How much would you pay for a program that allowed you to see your opponents’ hole cards? Wouldn’t it be even better if you had a program that gave your opponents whatever hole cards you wanted them to have? And if you had such a program, you wouldn’t just give them all garbage so that you could steal their blinds; you would want to give them second best hands and then value bet them to death. In other words, you would want to create situations where your opponents held slightly worse hands than yours, because these are the most profitable situations in poker.
Well here’s the thing: you already have this ability. To some extent, you are in control of the cards that your opponents hold. Whenever an opponent enters the pot, he is doing so with some range of hands that is determined by the action in front of him, his position, his stack size, table conditions, his mood, etc. As the hand progresses, however, you will have the ability to narrow his range depending on the line that you take. Unfortunately, you can’t make him throw away the nuts, and in general it will be hard to get him to pitch any of the hands at the top of his range. This is why you should play your big hands fast most of the time: there is little danger of shaking Villain off of a big but slightly worse hand, which means that you are primed to win a large pot. Conversely, playing a medium strength hand too fast is generally bad because it allows Villain to throw away everything you beat and take your money when he’s got you beat.
Different games have different types of profitable situations, some more obvious than others. In NLHE, there is set over set, set vs. overpair, set vs. top pair, overpair vs. top pair, etc. In Omaha, there is the nuts with redraws vs. the nuts without redraws. In O/8, there is the nut high vs. two opponents going low, the nut low with a flush draw vs. the nut low, etc. In 5 card stud, there is a concealed pair that allows you to beat the open pair your opponent is showing.
The important thing is that a profitable situation is more than having a good hand; it is having a good hand while your opponent has a slightly less good one that he nevertheless has reason to think is best. Ideally, you would want his hand to be exactly one ranking below yours (ie K-high flush when you hold the A-high flush), so that you can apply maximum pressure.
Obviously, there are many other types of profitable situations, such as those where you can bluff Villain off of the best hand a large amount of the time, but right now, I’m concerned only with those where you are trying to get maximum value at showdown.
To cash game regulars, a lot of this may seem obvious, because cash game play is all about creating profitable situations. In tournaments, especially at the lowest buy-ins, you can usually study some starting hand guidelines, memorize a push-bot chart, and get by alright, because a lot of your profit will come from players who fail to adapt to tournament-specific bubble or short-stack situations. But there is a lot more money to be made if you know how to get full value out of your hands and not just how to play an unexploitable short stack game.
Fundamentally, good players make money at poker because they know how to recognize and/or create profitable situations. They win the most from second best hands because they know how to keep those hands in the pot and win bets from them.
Creating Profitable Situations
Whenever I have a made hand (ie one that could potentially win unimproved at showdown), I consider my opponents’ possible holdings, and then I categorize them into hands I want him to have (because he can/will pay me off), hands I don’t want him to have (hands with a lot of outs that won’t pay me off unless they catch; hands that are already beating me) and hands that don’t matter (those that missed the board completely and are now hopeless; those so good that he will never get away from them, and that I will have to pay off).
The key to making the most of profitable situations is thinking about the hands that are most likely to pay you off and how they will respond to a bet, check, or raise at any given time. In other words, you shouldn’t be betting just because you have a decent hand and there is a flush draw on the board. Your move should have a very deliberate purpose: “I am betting because I expect the following hands to call and the following hands to fold.” Or, “I am checking because if I bet, Villain will fold the following hands that could pay me off later.”
In order to create a profitable situation, you need to take a line that will allow you to win the most from the hands you are beating. If your hand is big enough that it can beat a lot of other hands that Villain may mistakenly think are best (ie I have 77 or AJ on an 7JA flop), you can just bet out. If it’s checked around to you with A5, I recommend checking it through simply because no reasonable opponent is going to make a mistake against you on that board. Checking behind creates a situation where Villain may take a stab with a worse hand, or may be more inclined to check/call middle pair on the next street, as a bet will look more like a steal.
In the first situation, you hand is already disguised, so you can go ahead and play it fast, because Villain is likely to come along with a hand like top pair. In the second, your hand is slightly worse than the one you are representing by betting the flop. It’s not bad enough that you need to bluff, but it is not good enough to bet for value. The only reason to bet (though this is often a sufficient reason) is that the pot is large enough already and/or the board is draw-heavy enough that you want to win it right now, or that you opponent may make the mistake of drawing with bad odds.
There are three key principles at work here:
1. On balance, the more money an opponent puts into the pot, the better his hand is likely to be at that time; however,
2. The larger the pot, the less good an opponent’s hand is likely to be at all future decision points.
3. Betting or raising ranges tend to be wider than calling ranges.
In other words, many players will put 3-4 BB’s in the pot with a wide variety of hands when stacks are deep. Once 12-15 BB’s per player go in pre-flop, many people’s ranges narrow considerably (though it matters how the money goes in). However, once the flop comes out, a player who would check-fold a whiffed AK in a 12 BB pot might semi-bluff all-in at a 40 BB pot. Certainly, he is more likely to semi-bluff push than to call an all in.
