Tom has been writing about poker since 1994 and has played across the USA for over 40 years, playing every game in almost every card room in Atlantic City, California and Las Vegas.
Limit Hold’em – The Flop
Before the flop the only information available to you is position, the value of your hand and any knowledge you might have acquired regarding the playing tendencies of your opponents. The flop is the defining moment in hold’em. In one smooth motion the dealer will reveal almost seventy two percent of your entire hand. Once the flop is delivered, everyone has far more information and it is now that you need to quickly plan how to proceed.
That decision is made up of many components. You have to compare the odds of making the best hand with the payoff offered by the expected size of the pot. But the mathematical odds against making your hand compared with the pot odds is not all you have to consider. It’s further complicated because you must also account for the game being loose or tight, passive or aggressive, and whether your opponents are skilled or unskilled players. This is referred to as the game’s texture. If, for instance, six players are regularly seeing the flop then you’re in a loose game which means if you did not hit the flop someone else has.
Common Flop Situations
In limit hold’em you will need to be willing to muck the majority of hands you are dealt but when you get to see a flop then your hand will fall into one of the following categories:
- You have a very strong hand (e.g. flopped a set or a full house)
- You have a good hand hand (e.g. top pair, top kicker)
- You have a hand that might be the best hand (e.g. second pair)
- You have a hand that is probably behind
- You have a drawing hand
- You have nothing and no draw
The texture of the flop, your position and your opponents’ likely holdings, position and tendencies will influence how you play a hand. But let’s look at each of these common situations and examine how you might proceed on the flop.
You have a very strong hand
With a very strong hand your main concern is how to win the most money. Much of the time, you want to give your opponents a chance to catch up — to make a good but not great hand — that will tie them to the pot for future betting rounds. While there may be some chance that your opponent will catch a miraculous card to beat you, chances are they won’t, and that if you can keep them in the pot on a draw and nothing more substantial than hope, you figure to win much more than you would if you put the hammer down early in the hand and they folded to your display of power.
Another application of this skill is being aware of players behind you when you have a very strong hand. Raising is not always the best play if you will clear out all of the players yet to call. Of course making decisions that can increase your win rate may also carry a greater risk of losing in your attempt to gain an extra bet. However, done over the long term, these moves will show a profit.
Let’s look at an example. Suppose you’re in the small blind with and you get to see a flop with three other players. You flop a set and check. It’s checked around to the player on the button, who bets.
What’s your best move? If you raise then you’re announcing that you have a very big hand. In this situation a check-raise is overplaying the hand and more money can be made by calling quietly, allowing somebody to bet the turn, and then coming in for a raise. Smooth calling also motivates any of the other players into calling on the flop as well.
Good limit hold’em players are always thinking about how to extract the maximum value each time they are involved in a hand. The difference between a novice and an accomplished player, playing the same winning hand, is the difference in a mind set of “raise, bet, bet” for the novice and a thought pattern of “How can I maximize my win for this hand” for the accomplished player.
It’s also important to remember that the flop is an inexpensive betting round. The betting limits double on the turn and river so it’s common to check and call on the flop when you’re in early position with a strong hand and keep as many of your opponents in the hand as possible. Your plan is to check-raise on the turn when the bets double. This of course assumes that the board is relatively safe and you aren’t worried about any draws that may be lurking.
You have a good hand
Flopping top pair with top kicker is a common hold’em situation, especially when you’re holding a hand like and connect with the flop. Now you have either a pair of aces with a king kicker or a pair of kings with an ace kicker. If you’re against a lone opponent who hasn’t flopped two pair or better, you have him dominated to the point where he probably has only three outs to beat you. You’re hoping he has top pair too, albeit with a lesser kicker. You can come out betting and if your opponent also has top pair he’s going to call you (and he’s going to lose).
If you bet the flop and he calls and the turn card is not scary, you have additional choices too. If your opponent is aggressive, you can check the turn if first to act and raise if he bets. If he is a more passive player — one who is more prone to call that to initiate aggressive action — you can bet into him. If he is first to act, you can raise if he bets or bet if he checks.
You have the same options available to you on the river too. After all, a player with a very good hand is likely to do his raising on the turn rather than wait until the river. So if your opponent does not raise the turn and the river card doesn’t complete any obvious draw, you can bet again on the river and hope your opponent calls you again.
But somewhere around here is a line you have to be wary of stepping over, and if you’re not aware of potential danger then you will lose some big posts where you might have been better off folding. Weaker players, to the detriment of their bankrolls, often become married to their top pair hands. And that’s because they tend to play only the intrinsic value of their own hands without regard for what their opponents might be holding because of how aggressively or passively they’ve played on previous betting rounds.
An example is open raising in middle position with a hand such as and having four players call, including the big blind. Now if the flop comes down and the big blind leads out, some players will reason that they hold top pair, top kicker and will usually pop it even with all those players behind them.
This is a costly play in limit as players tend to play high cards. There could already be a made hand out there and if not certainly some very strong draws. In limit hold’em tight is right and this would not be an instance to show aggression.
You have a hand that might be the best hand
With a hand like second pair, you have to slow down a bit (unless you are up against one opponent and think you can bet or raise him off his hand), particularly if you have more than one opponent in the pot with you. If you are holding and the flop is , and you have a couple of opponents, you probably want to check and see what transpires. If there’s a bet and a call, it’s easy to fold this hand. If there’s a bet, a fold, and now it’s your turn to act, you need to be aware of your opponent’s level of aggression as well as cognizant of whether there was any raising before the flop — which suggests someone is holding an ace. When that’s the case you probably want to save your money and get out now.
