue in a pot, and whether you should do so with bets, raises, or calls, it’s important that you play your cards based on your position—early, middle, or late.
PREFLOP CARD STRATEGY.
These are the hands to enter the pot with based on your position, and how to enter the pot:
If first in, raise with all pocket pairs from 7-7 to A-A, and A-K, A-Q , A-J. If not first in, raise any limper or reraise any standard raise with J-J to A-A, as well as AK. Call any standard raise with 7-7 to 10-10, as well as with A-Q, and A-J.
Follow early position card strategy, plus raise (if first in), or call any standard raise with K-Qs, Q-Js, and J-10s. Otherwise fold.
Follow all of the early and middle position card strategy, plus call any standard raise with all pocket pairs from 22 to 66, as well as with A10, A9s, 109s, 98s, and 87s. And don’t forget your position basic strategy plays in late position—if first in, raise with any two cards; if on button, call any standard raise with any two cards.
Ideally, you will adjust these guidelines by the number of players already in the pot, and the number of players to act behind you. The more players in an unraised pot, and the later your position, the more marginal hands you may play.
This is an aggressive strategy because that’s what fast tournaments require. In a long slow tournament or ring game, it would not be a basic strategy play to raise from early position with a hand like 7-7 or A-J. Nor would you usually call raises from late position with weak pairs like 2-2 or 3-3. In fact, the biggest mistake amateurs make in limit games is playing too many hands, and the above strategy would strike many experienced limit hold’em players as way too loose.
It’s a general rule in hold’em that it’s a much less costly mistake to play too few hands than it is to play too many. In the fast tournaments, however, playing too few hands is as big of a mistake. So you call standard raises with all pocket pairs from late position. If you flop your set, you’ll make a bundle. And if you don’t, you’ve got a good setup for a position shot.
In these fast tournaments, you will be surrounded by both players who play too few hands and players who play too many hands. The players who play too many hands generally enter pots and call raises with no consciousness of position, and little real understanding of card values. You’ll see many players who will enter pots or call raises with any suited ace or king, or any two high cards, like K-J or Q-10.
You might be correct to play cards like these when you are either short-stacked and desperate, or big-stacked and able to loosen up your play and take more shots with marginal hands. Use the guidelines above as a basic strategy for entering pots. In slower tournaments, Skill Levels 5 or 6, you must make adjustments based on your opponents. Adjustments based on your chip stack will be discussed in a later chapter.
Don’t Ignore the Position Strategy!
Once you start playing card strategy, don’t stop playing position strategy. For example, the position basic strategy is to automatically fold from any of the earliest five positions. But the card strategy above dictates that with certain hands you will definitely enter the pot from these positions. Or, you may not have one of the “playable” late position hands listed in the card strategy above. But if you are the first player into the pot, then your position strategy is to raise with any two cards.
One easy rule to remember is that you should look at your cards first, and if your card strategy is to fold, then revert to position strategy. Any time you don’t have the cards to play, you play the position strategy.
POSTFLOP CARD STRATEGY.
Playing your hand after the flop is the most complex part of card strategy. There is no easy basic strategy for postflop play because so many interrelated factors are involved. How strong is your hand? How many players are in the pot? Do you have position on any or all of the other players involved, or do one or more have position on you? Who are these other players? Are they loose, tight, calling stations, timid, shot-takers, tricky players? Does the flop itself strengthen your hand, or does it present dangers such as overcards or potential straight or flush possibilities for your opponents? So many possible scenarios exist after the flop that any attempt at creating a “simple” basic strategy for postflop play would require a chart with hundreds of asterisks and footnotes.
Once the flop has come down, you must weigh all of the factors and play the situation in addition to your cards. But there is a logical process you can go through in assessing your postflop situation and best strategy. That process starts with looking at your cards in relation to both the flop and any other players in the pot toget an initial evaluation of where you stand. This is called reading the board.
READING THE BOARD.
