I’ve consulted a lot of poker strategy consent for many years. Books, videos, training sites, chat forums… you name it. There’s some really good material out there.
Most of it, however, is delivered in a linear form. For purposes of this blog post, I’m specifically referring to no limit Texas Hold’em cash games. We’ll save tournaments and PLO or other variations for another day. By “linear,” I mean the content starts with pre-flop considerations and moves forward to the flop, turn and river decisions.
There are many resources for pre-flop play, including starting hand charts, relative hand strength charts, auto-fold ranges, HUD software, etc. accounting for differences in position, skills, specific reads on other players, stack size and other variables.
But this is small potatoes. At a $1/2 NL game, there’s $3 in the pot to fight over when the betting starts. The first raise might be as low as $6 or $7 at an online table, or as much as $12-15 at a looser live game. With a single raise and two callers, plus the blinds, the pot going to the flop could be anywhere from $21-48.
With a bet and at least one call on the flop and turn, the pot going to the river increases to anywhere between $60 ($6 pre-flop raise, two callers, then 1/3 pot bet and one caller on both the flop and turn) and $300 ($12 pre-flop raise, three callers, then 75% pot bet and one caller on both the flop and turn).
To simplify our discussion, let’s take the average of $180 in the pot when the river card arrives. A typical river bet could be anywhere between $45-150. Compare that to the pre-flop bet of $6-12. We’ve moved from small potatoes to big potatoes.
A big potatoes mistake or two can break an otherwise well-played session. A big potatoes mistake or two by our opponents can make an otherwise dull session highly profitable.
It seems like most of the instructional content starts with – and spends the most time and energy on – the small potatoes. It’s certainly much easier. With only two cards to start, organizing combinations into playable, not playable, and those in a grey area is fairly straightforward. One way to reduce the number of big potatoes mistakes is to start out with stronger ranges.
But here’s the thing. It happens to me and I’m sure it happens often to other players. Sometimes I just get lost. Try as I might to assign a pre-flop range to each opponent, then narrow that range based on their actions on each street and everything I know (or believe) about them, I still get lost. Not always, but often enough to be costly.
It’s the river. There is $180 in the pot. I’m not exactly sure what my opponent has, but he’s still here, so he must have something, amiright? How much should I bet for value? If I’m out-of-position, should I check with the intent of check-raising?
Or I don’t have the nuts, but should have the best hand. Is it worth investing another $100 or so? Given the pot size, should I try to check it down and expect to win most showdowns?
When I check a medium strength hand on a scary board (like top two pair, when flushes and straights both were made possible by the river card), and my opponent bets $150, is calling going to be the mistake that costs me a good night’s sleep?
I rarely feel lost pre-flop. To defend or not defend the blinds is a small potatoes question.
Is anybody reading this aware of any poker strategy content that starts with the big potatoes decision? “Backwards induction” is the art of reasoning backwards in time to determine the optimal course of action. The TV detective series Columbo was very popular in my childhood, and used this process constantly. The title character would arrive at a crime scene, usually highly confused, and proceed to ask questions and sort out the evidence to solve the mystery.
So I don’t have to create it myself, I’d love to find a book or YouTube channel or other content that starts at the end of big poker hands, with the hero being somewhat lost and facing a potentially large decision. Many experts are likely to say “that’s the wrong way to approach Texas Hold’em… if you are lost when you get to the river and the pot is already big, it’s too late to help you.”
Sure. I get it. Please humor me anyway.
Or, dearest blog readers, send me some hand histories in which you felt lost at a key decision point. It doesn’t have to be the river; perhaps the villain went all-in on the turn. Together we can try to figure out how to figure it out, and make the most out of our big potatoes.
I’ll even provide the first example. This is from a low stakes, online 6-max game, with blinds of $0.25/0.50. On the river, the board reads 7♠ J♥ A♦ – 5♣ K♦. I have T♦ Q♠ so the river gave me the nuts with a Broadway straight. We are heads-up, I’m the big blind and first to act with $6.25 in the pot. (OK, not that much, but work with me. These are baby steps.) The villain, in the cutoff seat, has $17 remaining which I easily cover. Should I check, with a plan to check-raise? Or lead out, and if so, how much?