Playing for value in poker

Sorry about the lack of blogs lately, I’ve been busy playing poker and doing law school-related things, along with just being somewhat lazy about writing.

Across all forms of poker and at all buyin levels, I see endless betting mistakes. People bet when they should check-call, they raise when they should call, they check-raise when they should check-call, etc. Sometimes it’s tilt that makes them make mistakes. Usually, they aren’t really thinking through the possible outcomes of their options. But most of all, I find that people seriously misunderstand how aggression should be applied in poker.

Now, what do I mean by “playing for value”? It relates back to the fundamental theorem of poker, as outlined by Sklansky: “Every time you play a hand differently than you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; every time you play a hand the same as you would have if you could see all their cards, they lose.” So basically, if you decide to push a river where your opponent CAN’T call with a worse hand, but MAY fold a better hand, then you’ve gained some value there from the latter portion of the equation. In other words, always make sure that whenever you make a play, you are always giving your opponent a chance to make a mistake. If you push in a situation where your opponent can’t call with a worse hand and can’t fold a better hand, then you’re making a huge error by making things easy for your opponent. This may sound simple, but I see this mistake happen all the time across all limits.

The first thing you have to decide when making betting decisions in poker is the showdown value of your hand. There are some times where you’d LOVE to showdown (holding the nuts), some situations where you’re pretty confident you’re best and some situations where you’re on a complete bluff and praying for your opponent to fold. On every board, certain hands have certain values. Your hand value is also affected by your opponents, the action thus far, recent hands (ie, is the table on tilt), etc. As you gain more experience, you’ll gain more knowledge about hand strength in certain situations. For those of you who have played hundreds of thousands of hands, you probably have a really good feel for when the 2nd nuts just isn’t good despite the overall tremendous strength of holding the 2nd nuts on the river in any given hand. So how does this all affect playing for value? I’ll explain my thoughts.

If you’re on a bluff, then there’s ALWAYS value in playing in an aggressive manner. The TV adage you hear often is “he can only win this pot if he bets.” Everyone wants to buy pots, and you certainly have to do this sometimes if you want to be a winning poker player. Just playing great hands won’t get you anywhere against good players. The value in bluffing, of course, comes from getting someone to fold a better hand. That doesn’t mean that it’s the right overall play because it might be a situation where your opponent doesn’t fold often enough to make the bet worth it, but you are always getting some benefit from the possibility of a fold.

In the opposite scenario, let’s say you hold the nuts on the river. Is there value in betting? Of course, your opponent could, possibly, call with a worse hand. Once again, it doesn’t mean it’s the best play if you’re first to act, but you have, potentially, something to gain by betting.

In both situations above, you’re sure of where your hand stands in value to your opponents hand. The tricky situations are hands in the middle ground: TPNK, MPTK, one card J high flush, etc. You could easily have the best hand, but it’s pretty hard to win a big pot with it because your opponent will fold if you try to put too much money in the pot. And these are the hands where I see people make the biggest mistakes.

Example:

This hand happened in the last few days, but I am changing some things about it just to make sure no one knows where it came from (the player who played it asked me to make sure the details were not released).

25/50 NL, 6-max. Folded to the button, who makes a standard raise with KJs. SB folds, the BB makes it three times the button raise with AA, which is a standard re-raise in the game. Both the button and the BB are sitting with 10K, so they’re both deep. The flop is J33. The BB leads out for the pot, which is about 1K, the button calls. Turn J. The BB checks, the button bets about 2K into the 3K pot and the BB shoves his 7.5K into the pot making it 5.5K more to go. The button obviously insta-calls and wins the 20K pot.

The showdown value of AA is almost always high. There’s rarely a hand where I know for sure that AA is not good, although if I don’t improve, I am often uncomfortable playing a big pot against a solid opponent. Anyway, the BB should want to show down AA, even on a double paired board. However, obviously, the check-raise all-in didn’t make any sense because he basically gave away all of the potential value of his hand. Against most opponents, it’s impossible to get called in that spot by a worse hand. In addition, it’s also hard to get an opponent to fold a better hand as no one would fold a J and many people would still call with a 3. And some people say: “Well, the button doesn’t have a hand he can call with most of the time, so it’s okay.” Quitely frankly, that’s just wrong. If you think the button is bluffing, then why not check-call the turn? Then check-call the river. It’s a preferable way to get your money in the pot than check-raising the turn. While you still get stacked fairly often if all of your money ends up in the pot, at the very least your opponent could still be on a bluff when all of the money ends up in the middle. And you really don’t have to worry about draws on a 33JJ board when you have AA.

In retrospect, that hand seems simple and most people will probably laugh at that and say the BB is an idiot. That’s possible. However, I’d bet everyone, including myself, makes serious betting mistakes where we make things very easy on our opponent. Whether it’s raising a river just out of frustration or betting when check-calling is clearly preferable, we lose serious value by not giving our opponents a CHANCE to make a mistake. Pushing with AA there is a horrible investment. Raising a straight on a paired board with a made flush is a bad investment. Betting bottom set into a multi-way pot on the river when two draws got there is a bad investment. Sometimes, we need to let our aggressive nature go and realize the value of the check-call. Do I advocate folding just because a draw got there? No, not at all, as playing scared poker will lead to you playing losing poker. But you also have to realize, there’s often more value in getting to showdown in a different manner than what you may be used to doing.

After writing this, I’ve realized that I’ve attempted to tackle something way more complicated than is fit for a blog entry. I have a lot of thoughts on betting that I haven’t been able to communicate in this entry and there are a lot of points that I never even brought up. However, the bottom line remains: “Think before you act.” Remember, you should always be thinking: “Can he call me with a worse hand? Can I get him to fold a better hand? Will he bluff with a worse hand if I check? If I’m on a complete bluff, what will he fold? Can I get him to fold on later streets if I show strength here and a scare card comes? etc etc.” There are really endless situations where you need to think about the right way to play for value in poker. Just think before you act and always put your opponent on a range and you’ll find that your results will improve vastly.

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