Recently I have been reviewing hands from small stakes poker tournaments for some of my private students and it seems like their opponents (amateur small stakes players) check-raise in exactly the wrong spots. In general, you want to check-raise the flop when you can extract value from many inferior made hands, when you can make many superior hands fold, or when your marginal value hand plays poorly on future betting rounds, usually because your opponent is overly aggressive and the board will significantly change.
Instead of check-raising for these reasons, many amateur players check-raise because they want to protect what they assume is the best hand at the moment. For example, a tight, straightforward player raises to 3 big blinds out of his 50 big blind effective stack from middle position and you call in the big blind with 9c-8c. The flop comes 9h-4s-3d. You check and your opponent bets 4 big blinds into the 6.5 big blind pot.
This is a horrible spot to check-raise because when your check-raise gets called, you will usually be against a range that contains almost entirely better made hands. Assuming your straightforward opponent will only call your check-raise with top pair and better made hands, you will have about 17% equity when called. If you elect to check-call instead, you will have 62% equity against your opponent’s range (this assumes your opponent will continuation bet 100% of the time on this uncoordinated flop, which may or may not be the case).
In order to profitably check-raise in this spot for value, you have to expect your opponent to raise preflop with an incredibly wide range and be willing to stack off with hands like A-J and 5-4 on the 9-4-3 flop, which is almost never the case. The correct play by far is to check-call because having 62% equity in a small pot is vastly superior to having 18% equity in a large pot.
The reason many amateur players check-raise in this spot is because they don’t want to get outdrawn by various overcards. They assume that any overcard drastically decreases their hand’s equity. While all overcards on the turn could improve your opponent to the best hand, it is important to realize that many of them do not. If your opponent has Q-J, an Ace, King, and Ten do not help. This means that when an overcard comes (it won’t come every time) it will help your opponent less than half of the time when they hold overcards. Of course, when they don’t hold overcards, the overcard will not help.
You must become comfortable with not knowing exactly where you stand if you want to succeed at poker. The desire to always have clear information is the downfall of almost all small stakes no-limit hold’em players and is one of the main reasons they never move up to medium and high stakes. Keeping your opponent’s range wide by check-calling the flop will lead to you playing many more turn and river situations, which is another thing many amateurs do everything in their power to avoid.
Keeping your opponent’s range wide is the key to maximizing value with marginal value hands. Just be aware that by check-calling, you will get outdrawn more often. Losing medium-sized pots is not the end of the world (many amateurs hate losing any pot, let alone a medium-sized pot). If you learn to navigate the turn and river successfully, you will see an immediate increase to your win rate, allowing you to win more money in the long run and move up to larger buy-in games.
One of my students recently told me about a hand from a $5/$10 no-limit hold’em cash game that demonstrates exactly how you should play a marginal under pair. Although he ended up losing the pot, he played it great.
A somewhat loose, splashy player raised to $30 out of his $1,000 effective stack from first position at a seven-handed table and our Hero with 10d-10c elected to 3-bet from second position to $90.
While calling would normally be my default play because I do not want to get 4-bet off my hand and there are lots of players yet to act, when facing a raise from a loose, splashy player, 3-betting a strong linear range for value makes a lot of sense because you can expect him to call with numerous inferior hands, such as 8-8 and Ah-9h.
Only the initial raiser called. The flop came Ks-4c-2h, giving Hero a marginal under pair. The opponent checked. The pot is $195.
This is an excellent spot to either check or bet small. If Hero checks behind, he can easily call a turn bet and can often call a river bet (assuming he thinks his opponent will somewhat frequently bet the turn and river as a bluff). Hero can also bet small in order to extract value from numerous worse marginal hade hands, like 8-8 and Ah-4h, and also to protect against various over cards, like A-J and Q-J. The main mistake many players make in this situation is to bet large, perhaps $110 or more, because then, they will usually only get called when they are beat.
Hero bet $40 and his opponent called.
While the $40 bet may seem exorbitantly small, it is perfectly fine. Do not feel as if you must make a bet that is at least as large as the bet on the previous betting round. The game is called “no-limit” for a reason. You can bet any amount, even a small one.
The turn was the (Ks-4c-2h)-3s. The opponent checked. The pot is $275.
I am again fine with either checking or betting small, perhaps $100. I typically check in this spot, looking to call most river bets. Checking behind will ensure you do not get check-raised and also allows you to easily see the showdown.
Hero checked behind. The river was the (Ks-4c-2h-3s)-10s, giving Hero a set. The opponent bet $130.
At this point, Hero has the effective nuts and should raise. While it is true that he may only get called by better hands if his opponent is weak and passive, given the opponent’s loose, splashy tendencies, it is safe to assume he will call a modestly sized raise with perhaps top pair and better made hands.
Hero raised to $330 and the opponent quickly called with 9s-8s, a flush.
Although Hero lost this hand, I think he played it well. Notice that he wins this pot every time his opponent does not backdoor a premium hand. When the opponent doesn’t (about 90% of the time), Hero will either win a small pot when his opponent gives up or a medium pot when his opponent decides to bluff. This will result in Hero printing equity in the long run.
