I remember a hand from a $25NL online game I played a few years ago. I was on the button and was dealt a pair of fives. A villain in the UTG+1 seat opened for a standard raise, and the cut-off cold called. Stacks were quite deep (over 150bb) and both players were bad, so I called with good implied odds as a set-mining play. Both blinds folded and we were three-way to a flop. What happened next can only be described as terrible play on my part…
The board came out A-5-2 rainbow, which is about as good as it gets in poker. The only hands that had me beat were A-A and 4-2. While rockets were indeed in the first villain’s range, so were a whole bunch of other big-Ace and Broadway hands, as well as other big pairs. The second villain’s range was very wide, but certainly didn’t include A-A (he would have most probably re-raised), and I couldn’t really put 4-2 in his hand. Everything else the villains held I crushed.
The good news is villain #1 led out on the flop for a little over half pot. Villain #2 folded. The action was then on me. This is the start of the bad news. Like a dummy, I just called with my set. Don’t ask me why, as I really don’t have a good explanation. I teach students to “bet your set” and don’t get tricky, but there I was just calling behind with very deep stacks sitting untouched.
The turn was a blank and the villain led again for about 60% of the pot, and, again, to evidently doubly prove I’m a moron, I just called again. I had the best hand for sure, but, for whatever reason, I felt afraid that a re-raise by me would chase him out of the pot. I guess. Meanwhile, the pot remained pitifully small compared to the remaining stacks.
The river was another blank, and this time the villain checked to me. I was still in imbecile mode, so I bet a measly half pot, evidently still afraid the bad guy was going to fold if I made it any larger.
Of course he didn’t fold. Instead, he quickly called my bet and tabled AQo. I won a meager pot when I should have won a big one. This was dumb, dumb, dumb. After flopping the set, I totally forgot the fundamental reason I play poker: to make money.
The golden rule of the game is to capitalize on villain mistakes. To exploit bad behavior and maximize value. To get the money in when you’re ahead. To bet!
So, what was I thinking when I just called, called, and then weakly bet? If I’d remembered why I was playing, and taken even a couple of seconds to consider the bad guy’s range (which our course would be littered with sticky aces), I would have realized he probably wasn’t going anywhere. Said another way, I could have raised and re-raised without much fear of him folding. I should have raised both the flop and the turn. I also should have bombed the river with a much larger bet. The goal with our monster hands is to play for stacks, not wimpy little fractions of stacks. I failed to capitalize on my big hand because I was too busy being scared of chasing the villain away. Timid play cost me a lot of money.
Slow Play = Small Pots
One of the common mistakes I see a large majority of newcomers (and, ahem, old-timers) make at the tables is slow-playing big hands. Slow-playing, for the most part, is counterproductive. If your goal is to win the most money you can, how are you going to do that by checking and/or calling? You build pots by betting and raising your big hands, not by hiding in the weeds and hoping someone else is going to build the pot for you. Only if you really and truly believe your opponent is going to fold if you breathe on him should you consider slow playing. Otherwise, you have to bet, bet, and bet some more. Pots don’t build themselves.
If you believe you are ahead of the villain’s range, you should usually be in aggression mode. This includes everything from TPGK to your big monster hands, like sets, boats, flushes, and straights. Slow-playing is also known as trapping, and it’s just a type of “fancy play syndrome” (FPS). Slow playing is a huge leak in many a beginner’s game.
FPS Risks More Than It Gains
Here’s another example, which is a hand a reader sent me to analyze: The Hero checked in the big blind with 5c-4c behind a limpede of callers. The hero ended up multi-way preflop with three or four other players involved. The flop came out Qc-Jc-6c, and our Hero checked his flush. The action checked all the way around. The turn was the 8d, but for some reason (probably “trapping”) the Hero checked again. The action folded ’round the table again. The river was an ugly 2c, and finally, the Hero decided to lead out. Of course he got re-raised all-in by one of the villains. Hero then tanked, knowing he was beaten, but then called anyway and was shown the naked Ac for a rivered nut flush.
This is the second reason slow playing is so bad: it allows your opponent to catch up and pass you for cheap. The risk is high, and the reward is low. Remember, it’s a sin to give your opponent a free card.
Bet Your Sets (And Flushes, And Straights, And…)
Slow playing is a) not profitable; and, b) dangerous. But many beginners do it anyway in the mistaken belief that they need to hide the strength of their cards and/or are afraid that the villain will fold to a bet or a raise. So they don’t bet, or if they’re facing a bet, they just call. And then, at best, the pot doesn’t grow, and at worst, their opponent sucks out on them.
The simple truth is that it’s much more important to build a pot when you’re ahead and to give your opponent bad odds to call with their drawing hands than it is to try and keep them in the hand. If they are going to fold, then they are going to fold. So be it. But if they’re not going to fold, if they’re going to be sticky and play a second-best hand, you need to get the money shoveled in while the gettin’s good.
While there are indeed (rare) situations for slow-playing our big hands, it’s rarely advised–especially at the micro- and small-stakes tables. The players at these stakes tend to be sticky calling stations who are unaware of when they’re offered bad odds to continue. So give them bad odds. And build pots.
The Bottom Line: Bet and raise when you think you’re ahead of the villain’s range.
Exceptional Poker — Learn. Master. Crush.