Slow-playing is a common strategy for many players but most of the time it just gets them into serious trouble
Slow-playing, put simply, is the tactic of not taking aggressive action when you have a strong hand. The reasoning behind the move is that, as you are almost certainly favourite to win the hand, you don’t want to ‘scare off’ the other players by betting. Rather, you want to give them a chance to hit the second-best hand and/or make a bluff at the pot, thus extracting more value. It sounds great in theory, but in practice slow-playing is overused and frequently misapplied.
More often than not slow-playing will leave you shaking your head in disbelief and heading to the rail. There are of course times where slow-playing is correct and profitable if used in the right manner. For example, it’s seldom right to bet the flop when you flop quads, top full house or a straight flush. Your goal in these situations should be to let your opponents catch up, mainly because your hand is virtually unbeatable.
However, at almost all other times, when your hand most definitely can be beaten, slow-playing is a sure way to get into trouble. This article looks at the six most common slow-playing screw-ups and how you can avoid them.
1. FLOPPING THE NON-NUT FLUSH
Everyone loves to play suited cards, so when the miracle flop does bring the flush our first inclination is sometimes to check and let someone else do the betting for us. However, this is a very bad idea. Here’s an example of how this often plays out: our hero calls a raise in position in a multi-way pot with 10?-9?. The flop comes Q?-6?-4?. The pre-flop aggressor leads out and is called in one spot. Rather than raising right there, our hero just calls. The turn either puts a fourth spade out there or pairs the board and now our hero has no idea where he is and ends up losing the pot.
What’s the solution?
A flopped non-nut flush is one of the most vulnerable hands a player can have. Yes, it’s extremely strong, but there are multiple ways a player can lose the hand if they aren’t already losing to a bigger flush.
Rather than slow-playing and just calling a bet or checking, your best course of action is to make a bet or raise. This will do two things. One, it will help define your opponents’ hands, and two, it will charge them a premium for playing a set or nut flush draw (the bare A? in this case). One option is to wait for the turn to make the bet or raise, but you can actually lose value by doing that. A person with the A? will likely call a bet or raise a decent amount on the flop and turn. By waiting until the turn, you lose not only the bet that you could have made on the flop, but the increased size of the bet your opponent would have called on the turn. For instance, if the pot is 1,000 and you check the flop and bet half the pot on the turn, you win 500 in chips from your opponent. If you bet half the pot on the flop and half the pot on the turn, you win 1,500 in chips. That half-pot bet on the flop makes the bet on the turn larger and increases your profit.
2. NOT ADEQUATELY PROTECTING YOUR HAND
Flopping a straight or a set happens so rarely that when we hit one we tend to focus solely on how to take all of our opponents’ chips. Greed overrides any rational thought processes, and sometimes this means we take a passive course of action. Let’s say you flop a set of fours on a Q-J-4 board and check the flop. You’ve now given players with Q-J, K-10, 10-9, 10-8, A-K, A-10, K-9 and any pocket pair bigger than fours an opportunity to overtake you at no cost. While your goal with big hands should be to extract the maximum profit possible, you need to be able to do so while also protecting your hand on a vulnerable board.
What’s the solution?
One of the big problems with slow-playing is that it kills any future value you might have because it becomes obvious that you have a monster. Betting your big hand immediately does several things that will make the hand more profitable. Firstly, it gets money in the pot before a scare card can kill your action, causing players with marginal hands to fold. Secondly, it actually disguises your hand. Too many players expect an opponent who flops the nuts to slow-play. When you lead out and bet, they will typically not put you on the nuts and will play back at you with any reasonable hand. The answer is to bet or raise. This is going to become a common theme, so get used to it.
3. PICKING ON THE WRONG PLAYER
Slow-playing requires the right kind of opponent. In order to make a profit by not betting or raising, you need to have an opponent who will do the betting or raising for you. There is little sense in slow-playing an opponent who will take every free card you give him until he has a better hand than you. If you flop a set against a calling station who only bets when he has a hand but will call any time he has a piece of the flop, you need to get your chips right away and make him pay to hit his gutshot or runner-runner draw.
What’s the solution?
The best people to slow-play against are over-aggressive players. These are the players who will routinely raise or make continuation bets whenever they sense weakness. There is some merit in checking to this kind of player as you know you are going to get some action. Additionally, there is some value in slow-playing against a very tight player because he will only call a bet when he has an absolute monster. There is of course some inherent danger in letting him catch up with you, but that’s something you have to evaluate.
Slow-playing any type of player but those two types, however, is usually a mistake that will lose you money. In case you haven’t heard it enough already, the solution is to bet or raise and make your opponents pay to play their hands. I think you’ll be surprised that over the long run you’ll actually make more money this way than by slow-playing.
