Specific hand strategy
First of all, these aren’t all the situations that occur. I only chose to outline the situations that occur very frequently. The situations that don’t come so frequently are the ones you’ll have to confront head on and use your best judgment. It’s this judgment that distinguishes a good player from a great player. I am merely a good player and am still working on this myself, so you’ll need to take the next step yourself as well.
All example hands assume a $1/$2 blind game with $200 effective stacks and 10 players at the table.
Big pairs unimproved – I play AA and KK virtually identically, and fairly straightforward. I always raise with them preflop and my intent is to see a heads up flop. QQ plays fairly closely, but sometimes different. I will outline the specific differences.
First scenario: I raise to 7 in early position, get called by a player in late position, and see a heads up flop and have an overpair.
My standard line is to value bet every street. If I get raised on the flop and its not particularly dangerous (see relative hand strength), I almost always call. Against most players it’s too early to lay down a hand this strong. If the player is aggressive with draws and raises a flop has a lot of apparent draws (like a flop of 6s7s3c), sometimes I will re-raise big and hope to get all in with his draw. AA/KK is very difficult to get away from in spots like this. If I get raised again on the turn, I am done with my hand against most players. AA/KK is not very often good when facing a raise on the turn by a solid player. As a rule, flop raises are often draws and weak two pairs, and turn raises are often sets. If my opponent is somewhat loose and the board is somewhat dry, like Q 7 T rainbow and he calls a flop bet, I usually just put him on a decent queen and check raise the turn (if he’s aggressive at all, otherwise I just bet the turn). My hand is very strong vs. his range, and I am looking to stack.
The only difference with KK specifically is when the flop is ace high. In this spot my standard line is to continuation bet the flop (for about 2/3 the pot) and check and fold the turn. Sometimes I will fire a second barrel on the turn (like if it’s very likely that villain has a flush draw on the flop and it doesn’t complete on the turn), but this is a nonstandard move.
QQ plays not much differently in this situation. It’s hard to put your opponent on KK or AA if he didn’t re-raise preflop. QQ loses some value on boards that are J high, since the only hand that reasonably pays us off is a jack. In that spot if we are facing resistance we have to worry that we are up against AA and KK sometimes. The basic rule is that the lower the high card on the flop is, the more hands pay QQ off and therefore the stronger QQ becomes. Also I wouldn’t check raise the turn with a QQ overpair very often, because since a turn check-raise is such a powerful play you’ll have a hard time getting hands worse than QQ to pay it off. It’s generally better to just lead each street.
Second Scenario: Two players limp in early position for 2. Folds to me on the button and I raise to 11. Folds to second limper who calls. We see a heads up flop and I have an overpair.
If he checks (this happens mostly), standard is for me to bet. If he calls this bet, I look at the flop texture and decide how valuable my hand is. This isn’t something I can really outline in a guide, just look at the relative hand strength section and practice this.
If I put him on a draw and he checks the turn I will be betting again, probably about ¾ of the pot if the turn is blank. If the flush completes, I will often check through. This check allows us to under-represent our hand, thereby increasing the likelihood that our opponent will bet or call bets on the river with hands we beat. It’s hard to put someone squarely on a flush just because there are three to a suit on the board, so usually he wins a bet from me on the river in this case. It’s simply a matter of defining a range of hands that villain will bet or call river bets with. If you have the majority of that range beat then you make money whether he has the flush or not.
Otherwise, I value bet the turn once again for ½ to 2/3 the pot. If I get check raised here I have something to think about. I am most likely to lay a big pair down here as more of the following conditions are fulfilled:
-Villain is a very tight player.
-The board is very very dry (like a flop of 369 rainbow)
-Villain is a very passive player.
-Board is very str8 coordinated. We’re really worried as much about two pairs as much as we’re worried about str8s. Particularly boards of JTx scare me.
If not, I am usually paying off here. Once again, it’s a matter of putting your opponent on a range of hands he’d check raise the turn with. The wider that range is the more clear your call. Never be discouraged if you get stacked in these spots. If a 45/14 player busts you with a set vs. your AA then you probably played the hand well. If a 15/4 player does, well then you probably screwed up somewhere.
Let’s go back to the flop. What if he leads into us on the flop? Well in that case follow the guidelines I listed in donk bets previously. In general, you should call the flop if draws aren’t apparent, and raise if they are, or if he’s a loose player who’ll pay you off.
