Issue 257
August 15 - August 21, 2005
Volume 5
page 3

Poker Strategy Doesn't Have One 'Sacred' Way To Play
By Fred Renzey

The thing that makes poker infinitely deep and endlessly challenging is the psychological aspect of the game. If your blackjack dealer could choose whether to hit or stand on 16, for example, playing your own hand would be far more complicated. Against a "tight" dealer who you don't think will hit 16, you should probably hit your 12 when she has a 6 up. But if she's the type that will draw to 16, then you'd want to stand with 12.

This is how poker forces you to use your judgment. Poker strategy is not entirely mathematical – psychological reasoning plays a big part. And since reasoning can and will be debated by qualified experts, there's not necessarily just one good way to play a given poker hand.

I bring this up because of a controversial poker article that appeared in a major newspaper recently. It described a huge hand that developed in a $20/$40 limit Texas Hold'em game, and I think the way the hand was played is highly debatable.

In that hand, a young poker pro was in the big blind for $20. The "under-the-gun" player (first to act after the blinds) opted to "straddle" (post a bet before the cards were dealt). After dealing the hole cards, a raising war ensued until the bet was "capped" (the maximum allowable raises) at $100 before it even got back around to the pro in the big blind. The pro looked down and found a pair of Jacks in the pocket.

Normally, pocket Jacks are a pretty nice starting hand. But when four or five people are re-raising and capping it, you can usually assume at least one player has a higher pocket pair. This time the Jacks most likely need to flop a "set" (trips)! That'll happen for you 1 time in 8.5 tries.

A common strategy guideline for calling with a pocket pair when you need trips is to have at least a four-way pot. That way, when you add together the money already in the pot with your profit from future bets, you'll likely earn at least 8 bets on your call if you hit your set. There is a problem, however, with this oversimplification.

The problem is that the four-way requirement is based upon your calling only one bet to see the flop. But if seeing the flop costs four bets, then you'll need to net 32 bets to make the call worthwhile. And remember, you can always flop your set and still lose the pot.

Anyway, with five players in so far, the pro reasoned that she was getting sufficient odds to call another $80 to see the flop. Here's where I disagree! When it was her turn to act, there had to be about $330 in the pot so far. You have to figure that a couple of players, particularly the straddler will fold, rather than pay all the extra raises to see a flop. Chances are, you'll have a four-way pre-flop pot containing between $450 and $500 -- $80 of it being the pro's calling money.

If she flops a set, she can probably gain a double bet ($40) from each of two players there and another $40 to $80 on the turn. Plus, she'll probably earn one last $40 call from somebody at the river and net perhaps $550 to $600 on the hand. Of course, if her set gets beat, she'll lose an easy $200.

What if her pocket Jacks happen to be the best hand before the flop? I see almost no value in that since you'll have to fold the best hand too many times. That'll happen when an overcard flops, or when three straight or flush cards get there followed by any serious action. Even if three undercards flop and you bet, then get raised -- it's probably advisable to give up your hand. I just don't think you should invest another $100 or so at that point, hoping your Jacks can win when they were probably no good to begin with.

So then, let's go ahead and play this hand out on paper 85 times following the odds, and say that we'll miss 75 flops, hit 10 sets of trips and get one of them beat. Our 75 misses will cost us $80 x 75, or $6000. Our one losing set of trips will cost another $200 for $6200 in total losses. Then our nine winners could earn perhaps $600 x 9, or $5400. That doesn't stack up like a net winner to me!

Of course, this particular hand played out nothing at all like that. The pro flopped Jacks full, a couple of players made smaller full houses and she won a $1700 pot. But then, that's why it made the news. As for me, I'd muck my pocket Jacks before the flop and stay out of trouble. How about you?


About the Author

Fred Renzey is a high-stakes, expert poker player. On a daily basis he faces--and beats--some of the best players in the country in fierce poker room competition. Now for the first time, Renzey offers his perceptive insights on how to play winning poker.

Books by the Author

A "how to" book for the game of casino blackjack. Contains generous use of pictorial strategic illustrations. Explains winning principles in clear detail.

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