You must be fast and accurate in reading the board. The first thing to look for is how the flop may have helped or hurt your own hand. If your cards are a pocket pair, for example, you need to know if you’ve flopped a set, a third card of your denomination to give you trips, which is a very powerful hand. If your cards are suited, you must ascertain whether two or all three of the flop cards match your suit. With two cards matching your suit, you have a decent shot at making a flush on the turn or river.
If your cards are connected—meaning consecutive values like 87 or J10—you want to know if the board has given you a straight, an open-end straight draw, or even a gutshot straight draw. If one or two of the board cards match one or both of your cards, then you want to know if you have top pair, second pair, bottom pair, or two pair. You also may have a combination of possibilities. You may have top pair in addition to a straight or flush draw, etc.
Just as important as looking at the flop from the perspective of how it may have helped your cards is looking for possible dangers. If your cards are a pocket pair, and you do not flop a set—which will be most of the time—you must be concerned about any overcards to your pair that came down on the flop. For instance, if your cards are QQ, and an ace or king comes down on the flop, you may have to throw your hand away at a loose table with many callers, as there are likely to be some aces and kings in your opponents’ hands. If you are heads up against a single opponent, then you will have to make a tough judgment call on this hand. He may have an ace or king or he may not. This is where more advanced poker skills come into play, because you must decide based on who your opponent is and how he plays his hand, if he has you beat.
If all three cards on the flop are suited, or if all three are connected with no more than two gaps total, then some player may already have a flush or straight. If only two cards are suited, or if only two cards are connected or separated by two gaps or fewer, then some player may be on a flush or straight draw.
Here’s an example of how you must read the board, and think about your hand. Let’s say you are in early position with QQ, and the flop comes down KQ6, with two of the cards suited. You have a truly strong hand right now. In fact the only hand that could beat yours at this point is a set of kings if another player called your preflop raise was holding KK. But both the flush and the straight possibilities are dangerous. Any player with two cards in the same suit as the two suited cards on the board would make a flush if another of that suit came down.
The straight possibilities are scary because the KQ are right within the range of cards that so many players play. Any player holding A10 AJ, J10, J9, or 109, could make a straight if a single card came down to complete it. When you’re holding trips, you should fear straights and flushes more than anything else.
So, how do you play your QQ after reading this board?
You make a bet or raise that is at least the size of the pot, and if a bet that size would put more than half of the chips you started this hand with into the pot, then just push all-in. And if this is a multiway pot, meaning you have more than one other player involved in it, then always push all-in. You leave your fear of some player holding KK behind you, since that is the most remote possibility, and you make anyone who is drawing to a straight or flush pay dearly to see the next card. When you make this bet, you’re really hoping that there is a player in the pot with AK or KQ, because this player may very well call your bet, even if you go all-in.
You can’t afford to check your set of queens with this flop, hoping to check-raise any bettor who might have a king in hand, because you may end up giving a free card to your opponents if no player bets. And if the turn card brings a third card to a straight or flush, you can no longer play with the same confident level of aggression.
In fast tournaments, you must bet with aggression when you make a strong hand, and with maximum aggression (all-in) whenever there is serious potential danger on the board.
One other important factor you must bear in mind when reading the board is that any time there is a pair on the board, some player could be holding a full house (or even quads). Also, if a player pushes all-in on you when there is a pair on board and you’re sitting there with a flush or straight, you’ve got a real tough judgment call because he may be holding a full house. This is a situation where you’ve got to look at your opponent, think over the betting on the round, and make your best guess.
It’s very difficult to lay down a set, a straight or a flush, and in fast tournaments especially, it’s usually a mistake. In any case, you must first learn to read the board both for what it means to your own hand and what it might mean to other possible hands at the table.
UNDERSTANDING THE NUTS.
To have the nuts in hold’em means to have hole cards that when combined with the community cards make the best possible poker hand at the moment, a hand that cannot be beaten no matter what hole cards any opponent may have. The concept is most easily explained by example.
