I posted this a few weeks ago but accidentally backdated it to appear as though it were posted on January 1. I think that as a result a lot of people never saw it. Apologies to those for whom it is old hat, and thanks to Matt Glassman for bringing this to my attention.
Q: I came across an article you wrote for Card Player [that would be Holding Your Own] and I was discussing it with a poker friend of mine. We are both confused. Here is the paragraph:
A common fear when seated with a world-class player is that he’ll make some huge bet on a scary river and you’ll have no idea what to do with your pair of aces.
That’s a reasonable fear, and the best way to approach the situation, rather than trying to get inside of your opponent’s head, is to think about your own range. Not what it looks like, but what it actually is. What other hands would you have played the same way on earlier streets? If you can think of a lot of stronger hands you could hold, and especially if that scary card could easily have helped you, then fold. If you would rarely or never play a stronger hand than the one you have in the way that you did, then you should call no matter how weak your hand is in an absolute sense.
Could you give an example or two to demonstrate your point? If I could think of stronger hands that I could hold why would I want to fold. Is it because our opponent would also figure we might be playing that hand and because he has made a big river bet we have to figure we are beat?
A: Your guess is more or less correct. If you don’t know whether your opponent is bluffing, then you want to play in a way such that you won’t make a big mistake either way. That means folding some hands and not folding others. Unless you are trying to take advantage of a particular opponent whom you believe will bluff too often or too rarely (in which case you’d either fold rarely or often, respectively), then you need a set of hands you will fold to a given bet or raise and a set of hands you won’t.
Generally, the weaker a hand is, the better it is for folding. So, if you can think of a lot of better hands you could, then the hand you actually have is relatively weak and you can probably fold it. For example:
Vanessa Selbst raises in early position. You re-raise with a pair of Queens on the button. Everyone else folds, and she calls. Let’s suppose you would make this play with AKo, AKs, JJ, QQ, KK, or AA. I’m not saying that’s what your range should be, but just for the sake of argument, we’ll say that’s what it is.
By the way, you should be conscious of this when playing against a really good player. In other words, you should think not just about the hand you currently have but about other hands with which you would make the same play. This is helpful information that should guide not only big decisions like whether to call a river shove but even simple things like whether to bet a given flop.
Anyway, in our example, the flop comes Ks 8s 3c. Vanessa checks, you bet, and she check-raises.
You have no idea what to make of that. Vanessa is presumably a much better player than you are, so trying to figure out that she’s either definitely bluffing or definitely not bluffing is a mistake. That’s what it means for her to be a better player: she isn’t that easy to figure out.
Instead, you should pick some hands to fold and some hands to either call or raise, and then see where QQ belongs. Recognize that QQ is one of the worst hands you could have here. It’s not quite as bad as JJ, but it’s nearly as bad – in fact it’s practically the same hand. You could easily have AA, AK, or even a set, so as long as you don’t fold all of those, you won’t be badly exploited if she is bluffing. Basically, if it turns out that she is bluffing, then she just got lucky to run into the bottom of your range. And if she isn’t bluffing, then you got lucky to be holding the bottom of your range when she flopped a set.
What you’ve done, then, is reduced the situation to a coin flip: sometimes you get lucky and either pick off a bluff with the top of your range or fold to a monster with the bottom of your range, other times she gets lucky and stacks the (near-top) of your range with a flopped set or bluffs you off of the bottom of your range. Reducing it all to luck might not sound like an accomplishment, but when you’re up against someone who is far better than you, you’d much rather be playing a game of luck than a game of skill in which you are at a decided disadvantage.
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