Implied odds

Poker isn’t all about playing the odds, sometimes you have to take a leap of faith

The more situations you encounter and analyse, the more your poker intuition will give you the answer at the table

I’ve been told that since my article on pot odds in last month’s mag, the PokerPlayer postbag has been bulging with requests for more on the subject. Apparently I’ve woken the sleeping maths nerd within you. You should now have a solid grounding in the theory of pot odds and how they should dictate your play based on the odds or probability of winning the hand in relation to the amount of money in the pot.

Well, that’s not quite the end of the story. This month’s exciting revelation is that you can also play hands when you’re not getting immediate value from the pot – thanks to ‘implied odds’. Implied odds aren’t the odds you can calculate immediately, but the odds available when factoring in later bets in the hand. Now as these odds depend on future actions by players you have no control over, using implied odds relies on judging these actions accurately. So implied odds are not pure maths – they’re a blend of the science of poker and the art of poker.

How does it work?

The good news is that you’re already using implied odds every time you play. To give a simple example, every single time you get a small pair and call the big blind pre-flop with less than seven other players in the pot, you’re relying on implied odds to make it the correct play.

Remember it’s 7.5/1 for you to hit a set on the flop, but often you’ll call against the pot odds. The reason is that if you hit your set you can expect to make a lot more money. In other words you know the pot will be much bigger later in the hand and you would expect your trips to win the pot. This is implied odds.

Let’s look at a more detailed example of implied odds at work. As with pot odds the implied odds of a situation are often clearer when playing limit games. Let’s say you’re in a $10-$20 limit Hold’em game. You’re heads-up and you’ve reached the turn with a small pot of $30 up for grabs. You’ve got an open-ended straight draw and your opponent bets $20. The pot is now $50 and the odds of making your hand on the next card are about 4.7/1. It will cost you $20 to call, giving you immediate pot odds of 2.5/1. Clearly this is a call which pot odds says you shouldn’t make.

But let’s look at how implied odds can affect this situation. Suppose you know the player you’re in the pot with and that you know they’ll pay you off at the end if you make and bet your straight. Then you can anticipate taking another $20 from your opponent making a pot of $70 and pot odds of 3.5/1 – almost justifying the call. If there’s a good chance that you can successfully bluff the river should you miss your hand it may well be worth calling the turn.

Better yet, suppose there’s a good chance you can trap your opponent for a check-raise on the river forcing him to put two bets in. Then you can figure on a $90 return for your call – odds of 4.5/1 – that makes it definitely worth calling.

The above example is deliberately marginal as this is often the nature of implied odds calculations. As I said at the top of the article they’re a mixture of mathematics and judgement. You can work out the maths of your situation but the anticipation of action on future streets comes down to your judgement and your knowledge of the game and your opponents.

Stealth mission

Obviously implied odds situations are highly… well… situational, and there are some occasions where the implied odds are clearly very slim. Say you’re heads-up against a good player with a flush draw. You’re unlikely to get much future action, because a strong player is going to be wise to the flush card appearing and is likely to shut down.

Other situations have tremendous implied odds. Let’s say you’re in a multi-way pot against weak players holding 7-8 on a 6-9-A rainbow flop. You have a hidden straight draw, which would be the nuts if you made it, against players who will pay you all the way with a pair of Aces or even two-pair. Here your implied odds are immense.

Evidently there are two common factors here. The first is how hidden your hand is – the more hidden, the more likely you’ll get action on later betting streets and the greater your implied odds. The second key factor is the strength of the players you’re in the hand with. Broadly speaking, weak players are far more likely to call your future bets when you make your hand, whereas strong players will be able to get away from their losing hands and give you no further action. So, you have greater implied odds against weak players. Strong players will use this if they’re in a game of weak players and play more hands before the flop, as each has greater implied odds and a much bigger chance of paying them off.

And remember, if this all seems difficult to take in, bear in mind that the more poker you play and the more situations you encounter and analyse, the more your poker intuition will give you the answer at the table – without dissecting the situation.

Law of the jungle

The concept of implied odds should affect your hand selection before the flop in all big bet poker games, whether in cash or tournament format. The bigger the blinds in relation to the stacks, the smaller the implied odds; conversely, small blinds with big stacks give you bigger implied odds.

Put simply, the idea is that the lower the cost of entry into the pot compared to what you could win later in the hand, the bigger your implied odds.

In practical terms this means that in a lot of cash games – where the money is deep – it becomes correct to play small pairs and small connecting cards like 7-6. That’s because when you make your hand by hitting a straight or a set, you’ll have a chance to take a huge amount of chips from your opponents.

Again judgement comes into play, as this idea is not just dependent on the numbers involved in terms of bets and stack size, it also depends on how often the other players will pay you off when you hit your hand and how aggressive they’re going to play after the flop. Or to put it less kindly – how weak your opponents are. If you’re up against players who won’t stop calling or betting when they make a hand like top pair when you make a set, then you have great implied odds before the flop. In a pot-limit game these conditions would mean you could even play a small pair out of position or behind an opening raise – but always make sure it’s for a small fraction of your stack.

Tournament play

This brings us to applying implied odds in tournament poker. There is currently a debate in the poker world on how to play in the early stages of a tournament. Because the blinds are so low it’s been traditionally correct to play very tight early on – why risk a lot to win a little? But poker has changed and tournament fields are now looser and much more aggressive. That means you’ll find a lot of players willing to enter pots with substandard hands and – more importantly – without the ability to put hands down.

In these types of playing conditions the implied odds early in a tournament (small blinds, big stacks) are massive and it’s correct to play more drawing hands (8-7 suited, for example) than you usually would, if you know you have an edge over the other players.

A new wave of excellent young players – principally Daniel Negreanu and Gus Hansen – have been using this approach to great effect. It’s still a contentious tactic and a lot of players still maintain that you should play tight early on but it’s definitely worth considering if you find the right playing conditions.

One thing that’s undeniable is that your implied odds pre-flop diminish as the tournament goes on. As the blinds go up the cost of entry in relation to players’ stacks tends to increase. What this means is that the value of hands like small pairs and low connectors diminish as the event progresses and should be played less and less.

And there you have it. Pot odds and implied odds might not be the most exciting aspects of the game, but learn the concepts, apply them to your game and you’ll see a marked improvement in your play and you’ll understand the game better. It’s the next step up the ladder and it could prove extremely profitable.

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