Let’s say the flop comes down: Qs8d6d. At this point, what are the nuts? Which two cards in your hand would make the best possible hand with the cards on that board? Let’s use the process of elimination, starting with the best poker hands and working down.
Obviously, both royal and straight flushes are impossible with this flop. And since no pair is on the board, it’s also impossible for any player to have quads or a full house. Also, since only two of the cards on board are suited, no flush is possible.
And with three gaps between the queen and eight, no player could have a straight. This brings us down to the next highest poker hand—three of a kind. Any player holding pocket queens, 8s, or 6s will have flopped a set. The nuts at this point would be the top set—queens.
When a five of spades comes down on the turn, the board looks like this: Qs8d6d5s. What are the nuts at this point?
With this board, you can immediately eliminate all of the premium hands down to straights. Obviously, with no paired cards on board, and no more than two cards to any one suit, quads, full houses, and all flush possibilities are nixed. But that five on the turn does combine with the eight and six to make a possible straight for any player who had either a 97 or 74 in the hole. And the “nut straight,” the hand that is the best possible at this moment, would be the 9-high straight. Those pocket queens may have just gotten sucked out on.
But the river card pairs the board with a five of diamonds. The board now looks like this: Qs8d6d5d5s.That river card changes everything. First of all, any player with a straight is now beaten by a flush if any player has two diamonds in the hole, since there are three diamonds on the table. And any player who has a suited ace of diamonds might believe he has the nuts, but he would be wrong. Since the five paired, a player with pocket queens now has a full house, and it’s the nut full house since no higher full house is possible.
There are also other smaller full house possibilities. You could have a full house with this board if you had hole cards of: 88, 66, Q5, 85, or 65. Woe be to any player with any of those hole cards if an opponent holds pocket queens, because it is nearly impossible to lay down a full house.
And although the queens full of fives may be the nut full house, it’s still not the nuts. Any player holding pocket 5s just made quad fives when that river card came down, and four-of-a-kind beats a full house.
But, unfortunately for any player with pocket 5s who just made quads, he still doesn’t have the stone cold nuts. The real nuts with this board would be either a 97 or 74 of diamonds, because either of those hole cards would combine with the board cards to make a straight flush. And by the way, if a player has the 74 of diamonds, he should know that he doesn’t have to worry that some other player will have the 97 of diamonds for the higher straight flush, because there is only one 7 of diamonds in the deck and he’s got it.
An excellent way to learn how to read the board is to drill yourself on “finding the nuts.” Take out a deck of cards, shuffle it, deal three cards face up onto the table and look for the nuts. After you’ve figured out the highest possible hand, deal a turn card and see if the nuts have changed. Then deal a river card, and once more, find the nuts. Put these five cards back into the deck, and do the exercise again. Take your time to get it right, and repeat until your speed increases and you never miss a straight. Note that unexpected straights are the hands that give most players the most trouble.
If you remember these four rules, you’ll get very quick and accurate at reading the board:
FOUR RULES FOR READING THE BOARD.
1. Unless there is at least one pair on board, it is impossible for any player to have quads or a full house.
2. Unless there are at least three suited cards on board, it is impossible for any player to have a flush.
3. Unless there are at least three cards on board that have two or fewer gaps between them (and a gap is a space between consecutive cards: 97, for example, has one gap), it is impossible for any player to have a straight.
4. If none of the above premium hands are possible, then the nuts would always be a pocket pair that makes a set with the highest card on board.
When you do this exercise, be sure to figure out not only the nuts, but all of thepossible strong hands. At a poker table, you need to know them all because it will help you to figure out if your opponent could actually have the hand that could beat yours. For instance, in the example above, you might deduce that no player in the pot at the river would have the straight flush, because they would not have called a preflop raise with either a 97 or 74 suited. You might also deduce that no player would have the quad 5s, since the two fives on board came down on the turn and river, and any player with pocket 5s would have folded to the raises on the flop.