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In November, PartyPoker is having a major tournament series featuring two (yes, 2!) $10,000,000 guaranteed events called the Caribbean Poker Party at Baha Mar, a new luxury resort in the Bahamas and asked if I would go there to make a video blog showing off the resort. Seeing how Amie and I have not had a non-poker vacation away together in two years, we were celebrating our three-year anniversary, and are expecting our second son in December, how could I say no?
This video features lots of time at the beach, amazing dinners, and maybe even a little blackjack action.
In this blog post, I am going to share with you (in no particular order) 10 pros who had a huge impact on my poker career. Some were private coaches and I battled others on the felt, but all left a positive lasting impression on me.
David “Raptor” Benefield was my first online poker friend. I used to lurk on an old poker forum and one day I posted that I was “jcardshark”, the unknown guy who was tearing up the $215 buy-in sit n’ go’s on PartyPoker. David, one of the most popular online players of the time, messaged me and asked if I wanted to talk strategy on AIM, which of course I did. We became great friends and talked through AIM basically every day for three years while we grinded the sit n’ go’s. David was one of the first people to do what was thought to be impossible: play 4 tables at the same time. I quickly followed suit. He then moved to 16 tables and I did the same. I seemed to always be one step behind him, but that was fine because he was (and still is) ten steps ahead of everyone else.
Shannon Shorr and I have traveled and roomed together a bunch over the last 10 years. Like many of my poker friends, I met Shannon in the PartyPoker sit n’ go’s. He was clearly a good player but had a propensity to berate people when they played poorly. I asked him to message me on AIM and enlightened him as to why berating weak players is a bad idea. He took kindly to it and we started talking strategy and working hard to improve together. Shannon was my best man at my wedding. He is great!
Bill Seymour was my first poker coach. I found him by searching “poker coaching” on google. Unlike almost everyone, he seemed to never get rattled at the poker table. When his opponents took a bad beat, they lost their minds. When Bill took a bad beat, he was stoic and continued playing great poker. I remember traveling to a live tournament stop with him and watched him play the $100 and $200 satellites (at which he was known to be world-class). He won almost every time! Bill plays all the game well, something that I certainly can’t do, and has stood the test of time, which is something almost no poker players can claim. He was a pioneer, opening one of the first poker training sites, PokerCoaching.com, which I eventually took over.
Andrew “Good2CU” Robl is another one of my friends from my sit n’ go days. He taught me to loosen up and stop being such a nit, both on and off the table. He was the first person to put the idea of physical fitness on my radar. Similar to Raptor, Good2CU seemed to be (and still is) one step ahead of everyone else. He can currently be found playing the biggest cash games in the world. He is the end boss of poker.
Greg “Curtains” Shahade was my second official poker coach. While I was having decent results in the $200 sit n’ go’s, I realized my edge was diminishing. It was initially winning $20 per game (10% ROI) but eventually dropped to 2%. I decided to hire a coach and found Greg, who was crushing the $100 games at some insane rate like 20% ROI. It may seem silly to hire someone who is playing lower stakes than you for lessons, but it was clear through Greg’s writing that he was one of the best and could easily beat the $200 games if he wanted to. He told me that the only reason he didn’t play the $200 games was because he didn’t want to experience gigantic swings, which is a concept I carry with me to this day. Just because you have an edge does not mean you should play. He also taught me to stop pushing all-in with A-x from early and middle position for 10 big blinds. That alone increased my ROI back to 8% and allowed me to print money for a few more years before transitioning to live tournaments when I turned 21.
While I have never had a strategy discussion with David “the Dragon” Pham, I have learned a ton by watching him at the table. In a world where everyone played a tight, cautious game, he would reraise and run insane bluffs to his heart’s content. This occasionally sent him to the rail early, but often led to him having a mountain of chips. I realize this makes him sound like a maniac, but I have also witnessed him make some overly tight folds, including one against me deep in a WPT where he raised to 2.5 big blinds from the button, I went all-in for 14 big blinds, and he folded A-J face-up. Of course, I had K-K. Don’t mess with the Dragon!
I have the utmost respect for Lee Markholt. He is truly a master of no-limit hold’em, excelling at both nosebleed cash games and high stakes tournaments. While he seems to play a decent amount of hands, he always seems to have top set at the showdown, earning him the nickname “Top Set”. Lee has taken my money many times by showing me top set (and sometimes just Ace-high). Thanks for that! Lee is my favorite poker player.
Aaron “Daliman” O’Rourke was one of the pioneers of early sit n’ go strategy. I learned a lot about sit n’ go’s, cash games, sports betting, and casino games from him. Many times, we have won and lost money together. There is something about winning and losing together that bonds people, which doesn’t happen too often in poker because it tends to be an individual game. We always seem to be on the same team though. Win or lose, I am happy to be in action with Daliman.
Mike Sexton is the reason many poker players play the game. He was not only the face of the WPT (the show that brought poker into our homes each and every week on the Travel Channel), he was also instrumental in making PartyPoker the most popular and trusted poker site in existence. I have hung out and played with Mike on many occasions and he is as real as they come. He is larger than life, but still down to earth and kind. We could not ask for a better poker ambassador. I can’t think of a better person to represent the game we love.
Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, please share it with your friends. Be sure to check back next week on JonathanLittlePoker.com for another educational blog post. Thanks for reading!