Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the September, 2009 issue.
One of the toughest situations that come up in poker is where you are faced with a bet from a player who is representing a better hand than yours and there are further betting rounds to come.
The problem simplifies somewhat if you have a significant chance of drawing out on the hand he is representing. But what if you don’t? If draw outs on either side are not a major consideration, you have a tough call when your hand is mediocre since there will often be another bet or two to contend with.
A typical situation would be something like you having two pocket Jacks in no-limit hold ’em, the board reading 9 7 3 2 rainbow, and the preflop reraiser has bet again, his usual bet of half the pot. Against this guy, you estimate your chances of having the best hand at 30 percent. If you raise, he will probably call with the hands that beat you and will fold those that don’t. Thus a raise would be wrong. So, should you call?
If you or he are all-in or almost all-in, it’s a simple math problem and an easy call. Say the pot is $100 and he bets $50. Getting 150-to-50 pot odds, you need only be 25 percent to make this call correct. You are about 34 percent when you include the chances of catching a Jack. (But from this point forward I will ignore this chance, as well as his chance to outdraw you when analyzing tactics. It’s not totally insignificant, but ignoring it makes the calculation easier. And if you realize that on close decisions, you change your answer from “fold” to “call,” little harm arises from this simplification.)
The problem is that you and he are not even close to all-in. And he is likely to also bet the river. Does that change things? Of course it does. For instance, if you knew he would always bet half the pot on the river (i.e. $100) with every one of the hands he bet on the turn, you are supposed to fold to his fourth street bet. The actual money odds you would be getting would be 250-to-150 which requires a 37½ percent win chance. (Note: If you do call on the turn in this situation you now must call on the river since you are getting 300-to-100 odds. That’s why your effective odds are 250-to-150 on fourth street.)
A fourth street call could be even more of a mistake if your opponent is known to occasionally check the river with his weaker hands that won’t beat your Jacks. That would cut down your expected odds to perhaps 240-to-150 since you will still lose $150 when you lose, but only average winning about $240 when you win.
Because of the foregoing type of thinking, many players are quick to release hands similar to this Jacks example on the turn. But they may be making a mistake. Here’s why:
Most players who see that their opponent has called a turn bet, with what is obviously not a draw, assume he will probably call a river bet as well. So they are apt to check the river with many of the weaker hands they bet on fourth street. If you know that about them, everything changes. The extreme case would be if they never bet the river with hands that lose to (in this case) Jacks. Knowing that, you would never call a river bet, and the situation would revert to what it would be if you were all-in. You call the $50 bet on the turn and either lose it when you have the worse hand or win $150 when you don’t.
What about if he bets the river 10 percent of the 30 percent of the time you beat him? It still means you are right to call his turn bet and fold to a river bet. We are assuming that all his bets are half the pot, so in this scenario we are getting 150-to-50 on a 27 percent shot. (He bets the river 73 percent total.) Still OK. Even without that extra chance of spiking a Jack.
Of course in this particular example, if we figured he would bet the river with close to half the hands that lose, as well as all of the hands that win, we again must fold the turn. If we call the turn and fold the river, we only win about 20 percent of the time. And calling the river is even worse. Do you see why?
Anyway, in situations like this, players should give serious consideration to calling one time with the intention of folding if he does in fact fire another barrel.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that the fourth street call, with a 30 percent hand, could theoretically be right against some players even when you have every intention of calling the river bet. As an extreme example, say that you think that your Jacks are only 20 percent to be best, meaning that a fourth street call would be wrong if it put you all-in. But suppose you also believe that almost all the hands that beat you are big pairs that you think he will be afraid to bet for value on the river. Meanwhile, you are almost sure that when he has a loser he will bluff about the size of the pot. In this scenario, if you call the turn and the river, you will win $350 (the original pot plus a $150 turn bet plus a $200 river bet) when you win, and lose $50 when you lose. 7-to1 effective odds on a 4-to-1 shot
Hopefully, I have given you some food for thought when you are in situations like this. When you don’t know your opponent’s proclivities, you try to stick to the optimum game theory strategy. But when you do know his proclivities, you can do a lot better.