Reading the board, and thinking about the way the hand has played out, is the primary basis for making your postflop decisions.
BETTING ON THE FLOP.
The way to make money with your cards in no-limit hold’em tournaments is to bet your strong hands aggressively in order to increase the size of the pot for your wins, and throw your weaker hands away so that you give up less money to stronger hands when you lose. Weak players tend to stay in pots—continuing to throw in more money, sometimes all the way to the showdown—far too long. This is not a calling game.
There are times when there is so much money in the pot, and you feel your chance of taking the pot is good enough, that it is correct to slow down your betting, prepared to call to the end in the hope that your hand will hold up. You only have to win a big enough percentage of these big pots to pay for, and profit from, these appropriate calls. But if you find yourself continually calling with marginal hands because the pot is so big, or because you made something, you are playing too many hands and staying in too many pots too long.
Playing Top Pair on the Flop.
Basically, you should bet any premium hand, including top pair with a good kicker, aggressively. That means you should place a bet that is at least half the size of the pot, and more if the board may be providing your opponents with strong drawing opportunities. With three to a flush or straight on board, however, and another player reraising, you must slow down. If all you have is top pair, don’t be averse to throwing it away against aggressive betting.
Almost all hold’em players have flush consciousness. If there is aggressive betting with three to a flush on board, this betting is either coming from a player who has already made the flush, or who has flopped a very strong hand such as a set or two pair, and wants to kill the action before someone draws out on him by making the flush if a fourth card of that suit comes down.
Never fall in love with top pair. The inability to surrender after making a pair of aces costs many poor players—who play far too many aces to start with—a lot of money. With three to a flush on board, or three to a dangerous-looking straight such as 9-10-J— discard your top pair in the face of two aggressive bettors. Against a single opponent, you must make judgment calls based on the player and the precise situation.
Playing Second Pair on the Flop.
If you make second pair, you must be even more cautious. Say you entered the pot with J10 suited on the button, and the flop comes down K-J-7 rainbow. If everyone checks to you, bet. It is unlikely that any player has a king. The only real danger would be a player slowplaying a set. It is possible that a player in front of you entered the pot with QJ, and has your J10 beat, but that player is now being penalized for playing such a hand from early position. He was afraid to bet his jacks because of the king on board, and now—with your bet—he must assume you have a king.
It is possible that he will call your bet on the flop, hoping for his hand to improve, but he cannot play with any aggression at this point. You have both position and first strike aggression over him. If this is a very poor player—and there are a lot of them in fast tournaments—he may call again on the turn, then fold when you bet on the river if his hand doesn’t improve, thinking you had him beat from the start with your kings. Poor players are always afraid of an ace or king on board if they cannot beat aces or kings. A smarter player will often call you down, based on his read on you, as he will realize that you could very well just be playing your position.
There is also the distinct possibility that the caller has your jacks beat with a bad king, possibly a K-3 suited or something, that he’s afraid to bet because of his terrible kicker. In this case, he will probably call you down and take the pot at the showdown if you do not make it too expensive for him. That’s life with players who play crappy cards.
In the above examples, I would view the calls to my bets as weakness, even if I did feel my opponent had me beat with top pair with a poor kicker, or that he had a jack like me, maybe even an A-J, but was afraid of the king. I would not allow these players to continue in the pot after that first call on the flop. When the turn card hits, if they check, I’m all-in.
What if you called a raise from middle position with AQ, and one or more players entered the pot after you? Then the flop comes down K-Q-7. How do you play this hand? This is a tricky situation and how you continue will depend not only on how your opponents play this flop, but who those opponents are. If the early raiser bets half the size of the pot or more, with multiple players to act behind him, fold. He probably has a king and multiway pots are dangerous and can become very expensive if you don’t have a really strong hand. If he checks or significantly underbets the pot—say he bets $250 into a $1,000 pot—and you have only one player to act after you, then you should bet or raise the bet to at least half the size of the pot. I’m assuming here that a bet this size will not severely affect your chip position. This is the only way to find out if the player who has position on you has a king. If he reraises, fold. If he just calls, and the early position player either calls or folds, you get to see one more card. And if you judge your callers to be weak—possibly calling on a straight draw—you should push all-in on the turn if the turn card does not appear to have helped a straight possibility.
