Big Potatoes

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?

5 Comments

  1. Nothing to add to your request of advice on poker, but I love the reference to Columbo. WRAL used to air oooooold repeats on one of their over the air channels (5.1? – this preceded the CBS/NBC swap from a few years ago). Loved watching those again.

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  2. If this is a crime scene and I have to maximize my value on the river without knowing the villain or the action that lead to this point, I’d approach it like this: You want to bet if you think there are more hands in his calling range than there are hands in his bluff+value range. Otherwise go for the check-raise.

    Most people don’t find themselves on the river without a good draw or a strong hand. There are no obvious draws from the flop that improve on the turn or get there on the river, so we have to assume that he most likely has at least some moderate strength. A thorough analysis would break down his different hands (no-value, some value, medium strength, large strength), how many combinations exist of each, how likely each is to call a small, medium or large value bet and how likely they are to bet themselves and how likely they would be to call a check-raise, or how likely they would be to just check back. While you could do population modeling, the actual scenario is player dependent and also would be influenced by how the action went. That’s useful to do to study, but not practical for most people (including myself) in the moment.

    In this exact situation for an unknown villain I would overbet the pot (like 1.3x) because you have a strong hand (obv) and you don’t block any of his calling range (2 pairs, top pairs, strong 2nd pairs) nor his value re-raise range (sets, top 2 pair). It can also get some hero calls by being so large. Now the caveat here is that you need to also be willing to overbet bluff occasionally too. If you’re not, then maybe go with a 3/4p bet instead.

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    1. The rest of the story.
      First, we have to ask what happened on the turn and what might that tell us. As played, I had bet approx. 3/4 pot on the turn as a semi-bluff and he called. This leads me to believe he has something he feels is worth defending. Maybe a weak ace, or strong J.
      Let’s back up further. On the flop, I checked and he checked back. Hmmm… could he be slow-playing a monster? If he checked-back a set on the flop (AAA or JJJ), then I bet the turn, maybe he decided to wait until the river to spring the trap.
      Let’s back up further. Pre-flop he min-raised from the CO seat. Does the “ordinary, routine villain” min-raise with AA or JJ? If not, what kinds of hands does he min-raise with? Perhaps a medium pocket pair (77 flops bottom set) or suited ace?
      Let’s back up further. A few hands before this one, same villain called off his entire stack (which at the time was similar in size to his current stack) with a hand that couldn’t beat top pair. He held AT and called an overbet jam on the river with the board reading 99T-6-J and got crushed by a full house (96).
      I think if he’s going to call any overbet, the likelihood of calling doesn’t go down much if I shove nearly 3x the pot vs. 1-1.5x. Or maybe I wasn’t thinking much at all other than if he’s going to make a mistake, I’d like to give him a chance to make a big one. I shoved, he barely hesitated before calling with KJo.

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  3. I had a longer comment, but wordpress ate it and gave nothing back 🙂 So here’s a shorter version:

    Most people don’t get the to river without a decent draw or some moderate value. There aren’t any obvious draws on the flop or turn (except ours) that get there by the river, so his holdings are likely value hands that we don’t block: strong 2nd pairs, top-pairs, 2 pairs, sets. Since our strong hand doesn’t block any of his calling range we should bet. I would lean towards over betting (~1.3x pot) because we aren’t blocking him. Of course that only works if we’re willing to overbet bluff occasionally. If not, then maybe a 3/4p value bet. He has lots of hands that can call and even a few (sets, top 2) that might raise. He also has a lot of hands that would call but not necessarily bet themselves (weak top pair, bottom 2, etc) and since he’s not likely to bluff (not a lot of missed draws to bluff for), so I don’t like the check-raise.

    Btw, while trying go back over a hands action to determine a range is very useful, actual “backwards induction” as a game theory technique is not very accurate in games of incomplete information. I’m often shocked at how my opponents could end up at the river with the cards they actually have. There will always be outliers, but at least it’s good to know what their most likely holdings are to make the right decisions in the long run, even with the bumps along the way.

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    1. True that backwards induction in game theory doesn’t work well with incomplete information. Perhaps this would be better stated as a different sort of backwards reasoning, most likely using that process to exclude certain hands from a river range more than to include. (Example: “wait a minute… he can’t have AA because he min-raised pre-flop. With AA he would have raised to at least 3x.”)

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