Variance and Profitable Situations
Often, you will have a choice about what kind of profitable situation you would like to create. For instance, on the first hand of a NLHE tournament, you are dealt 99 UTG. You could play this fast, hoping to get value from lower pocket pairs or top pair on a rag board or win it with a continuation bet on the flop against overcards. Or, you could limp in, trying to flop a set and win a big pot against two pair or top pair.
In the former case, you’ll win a smaller pot a lot more often, you’ll occasionally win a huge pot when you make a set versus top pair, but you’ll occasionally lose a large pot against a better pair or get bluffed off of the best hand.
When you limp, you let a lot of worse hands outflop you. You might even fold the best hand on the flop to a semi-bluff. When you make your set, it will be harder to win a huge pot, because players are less likely to fall in love with top pair in a limped, multiway pot. However, you rarely lose a big pot, and with more players seeing the flop with you, it is more likely that someone will make something to pay you off.
Raising 99 UTG and limping 99 UTG are both profitable situations, the central difference between them being variance: how often do you want to win/lose the pot and what size pot do you want to play? In my opinion it varies a lot based on the stage of the tournament you are in, but my purpose here isn’t to debate which line to choose. The point is that however you choose to play it, you need to think about what kinds of hands you want your opponent to have and how to win the most when he has them.
I am also suggesting that sometimes it is correct to pass on small edges in order to set a trap and possibly create a profitable (sometimes very profitable) situation down the road. You are undoubtedly giving up some value by limping 9’s UTG, because you are not charging worse hands for the chance to outflop you. However, it is much harder to have a profitable situation after the flop holding 99 out of position in a heads up pot than it is to have one in a multi-way limped pot.
A very similar situation occurs when you limp A:spade:5:spade: behind a couple of limpers on your button, and the flop comes A:diamond:8:heart:9:heart:. If you bet here, the best case scenario is that someone correctly folds their draw and you win a small pot. Someone may “make a mistake” calling a 2/3 pot bet on a draw, except that you are going to have check the turn, giving Villain a free look at the river and turning his call into a good one. A bare 8 or 9 will almost certainly fold, and better Aces will call. Granted, you give up some value by giving someone with middle pair a free chance to catch five outs on the turn, but hopefully this will be compensated for by winning a turn and/or river bet from an unimproved middle pair. If the turn is a scary one like T :heart:, then you can get out cheaply, with little harm done. Once again, this line enables you to lower your variance by trading one profitable situation (top pair on a draw-heavy board) for another (a somewhat disguised top pair).
Using Your Reads
Setting up a profitable situation requires estimating an opponent’s range and how he will play various hands within that range. The more you know about an opponent, the more inclined you should be to play pots against him, especially when you are in position. In particular, you should focus on the mistakes different players at your table, especially those to your immediate right and those in the blinds when your are in late position, tend to make. Do they overvalue top pair? Stack off with weak overpairs? Never giver credit when a draw hits? Give up too easily when scare cards hit?
Remember how we agreed that you would pay quite a bit of money for a program that allowed you see your opponent’s hole cards? Well, you should be willing to take some risks anytime you feel you can put Villain on a very narrow range. As long as stacks are deep, make some speculative calls pre-flop with suited connectors, small pairs, etc. You can do the same on the flop with a gut shot, middle pair, etc. if you know that a lot of cards will allow you to take the pot away later or that Villain will pay off big when you hit.
Similarly, if you are confident you are ahead AND you have a very good idea of what Villain has, you should be less inclined to end the hand, even if you are out of position. Building a pot is good when you know about what your opponent has, but fold equity is worth very little.
Reverse Implied Odds
It’s the first hand of a NLHE tournament. You have AA UTG. Villain has 22 on the button. Who’s in a profitable situation? Villain is. You are never going to win a big pot unless you make set over set, but you will lose a big pot virtually every time he makes his set.
This seems obvious, but it’s an important thing to think about when you have a big hand. Just because you have the nuts doesn’t mean you want any and all action. You want to play big pots against second best hands, not against speculative hands that will either lose small pots or win big ones. I see so many players making tiny raises and re-raises with their rockets, seemingly giving little or no thought to what kinds of hands they want in the pot and what kinds they don’t. Conveniently enough, the kinds of hands that will pay you off big on the right flop are also the sort that can take a fair amount of action pre-flop: other big pairs and broadway hands that can make top pair good kicker.
Thus, your primary consideration should be building a big pot against second best hands, not trying to string along speculative hands that will only play a big pot against you when they outdraw you. In other words, there’s more to creating a profitable situation than getting dealt a pair of bullets.