If there are multiple players to act after you, betting out with second pair in the face of that king should only be done if you can easily afford to give up the chips if you are reraised. Playing marginal hands aggressively when you are out of position is generally best avoided. With aggressive players acting behind me, I would often just check and fold with this hand. You’ll have lots of less risky opportunities for making money.
Taking Aggressive Shots with Marginal Hands.
These types of aggressive shots taken with marginal hands like second pair when you sense weakness in an opponent almost always pay off. Or at least, they should. If you continually bust out of tournaments on these types of plays, then you are making them too often, or in the wrong situations. These are the kinds of mistakes you’ll want to go over mentally afterward to identify any signs that should have indicated to you that your opponent was stronger than you judged him to be.
Plays like this are way beyond any basic strategy, and you’ll never learn when to make these plays and when not to if you don’t start trying them. This is something you’ll get better at as you develop your player-reading skills. Online players compensate for the lack of visual information by keeping copious notes on their opponents. In the beginning, these will be difficult moves to make, so pick your spots carefully and think of them as experiments. As your successes increase and your failure rate goes down, you will find yourself in possession of two of the most lethal weapons that any poker player can have—confidence in your own judgment, and the courage to act on your gut feelings.
Strong Hands You Can’t Get Away From.
When I say that it’s your cards that get you in trouble in tournaments, and that you’ll usually go out on your good hands, I’m not talking about these all-in shots you take with marginal hands when you believe an opponent is weak. I’m talking about really strong hands that you just can’t get away from. If you flop a set in a fast tournament and an opponent pushes all-in, you really have to call unless you are among the top players in the world when it comes to reading opponents. In many cases he’ll be on a flush or straight draw, or maybe he’ll have flopped two pair, and in most cases you will have the best hand. But it’s calling these all-in bets with really strong hands that will most often knock you out of a tournament, not making the all-in bets.
Some All-In Thoughts.
Your all-in position shots simply won’t get called very often, because you make these bets when you face a weak opponent, and he goes away. Pushing all-in on second pair is really a position shot more than a card shot, and it just about always takes the pot. Don’t be afraid to make these moves. You’ll much more often go out with a hand like pocket aces when the 8-7 suited takes a kamikaze preflop all-in shot from the button and you call from the big blind. He’ll make his flush and you’re gone. That’s the way it goes.
Nothing on the Flop.
What if the flop doesn’t hit you at all? Say you have a small pair in the hole and all overcards come down. Or you have AQ and the flop comes down with midrange cards like 10 8 5. Then you’re not playing your cards, are you? Either you bet to keep the lead if you were the preflop raiser, or you have a position play, or you let it go. With two strong overcards like AQ, I might call a bet of half the size of the pot or less if I had sufficient chips to be able to afford folding if the next card didn’t hit me, but I wouldn’t get seriously involved with these cards on a poor flop like this one. It’s a nice preflop starting hand, but that’s all. Let it go if you face any aggression.
Flopping a Monster.
What if you flop a monster, say, the nut flush, nut straight, or a full house? Is it ever wise to slow play? In my opinion, there’s not much value to slowplaying in afast no-limit tournament unless you have an aggressive bettor you know to be a smart player who is betting at you. Raising, or check-raising, his bet on the flop may cause him to fold and you’ll only have gotten one bet out of him. By calling, he may believe you are on a draw, and he will probably bet at you again with a bigger bet on the turn. Aggressive players also often bet when they are on draws, hoping to take down the pot without hitting the hand they want. Most of the time in a fast tournament, you should bet and raise with every strong hand.
BETTING ON THE TURN.
