Float On

by Andrew Brokos

At least as I employ it, the term float in poker refers to something like a bluff-call. You call a bet or raise, not because you think you have the equity to warrant a call, but at least in part because you think calling now will sometimes enable you to steal the pot on a later street.

Floating is a valuable tool to have in your poker arsenal for a variety of reasons. First, it is often cheaper than bluff-raising. Suppose that when your opponent bets, you think there is a 30% chance that he has a hand strong enough to continue and a 70% chance that his hand is too weak to stand a raise. If you raise his bet, you will win the pot 70% of the time and lose the amount of your bluff 30% of the time. As long as you choose an appropriate raise size, that’s a very profitable proposition for you.

If your opponent will play predictably on the turn, though, and many will, then it may be even more profitable just to call his bet and see what he does on the turn. The 70% of the time that he does not have anything, he will check, and you can now wager the same amount that you would have with a raise, or maybe even a little less, but steal the pot 100% of the time. The 30% of the time that he does have a hand, he’ll bet again and you can fold, saving yourself the amount that a bluff-raise would have cost you.

Of course this is an over-simplification. It assumes that your opponent’s turn behavior will be completely robotic and ignores the possibility that the turn card will improve his hand. Then again, it also ignores the possibility that the turn card could improve your hand- if you have outs to the best hand, then a float gets that much more profitable!

Poker can also help you add deception to your game. If your opponents know that you are capable of floating the flop, then they will have to expand their own ranges for betting, calling, and check-raising the turn. This will enable you to win more money in pots where you just call the flop with a big hand.

Finally, floating will help to protect you from bluffs. When you call a pre-flop raise, for instance, you will probably only get a good flop for your hand 30-40% of the time. If you always fold the bad flops, then you will lose a lot of money to the very standard continuation bet bluff, where the pre-flop raiser automatically bets at the flop whether it helps him or not. However, if you are calling a flop bet not only with the 30% of hands that connect with that flop but also another 20% of the time as a float, you will lose a lot less to the continuation bet.

Picking Your Spots
There are a variety of factors to consider when deciding whether and when to attempt a float:

Position- Floating out of position is very dangerous. It can be difficult to represent a hand when you call one street and then take the betting lead on the next, but the alternative is to give your opponent the opportunity to take a free card or showdown. Plus, when you do bluff, it will be far harder for your opponent to continue from out of position.

Opponent’s range- As with any bluff, the most important factor with a float is picking a spot where a significant portion of your opponent’s range is too weak to put a lot more money into the pot. For example, if you are contemplating floating a flop bet in an online game, then you would want to look at your opponent’s Flop Continuation Bet statistic.

Opponent’s range for getting to this street- The wider an opponent’s range is on the previous street, the more likely he is to bluff the current street. In other words, an online player with a high Pre-Flop Raise statistic will usually have a weaker range when continuation betting the flop than will a player who is more tight and passive pre-flop.

Equity and implied odds- As a matter of semantics, I would say that if you are calling with the right odds to chase a draw, then you aren’t floating; you’re just drawing. However, having as little as a gutshot or an overcard to the board can make your float a lot more profitable. Not only will you sometimes win the pot at showdown, but you’ll probably win another bet or two as well because your hand will be well-concealed when you do make it. You’re still looking to get most of your value from bluffing at a future opportunity, but you’ll supplement that value with the occasional made hand.

Leverage- Leverage refers to your ability to threaten your opponent’s stack on future streets. Generally, a bet is more threatening when there is more money behind in the effective stacks and more bettering streets to come. Your opponent must fear that even if he calls now, he may face another big bet on the next street. Thus, floating the flop and bluffing the turn will usually be more effective than floating the turn and bluffing the river.

Risk of a double barrel- Floating does incur some risks that bluff-raising does not. By permitting your opponent to see another card, you may inadvertently allow him to improve his hand. You also give him the opportunity to fire a second bluff with a hand that would have folded to a raise (3-bet bluffing is usually far more expensive and harder to pull off than double-barreling). Opponents who tend to fire multiple barrels are tougher to float, though there are ways to use their aggression against them. For instance, you can count on better implied odds if you do hit your hand, and you can float with backdoor draws planning to shove over a second barrel if you turn your draw.

