Thinking Ahead

By Andrew Brokos

As readers of this article will surely be aware, poker is a game that rewards forethought and planning ahead. The best decisions take into account not only the current round of betting but also the cards that could come on future streets and the actions that each player could take later in the hand. In fact, the 2+2 strategy forums were in no small part responsible for a shift in the way poker players talk. Instead of saying simply, “I would bet this flop,” or “I would check this turn,” we have developed new terminology for talking about a multi-street plan, as in “I would bet-bet-bet unless a club falls,” or “I would check-call the turn.”

What many players do not fully appreciate, though, is the extent to which planning ahead can inform your ranges for the current decision point. In other words, players will ask, “What is the best plan for this hand?” when they ought to ask, “Given that I will sometimes check-fold, sometimes bluff flop and then check-fold turn, and sometimes bluff by betting flop and shoving turn, with which hands should I execute each plan?”

I argue that the best planning doesn’t just make a plan for a hand, it chooses hands for a plan. This article will examine several examples to illustrate what exactly this means, why this kind of planning is valuable, and how you can integrate it into your game.

Pre-Flop Hand Selection

You probably don’t think about it in exactly this manner, but the way you choose which hands to play pre-flop actually has a lot to do with the planning I have in mind. Most of the times when you enter a pot pre-flop, you probably don’t have a very specific plan for what you will do on the flop, turn, and river. How could you? There are simply too many possibilities to plan for them all.

At best, you might have a vague idea that if you raise Ace-King from first position, then you will bet most flops that connect with your hand as well as select flops that do not. Or if you call a raise with a suited connector on the button, you are probably thinking that you can take the pot away post-flop even on certain boards that do not connect very well with your hand.

This is the sort of planning I have in mind, though most players don’t take it further than pre-flop. When you use reasoning like the above, you are not really making a plan for your specific hand. Rather, you are thinking about the situations you will be in and the things you will want to do after the flop and choosing which cards to play before the flop to best facilitate your post-flop maneuvering.

For example, when you call a pre-flop raise on your button, you probably don’t know how you will try to steal the pot post-flop. Sometimes you will end up bluff-raising the flop, sometimes you will float the flop and try to take it away on the turn, and sometimes you will just give up and not try to bluff at all.

Despite this lack of a specific plan, you presumably know that some hands are better for your purposes than others. You would probably call a raise with 98s on your button before you would with Q3o, because you know that regardless of which bluff you end up attempting, 98s is far more likely to flop a draw and offer you some pot equity to go along with your fold equity. You are thinking ahead to future streets and considering what kind of hand will best serve you in the many different post-flop situations you may encounter.

Deep Stacks

When you and your opponents have larger stacks relative to the blinds, you can expect to encounter different post-flop situations, and consequently your pre-flop hand selection needs to change. In an aggressive game, one good pair is often enough to play for 100 BBs. Thus, players value pre-flop hands like big pocket pairs and Aces with strong kickers that will often flop one strong pair.

Although the best of these hands (KK, AA, AK) remain very strong as stacks get deeper, smaller pairs like JJ and QQ and weaker off-suit Aces like AQo and AJo decline in value. This is because flopping a weak overpair or top pair with a second- or third-best kicker is no longer such a desirable result.

When stacks are 200-300 BBs deep, you usually need more than one pair to play a big pot. Three-of-a-kind, straights, and flushes are the hands that tend to win pots of this size, and consequently you need to tailor your pre-flop strategy to favor cards that have the potential to make hands of this strength. That means that suited Aces with a small kicker are sometimes more valuable than off-suit Aces with a stronger kicker. It also means that, rather than re-raising with a pair like Jacks, it is sometimes preferable to keep the pot smaller pre-flop and try to flop three-of-a-kind.

For example, suppose you are first to act pre-flop at a nine-handed table. If you have 100 BBs or less, you should generally fold A4s and raise AJo. Or, if you are in middle position and the UTG+1 player raises, you should usually re-raise QQ or AKs. These hands are good enough to get all-in pre-flop for 100 BBs or so if necessary.

If both you and most of your opponents have 200 BBs or more, then you will often want to play these hands differently. I would raise A4s in first position before I would raise AJo (though both could easily be folded at some tables). Even when you flop top pair with AJo, you really don’t have a hand that can withstand heavy pressure. You risk both getting bluffed off of the best hand or playing a big pot with very much the worst of it. While flopping a pair with A4s is worth even less, is far easier to make either the nuts or at least a draw to the nuts. When stacks are deep, the nut flush draw can often be played more strongly than can top pair with a modest kicker, and can therefore be more valuable to flop when out of position.

Similarly, QQ and AKs are not always worth a re-raise against an early position raiser. If your opponent isn’t loose and aggressive enough for you to get 200 BBs in profitably pre-flop, you might be better off calling his raise and keeping the pot smaller unless you flop a set or the nut flush draw.

Light Three-Betting

You are playing a $200 stack in a $.50/$1 no-limit hold ’em game. The action folds around to an extremely aggressive player on the button, who has you covered and raises to $3. The small blind folds, and you sigh as you peer down at the cards you’ve been dealt in the big blind, already uncomfortable about the idea of playing out of position against this guy.

One of the best means of combating players who raise aggressively pre-flop is to re-raise, or three-bet, them. Since they are raising a wide range, you can three-bet more hands for value than you would against more passive pre-flop raisers. In addition to obvious hands like AK and big pairs, you should expand your value three-betting range to include AQ, AJ, medium pairs, and sometimes even weaker hands like KQ, KJ, and AT.

