Three No-Limit Hold’em Realities

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Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. An image enters the eye and hits the back of the retina. Almost immediately the brain goes to work trying to fill in the blanks. Was only half of a face in view? Just the back of a head? The brain seamlessly fills in the missing information, creating an image of what the entire person should look like. This process works out well enough to get us through everyday life, but it’s simply not reliable enough to meet a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. Many of the things we “see” never actually existed. They are merely the creative products of an active human brain.

No-limit players can be similarly tricked by their eyes and brains. Any poker writer will tell you to observe your game – that important information is available everywhere if you’re disciplined enough to look for it. It’s true enough. But our brains don’t dispassionately catalog data. Every morsel of information is automatically run through a series of cognitive filters to determine its significance and context. Two players can watch the same game and come to quite different conclusions. They both see the same raw data, but they each make sense of it their own way.

I’d like to offer you three no-limit realities. You can verify them by observing a game and logging events with a pen and paper. They have strategic significance. Yet many players play as if the opposite of these realities were true. I think their brains are tricking them.

Most Pots Never Reach Showdown

Unless you play in a crazy, loose game, most pots won’t reach the showdown. In many games far more than half the pots are won without showdown. Often the turn is the critical round: A good-sized turn bet will win a lot of pots. What’s the significance?

You can clean up betting the flop and turn. You don’t need a hand. You don’t even need a draw. You just need to bet. Sometimes one bet will do. Sometimes you’ll need two. They can’t be wimpy $20 bets into $200 pots. You have to put some oomph into it. But it works in nearly every no-limit game.

I can’t say how many times I’ve watched no-limit hands where the players all checked it down. Everyone shrugs, shows their junk, and someone gets the pot. Pots like these are freely available to anyone willing to bet.

But most players don’t think this way. They just try to make a hand. If they miss the flop, they give up on the pot. They adopt this passive “make a hand” mindset because aggressive play has burned them in the past. Once they tried bluffing the flop and turn only to run into someone who decided to slowplay a big hand. “Not doing that again,” they think.

No-limit rewards the persistently aggressive. You can verify that fact by watching a game and writing down when each pot is won. Aggression doesn’t work every time. And if you try it every pot you’ll land yourself in hot water. But betting the flop and turn, when tried judiciously, will make you a lot of money.

Check-raise Bluffs Are Rare

On the turn and river, players don’t check-raise very often. Check-raise bluffs are even rarer. You can easily watch a game for hours and never once see someone check-raise the turn or river as a bluff. What’s the significance?

You can profitably bet the turn and river for value with a wide range of hands. Making these bets is critical to no-limit success. It’s where the real money is made. After all, preflop and flop bet sizes are usually just a small fraction of those on the turn and river.

But many players would rather just see a showdown with decent hands like two pair than try to make more money. If you watch them play, you can tell they know that their good hands will probably win. They’re just terrified of getting raised or check-raised. So they take the “safe” route and check it down.

The fact is, however, they’re scaring themselves out of a lot of profit. When they bet, typically they’ll get called by a weaker hand and win a big pot. Sometimes they’ll get raised, but usually that raise will come from a strong hand made on the river like a straight or flush. These pots they lose no matter what they do. And every once in a while, on a rare occasion, they’ll get check-raise bluffed off the best hand.

The consistent extra profit from successful value betting is more than worth the occasional catastrophic loss. Check-raise bluffs are rare, so don’t let your brain trick you into fearing them. Bet your good hands.

Pocket Aces Usually Win

I’ve seen hand databases from players who have played more than a million online no-limit hands. Over the tens of thousands of times these players have been dealt pocket aces, they have won more than 80 percent of the time. More than 80 percent! The fact is, pocket aces usually win.

Sure, if you play in a loose game where three or four players routinely try to crack your aces, you won’t win quite that often. But even in these games pocket aces win more than half the time. And when they win, they win huge pots.

Many players treat pocket aces like they’re cursed. They won’t raise them preflop. They’ll make a small bet like $30 into a $120 pot on the flop. They’ll happily check down the turn and river. Then they’ll breathe a sigh of relief when they drag the pot. Don’t play like this!

Pocket aces usually win. Play them that way. Raise them preflop. Bet them confidently on the flop. Most of the time they’ll win you a nice pot. Sure you’ll occasionally endure a heart-breaking loss. But don’t let your brain trick you into thinking a big loss is the expected outcome. The reality is that every time you get dealt pocket aces, it’s like money in the bank. Play them that way.

[This article appeared originally in Card Player Vol. 22, No. 10.]