4. THE SHORT STACK SLOW-PLAY
How many times have you seen someone with six big blinds left limp in with Aces and find themselves out of the tournament after four people see the flop with them and someone flops two pair. The eliminated slow-player usually says something along the lines of ‘I wanted to get maximum value for my hand’, or ‘I didn’t want everyone to fold.’ While accumulating chips when you are short-stacked with a big hand is a good idea, it’s much more difficult to do when you are up against multiple opponents and even more difficult when you are out of the tournament.
What’s the solution?
I bet you haven’t heard this one yet: bet or raise. There are plenty of people who will call a six-big-blind shove. If everyone folds it’s not the end of the world, as you still pick up the blinds and antes. Trying to slow-play when you don’t have the stack to do so is usually a recipe for disaster.
For example, let’s say you are short-stacked in a tournament with the blinds at 500/1,000 and a 100 ante. You have ten big blinds left and you pick up pocket Kings. Rather than move all-in as you have done in the past, you decide to raise to just three times the big blind in a bid to get some action. The table has shown a willingness to fold to an eight big blind all-in bet and you don’t want them to fold. You get two callers and the flop comes Queen-high with two clubs. There is 11,500 in the pot and you move all-in for your remaining 7,000. Both opponents call. One with A-Q, the other with a flush draw with A-8 which comes on the river. Because your stack size was so small and your opponents knew they would not be facing another bet from you, they were able to make a speculative call and eliminate you.
Shoving pre-flop would most likely have eliminated the A-8 from the hand and you would have doubled up against the A-Q. The moral of the story is you can’t slow-play if you don’t have the chips to do it with.
5. MULTI-WAY MISTAKES
Probably the second biggest slow-playing screw-up I see people make is slow-playing when there are multiple players in the pot. I’m not talking about situations where there are one or two other people seeing the flop. I’m talking about situations when there are four or five others. The problem with slow-playing in these instances with all but quads, straight flushes and nut full houses is that the probability increases significantly that someone’s hand will overtake yours. Here is a quick example of what I’m talking about…
You have 7-6 and the flop comes 8-5-4 rainbow. Your four opponents have the following hands: pocket Queens, J?-10?, 9?-6? and pocket fives. Let’s say you decide to check the flop. How many cards in the deck will improve the chances or put a player ahead of your flopped straight? Any 8, 5 or 4 will give the pocket fives a better hand. Any 7 will give the 9-6 of clubs a bigger straight. That’s 11 cards right there that can turn your winner into a loser. That’s not even counting cards like a second diamond, a second club, a Queen or a 9 that will give the other hands a chance to suck out on you.
What’s the solution?
If it seems like I’m repeating myself over and over again, it’s because I am. The correct play when you have flopped a big hand and there are multiple people in the pot is to bet or raise. Looking at the previous example, you would probably eliminate the 9?-6? and J?-10? from the hand. You’ll likely get paid off from the pocket fives and the pocket Queens. It’s fine to be unselfish and only take two players’ stacks rather than trying to take four.
The more people that remain in the pot after the flop, the more likely that it won’t be you stacking the chips. I do want to point out that there is one type of correct slow-play in this situation: the check-raise. Normally it is not a good idea to check-raise because it gives away the strength of your hand, but in cases where you have numerous people seeing a flop a check-raise can generate great value because usually someone else will also have a big hand and you will be able to get them to commit their entire stack.
6. NON-EVEN-CLOSE-TO-THE-NUTS SLOW PLAY
In my opinion, the biggest slow-playing screw-up people make is to slow-play a hand that isn’t even close to the nuts when they decide to slow-play. Hands that fall into this category are top pair hands, bottom two pair and idiot-end straights.
With these types of hands you want to do everything you can to protect your hand. Yes, more often than not they are the best hand, so you should be looking to play the hand. However, slow-playing these hands is usually an error of monumental proportions. Think about how many times you’ve flopped an Ace or a King with A-K and slow-played it only to see someone with A-Q or K-Q hit their kicker to beat you. There will always be times when people suck out on you, that’s inevitable in poker. Your job as a poker player is not to let them suck out on you for free.
What’s the solution?
This is the last time I’m going to say it, so you can breathe easy now. The correct play in these situations is to bet or raise. You can make an argument for check-raising with these types of hands, but that’s about the only acceptable slow-play and it’s dependent on knowing that your opponent is going to bet. Check-raising only works in those instances and since you will usually be giving away the strength of your hand when you do so and most smart foes will fold, you have to want the hand to end right then and there. With a vulnerable hand that is an acceptable result. Get what you can while you can without giving them a chance to overtake you.
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