Learn How to Play Texas Hold 'em

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Making Smart Choices Through Each Round of Play

High cards, or face cards such as jacks, queens, kings, and aces, are the bread and butter of Hold ’em. Although it is true that holding starting hands of A,K and 9,8 have equal chance of making a pair, the A,K is a more valuable starting hand because a pair of aces or a pair of kings would beat a pair of nines or a pair of eights. If neither hand were to improve after all cards are dealt, or both hands were to improve equally (both players made one pair), the A,K would still win.

Consider a hand in which you hold A,K; your opponent holds 9,8; and the board shows the community cards illustrated in Figure 3.2.

In this example, both players make a full house but your full house of fives full of aces (5,5,5,A,A) is higher than your opponent’s full house made up of fives full of eights (5,5,5,8,8). High cards make premium hands; you can play them in any position and feel fairly confident calling a raise or reraising.

Deciding When to Play Suited, Connected, or Medium Pocket Pairs

There are entire chapters in some Hold ’em poker books on how best to play specific suited, connected, or starting hands made up of medium or low pairs when in various table positions. It can get complicated. The basic principle to remember is that suited cards and connected cards are considered drawing hands. If you hold two unpaired suited cards, you are drawing for a flush; if you hold a pair of connected cards, you are drawing for a straight.

Since such hands are harder to make than one or even two pair, you want to make sure there is sufficient money in the pot to warrant playing the hand. You learn how to calculate pot odds, later in the chapter, but for now, the simple rule is that the harder the hand is to make, the bigger the pot needs to make playing the hand a good bet. In most cases, this means more players need to be in the hand. If it is just you and one or two other players contesting the pot, it is usually not profitable to play a drawing hand.

Evaluating Your Hand After the Flop

Now that you have a better understanding of which starting hands to play, the next major decision you make is whether to continue to bet your hand after the Flop. Premium starting hands can quickly turn to trash after the Flop. Consider an example in which you hold A♠,K♠ and the Flop comes 7♥,9♥,10♥. In this example, your great hand has lost some of its starting value because it does not connect with the Flop. On the other hand, if you were holding the A,K of hearts instead of spades, you would have flopped an ace-high flush by using your A,K and the 7♥,9♥,10♥ on the board. In that case, your only decision is how to extract the most money from your opponents.

In Hold ’em, after the first three community cards or Flop is dealt, you will have seen 71% of your hand or five of seven total cards. At this point, you must carefully determine whether your starting hand connected with the Flop in some way. For example, did one of your cards pair a card on the Flop? Did two or more of the same suit come on the Flop, giving you a flush draw? If your two starting cards did connect in some way with the Flop, you must evaluate how many players are likely to stay in the hand with you if a bet is made, how much it will cost you to stay in the hand (bets and raises), and how much you’re likely to win if your hand holds up to be the winning hand.

Analyzing the Flop

In analyzing the Flop, look for these possible outcomes:

• You flopped a power hand. A power hand occurs, for example, if you hold pocket aces and two more aces and a king came on the Flop, giving you four of a kind (called quads). Other power hands might include the nut flush, nut straight, or full house. You hold Q,10 and Q,Q,10 comes on the Flop. You play any of these power hands, and must determine how to bet the hand in order to extract the most money out of the other players.

• You flopped a hand with good-to-great potential. For example, you hold a pair of sevens and the Flop is 2♣,7[Right Arrow],J♥. In this case, you made a set or three of a kind. There is a very low probability of a flush or straight and the only other way you could be beat is if someone else was holding a pair of jacks and made a higher set. Another example is a drawing hand. If you hold the A♣,9♣ and the Flop comes 7♣,4♣,J♥, you’re drawing to the nut flush, or the highest flush that can be made, given the Flop. This is where experienced poker players use pot odds to evaluate the risk or cost of playing the hand versus their expected return, which is the amount of money in the pot. (You learn more about calculating these and other odds in the next section of this chapter).

• You flop an overpair, top pair, or two pair. For example, you hold J♥,J♣ and 3♥,9♠,4♠ comes on the Flop. In this example, your pocket pair of jacks is higher than any card on the Flop, so if an opponent was holding a nine, for example, your jacks would be considered an overpair. Another example of such a Flop occurs when you make top pair or two pair. For example, you hold 10♠,9♠ and the Flop comes 10♥,6♦,9♣. You not only have top pair with your tens, but two pairs (10,10; 9,9). Unless someone has an overpair to your tens, your hand will most likely be the winning hand. Stay with your two pair, high top pair, or overpair as long as it does not cost too much. If it looks and feels as though you might be beat with two or more players raising the pot, you might have to surrender your cards.

