By Lou Krieger
The author of many best-selling poker books, including “Hold’em Excellence” and “Poker for Dummies”. A true ambassador of the game and one of poker’s greatest ever teachers.
“What you don’t spend, you don’t have to earn,” is an adage as true at the poker table as it is outside of it. Or, to quote the oft-quoted Amarillo Slim Preston, “If you can’t fold the best hand you can’t play.”
Both adages speak to the art of making a big laydown, an act that can keep you alive in a poker tournament, keep money in your pocket in a cash game by deftly slipping out of a noose your opponent has fashioned for you, or make you feel like a fool or a complete wus when you fold the best hand because you were sitting on the saddle point of a decision and just couldn’t pull the trigger and call.
When looking into the teeth of a big bet or raise and the pot is offering what appears to be the correct odds to call, it’s always important to assess what’s really at risk. It’s often your entire tournament life that’s up for grabs, and when that’s the case, your decision is bigger than just the results of this hand. You probably won’t win the tournament simply by making the right decision here regardless of the price you’re getting right now, because if you are eliminated, you have no chance at all.
In moments like these, many players seem oblivious to the fact that chip preservation is critical for tournament success. That’s not to suggest you should play scared. Far from it. You should never play scared poker. But you have to think through critical situations very carefully, and do so with an eye fixed on the element of risk versus the size of the reward. And if you decide the prize is worth the game, or decide that it isn’t, don’t be afraid to make your decision and act on it.
Some poker experts have opined that making a smart laydown is a dying art. For online poker players, there might be some truth to it. After all, if you’re in a smallish tournament online and you call and lose, it’s a simple matter to be back in action in seconds just by finding another tourney that’s getting ready to begin and buying in.
It’s different in a brick-and-mortar casino. Make a bad call, find yourself eliminated, and you’re faced with that humbling walk of shame from the table to the rail and out of the tournament area.
Poker expert Mike Caro is famous for asking this question at his seminars:
“Would you rather have $100,000 taken off your losses column or added to your wins at the end of the year?”
Mike’s point, of course, is that it makes no difference at all. Wins and losses have the same value, but many players spend much more time looking for ways to increase their wins than reduce their losses.
If you are the kind of poker player who never makes a big laydown, you are a calling station who usually calls even when the odds offered by the pot do not outweigh the cost to call. If that describes your play, opponents will value bet with hands that figure to be better than yours, lay down their marginal hands when you bets, and bleed you dry in the process.
In fact, if you find yourself slowly bleeding to death in too many poker tournaments, you can probably assume that you called too many hands that you really should have folded. You probably should have played the majority of your other hands more aggressively too, by raising rather than calling, but that’s a different topic altogether.
One path to improvement is to develop the discipline needed to make good laydowns while learning how to read your opponent for clues to help you discern whether your hand is good enough to win. Just feeling – or worse yet, hoping – you have a chance to win and then calling, is losing poker.
Assessing whether to call or fold is a better course of action is seldom easy and great laydowns are hard to make, but pot-limit and no-limit poker players often confront a tough laydown decision as part of their survival. But it’s important to realize that regardless of how savvy a player you are, you won’t be right all the time in a poker game, and that’s particularly true when deciding whether to fold or call based on incomplete information and your ability to decipher signs and signals from your opponent.
You’ll make errors here, and it helps to have a short memory. After all, it accomplishes nothing to beat yourself up over a misread and a bad decision. If you make an incorrect decision, just go on to the next hand. Vowing never to allow that to happen again is tantamount to taking the first step on that road to becoming a calling station.
Only players who never fold can avoid the indignity of laying down the best hand. But their fate is worse. They’ll call far more often with losing hands than they should, and call so often that they preclude themselves from ever becoming winning poker players regardless of how good the rest of their game might be.
Danger signs are poker’s red flags that should raise the hair on the back of your neck. Whenever an opponent makes a very small raise, it’s often a sign he’s looking for a call. Check-raises usually foretell either a big hand or a semi-bluff designed to win the pot right there, albeit with a hand that often includes a draw to the nuts. While he may be bluffing, the frequency of his bluffs depends on his playing style, the relative difference in your chip stacks, the stage of the tournament, and whether you’re nearing the pay ladder of a tournament or already on it.
