You will often find yourself with a hand that may or may not be the best, so it’s not easy to decide if you should stay with it or let it go. As an example, let’s say you’re in the Big Blind of a single-table NLHE tournament with K-J suited and everyone has folded to the Button who makes a 3-times the Big Blind raise. The Small Blind calls and, because you’re getting odds of 3.5 to 1, you call. (If the BB is $100 and the SB is $50, a 3x raise is $300; the SB puts in $250, so the pot is now $700 and you must bet $200.) Let’s say the flop comes J,7,5 “rainbow” (all different suits) and the Button bets $500 into the what-is-now $900 pot. The Small Blind folds and it’s now up to you; you’ll need to make a $500 call into a $1400 pot, so you’re getting some decent pot odds. However, if you do call, what have you learned about you opponent’s hand? Basically nothing, which is not the way you want it to be when you’re putting your $$$ to risk, although it’s certainly not the worst call you’ll ever make.
But a better idea is to raise your opponent’s bet to $1000. My reasoning here is: (A) players often raise – quite properly – on the button with relatively weak hands, like 10-J, A-x or a low pair and (B) after such a raise, many will make a “continuation” bet, whether or not the flop helped them. If you do raise $1000, the pot is now $2400 and your opponent will have to bet $500 to stay in the hand, which is nearly 5 to 1 pot odds. That might induce a call if s/he has an open-ended Straight draw, but it’s not enough if s/he has an inside Straight draw (6 to 1 is the proper odds for that) or a Flush draw, which will require runner, runner suited cards (because the flop was of all different suits.) Of course, your opponent could have many other hands: Jack with a higher or lower kicker, two-pair, an overpair, such as Q-Q up to A-A, a pair of 7s or 5s or even a pair of Jacks. If he calls your raise, you have to at least suspect a hand like that, but if he re-raises you, the probability of a “set” (trips) is increased. As frightening as that is, your opponent has to also begin thinking that you may have a set or any other hand mentioned above, which is why a re-raise is giving you important information. Your raise is basically saying, “I have two-pair, a set or overpair” and your opponent’s re-raise is saying, “I know you have two-pair, a set or an overpair and it doesn’t scare me.”
It could also be saying, “I’m bluffing.”
Honestly, if I were able to detect every bluff thrown at me, I’d just play poker for a year and retire as a very rich person. So, while none of us can sniff out every bluff, we can probably spot a large percentage of them (how will we ever know for sure?), based upon the pattern of play by our opponent. If the player on the Button raises most of the time when in that position, he is either receiving good cards at an opportune time or, more likely, bluffing a lot. It’s no secret that picking up the blinds and antes with little risk is a very profitable venture; we all should do it whenever the math makes sense (see Lesson 13 for more on the topic). Bluffs are, at least for me, difficult to deal with when I have a hand such as top pair, second-best kicker like the K-J in the example above. It’s a decent hand, no doubt, but there are a lot of hands that beat it, so a re-raise back at me is usually going to convince me to fold. I say “usually” because if I were to fold every time, anyone who knew my style of play would simply come back at me whenever I raised.
But in a tournament situation, most of the players have never seen me before, so I’ll generally give them credit for the hand they’re representing with the re-raise. However, if my opponent has raised a lot on the Button and I then re-raise and he raises back, I will call if I have previously folded to him in a situation like that. Sure, this may be the time when he really has a hand, but I’ve got to send a message to not only my opponent, but the others at the table; you can’t move me off my hand just by coming back at me. This is a good point to talk about “gambling” as it relates to NLHE tournaments. You all have undoubtedly heard others say, “Sometimes you just have to gamble” and I agree. But there’s gambling and there’s gambling. Raising in early position with A-8s and calling a re-raise is gambling. I’d only do that if I were short-stacked and desperate.
What I do and recommend you do, is to gamble on whether or not my opponent is bluffing. What I hold isn’t all that important; it only has to be able to beat a bluff. As I gain experience, I’m constantly being surprised by how often players bluff. Missed Flush draws are somewhat predictable of course (if only two of a suit is on the board, nobody has a Flush) and missed Straight draws are fairly evident as well. More difficult to determine is the bluff where your opponent holds second pair, but is representing top pair and you hold top pair with a poor kicker. As an example, let’s say you have Kh-5h and the flop is Kc,Js,7d. Your opponent bets into it and you raise. If he calls your raise, you have got to at least suspect he also has a King and, if he does, his kicker may be better than yours. But don’t forget that he might be holding Q-J here and is hoping for either a J or Q to come on the turn, which is evidenced by the fact he didn’t re-raise. Let’s say the turn card is 10h. If he now bets into you, it could mean he has either made a Straight (from a hand of A-Q or Q-9), hit two-pair (from a hand like K-10 or J-10) or has a Straight draw (from a hand of J-Q). I would just call here, unless I had a lot of chips, in which case I’d raise in light of my Flush draw. Either move is a gamble, but I think it’s a reasonable gamble. I still have top pair and, unless the river card makes my hand totally untenable, I’m going to call his river bet, assuming he makes one. Of course, if the river makes my Flush, he’s getting it with both barrels, should he bet. Yes, he might have A-x of hearts, but that’s a chance I’m willing to take. After all, I’m gambling, right?
Back to information raises in general: They require a certain amount of discipline on your part to work effectively. When I first began using them, I would often call if my opponent re-raised me and I lost darn near every hand. A re-raise of your information bet is something that very experienced players will do in higher-level tournaments (like $50+ Sit and Go matches), but in lower level tourneys, you usually have to let the hand go if he re-raises. I’m sure you’ll run into many exceptions to that, but I approach it this way: My opponent’s re-raise has given me the information I wanted – basically that he has me beat – so I fold and go on to the next hand with no regret. When I’m against “sophisticated” opponents who will re-raise as a matter of course, I will go all in if I have top two-pair or better and that either makes them fold or I end up winning the hand because they’re betting an overpair. Sometimes they have a set and I’m toast, but that’s rare and my 16.5% shot at a Full House (the probabilty with two-pair made on the flop with 2 cards to come) makes the pain bearable.
I’ll see you here next time.