Third Scenario: UTG and UTG+1 players fold and I raise to 7 in MP. To my dismay, the MP2, cutoff and button all call and the blinds fold. We see a multiway flop out of position and have an overpair.
This is sticky scenario. You first need to understand that in a four way pot a big pair isn’t a big favorite to win, often roughly a coin flip. The more coordinated a flop is, the more you want to check and see what everyone else does. This often allows the players behind us to act and if two of them have great hands then we can get away from a big pair, unscathed. If the board is pretty ragged, then you should lead out for 2/3 the pot most of the time, but if you get raised you have to worry.
Multiway pots are great in that they promote table honesty (this is the only good thing about them). Most people know that it’s difficult to bluff a large number of players, and so their bets define their hands a lot more. This goes both ways obviously, so when you make a big bet on a ragged board in a multiway pot after having raised preflop, then they have to put you on strength. By that token, when you get raised big on the flop in a multiway pot when you have an overpair, folding is very often the best play. Sure, they may have a lesser overpair, but is that the majority of their range? Probably not.
If the flop is mediocre with a flush draw, like Js7s4c, I will very often check-raise from out of position with AA or KK (QQ is a stretch). The intent is for you to check, an aggressive player behind you bets with a J or medium pocket pair, and gets calls from 65 and a spade draw, and when the betting gets back to you, you stick your stack in and win a huge pot against weak hands (whether they call or not). This is a good play because people tend to let us know when they have sets on a board like this, and if they just call, then we have them beat mostly.
Usually the hand is heads-up by the turn, so we revert to the heads-up examples to find out how to continue playing.
Fourth Scenario: Two players in early position limp, then folds to us on the cutoff. We make it 11 to go, and the big blind and both limpers call.
Play is similar to the out of position example, but actually better and worse in ways. The bad thing is that on the flop our position is even worse than when we previously raised UTG. This is because our villains are usually going to “check to the raiser” and will all check whether they flopped big or not. Then we end up being forced to bet out with no information about anyone. This is called “bad relative position,” and causes us to lose more on the flop when we are beat.
The good thing about being in position is that we will get less credit for a big hand when we bet. When they all check and we bet in last position, they might put us on total air and call with nothing. This negates the previous positional disadvantage, but we still end up having to pay off sets more than if we were out of position. In general though (for both scenarios), if an obvious draw completes on the turn, or if we are check-raised or lead into strongly on the turn or the river, we often have to shut down and go into call down mode or fold respectively.
Top pair with AJ+, KJ+ – I know it sounds obvious, but you should play top pair good kicker just like overpairs except that you have to fear overpairs and better top pairs. Applying this concept accordingly, your value with this hand decreases:
-As your pair is of lower rank, since you are dominated by the overpairs in villain’s range.
-As your kicker is of lower rank, since you are dominated by top pair, better kickers in villain’s range.
The trick to playing this hand is to assign a range of hands to your villain, and figure out what percentage of that range you beat. If this approximate number is 50-60% you can check/call. If this number is 60-90% you can value bet. If this number is greater than 90%, you can check-raise and play for stacks.
I am not going to go through the length of discussion that I went through the overpairs with, because the play is largely the same as long as you understand that as the value decreases, the more passively you should play. Here are some guidelines for defining the value of top pair:
-If your kicker is high, can you put your opponent on top pair lower kicker? If he’s loose and your pair is of aces or kings, then yes, worse top pairs are a significant part of his range. If he’s tight, then not so much. Also preflop action helps here. Did he raise preflop and you called or re-raised? If he raised and you called, then you very likely have his pair dominated, if you re-raised and he called, it’s more likely that he called with a medium pair and looked to hit a set. He could also have you crushed with an overpair in this case. That fact devalues your hand significantly.
-If your pair is high, can you put your opponent on a lower pocket pair or split pair? More importantly, can you count on him to pay you off with these weak hands? Very weak and tight players don’t call anything with less than top pair or an overpair. You hand is not very valuable in this case. Loose players on the other hand will call.
-If there is a flush draw on the board, your top pair gains significant value, since you have draws beat and they will call you anyway.
-If you check the flop and bet the turn, or if you limped preflop and hit top pair and good kicker, your hand goes up in value because you under-represented your hand. People think you are bluffing and will call you down with less. Beware though, that in this scenario you gave players a chance to see/cheap free cards to draw out on you.