The deeper you get into the board, the trickier it gets. As each card is dealt, the possibilities for premium hands become greater. Essentially, you do the same thing on the turn that you did on the flop. You consider what the turn card means to your hand, if anything, and what it may have done for opponents’ possible hands. One major difference at this point, however, is that the field may have thinned after the flop, and you will know which players, if any, played with aggression on the flop.
Slowplaying the Turn.
Keep in mind when playing the turn that it is impossible to have four cards on the table, with no pair among them, without the possibility of a straight draw. If there is a possible straight or flush draw, you must play two pair or any set aggressively on the turn. Never give a free card here unless you have the stone cold nuts and truly believe that you will get substantially more action on the river by letting other players make what they may believe to be competitive hands. Sometimes you can be sure that no player has the possible straight draw just because of the way the hand played out. If, for instance, there is a 6 on the flop and a 5 comes down on the turn, you can often be sure that no player would have stayed for the turn card with a 34, 47, 48, 78, or 8-9, because of both the high cards on board and the betting preflop and on the flop.
If you have the nut flush with no pair on board, and a player bets at you on the turn, you know that right now you have that player beat. If other players behind you have yet to act, you may be tempted to take a chance and just call here, hoping that the players behind you will also call, and that one or more will fill a straight on the river, or even make another flush if another of your suit comes down. These players would likely find it hard to lay down their hands on the river if they make the hand they are hoping for. The chance you take, however, is that the board may pair, giving someone with a set or two pair a chance to draw out on you.
As a matter of fact, I would raise here with my nut flush, and it would be a strong raise, at least the size of the pot. Any player who has a set will likely call, as will any player with a smaller flush. The straight and flush draws may go away, but you want to charge any player with two pair or a set as high a price as possible to draw to a full house. And if the board does not pair, then any sets or flushes in play are also likely to call your bet on the river when you know you have the nuts.
Actual Hand Example.
Let me describe an actual hand that shows how slowplaying can backfire. I like this example because I won this hand. I’ve lost so many hands trying to slowplay in tournaments that I now know better. This is what happened to a player who tried slowplaying me late in a tournament.
I was in late position in an unraised pot with six players in for the flop. I had pocket 6s. This is a hand I would almost certainly throw away if I did not flop a set, as the likelihood of overcards to my pair coming down was so great. The flop was 9-3-3.
The players in front of me checked, and there was only one player to act behind me, the player on the button. I bet. This was not a bluff, but a value bet based on my belief that I probably did have the best hand at this point. There was some chance that the player on the button who had yet to act had a 9, or that some player held a 3, but I felt my hand was the best hand at that point, so I would charge the overcards to see the turn.
The player on the button called my bet, as did two of the players who had checked in front of me. I suspected all held overcards.
The turn card was an ace, a card I had really hoped not to see. Both players in front of me checked. I decided to keep the lead here and bet. This was not really a bluff, despite the fact that the ace is a scare card. Unless the player yet to act had an ace, I probably still had the best hand at this point, and I did not want any overcards to get a free card here to try and beat me. My bet would probably be read by those at the table as a declaration that I had an ace. If I had been in an earlier position, I could not have made this bet with three players to act behind me. But with two players already checking, indicating neither had an ace, then the only ace in hand I had to fear was the player on the button. If he had no ace, then I would take the pot right here. If he raised, then my betting was done, and I would give up this pot to anyaction at all.
The button called. The other two players folded. I assumed the button had an ace, but that he did not like his kicker enough to raise me. I would not bet again, and if he bet on the river, I would fold. I knew my 6s were no good. To my delight, however, the river produced a 6, giving me 6s full of 3s. I felt that I probably had the best hand now, and that there was no reason to slowplay. The button player could not possibly fear that 6, so he would at least call my bet with his aces up, or even with a single ace with a bad kicker. There was just too much money in the pot for him to fold now. Because I put him on an ace with a bad kicker, I decided against an all-in bet, as that might scare him out of the pot, and I wanted to get more chips out of him if I could.