Your range- What legitimate hands would you call with in this spot? You need to be able to represent a credible hand when you do bluff, and the more strong hands there are in your range, the harder it will be for your opponent to bluff you with a second barrel. Plus, floating in spots where you also call a lot of strong hands will help you get more value from the strong hands.

Example
You are playing an online 6-max NLHE game with $2/$4 blinds and $400 effective stacks. On the button, you are dealt T [club] 9 [club]. The player to your right raises to $12, you call, and the blinds fold. From what you’ve seen, your opponent is a good player but fundamentally tight and aggressive. He’s capable of making moves but isn’t too difficult to outmaneuver.

The flop comes 8d 6h 2s. Your opponent bets $20 into a $30 pot. Looking at his statistics, you see that he raises 18% of his hands pre-flop, but probably a lot more than that from late position. More importantly, he makes a continuation bet 85% of the time that he is the pre-flop raiser. It seems like he’ll be bluffing quite a lot in this situation.

You could just raise him now, but you decide to float instead with a gutshot and two overcards (to the board, that is- if your opponent has a big pair, then of course turning a pair would not be an out for you and would in fact cost you money). From what you’ve seen, your opponent saves most of his aggression for pre-flop and flop betting. On the big money streets, he usually has a hand if he is putting money into the pot. It helps that there is no flush draw on this board, as there are very few ways for him to put you on a draw when you call the flop.

Instead of inventing a turn card and some action to go along with it, I’m going to consider several possible turn scenarios. We’ll start with what happens if your opponent bets again. If the turn is not a 7, 9, T, or J, you are going to fold. That was the plan- call the flop to find out cheaply whether he has a hand or not. If he bets again, he usually has the goods, so you’ll fold.

If you turn the nuts, you can call or raise. Your opponent is telling you he has something, so you just have to decide how best to extract value from him.

If you turn a pair, though, you need to proceed with caution. Remember, that second barrel usually means your opponent has a hand. You’ve still got just top pair with a mediocre kicker, so you aren’t looking to play a big pot. Just call, planning to fold to a third barrel on most rivers and either check it back or value bet if your opponent checks the river.

If you turn an open-ended straight draw, you’ve got a decision to make. You could try to semi-bluff raise and commit your stack, but that’s a risky proposition given your read on this opponent. The better option is probably to consider your immediate and implied odds and either call or fold.

When your opponent checks, you’ll usually stick with the plan and bluff at the turn. You may want to proceed differently when the turn improves your hand, though.

If you turn the nuts, consider slowplaying. Your read is that your opponent usually doesn’t have anything when he checks the turn. Checking will give him a chance to bluff or catch a pair on the river and pay your off. Bear in mind, though, that the river could also put four to a straight on the board, making it even harder for worse hands to pay you off and maybe even giving your opponent a better hand than yours. You actually don’t need to worry as much about the board pairing on the river. If your opponent had two pair or trips on the turn, your read was that he probably would have bet, so a full house shouldn’t be a major concern.

When you turn a pair, you should still probably bet. Worse hands may call you, but regardless, there is a lot of value in taking the pot now. Any card that pairs you will also make the board fairly coordinated, meaning that any random garbage your opponent is holding could turn into a one-card straight on the river. Plus, it doesn’t sound like this opponent is going to bluff very often on the river, so you aren’t missing out on the opportunity to induce a bluff by checking.

If you bet with your pair and your opponent raises, you need to fold. He could be semi-bluffing, but it doesn’t seem like he’s the type to do that too often, and your equity is just too poor to continue.

When the turn brings a J, you should still bluff. You will river the nuts less than one time in four, so there is still a lot of value in winning the pot now. Even when you do make the nuts, it seems that your opponent won’t often have a hand to pay you off. You do risk getting check-raised off of your draw, but again, it doesn’t sound like your opponent will do that very often. Mostly you will just win a good-sized pot with 9-high, and that’s never anything to complain about.

Originally published in Two Plus Two Magazine.

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