Arts & Entertainment

Daniel Negreanu on Poker: The Right Time to Flip a Coin

All fans of televised poker have heard a commentator use the terms coin flip and race situation to describe a big all-in altercation.

These terms are typically used when a player with a pair risks it all against another player with two overcards, like pocket sixes versus A-K.

While that’s a traditional type of coin flip, a race can occur any time there’s an all-in pot where the odds are even close to 50-50. In this column, I’ll explain why it’s usually a better idea to gamble on a coin flip after the flop as opposed to before.

The most important reason why it’s dangerous to risk all your chips pre-flop is that you simply can’t be certain that you are even in a coin flip situation at that time.

You could actually be a much bigger underdog than that. Say you’re playing pocket sixes against a higher pair, like 9-9. The outlook is dismal in this situation as you would have just a 19% chance to win the pot. That’s not a coin flip; you’re a 4-to-1 underdog!

You see, even a lowly starting hand like pocket sixes is a favorite against a seemingly strong hand like A-K. But the real problem with playing the sixes is that you’re banking on the best case outcome to win the pot before the flop. Either you’re in a coin flip as a small favorite or you’re a massive underdog against a bigger pair.

Rookies often make this mistake. They’ll overplay these hands before the flop by calling big all-in bets, or even worse, they’ll reraise all-in.

Professionals, on the other hand, dread the idea of shoving all their chips into the pot in coin flip situations. Once they push their chips in, they understand that skill is no longer a factor. Instead, they’re simply at the mercy of Lady Luck.

That’s why pros wait to take their chances with coin flips until after the flop.

It’s often said that to win a poker tournament you have to win your fair share of coin flips. That’s true. But it’s not often mentioned that you can choose when to do your gambling. You’ll be much safer to delay moving all-in until after the flop, especially if you hit a two-way draw like a straight and flush draw, a pair and a draw, or a draw and overcards.

Okay, say you hold 4h-6h and the flop comes Jh-6d-3h giving you a pair and a flush draw. It’s impossible to be drawing dead against your opponent in this situation. If he has three-of-a-kind, you can still hit your flush. And if he’s on a better flush draw, well, you’re still in the lead with a pair of sixes.

This is the kind of situation where you can gamble aggressively because you can’t be a massive underdog. Even if your opponent holds As-Ad, you’d still be the favorite with a 51.6% chance to win. If he has Ah-Kh for the better flush draw, you’d be favored to win a little over 52% of the time. And in the worst possible case, if he has three jacks, you’d still manage to win the pot 30% of the time.

Do what the pros do and wait until after the flop to try to win a race. That way you can be fairly certain that you’re in no worse shape than a coin flip situation. Also, by playing aggressively after the flop, you might actually force your opponent to fold his stronger hand, thus winning the pot without even having to see the next two cards.

Visit for information about Daniel Negreanu’s newest book, More Hold’em Wisdom for All Players.

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