What you’re about to read goes against a strategy that’s often taught in poker literature which recommends a straight forward, all-out aggressive approach when playing in No Limit Hold’em tournaments.
Undoubtedly, the best approach to No Limit tournaments is to be aggressive, but at the same time, you must avoid major risks in marginal situations.
That’s what the top pros do.
To help illustrate this concept, there’s one specific situation to consider. It relates to flop play.
In televised poker tournaments you might hear commentators say something like, "This is a raise or fold situation." Well, those announcers are often very wrong.
Let’s look at the example, and put you in the hand.
A player from early position raises to 600 before the flop (blinds are 100-200). You’re in late position holding 9-9 and decide to just call the raise.
Many players would tell you to re-raise before the flop, but that’s not what most pros would do. Instead, professionals would look to avoid playing big pots in these marginal situations.
If you re-raise, your opponent could go all-in. You might have to fold now, only to be bluffed by something like 8-8 or A-K. Or, perhaps you just call and find yourself in a coin flip situation against the A-K. Both are scenarios a top player wants to avoid.
Then the flop comes Js-7d-4c, and it’s just you and your opponent heads-up. Both of you have about 10,000 in chips and your opponent bets 1,000. You actually have three options here; not just the two that some television pundits suggest.
If you’re up against a very conservative player who wouldn’t bluff on the flop — unless he has a high pair — you should fold. Or, if you’re unsure whether you have the best hand, you can find out right now with a raise.
The third option, which is usually the best in this situation, is to call the bet on the flop and see what develops on the turn.
Since you have position, you have all the power in the hand. Your opponent has to act first when the remaining cards are dealt, thus giving you valuable information as to what he might have.
The obvious problem with just calling the bet is that you’re giving your opponent an inexpensive opportunity to outdraw your hand.
This begs a two-part question: How often will calling cause you to lose the pot, and is it worth investing a raise on the flop in a marginal predicament? Well, you can do some simple math to help figure this out. Suppose your opponent holds A-K. He’ll catch another ace or king on the turn approximately 14% of the time. As an 86% favorite, that’s a free card I’d willingly give away to avoid playing a big pot on the flop in a problematic situation.
Calling is usually the right play here, but many players will wonder, "How will I know where I’m at in the hand if I don’t raise?"
Since you have position, you’ll usually have a better idea as to whether you’re in front by the next card. The problem with raising now is that it costs you chips!
If your opponent bets 1,000 on the flop, you’d have to invest about 3,000 on a raise. That’s 30% of your chips, which is too much in this dubious situation.
Instead of investing more chips to find out where you’re at, it’s often better to simply call. You can invest just 1,000 and only give him that slim chance of beating you on the next card.
He usually won’t get his card, but if he gets lucky and bets the turn, you can safely fold your 9-9, losing only 1,000. If your opponent checks on the turn, now you can protect your hand with a bet.
Being aggressive is essential to winning poker tournaments. However, the best players in the world are selectively aggressive and approach marginal situations cautiously.
You should do the same.
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