-AK top pair is a great hand against most players, particularly loose ones. It’s particularly great when you pair your ace rather than king for a couple of reasons. First, you sucked out on KK. Second, people play Ax’s more than Kx’s, so you beat more of their ranges when you hit an ace.
-When the most likely of the hands you’d ordinarily have dominated might have sucked out with two pair or a set, your TPGK loses value. Example: AK on a AQJ board.
-When there is a big pair on the board, like a flop of KJJ when you have AK, your hand loses value. Not only because you have to put trips in villain’s range, but because of the fact that the villain also has to fear trips from you. This also applies to overpairs. KK on a QQx loses a lot of value.
-When you have a draw as well as your top pair, your hand gains huge value, because in addition to being ahead of villains range unimproved, it also has a 32% chance to suck out on the part of villains range that you don’t beat. Example: AsJs on a Jc8s2s board. You usually can’t get away from this hand. This applies to overpairs as well. Example: JJ on a T98 rainbow.
Other unimproved pocket pairs – These hands are very straightforward to play. People have trouble playing 99-JJ, but it’s not hard as long as you don’t grow attached to your hand. JJ on a T high board isn’t that great of a hand. It should be easy to lay down, but it isn’t for most people. In order for you to invest a lot of money with these unimproved hands, the conditions have to define weak ranges for your opponents. JJ is pretty strong on a 6 high flop because so many hands pay it off, but not on a T high board. Whenever you get one of these hands, run it through the value of top pair guidelines above, and make for damn sure you beat most of your opponent’s range before you invest a lot of money with these hands.
As the pairs get smaller and smaller, they really become nothing more than bluff-catchers. If someone fairly solid raises preflop, you call, its heads-up to a T88 rainbow flop, and he bets, you can make a call with a low pair ONCE. Generally if they bet out again on the turn you have to give it up. You see, we had his flop betting range beat, but not his flop & turn betting range, unless he’s overly aggressive. Also, even if you think he’s betting a draw on the flop when you have a low pair, you still can’t call because his draw + overcards are a favorite over your hand, even though yours is best.
Marginal hands – For the purposes of this guide a marginal hand is a missed flop after raising before the flop with unpaired cards. The way you play a missed J7o or KQs after raising from position should be about the same. I thought it would be absurd to make a completely new section of the guide for each type of marginal hand because the play is so similar for all of them.
Fifth Scenario: You raise preflop with two cards and completely miss the flop.
The standard play is to continuation bet for around 2/3 the pot. Check the common concepts section to see my thoughts on this play. If this doesn’t work and its heads up to the turn, you can fire a second barrel on the turn sometimes. Here’re my guidelines for second barreling:
-If you pick up some outs on the turn, then be more likely to fire a second barrel. If you think your villain is strong and you are in position, check the turn and try to catch your card and bust him, instead of betting the turn and risking being raised off.
-If a weak player calls on the flop when its draw heavy and no obvious draws complete on the turn, then be more likely to fire again. In this spot be even more likely to fire again if your hand has showdown value (like AK or a small pair).
-If a solid player calls you on a paired rag board like 779, be more likely to fire a second barrel.
-There’s no standard situation to second barrel. Don’t overuse this play.
Otherwise, if out of position just check and fold the turn. Even if I draw out on the turn, I usually check still. If OOP, I check with the intention of either calling a bet and betting out big on the river or simply check raising. If in position, I check to under-represent my hand and set villain up to call a big bet from me on the river with less. This play is so strong because it instills doubt into your opponent as to whether you are weak when you check the turn in the future with actual weak hands.
Playing draws – First, read relative draw strength and learn that concept. The following examples assume you are drawing to the nuts on an unpaired board unless noted otherwise. Second, I am not going to talk much about playing a draw from out of position, because you shouldn’t do it much. Only chase a draw out of position when you are SURE that you’ll get paid off for it. As in, you have to put villain on a monster. In that case usually checking/calling is fine. Sure its transparent as hell, but if villain is weak he won’t notice. You don’t want to risk being raised off your hand though. It’s also ok to lead the flop from out of position with a draw but on the turn this becomes spewing.
Sixth Scenario: You raise preflop in position with 97s, get one caller from the blinds and the flop comes 86A rainbow. Villain….
