Floating is when you call the flop with the main plan of taking the pot away before showdown. Ten years ago, it was a rare play. Today, in the words of my friend Oomekatzooo1:
“Even my grandma's floating these days and she doesn't know how to swim.”
The initial idea behind the float was to take advantage of a specific tendency in many solid but conventional opponents. Such players knew they were supposed to cbet, but if this cbet was called, they would usually give up their weak hands on the turn.
Against a hypothetical player who always cbets, and then gives up without a strong hand on the turn (always firing again rather than check/raising those hands he does continue with), floating is a great strategy.
For example, suppose we are heads-up at the flop with a pot of $100. Our opponent bets $50, and we have the elusive three-high. By calling, we win the $150 in the middle when he's weak, and lose the $50 flop bet when he's strong. Our EV calling the bet is:
EV = $150 x P (Opponent Weak) - $50 x P (Opponent Strong)
If half of his preflop raising range is strong enough for him to continue on the turn, our EV on the float is $150 x 50% - $50 x 50% = $50.
While few opponents are quite that predictable, you would have printed money by regularly floating many players in the past. Of course, times always change. Today, almost all good players are barreling the late streets much more, making some tricky plays like check/raising the turn, and are very well aware that their opponents are floating them.
These modern conditions don't mean that we should no longer float – far from it. We just have to choose our spots more carefully rather than assume that weak hands are very likely to give up on the late streets.
Here are factors favorable to floating.
It is much better to float in position. From out of position, you will have to act on the turn without the benefit of knowing whether your opponent plans to fire again. If you check out of position and he checks back, then he can much more easily go to showdown as it requires calling just a single bet.
When you're in position, besides having the information of whether your opponent appears to be giving up on the turn, your bet comes with the threat of an even larger bet on the river.
High Flop Cbet
If your opponent rarely gives up at the flop, then he will more often find himself at the turn with a hand too weak to continue against an aggressing opponent. The perfect opponent to float would be one who raises a lot preflop, has a high flop cbet, and a low turn cbet.
Ability to Improve
The main plan with a float is to take the hand away before showdown. But having the chance to make a strong hand by the river is always nice as a backup plan. Backdoor draws are particularly useful, as they give the potential to make a strong hand and win a large pot when our opponent doesn't fold. Outs to weaker hands, like second or third pair, can also be helpful in spots where ranges are wide.
Small sizing makes our float cheaper, as well as generally weakens our opponent's range. We also have to fold less to small bets to prevent getting exploited, and floating will often be the better choice over raising.
Flop Misses Opponent’s Range
If your opponent bets a flop that doesn't connect well with his preflop raising range, then there is a higher-than-normal chance that he isn't strong, and is instead just stabbing the flop with a routine cbet.
Let's now look at a couple of examples. In each one, the question we want to ask is: Will this be a good spot to float?
Example 1: A Final Table Float
Format: $11 MTT Final Table
Blinds: 50,000-100,000, Ante: 12,500
Action: With seven players remaining, stacks range from 1.3M to 6.2M. Everyone folds to the small blind who open-limps. He has a stack of 4.3M and has been relatively tight so far at the final table. Hero has 5.3M and checks behind with T7.
Action: Villain bets half-pot, and Hero folds.
Analysis: First, Hero should strongly consider raising preflop to pressure his mid-stacked opponent. As played, he should float this flop.
Almost all factors are favorable for the float: We have position. Our opponent likely has many marginal hands in his range limp-stabbing from the small blind, and so he will get to the turn with many weak hands. He is less likely to barrel the late streets, or be willing to play a large pot with a marginal hand, given the ICM concerns of being mid-stacked at a final table against a player who covers.
There is another important reason to float here, which is that we don't actually have such bad equity in this spot. If Villain has a hand like A2, for example, our six outs to second pair and backdoor draws give us a combined 27% equity, while meanwhile we are getting a full 3:1 on a call here.
Our equity against his range, combined with the likelihood of taking the pot away when he is weak, offer us a profitable opportunity to float the flop given the strong odds and our position.
Now let's look at another example focusing on our opponent's range.
Example 2: An Opponent on a Tight Range
Format: $55 MTT
Effective Stack: 3,000
Action: A reg playing 15/14 with an 82% flop cbet raises to 60 from UTG. You call on the button with T9. The blinds fold.
Action: Villain bets 100, Hero calls.
Action: Villain checks, Hero bets 250, and Villain folds.
Analysis: Like in the previous hand, we again have backdoor draws that allow us to occasionally win a large pot when we don't get our opponent to fold on the turn.
Unlike the previous hand, we can put our opponent on a much narrower range and use that information to our advantage. Specifically, a big part of a tight-aggressive player's UTG raising range is now just missed overcards at this flop. For example, suppose his range preflop is: 66+, AJo+, ATs, KQo+, KJs+. In that case, 72 of his 123 combos have completely missed the flop. His cbet percent is high enough that he is probably betting a number of these hands at the flop.
When he does hold a high pocket pair, meanwhile, there are 16 turn cards that will put 4 to a straight on board, giving us a strong chance of getting him to lay down his hand on the final two betting rounds. We can therefore float this flop with the plan of taking it away on many turn cards, either because he has given up on missed overcards, or because he folds one of the late streets after the turn puts four to a straight on board.