• You see a scary flop. Scary flops include those where you have high pair but your second card, or kicker, is very low. For example, you start with A♣,6♣ and the Flop comes A♥,J♦,7♣. You have the high pair, but a low kicker. Anyone else also holding an ace with a higher kicker will have you beat. Another scary Flop is one that includes any pair such as Q,Q,7 or 9,9,5. If you paired the low card (the seven or five in this case), your decision gets even more tricky because you might be up against someone who has made a trips. Sometimes raising the pot will tease out whether another player has trips, because he would most likely reraise you.

• You get a flop in which all the cards are of the same suit or connected. In this case, expect that someone might have flopped a straight or flush. These situations can be very ticklish, especially if you make a set on one of these Flops. You hold 3,3 and the Flop comes 3[Right Arrow],4♦,5♦. Yes, you have made a set but you could be up against an opponent that’s made a straight, flush, or even a straight flush. If a number of players stay in the pot and there is a lot of action, you have to decide whether to try to hit the full house because that is the best hand you could possibly make—and even that might not win the pot.

Knowing when and how to bet your hand after the Flop can be tricky. However, understanding the risk/return ratio is helpful. That is, if you can weigh how much you have to bet against the chances of winning the hand, it will help you make better betting decisions.

Determining the Nuts

The term nuts in poker slang refers to a hand that can’t be beat. Unlike other types of poker games, Hold ’em is a game where it’s possible to deduce the nuts, or the best possible hand that can be made given the cards on the board. The nuts can change after the Flop, when the Turn or the River is dealt, so knowing where your hand stands relative to the nuts helps you make better betting decisions. In an earlier example, the A♥,K♥ is the nut flush, but there is even one higher hand possible. Given the 7♥,9♥,10♥ Flop, if a player is holding the 8♥,J♥ or the 6♥,8♥, he is holding a straight flush, the true nuts of the game. In this example, your flush is only the second-best hand; if you bet, and another player raises, you must consider the possibility that he might be holding the true nuts.

Calculating Outs and Odds After the Flop

As you learned in Chapter 1, "Introduction to Playing Poker," outs refer to the unseen cards still left in the deck that will improve your hand after the Flop. As you might guess, the more cards left in the deck that will improve your hand, the better. That’s why, after the Flop, you want to stay with hands that can be improved in a number of ways. The more outs or ways your hand can potentially improve on the Turn or the River, the better your chances of winning the pot. By counting your outs, you can do a very rough, quick calculation to estimate your percent chance of improving your hand after the Flop, and hopefully having a winning hand. Knowing how likely (or unlikely) you are to improve will help you make a better decision about how much (or little) to invest in the hand.

Counting Outs

Counting outs is as simple as determining what hand you need to make in order to most likely win the pot, and then counting the cards left in the deck that will give you that hand. For example, if you hold a pocket pair of sevens as your two-card starting hand and believe you need to make a set to win the pot, you have a total of two outs because there are two sevens left in the deck. If you have four cards to a flush after the Flop (or four of one suit), then you have nine outs to make your flush because there are thirteen cards per suit in a deck and you hold four. Thirteen minus four is nine outs. What if you hold a K,Q in your hand and the Flop comes A,10,6? Because you know that any jack will give you a straight, and there are four jacks in the deck, you have four outs.

To calculate the percent chance of improving your hand after the Flop, multiply your total number of outs by four. If your hand still does not improve on the Turn, then calculate your outs by two to estimate your percent chance of improving on the River.

For example, you hold in your hand A,K, and the Flop comes Q,J,5. You first determine that you have four outs to make a straight (A,K,Q,J,10); there are four tens in the deck and any one of them could improve your hand. As such, you multiply 4 x 4 and you find you have roughly a 16% chance of making this hand.

If you do not get a 10 on the Turn, your percentage chance of hitting a 10 on the River decreases to 2 x 4 or roughly 8%. Of course, keep in mind that there are other cards—such as another ace—that could improve the sample hand, but the goal is to figure the number of outs that will most likely give you the winning hand.

Calculating Pot Odds After the Flop

As you gain more experience playing Hold ’em, you might decide to invest time in learning how to calculate the exact odds of making a particular hand so you will make more informed wagers. For now, if you can practice calculating your correct number of outs, and then use the preceding formula to translate your outs into a percent chance of making a hand, you will be far ahead of most casual poker players.