I bet about half the size of the pot, and he raised. I considered the possible hands he could beat me with. I did not believe he was slowplaying pocket aces or pocket 9s. The only other hand that could beat me was pocket 3s. I reraised, and he reraised me all-in!
Now, fearing he had either pocket aces or pocket 9s and a bigger full house, I still called. If that’s what he had, he’d have to show it to me.
He showed down an A-9, just two pair, and I took down a huge pot.
What did he do wrong?
First, when the flop came down 9-3-3, he had my 6s beat with his 9s, and he should have raised. He had two pair, including top pair with an ace kicker. He should have raised me to see if I really had a hand or if I was just taking a shot. By calling, he was also taking a chance that an overcard to the 9—any T, J, Q , or K—might come down on the turn and give me a higher pair than his 9s. There was also a possibility that I might have been betting on the flop with a hand like AK or A-Q , in which case he was giving me a card on the turn with another shot at beating his lowly pair. You just don’t try to trap a player when all you have is top pair, and that pair is 9s.
When the ace came down on the turn, he now had aces and 9s—the top two pair—yet, he only called my bet again. He probably did believe I held an ace when I bet, but he also had to believe he had the best hand. Then, on the river—after I’d made my full house!—his aggressive raise and reraise showed that he had not just been playing cautiously by calling my bets, but that he actually had been slowplaying what he believed to be the best hand (and was, until the river!). Unfortunately, he let me stay too long. Had he raised on the turn, I would have folded my 6s in a heartbeat. He’d had two easy opportunities to push me out of that pot.
You make your money in hold’em by betting your strong hands aggressively. Betting builds the pots for your wins, charges players on draws a price to try to draw out on you, and folds players who won’t pay the price. When you have a good hand, you rarely want to give free cards to others. The vast majority of the time, you should save slowplaying for the rare occasions when you have the nuts, and you truly believe that by letting other players make stronger hands you can squeeze more chips out of them. There are times in fast tournaments when it is worth the risk to slowplay with less than the nuts, but not often.
PLAYING THE RIVER.
With five cards on the table, every possibility is now on the board. There will likely be many possible hands that can beat yours. But you can often eliminate many, or even most, of the possible hands that could be in play, simply based on how the betting has gone since the hand began.
After the river card is dealt, look at each player in the pot and evaluate how that card may have helped or hurt him based on what you guessed him to have on the turn. If you had put a player on a flush draw, for example, and the third card to the suit comes down, does he bet? Whether you are involved in the pot or not, follow the action and see if your assessments change.
Any time you feel you have a reasonable chance of winning the pot on the river,
but you are unsure, then check and call any standard bet. If the betting is very aggressive with raising and reraising, in a pot with three or more players in it, I would fold top pair, and maybe two pair, depending on the dangers on the board. In multi-way pots, raises and reraises with four to a straight or flush on board always indicate that these hands have been made. I would usually fold a set only if there are four to a flush or four to a straight on board, though I would definitely call any standard bet with my set, especially against a single opponent. Many of these decisions depend on your chip position and your assessment of your opponents inany given hand.
If I truly believe my hand is the best hand, then I will definitely bet and raise on the river, even if I do not have the nuts. If I can jack up the money in the pot before I take it down, then I will do so. Chips are what this game is about, and you must have the guts to go for more chips if you think you can get them when you really believe you have the best hand.
MORE POSTFLOP THOUGHTS.
Postflop card strategy depends on a combination of math and psychology. For the math end of it, you need to have a firm grasp on the concepts of “outs” and “odds,” and how tournament structures affect these concepts. That’s the next chapter. For the psychology part, I primarily use a method of player profiling that I’ve found to be useful for tough decisions. That’s the chapter after next. Then, after these two chapters, we’ll get to the last element of the rock-paper-scissors strategy—how to play your chips as a weapon in a fast tournaments.