Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Protecting Poker Hands on the Turn

An earlier post offered some suggestions on playing a vulnerable poker hand, like top pair, on the flop. What about protecting it on the turn?

In other words this card has not completed any obvious flush or straight and you reckon still to be ahead. Standard wisdom has it that a bet of half the pot here will price any opponent out of the hand but implied odds suggest this is not so.

To keep the maths relatively simple, suppose there had been 4 big blinds (BB) in the pot on the flop and one opponent remained. This seems like a pretty average scenario. Now, on the turn, there are 12 BBs: the original pot; your bet; and the opponent’s call. If you bet half of this (6BB) and your opponent calls again, the pot will have 24BB on the river.

Then, disaster. The river card hits: it seems to complete a flush or an obvious straight. Your opponent bets to represent this. Do you call or fold? It depends on how much he bets.

Assume that he was drawing to a flush and so had a 4-1 chance of completing on the river. Four times out of five he will lose his turn bet of 6BB for a net deficit of 24BB. The fifth time needs to more than compensate for this. It’s not hard: 18BB already come from the pot and your bet on the turn. Your opponent only needs 6 more to break even. This is a quarter of the pot at the river.

If he bets this or less, you should call. He’ll never make any money that way, which implies that you'll never lose any. In fact, you'll come out ahead by occasionally calling pure bluffs or hands where the bettor genuinely thinks he is ahead but you have him beat.

Unfortunately the river bet is rarely this small. You then have to apply a sliding scale to decide whether to call or not. The bigger the bet, the less inclined you should be and the better hand you will need. It gets a little complicated.

Matters are so much simpler if you bet around the pot on the turn. Yes, we've gone back there with 12BB in the pot. You bet around 12 yourself and your opponent calls. This makes 36BB at the river, when the same disaster strikes. But now your opponent needs to make 48BB to justify losing 12BB four times. 24BB come from the pot and your bet at the turn, so he needs to get another 24BB.

This is a much bigger gamble on the river, fully 2/3 of the pot. Now you can call any bet smaller than this and come out ahead. In fact, again taking bluffs and misjudgements into account, you could probably call near pot-size bets most of the time.

If your opponent were drawing to an open-ended straight, at slightly better than 5-1 odds, he would need nearly 60BB, which is a pot-sized bet. And with any kind of hand (say you’d improved to two pair or a set) you could probably call any bet – with your entire stack if necessary.

Betting aggressively raises the bar, quite a lot, at which you have to make calling decisions. Note that if you’ve identified an opponent who never bluffs, you simply don't call apparent made hands, thereby removing any possible gain he could make from this play. And don't forget to bet for value yourself against a known fish but beware of likely slow-players.

But they're a whole article to themselves.

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