Fortunately, because every hand of Hold ’em is played with exactly the same number of cards (two per player and five community cards), it is possible to calculate the number of outs for common Hold ’em scenarios. The following chart simplifies common Hold ’em hands players hold after the Flop and the percent chance of improving the hand on the Turn and River. In the last column, I have included a rough pot size amount you need to see in order to justify calling a bet with each of these sample hands. You should immediately see that the fewer outs you have to make your hand, the bigger the pot size needs to be to justify calling a bet. Understanding how big a pot needs to be in relation to the size of the bet you must make to win the pot is called pot odds and as is used by players to ensure they are getting the proper potential return on their bet.

Re-evaluating Your Hand on the Turn

The Turn card, or Fourth Street, might or might not improve your hand (or those of your opponents). Because the bet size usually doubles on Fourth Street, it is important to carefully evaluate your overall possibility of holding the best hand or drawing to the best hand.

More times than not, the Turn card won’t help your hand; when it does, you should be excited. If you have top pair, or top two pair and no one bets, you should bet when the action comes to you. This bet might induce players to fold who are trying to make a straight or even a flush. If you check along with everyone else, and let players get a free card, you risk losing the hand to a player making a bigger hand than yours because of the free card.

If you have top two pair after the Turn and someone does bet in front of you, you should raise, except if there is a pair on the board, three connected cards, or three suited cards; in any of those cases, you should just call. Any of these situations might suggest your two pair is beat, so proceed with caution. Consider these examples:

• You hold J,Q and the board flops 7,J,10 of mixed suit and then turns a Q. Your top two pair could be beat by a straight if your opponent holds either an 8,9 or A,K.

• You hold J,10 and the board shows J,10,K,K. Your top two pair could be beat by three of a kind if your opponent is holding at least one king or even a full house if your opponent is holding K,10 or K,J.

• You hold Q♥,J♠ and the board shows J♥,Q♣,7♥,2♥. In this scenario, when the two of hearts came on the Turn, it could have given your opponent her flush.

In playing the Turn, it is important to be able to read the cards on the board and your opponents, and analyze the various hands that could keep your opponents in the pot. You should bet if you think you have the best hand or check if the Turn card proved scary and could have potentially helped your opponent.

Choosing Your Strategies As You Play Through to the River

As you can see, the decisions regarding how you play your Hold ’em poker hand get more difficult as more cards are revealed. The value of hands is shifting and you must focus not only on your cards, but on your opponents’ play as well. If you’re still in the hand at the River, you must factor into your decision-making not just the hands that have already been made, but also those players that might still be holding drawing hands, such as straights and flushes. Your decision to stay to the River card must be predicated on the fact that you either believe you hold the best hand or are at least drawing to what will become the best hand. If you’re on a draw hand, you have to evaluate the size of the pot to ensure the risk/return ratio is still there. As I have said before, you do not want to bet big on the chance of making a longshot hand, only to win a little pot.

One other common feature of the River is that most often, the number of players contesting the pot has been significantly reduced from six or seven down to two or three. Because of this, having a sense of your opponents and how they have played their hands up to the River should be an important factor in how you bet your hand.

Betting When You Have Top Pair or Top Two Pair

If you have top pair, are in early position, and there are more than two opponents left in the pot, consider checking your hand—especially if there is a flush or straight potential on the board. If you bet in early position and someone has made a straight or a flush, you expose yourself to a potential raise. If you are in late position and no one ahead of you bet, bet your hand (again, only when there is no straight or flush potential showing). By betting in this position, everyone has already had a chance to act before you, so unless someone check-raises you, it’s likely your top pair is the best hand. By betting, you might induce one or more players to fold—especially the players still on a draw hand that are looking to make a flush or a straight on the River.

If you have top two pair and there is no flush or straight potential, bet even in early position.

When You Make Your Straight or Flush on the River

There is some poker wisdom that suggests you check-raise a big hand, such as a straight or flush, in early position to give someone else a chance to bet first, so you can then make a raise when the action comes back to you. A check-raise bet is used when you first check your hand in the round and then raise after someone else bets in the same round. Many people use check-raising to make bigger pots. You should use a check-raise only if it is allowed in your game and you are relatively certain you will have at least one opponent bet if you do check your hand—otherwise, you will lose bets. If you are unsure if another player will bet if you check, simply bet your hand in early position—especially if you are fairly certain you have the highest hand.

When the pot is especially big and there has been a lot of action after the Flop, be aware that some opponents might try to bluff and buy the pot by making a bet or even a raise. This is especially true when the board looks threatening with a straight or flush potential. Even if a player did not make her straight or flush on the River, she will still bet or raise anyway to make you think she did. In this case, with so much invested in the pot, it is better to call one bet with a second-place hand than to fold the winning hand.

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