Winning tourneys

It’s easy to win when you keep flopping the nuts but making great laydowns will give you a shot at every tournament

Amarillo Slim once said, ‘If you can’t fold the best hand you can’t play.’ But then he also once said, ‘I’d put a rattlesnake in your pocket and ask you for a match,’ so it’s hard to know what to think.

In no-limit Hold’em, a lot of the best laydowns are made pre-flop

One thing, however, is for certain: the art of the great laydown is dying out in poker. This is happening for two reasons. First, players are far more loose and aggressive than they used to be. This means it’s often correct to call players with marginal hands. The second reason is the internet. It’s so easy to call when all you have to do is click a mouse, and it’s even easier to be swept up in the momentum of a hand than to work out whether you’re beaten.

However, making good laydowns is vital to being a winning player, no matter what your style. As Mike Caro famously pointed out, at the end of the year would you rather have $100,000 taken off your losses column or added to your wins column? Well, Mike, most of us would like $100,000 to make the choice; but his point was that wins and losses have the same value, yet most players don’t spend enough time minimising their losses.

When I talk about laydowns I mean folding a hand that has some merit. You’ll get no points for mucking A-K when someone re-raises you on a 9-8-7 flop. I’m talking about folding hands that could be winning, but may be beaten. For example, an overpair to the board, or a set when the flush card arrives. Knowing when to let this kind of hand go is a blend of art and science, so I’ll look at both aspects.

The feeling

Some part of laying down a good hand is down to that overused term in all poker discussions: ‘feel’. You’re sitting at a table, whether it’s live or online, and you ‘feel’ that your hand is no good. Now, if this is a sense, the best way to explain it is your subconscious mind feeding back to you the experience you’ve accumulated in your time playing. Did you pick up on a facial tick? Did they wait too long when betting? Often you’ll be well served by acting on this instinct.

One thing that separates the good from the great is the ability to back their instincts at the table.

Some people can do this naturally with complete accuracy, and those people are called Phil Ivey. For the rest of us it’s a skill that can be honed and worked on. Remember, there are two different things to hone: first, hearing the voice that tells you you’re beat; and second, acting on it.

Danger signs

There are basic moves that should get those voices in your head instantly whispering concerns. Min-raises and check-raises practically scream ‘monster’ or, at the very least, a hand that is drawing to the nuts. When you face either of these value-milking moves think back to the pre-flop action. Did they flat-call and then check-raise on a small to middling flop? It’s quite possible they’ve got a small pocket pair and have flopped a set and then you’re in all sorts of bother if you still think your overpair is good.

Chips are there for a number of reasons, one of which is to find out if you’re ahead and, if your opponent calls, to determine what they may be holding. If you think you’re facing a player that understands pot odds you can rule out lots of drawing hands if they’ve paid over the odds for a flush or straight draw, especially if they’ve called out of position. If they’ve called your bets on the flop and turn, only for runner-runner flush to pop up on the river, followed by a heavy bet, ask yourself: have they really got the flush? Probably not, but have they still got your top pair beaten? It’s quite likely, especially if you’ve projected a tight table image.

Weird science

Of course, you can also make your decisions easier with some poker science. First, by looking at pre-flop decisions. In no-limit Hold’em, a lot of the best laydowns are made pre-flop because it stops you from losing a lot of chips in one hit or across a few streets.

Deciding whether to fold a good starting hand pre-flop or commit to it can be difficult, but the shorter you are on chips the easier the decision. Problems arise when you face action pre- flop on a good but not great hand. If you’ve opened for a raise with a hand like 9-9, 10-10, J-J or a big Ace and find yourself being re-raised it can be a tough tournament-changing decision.

Often, the temptation is to call the re-raise and see if the flop helps you. That’s fine, but you can all too easily get trapped doing this. For instance, if you call a re-raise with 10-10 and the flop comes 7-4-2, then your chips are almost certainly going in against a hand that could easily be beating you. Sometimes the best play is to fold the hand pre-flop. It could be argued that dropping such hands is an unfashionable play, as players are more aggressive now and will re-raise you pre-flop with a wider variety of hands, but that creates an even stronger argument to the ‘find a better spot’ school of thought as you can wait for a premium hand before dropping the hammer.

As with most decisions at the table, laydowns are player-dependent. After playing with someone for a decent amount of time you should sketch out their pre-flop re-raising range, how much they’ll bet with a premium hand, and how often they will do it as a move with a sub-standard hand.

You should also often be folding semi-decent hands in the blinds. If the pot is opened with a raise and you are in the big blind with A-J or A-10, you should be able to throw these hands away quite easily. It’s often better to lay these hands down and prevent getting into difficult situations later in the hand. Remember, a lot of mistakes and difficult decisions can be traced back to calling with a marginal hand pre-flop.

Odds, I call

Pot odds are an extremely important part of judging when to make a good laydown. A lot of players don’t take them into consideration – or use them wrongly – when they’re in a tough spot. You’ll often hear poor players lament the fact they ‘had pot odds so they had to call’, regardless of their hand or what the pot odds were. When the betting is ending, i.e. on the river or when the money is going all-in, you should figure out your pot odds. You should then compare this to your chances of your hand being good (if possible, against the range of hands your opponent could be holding) to assess whether it’s right to call or lay the hand down.

So let’s say you’re playing against a weak, predictable player. You’ve been betting two-pair and he’s been calling. On the river the dreaded flush card arrives, you check and he bets. The pot is 7000 and he bets 3000. This gives you a price of 3000 to call, which could see you win 10,000. So your pot odds are 3.333*/1, or 30 percent. Now you need to assess if your two-pair has a 30 percent chance of being good. As an example, you could say there’s a 10 percent chance he’s bluffing (there’s always a chance they’re bluffing even if they’re an opponent who doesn’t do it frequently), a 10 percent chance he has a weaker hand that he now thinks is good because you’ve checked. The rest of the time he has the flush or a big hand he’s been slow- playing. So there’s a 20 percent chance your hand is still good – not enough to make the call. In this spot, against this weak, predictable player, your best play is to lay the hand down.

Powers of reasoning

Making the right laydowns is tough, as no one likes to think they’re folding the winning hand. So the more times you can use hand-reading and pot odds to make the right deduction, the more often you’ll be able to get away from losing situations and that will win you lots of money in the long run.

I’ve been very conscious while writing this article that if misinterpreted it could make you play scared. So my parting thought is… don’t play scared! Just think clearly during a hand, try to deduce what players are holding through their actions and your intuition, then back your judgement to the hilt. Think of the number of times that you thought you were behind but couldn’t face dropping your hand. Now think of how much it would have saved you in chips or cash. The key is to be able to pull the trigger, either by committing to the hand or making a good laydown.

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