…Checks to you. Standard play is to bet 2/3 like normal. As a rule, whenever my opponent expects me to bet whether I have air or not, and I have a decent hand, I almost always bet. If he calls then lead a blank turn or sometimes check-call. If he raises the flop you should almost always call.
…Leads into you for a bet. You have a decision to make. Call or raise. If he’s fairly aggressive I like raising, but if he’s an overly aggressive player who might 3bet you if you raise, then just call. Unless he overbets the pot hugely, you should almost never fold on the flop.
If you learned about pot odds like I suggested at the beginning of the guide, you probably think that if he bets 2/3 pot on the flop you don’t have proper odds to call with only eight outs. This is not true for a reason we have already mentioned earlier in the guide, and that reason is implied odds. Almost all flop bets are worth calling with concealed 8 out draws.
Raising is a good choice but can be expensive. If you get checked to on a blank turn after raising the flop, unless you think he’ll probably fold if you bet, you should take your free river card and hope to hit your draw. Raising is also good because it makes it much easier to get all in if you hit your draw on the turn or river.
If you didn’t raise, and you hit your draw on the turn, you have to orchestrate a way to get all in. You can’t feasibly get all in without your opponent putting in a raise somewhere, so you need to either:
– Raise the turn if he bets it. DO NOT SLOW PLAY. You need to get all in and you can’t do it if you just call the turn. You need the river bet to be 2/3-3/4 of a pot sized bet.
– Check raise the turn or bet/3bet the turn if you are out of position. If he’s overly aggressive, then bet/call or bet/3bet is better. If he’s only somewhat aggressive then check/raise is better.
– If he’s not aggressive at all, then you need to overbet the turn. Even still with large effective stacks it will be hard to get all in on the turn, but we must try.
It is IMPERATIVE that we get all in if possible, because we took the worst of it preflop and on the flop, and need to make up the difference and pay off our implied odds.
Seventh Scenario: You limp behind 3 limpers preflop with As4s and the flop is QsTd7s.
You are in position with a nut flush and one overcard in a multiway pot. This is a dream situation and you have a big hand. If someone bets you should raise. If they all check you should bet. Checking behind or calling usually sucks, because the pot is so small. We need to start building it for when we hit our draw, plus we will get value from another player drawing to a lesser flush (when he’s actually drawing to 6 outs). Of course it’s ok to just call if you think there’s a big chance you’ll get raised off your hand. If you hit your hand then follow the same guidelines as in the previous example.
Flopped two pair, baby flushes, and big draws – I put all these in the same category because they are similar in value. You will rarely have the enemy drawing slim when you have one of these hands. Whenever you have two pair, an overpair has a 25-35% chance to draw out on you. Whenever you flop a baby flush, you often will get played with by a nut four-flush, and only be 70% to win. Finally with a big draw your edge is at most 60%.
Eighth Scenario: A tight aggressive player raises to 7 in MP and you call on the button with AQs. The flop is AQ4 rainbow.
Don’t get too excited. The flop might as well have been A74. You only beat one more hand in villains range by having two pair (AK). Just play it like you’d play TPTK, and this includes folding it in spots you’d fold TPTK.
Ninth Scenario: You open in late position for 7 with QTo, and a weak and tight player in the SB re-raises to 17. You call and the flop is QT4 two tone. Villain leads for ¾ the pot on the flop.
Raise his bet big, because he has AA. You’re hand isn’t invincible, a 4, an A, or a running pair will suck him out. Just try to get all-in on the flop or a blank turn. Two pair should usually be played fast like this. Sometimes I just overbet push in this spot and they usually call.
Tenth Scenario: You limp behind 3 limpers with 74s and the flop is A74 two tone.
I like calling the flop and seeing if the turn is blank when I have bottom two. It increases my equity in the pot (since only one card is left to counterfeit my hand), and it allows me to observe the other players. Bottom two gets burned by top two and sets a lot and I will fold the turn if the action is too heavy. I don’t like getting all in with this hand.
Basically the strategy with these hands is to play them fast and make your opponents pay to draw out, because they WILL draw out very often.
