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Back to the Beginning

With starting hands dealt, Lee Munzer sets the situational scene in no-limit hold ‘em with a couple of scenarios to consider.

Over the years, I’ve penned several articles espousing no-limit hold ‘em concepts. Since the game continues to flourish, let’s get situational and see if we can reinforce several underlying rationales that dictate our starting-hand decisions by considering two common situations.

Scene Number 1

We have recently joined an eight-handed cash game, thus have little knowledge of our opponents’ tendencies. Everyone, including us, has fairly deep stacks. The blinds are $2-$5. We pick up 9c-8c in middle position. After three opponents fold, it’s our turn to act. What should we do?

A: FOLD

This is weak, but not an awful play as hold ‘em is a game of high cards and we have been dealt medium cards. That said, I believe we want to play this hand for several reasons. Our opponents have lots of chips (winning big pots is a key to successful no-limit play). Secondly and ideally, we want to play a wide array of starting hands to make it hard for adversaries to read us. Finally, suited connectors have a special ‘bedroom eye’ allure, right?

B: CALL

This is better. Typically, with suited connectors, we would like to see the flop inexpensively. But, as we reach for limping chips, these words of 2000 world champion Chris Ferguson flash before us: “If you're the first to enter the pot in a no-limit hold 'em game, never call. If you aren't prepared to raise, throw your hand away.” Chris reasons: “By raising, you put pressure on the blinds and the other players at the table, making them consider just how strong their hands really are. Chances are that by raising, you'll force marginal hands to fold before you even see the flop, limiting the number of players you have to beat through the rest of the hand.” While I violate this rule occasionally (in games where limping is the norm), I usually enter pots with a raise when all have folded before me. In addition, calling may inspire a raise behind us—something we would prefer to avoid.

C: RAISE

Now we’re playing the game. Raising disguises the content of our hand and augments the possibility of building a big pot. When holding suited connectors, we are hoping to flop a big hand, flop or turn a big draw that offers excellent pot or implied odds, or (best scenario) to make a nut straight after all board cards are dealt. When one of these fortuitous scenarios takes place, the more money in the pot, the more difficult it is for our foes to get away from second-best hands. Making a huge hand means nothing unless we get paid off. The benefit to disguise is when the flop is in our wheelhouse and opponents usually believe we’ve missed. (They tend to put a middle position raiser on two high unmatched cards or a pocket pair of 10s or better). Of course, there is a downside to raising: we may get reraised. However, with a caller or two, we might decide to see the flop if we’re getting the right odds to win a really big pot.

Scene Number 2

Now we are in slightly better position—three to the right of the button—this time playing 10-handed with a group that, in general, has shown a willingness to play loosely and passively pre-flop. We look down to find pocket fives. We recollect small pairs play best in all-in situations versus two non-paired cards or against large fields when we either nail the flop and are odds on to win a nice size pot, or we miss and get away easily and without risking many chips. We are in the latter situation after the player under the gun (first to act) casually throws in $5. The next player folds, but the following two opponents limp for $5. What should we do?

A: FOLD

No. This appears to be a classic situation for our small pocket pair. One of the nuances of no-limit poker is an early limper often inspires others to limp with non-premium hands such as K-9. This is the situation we face. Furthermore, the known passivity of the table composition leads us to believe there will be no Ivey/Hansen type move coming from behind us. (Those guys might sniff out the relative weakness of the combined limpers and fire a big raise to take down the pot.)

B: CALL

Yes. Assuming the blinds and button decide to make this a family pot, we will get 6-to-1 on our call. While we need 7.5-to-1 for fair odds of hitting a set on the flop, we must consider our upside by factoring in implied odds. A flop of Ks-5h-2s will probably furnish two or more ‘customers’ and lead to a big pot with our set heavily favoured to win since a set of kings is unlikely. Top pair and/or flush draws will generally be the heavy underdog hands over which we will attempt to prevail.

C: RAISE

No. We should pop the pot only rarely in these situations, and mainly for deception purposes. By raising, we will encourage a range of hands from smaller pairs to high unmatched and unsuited cards such as K-10 to fold, but the powerful hands such as J-J will not be deterred. We may thin the field, but that is not beneficial to small pair results. We want K-10 to call behind us. Why? With several callers in front of us it appears likely that high cards will be scarcer than usual when the board is formed. We don’t care if a king hits the flop as long as we catch our five. (We will hit our set once out of every 8.5 tries.) As for making a hand such as 3-3 fold behind us, we don’t care if he or she hits a set, since we will fold unless we hit our overset. Sure, there are rare occasions when the flop will come 2-3-4 of different suits and we will risk more chips going uphill against a set of threes, but that parlay is a longshot, and we might even get lucky and score a winning straight.

As in Scene Number 1, we are often confronted with a dichotomy in basic strategies. While we want to play suited connectors inexpensively pre-flop, we also want to disguise our holdings and avoid playing A-B-C poker. In these cases, decisions are often marginal. It’s important to think through why you are making each decision in poker.
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