You have a hand that is probably behind
If you have a hand that is behind but you also have a draw to go along with it, you should keep on playing and see if your hand improves on the turn. Suppose you have and the flop is , you might have the best pair but your hand has a significant amount of value from its flush draw. You can play aggressively because you have a pair and a draw and a number of ways to win, or you can see if you can improve your hand inexpensively on the turn.
But most of the time you sense your hand is behind you won’t have a potential draw that can bail you out on a later betting round. When that’s the case — when you are running behind and only a miracle can save you — your strategy is simple. If you don’t believe you can win by bluffing, just toss your hand away and save your money. Remember, money saved spends just as well as money won, and saving a dollar is just as valuable to you as winning one. It might not feel as good — after all, winning feels great — but that saved dollar will go just as far as a dollar you won.
You have a drawing hand
With just a draw, you probably need to improve to win unless you figure you can bluff your opponent off of a better hand. But if you don’t think you can bluff your way to victory, just quietly call and hope you get lucky and complete your draw. If you do, you can allow your aggressive opponents to do your betting for you, or against more passive players, you can come out betting the turn and force your opponents to make a decision based on whether they believe you made your hand or are bluffing.
Limit poker relies very heavily on knowing your price and the odds. Indeed, with 2 or 3 players in the pot with you, you want to make your flush as inexpensively as possible, because the ploy of raising now and coming out with what amounts to a continuation bet on the turn is not going to drive all your opponents away, so it’s not going to win the pot for you. But if you have 4, 5, or even more opponents in the pot with you, you’re probably getting the right price on that betting round alone to make betting worthwhile. After all, if you’re getting 5-to-1 on your money going from the flop to the turn, and that exceeds the odds against making your flush on the next card, it pays to build the pot. Another advantage of doing so is that it might cause some of your adversaries’ to become committed to the pot and pay you off on the river too.
If you have only one opponent you can try raising because it gives you additional ways to win. If you can represent a big hand in addition to having outs for a flush draw, then why not do it. You may well win the pot simply by betting. It all boils down to the number of opponents and how likely they are to call and play against you. In addition to all of that, raising on the flop can buy you a free card on the turn.
One thing you have to stay away from is when you have a flush draw is to make a habit of just calling until you make the flush, and then betting, because your wise opponents are going to realize that when a third suited card comes and you bet, you have a flush, and they’ll get out of your way. The semi-bluff is a great play, which is betting with a flush draw — because it gives you two chances to win. This has been talked about by everyone since David Sklansky wrote his first hold’em book 35 years ago.
Selective aggression is good. But being aggressive with a draw against a medium-sized field of players is kind of foolhardy because you’re not going to get all of them, if any, to throw their hands away, and the prize is usually not worth the game.
You have nothing and no draw
When you have no hand and no draw, your only way to win is to bluff your way to victory. Your decision comes down to how well you can read your opponent, though most of the time with no hand and no draw, the smart and easy play is to muck your hand and save your money for a better opportunity. When you have four or more opponents in a hand with you, you can be pretty much assured of the fact that if the flop didn’t favour you, it probably helped someone. It doesn’t matter which player it helped — that player is now ahead of you.
The Size of the Pot
Limit poker focuses to positive expectation and if you do not pay attention to the size of the pot, you cannot be playing the game properly because you won’t be able to properly calculate where you stand in the hand and you won’t know how to proceed. One should always be aware of the size of the pot. Small pots are easier to steal since they don’t offer opponents something worth fighting for. If the pot gets large, then semi bluffs and bluffs go way down in value because any opponent with a reasonable hand will usually call you down. Knowing this helps you decide whether to check to keep the pot small or bet and/or raise to get as much money in the pot as possible. Weaker players just play their cards and are pretty much oblivious to these type considerations.
Spotting Common Traps
Avoiding traps is a key skill that will serve you well. Always try and understand the reasoning behind an opponent’s actions. Here’s an example of a common trap set by an aggressive player who raises preflop and gets a couple of callers. After the flop a very common occurrence is “checking to the raiser.” So what does it mean when the pre-flop raiser checks too? Well, he could have missed the flop entirely, but more often than not it raises a major red flag. If you know he is aggressive and everyone checked, why would he not make a continuation bet hoping to pick up the pot right then and there? It usually means he caught so much of the flop and feels he is so far ahead that he doesn’t need to protect his hand but is hoping for someone to catch up slightly and lose more money. It amazes me how well this ploy works against weaker, more naïve players.
Many limit players believe they know how to play well and put their game on auto-pilot. Always know why you are betting, checking, calling or raising on the flop. If you cannot articulate a reason for your decisions at the poker table, you are not playing the game well. Always ask yourself, “Should I be involved in this pot”? Answer honestly!
Weak, beginning players primarily think about the strength of their holdings and little else. If you’re just starting out, take the above factors and begin thinking more deeply about them. Always examine the texture of the flop, the size of the pot, along with the tendencies of your opponents.These factors normally do not stand alone but must be combined to make an informed decision regarding how to play your hand. If applied well, you should see immediate improvement in your results.