Flopped sets, boats, nut str8s, or nut flushes – These are the hands you will make at least 1/3 of your money within NL cash games. How well you fare with sets (how often you make them, how often you get paid off) is the basic definition of NLHE variance. Someone who is running better than normal is undoubtedly flopping more than their fair share of sets. These hands differ from the previous monsters in that you usually have a lock hand in these hands (and are at worst a 70/30 favorite). These hands are capable of being occasionally slow played because they are so strong.
Eleventh Scenario: Unknown villain in MP1 opens for 7 and you call with 66 on the CO. Heads up to a flop of 69A. Villain leads at flop for 12.
This is the classic dream situation when you flop a set. The best play is almost always to put in a raise to 35-40. One might argue that we are unveiling the strength of our hand to early, but that guy is wrong. By raising the flop, we are actually under-representing our hand. Most people raise flops with top pair or a draw, but just call and raise the turn when they have a set. If villain has an ace and is a fairly weak player, he’ll call the flop raise with any ace, and if he has a decent kicker, he’s not getting away from his hand on the turn, because the pot will be over 100 dollars by that point, and he’ll put you on a weaker ace. Then when the turn comes and he inevitably checks to you, BET. He’ll know that you’d bet this turn whether you have the hand you are representing or not. And if he calls, the turn, the river will be an easy all in because the pot will be enormous.
Twelfth Scenario: You raise to 7 in EP with 99 and a loose player in late position calls. The flop comes 9T2 two tone.
There are a lot of draws out there so you should definitely bet. If he raises (a loose and aggressive player will raise here with a wide range), three bet him. You want to get all in on the flop here if possible. You have the second nuts but your hand is very vulnerable, and tons of hands will shut down on the turn against you if certain cards fall. If he calls and draws complete, you essentially have a drawing hand. Try to draw to the full house on the river, and try to see a cheap showdown. Analyze the board texture and your opponents range and figure out if your hand is good and what percentage of the time it is good. If the percentage is not very high, then be prepared to make a ‘crying call’ on the river or even a fold.
Thirteenth Scenario: Unknown in MP raises to 7 and after one LP caller you call on the button with 88. The flop comes 844 rainbow. Both villains check.
Top boat or better are the only monster hands you should seriously consider slow playing. I will probably check here, but if the check the turn I have to bet. There’s no chance of getting all in with our hand unless we get some money in before the river. In this scenario I will still OFTEN bet. Slow playing is a very overrated practice and is usually the hallmark of a weak player whose only poker training is the movie Rounders.
Fourteenth Scenario: You raise with Ac5c in position and both blinds call. Three ways to a flop of 2c9cTc. SB bets 18 and BB calls.
Raising here isn’t a bad play, but I probably would actually call more often than not. Chances are that SB and BB have draws and we should give them a chance to hit those draws, since we have them drawing dead. Multiway raised pots are interesting in that they always all in by the turn. There’s not as much of a need to bloat the pot on the flop with a great hand in a multiway pot, because there are three people putting money in, and it’s thus going in 50% faster than in a HU hand. Get all in on the turn (unless it pairs the board, then you have some thinking to do).
Fifteenth Scenario: Tight player in MP raises to 7, weak player in MP calls and you call behind with QTs, the flop is AKJ two tone. MP1 bets 18 and MP2 calls.
Raising here is the best play. Chances are, one of our villains has two pair or a set. There are a lot of turn cards that can ruin our action, or even draw out on us. Let’s get all in on this flop if possible.
If you play your monster hands as fast as you play your draws, you become an unreadable player, and you win more stacks than had you played them slower. Monster hands are overall fairly easy to play so I didn’t spend much time talking about them. Generally the best play with a monster hand is simply to bet or raise every street.
Well that’s it. A very watered down version of everything I think about whenever I am in a hand. I missed a million important things; this wasn’t meant to be a book. I am not nearly qualified. I am simply a decently winning player at low to middle stakes games, and thought I could give something back to the community that helped me get to the point I am. Hopefully some of the FTRers who make 4-5 times what I make in an hour will see this guide and think “This guy doesn’t know shit about shit. I am going to make an article that blows Renton’s article away!” I hope you do, this was 50% of the reason I even took the time to write this.
As for the beginners, take the advice here but realize that experience is far more important than intellect. This is a very feel based game. I only listed the “standard” scenarios. It’s the non-standard situations that a great player extracts the most edge over his opponents from. Growing accustomed to these scenarios takes 100’s of 1000’s of hands.