When an opponent does something unexpected, it always helps to review his betting pattern before deciding what you should do. If he called before the flop, or before and on the flop, and then check raises on a small, ragged board, he might have flopped or turned a set, and when that’s the case, whatever you’re holding is probably no good. If you persist in calling just to keep him honest, it will cost you a bundle over time, and even if you fold a hand that’s ahead, you figure to save money in the long run compared to the cost of continuing to call when you know you are beaten.
When your opponent knows the game and understands pot odds, it can be helpful as you can use this information to understand where he’s coming from in a variety of situations. A player who knows pot odds will not overpay to draw for a flush or a straight unless he or she has reason to believe you can be driven off your hand with a big bluff on a subsequent betting round. But knowing that your opponent will pay to draw if the price is right but release a hand that isn’t receiving the correct odds to support a draw isn’t the entire answer.
Suppose you’ve made big bets on the flop and the turn with two suited cards on the board. You know your opponent respects pot odds and you made those big bets specifically to price him or her out of a draw. But when a third suited card comes on the river and your opponent bets, you have to ask yourself a couple of questions. The first, and easiest one, is whether your adversary has a flush.
Even when the answer is “no,” you have to ask yourself whether your opponent’s hand is a bluff or one that can beat your pair or two pair. You also have to decide how your opponent reads your game. If you’re seen as a loose, bluffy player, your opponent doesn’t need a real hand to make a big bet, because if he is correct in assuming that you don’t have much of a hand the pot can be stolen by representing a flush. But if you’re seen as a relatively tight, solid player, you’re probably beaten and might want to lay down your hand now, despite the investment you’ve already made in this pot.
If your opponent is a snug player who is not prone to big raises without a real hand, you might just want to release your hand when he makes a big bet. Because your opponent has a tight image, he has earned a license to steal a pot or two every now and then. And when he makes a big bet into an otherwise non-threatening board, he is either stealing or he flopped a set.
When tight players make this move they will have a set much more often than not, and even though you can’t deduce precisely what they have and therefore can’t figure whether your opponent actually has a big hand or whether this is one of those rare big bluffs, you might want to step out of his or her way and protect your chips by waiting for a better opportunity to gamble.
You can also prevent getting yourself into thorny situations by taking a small loss early on in the hand. Suppose you raised with J-J or A-Q and are re-raised by a tough opponent. While it’s tempting to see the flop and find out where you stand, it’s also a door that can lead you right into a trap.
If you called with J-J but figure your opponent is reraising with hands that are better than your pair, you can find yourself in real difficulty. To begin with, any Ace or King on the flop spells trouble for you, and things might even be worse if the flop is small. While you have an overpair of Jacks, if your opponent re-raised before the flop with Queens, Kings, or Aces, you might be looking at a situation where you’re going to have to play for your entire stack against a hand that’s been ahead of yours from the get-go. Depending on how you read your opponent, the best course of action might have been to fold your hand before the flop, take a small hit, but go on to the next hand with your stack pretty much in place.
While your opponent might have been bluffing, he also might have you beaten, and the better part of valor is often to wait for a better opportunity to push all your chips to the center of the pot.
The ultimate “What should I do?” resolution depends on your opponent’s playing style, and if you’ve been at the table with him for any length of time, you should have some fix on the range of hands he will raise and re-raise with, and use that to determine your best course of action.
No one likes tossing away the best hand. But if you don’t make that mistake, you’ll make far more at the other end of the spectrum by burning through your chips with calls you know you really shouldn’t have made. There’s no way to make the correct play/laydown decision every time. And the closer the call is, the more errors you can expect to made.
But it’s still better than never making a good laydown. After all, part of poker, especially tournament poker, is chip preservation. Without chips you can’t play. And without chips saved by making good laydowns, you won’t have a sufficiently sized stack to get maximum value from hands where you know you have the best of it and are just itching to push your entire stack toward the center of the table.
By making good laydowns along the way, you stand a better chance of having to use both hands to push all your chips into the pot instead of just two fingers.