By Nick Eisel
Any good poker player knows that there is no such thing as "always" in our game.
One of the many reasons the game is so strategically lucrative is that every hand is unique and every decision has to be weighed against a wide array of factors. This month I want to take a very advanced look at putting a strong opponent on a range of hands and then see how this range of hands changes the "standard" play of a hand into a play that certainly has negative expectation. So, consider yourself warned this article is not for the beginning poker player or even for someone who has just recently switched over to No-Limit Hold'em cash games.
The hand in question happened the other day during one of my usual 12 tabling sessions on PokerStars. The game is $1/$2 No Limit Holdem (9 players) with everyone at the table having around $200 in front of them. Everyone folded to me in the small blind and I was holding 4c 4d. My opponent in the big blind is a very solid thinking player.
I decided to make my usual play in this spot and raise to $6. Whether or not this is the best play against a strong opponent is the topic of another article, but suffice to say that this guy is smart enough that I'm not going to win a big pot off of him if we don't start building it early. There is also a large likelihood of him either folding pre-flop, or calling and folding to the continuation bet I will make on most boards. Since pocket fours doesn't rate to improve that often, the best way to make money with the hand is to be aggressive in a heads up situation.
My opponent surprised me by re-raising to $21 rather quickly and now it's $15 for me to call. Normally I avoid situations like this with a small pair heads-up and out of position, but in this case I decided that it would be hard for my opponent to give up AA, KK, or QQ if he had one of those hands and flopped an over-pair and I flopped a set. I guess the point I'm getting at here is that I felt there was enough implied value in calling here even against a tough opponent and while out of position. Over-pairs or top pair good kicker hold more weight in a blind battle than they would normally.
The flop came Ac Tc Ts and there was $42 in the pot.
Nothing special here, if he had AK or AQ he just got there and I have absolutely no way to ever know where I'm at in this hand without first investing a lot of money. I check with the intention of folding and my opponent checks it back.
The turn came the beautiful 4h giving me a full house.
What to do?
There are a number of lines I can take here to make some money on the hand, but I chose to check and let my opponent bet a weaker hand and then confront him with a raise. After all, he could've checked something like AK on the flop trying to trap me or maybe he'd decide I was bluffing and pay me off. Another option was to check call the turn and then bet out on the river which may induce a call from something like KK, QQ, or JJ that wants to get a showdown on this board.
I checked and my opponent bet $20. I decided to check-raise to $56 and hopefully keep him in the hand. He called relatively quickly.
The river was an interesting card, the Qc. There was $154 in the pot so I decided to bet $72 which I felt he would probably call with AK or AQ.
Before I knew it, my opponent had pushed all in, I had called, and my hand had gone to the muck as I saw the bad news that he was holding AA and had flopped the top full house. Bad beat, right? Hang on a second.
The tendency of most players at this point would be to curse their bad luck or possibly go on tilt. I try to be more rational about things and something bothered me right away after that hand that I couldn't explain. The rest of the session ended without incident, and I couldn't stop thinking that maybe I'd done something wrong in this hand and could've saved some money. I showed a few friends the hand history and both of them asked me what my problem was as it's not like I can ever get away from that big of a hand. After spending some more time thinking about the hand, I believe I could've played it much better than I did and I'm going to explain why. Let's take it one street at a time.
Okay, so I raise in and my opponent re-raises. If he had just flat called preflop he could literally have anything and I wouldn't really be able to narrow his range any just yet. Since he re-raised however, I know he has a pretty strong hand since I also know that this opponent respects my play and plays against me on a pretty regular basis. I'd say loosely that his range here is pairs from AA down to 99, AK, and AQ and sometimes complete air, but rarely.
Since I was playing 11 other tables at the same time I was involved in this hand, the flop action didn't mean as much to me as it should have if this hand occurred in a casino or if I just hadn't opened up any other games yet.
The fact that my opponent checked behind me on the flop is a huge deal in terms of narrowing his range down. The more I thought about this hand afterwards, the more I realized that this opponent would only rarely check behind on the flop with AK or AQ in this spot. He knows that I'm going to fold to a lot of continuation bets here and he is smart enough to mix in actual hands for value along with his bluffs. I'm also pretty sure that he wouldn't consider top pair a slow-playing hand on this board with Broadway possibilities and a flush draw. So since he checked I think we can eliminate a large percentage of AK and AQ type hands. Obviously you can't entirely remove them from your analysis since he could be varying his game or check it back for any other number of reasons, but I'd say it's very unlikely he has just AK or AQ after the flop check.
The hands that fit this flop action would be KK-JJ since he'd be looking to get to a cheap showdown and wouldn't want to expose himself to a check-raise bluff here in a big re-raised pot where he couldn't possibly call. By checking with those hands he can then call the turn and make a decision on the river if I bet again.
Other hands that would check the flop are AA and TT since they would be plenty strong enough to slow-play.
As I said in my preflop analysis, I don't think he would re-raise me with KQs, KJs, or QJs (again I could be wrong), so we don't have to worry too much about him taking a free card here with a club draw.
Also; 99 is a hand I'm pretty sure he bets the flop with as he doesn't want to get to a showdown and his hand has literally no value if I bet on a future street so he would want to take a stab here and give up if he got any heat.
Getting inside of your opponent's head and figuring out how he would play each of these hands is really what separates the good players from the great ones and I clearly was not on top of my game during this hand.
Okay, so now I've got my full house and have to figure out what to do with it. If I'd been doing the full hand analysis all along this would be an easy decision for me but I wasn't in the zone on this particular day and was almost on auto pilot and probably shouldn't have been 12 tabling. There are a few courses of action that can be okay considering his potential range here. If I check now he will check back with KK-JJ and probably bet AA and TT trying to get value. He may also bet KK trying to get me to check the end as well. I could also lead out here but then I'd be in a real conundrum when he raised me as he couldn't really have a hand that I could beat if I was totally in sync with his range like I am now looking at the hand in retrospect.
At any rate, I like a check and call here with the intention of probably leading out on the river and folding to a big raise. Kinda crazy, I know, but if you think about the big picture it's almost impossible for him to take this type of a line as a bluff.
This was probably the most important street in the hand and I played it terribly because I didn't fully understand what his flop check meant in the heat of battle. A check-raise really doesn't do anything for me except fold out worse hands and make me pay the maximum when I'm beaten.
Since I check-raised the turn it's pretty hard to not get all in here on the river. Taking an alternate line like check calling the turn clearly would've been a better option. Since I did check-raise the turn, I should probably check this river and call a moderate bet and fold to an all in.
As you can see, it's easy to become blinded at the table and look at your hand simply based on what it is instead of looking at it in terms of how it fares against your opponent's potential range in a given situation. Being on auto-pilot caused me to overplay my full house here to the tune of probably $80-$100 depending on what my opponent did. Most of the time when you have a full house you should be looking to get all of the money in the middle but there are always exceptions like this hand. If you can consistently identify these and take your foot off of the gas pedal when they arise, it will benefit you quite a bit in the long run.
Remember, I'm not advising that you start laying down monsters like this or becoming passive with them, but knowing your opponent and what hands he is likely to hold in a given spot should give you enough of an edge to take the proper action with your hand.
Good luck at the tables.