Against most aggressive pre-flop raisers, you’ll also sometimes want to three-bet weaker hands as a sort of pre-flop semi-bluff. Suppose you have decided that if this particular opponent raises your big blind, you will re-raise ATs+, AQo+, and 99+ for value. These hands are strong enough to be ahead not only of his opening range but of his range for calling your three-bet.

Presumably, this aggressive opponent is raising so many hands that he will have to fold quite often to your three-bets. Thus, you decide that you can re-raise an additional 8% of your hands that will not be ahead of his calling range but that will play well enough post-flop to show a profit in combination with the fold equity they have pre-flop. In other words, you will re-raise some weaker hands in hopes of either winning the pot pre-flop, flopping a good hand post-flop, or successfully following up on your bluff post-flop.

Again, it is hard to formulate a specific plan for when and how you will bluff after the flop. That does not make your choice of which 8% of hands to three-bet an arbitrary one, though. On the contrary, a fair bit of the value in this play comes from the times that you either flop strong or successfully bluff at the pot post-flop. Thus, you want to choose hands that will serve these purposes well.

What it means to flop strong is primarily a function of stack sizes, so your range for 3-betting light should change based on how deep you and your opponent are. Any top pair is usually enough to get 100 BBs in against an aggressive opponent in a three-bet pot, so hands like KT and QJ are good candidates for light three-bets when you are not too deep. This is particularly true if your opponent will usually four-bet hands like AK and AQ that dominate you, as you will be less likely to flop top pair with a worse kicker.

With deeper stacks, top pair and a marginal kicker is not such a desirable hand, and these high-card hands are no longer such good candidates for a light 3-bet. Small pairs become better candidates when you are 200+ BBs deep, as there will still be a lot of money behind the times that you flop a set.

When you three-bet light, you will also want to bluff a lot of flops that do not give you top pair or a set. For this purpose, it pays to have a hand that will have outs against your opponent’s flop calling range. Suited and connected cards can flop flush and straight draws that will make your post-flop bluffs more profitable. This becomes particularly important when stacks are deeper and you may find yourself firing multiple barrels. Bluffing 200 BBs with a flush draw is a hell of a lot more desirable than doing it with undercards to the overpair your opponent is calling you down with.

Continuation Betting

OK, back to our example. Let’s say you decide to 3-bet to $11 with a range of {99+,55-22,A2s+,KTs+,QTs+,J9s+,T9s,98s,87s,76s,AQo+}. This is about 13% of your hands, comprising big pairs, small pairs, suited Aces, suited broadway hands, the better suited connectors, and the strongest unsuited Aces. Though you don’t have an exact plan for playing post-flop when called, you figure this is a set of hands that should give you a lot of options.

Your opponent calls, and the flop comes Qd 8c 4h. There is now $22.50 in the pot, and $189 left in the effective stacks. How will you proceed on a flop like this?

Your loose and aggressive opponent probably has a pretty wide range for calling you pre-flop, particularly with so much money behind. The good news is that he’ll miss this flop more often than not. The bad news is that he’s tough, some might even say stubborn, and he knows that you’ll miss this flop pretty often, too. That means he’s not going to give up easily and will probably call for value with hands as weak as Ace-high and even float you with some weaker hands to try to take the pot away later.

In other words, despite the dry flop texture, you expect a continuation bet will have a pretty low success rate. You can bet any pair for value/protection, but what about all your hands that miss this flop?

It sounds like a strategy of betting once and giving up is not going to be profitable, so you have two options. You can either give up, put your tail between your legs, and check-fold, or you can plan a multi-street bluff.

The best strategy will probably entail some of both. With some hands you will give up immediately, with others you will bet once and give up, and with others you will bet the flop and the turn to punish your opponent for his wide flop calling range. Now we just have to decide which hands are best for which purpose.

To do that, we need to plan ahead for what kind of hand we will want to have on the turn. Ideally, we will turn a hand strong enough to bet for value. Failing that, we’d like to at least turn a good draw so that we can have some equity when we fire another barrel.

Overcards and gutshot draws are the most likely candidates to turn a strong hand. That means we’ll bluff the flop with JT, T9, 76, KJ, KT, and A9+. Aces with a kicker 7 or smaller are a little too weak, since pairing the kicker still puts us behind too many of our opponent’s possible holdings. Turning a pair of Tens isn’t ideal, but it’s enough to be able to check and call one bet, which can’t really be said of turning a pair of 6’s.

We can also bluff the flop with our back-door draws, planning to follow up with a semi-bluff whenever we turn a stronger draw. That means we’ll bet all of our Aces and connectors that are suited in diamonds, clubs, or hearts.

All in all, this has us betting most but not all of our range on the flop, sometimes for value and sometimes as a bluff. It also has us following up a good portion of the time with a second barrel on the turn, with both value hands and semi-bluffs.

Conclusion

The key here is that even when you don’t have enough information to plan ahead, you can still think ahead. Knowing the situations you will likely end up in later can help you decide which hands to play now. This is logic that many players will understand from their pre-flop decision-making, but it’s important to recognize how it can be extended to later streets as well.

This kind of planning can be done away from the tables and well in advance of any particular hand where it could be useful, but it need not be. It is big picture thinking, but it can and should be done in the context a given hand. Whenever you have decision, the question to ask is not, “What do I want to do with this hand, now and in the future?” It is, “How will I play this one hand in the context of all of the hands that I could have in this spot?” Thinking the situation through in this context will give you a better idea of whether this particular hand will serve you best with a bet or a check, a raise or a fold.

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