Postflop heaven: Five-step plan for perfect play

Can you be a postflop God? Follow Ross Jarvis’s five-step path to enlightenment and find out that poker miracles can happen

It’s easy to play poker before the flop. By now, everyone knows to play their monster pairs and A-K aggressively, set mine with small pairs and throw in the odd three-bet bluff to keep their opponents guessing. That part of the game often plays itself, especially in tournaments when stacks are much shallower.

When you move to the flop and beyond things get much more interesting. Generally, players are much weaker at playing postflop and the main reason is that they lack experience at seeing turns and rivers. Think about it – in every single poker hand you play you make a preflop decision. By this constant repetitive process you are bound to get more comfortable. Compare that to the amount of times you see the flop or, crucially, turn or river cards and you’ll quickly see why players make many more mistakes on those streets. Players also constantly fail to capitalise on situations where they can steal the pot or gain extra value.

Do you feel uncomfortable playing poker on later streets when the pot size is larger and you’re not sure what to do? It’s time to turn that feeling upside down and start putting your opponents in difficult situations instead. Find out how with five heavenly moves that you can add to your game on the journey to being a postflop God…

1. Check-raising is allowed

Difficulty: ★★
Balls needed: ★
Effectiveness: ★★★★

It’s hard to believe but until the turn of the millennium, check-raising was considered such a gross display of poker etiquette that it was banned in many casinos. In today’s hyper-aggressive NLHE games that rule seems absurd but the sad thing is that, despite being allowed to check-raise with impunity nowadays, not enough players take advantage of what is a very effective play.

Before I explain why, let’s do a little test. Think back to the last dozen times you check-raised the flop (or better yet, search for the hands if you use poker tracking software). How many of those occasions did you have a strong hand like a set, two pair or even a nut flush draw? I am going to guess you had a monster the vast majority of the time. But don’t worry, you’re not alone in doing this – it’s a common pattern that players only check-raise for value, but it’s a major error.

Check-raising is an effective move that gets a lot of folds from your opponents. However, if you are only doing it with your strong hands you are failing to exploit this and leaving money on the table. It’s crucial that you increase the amount of times you check-raise, both with very strong hands and your bluffs. That way you’ll be balanced enough that your opponents can’t get a read on what you hold.

There are some recurring spots that make for excellent check-raising opportunities. A common example is when you have a hand with backdoor equity, such as overcards and a gutshot or a backdoor flush draw. Let’s say you call a raise preflop with Q♣-J♣ and your opponent c-bets on a T♣-8-3 flop. This is a dream scenario to check-raise as a semi-bluff. If called you have overcards that could give you the best hand on the turn, a Nine would give you the nuts and any club would give you a flush draw you can continue to barrel with. That is a ton of equity right there – plus, the great thing is that your opponent will fold a lot of the time too, meaning you don’t even have to face difficult decisions on the turn and river!

Flops such as 8-7-5 are great to check-raise too because you can represent a lot of straight, two pair and set combos. Even if your opponent holds a hand as strong as an overpair, they will often fold if you bet multiple streets. Of course, as with all bluffs, it’s vital to choose your opponents carefully. If they are the type to never fold then make sure your check-raises are mainly for value.

2. Punish all checks

Difficulty: ★★★
Balls needed: ★★★
Effectiveness: ★★★★★

In the early days of the poker boom, one of Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott’s printable catchphrases (the rest would get PokerPlayer shut down faster than a Jennifer Lawrence selfie) was, ‘never check twice’. The Devilfish knew that checking showed weakness and that aggressive players would capitalise on it.

However, Ulliott was wrong in one respect – the catchphrase should have been, ‘never check once’. A foolproof play is to target preflop raisers who check behind on the flop. This is especially true on flops like 9-2-6, K-5-2 or paired boards such as J-7-7. Unless they’re an especially tricky player that mixes in checking their monsters, their range will be severely capped once they check back the flop. What this means is that the best case scenario on a J-7-7 flop for them will be a weak top pair, with the largest part of their range instead made up of Ace-highs and small pocket pairs that want to control the size of the pot.

To counter this it’s time to make the pot sizes massive. When someone checks behind on a flop like this you should overbet the turn. Bet anywhere from 160%-200% of the pot and watch them fold. If your opponent is stubborn and calls, then a big bet on the river – preferably another overbet – will get the job done. It’s a high-risk play and if it goes wrong you will lose a lot of chips, but when opponents play their hands so face-up it’s an open invite for you to attack them. It’s an act of poker negligence to let them get away with their passive, pot controlling ways.

3. Fire away!

Difficulty: ★★★
Balls needed: ★★★★★
Effectiveness: ★★★★

You must always think about what type of hands your opponent is holding when you play poker. With every move that happens in a hand – such as a preflop raise, three-bet, four-bet or call – the range of hands your opponent is likely to have will be narrowed down. When you are able to narrow it down significantly, great opportunities occur to bluff them out of pots.

A perfect scenario is when a player opens on the button, you three-bet from the big blind and they just call. Immediately you can scratch off AA-JJ and A-K from their range because they would have most likely four-bet. With this knowledge, if the flop comes Ace or King-high, such as A-4-2 or K-7-2, we must be prepared to barrel away. Our range quite feasibly includes monsters that would bet three times in this spot whereas theirs doesn’t. Once again, they have a capped range. Using these two flop examples their strongest possible hands would be A-Q and K-Q respectively (ignoring the small chance they flopped a set of course). They will call one bet with those hands and maybe even two, but most players will talk themselves out of calling a river shove.

It’s this type of ultra-aggression, used in the right situations, that separates competent postflop players from those that are truly feared.

4. Turn up the heat

Difficulty: ★★★
Balls needed: ★★★★
Effectiveness: ★★★★

Out of every street in NLHE the turn is the most misunderstood. Players call when they shouldn’t, fold when they should raise and, most of all, don’t bluff enough. Aggression on the turn is given a ton of respect and players fold all the time. It’s a waste of this information if we aren’t bluffing enough to take advantage.

When you are in position it will be easier to find good bluffing spots. For example, your opponent raises from early position and you call a c-bet on the button with 6-6 on a 8-4-2 flop. The turn is an Eight and he bets two-thirds of the pot. This is an excellent spot to put in a raise because you have far more Eights in your button calling range – such as 8-7, 9-8, T-8 – than he does raising from early position.

Another great way to add more bluffs into your turn play is to raise with your draws. Let’s say you flop the nut flush draw with A-4 on a Q-9-5♣ flop and face a c-bet. You absolutely can just raise right now and look to get the money in or make your opponent fold. An alternative that isn’t used enough is to just call the flop and then raise a turn bet, hit or miss. This is such a convincing play that your opponent will often fold. Even if they call you still have the equity of your nut flush draw.

Thinking outside of the box in spots like this can make you a player others don’t want to get involved with. That’s an image that is worth its weight in gold.

5. Don’t be stupid

Difficulty: ★★
Balls needed: ★
Effectiveness: ★★★★★

Allow me to compare poker to a house for one second to help explain this final step. Sexy postflop bluffs are the solar panels, double-glazed windows and landscaped gardens of the property. They’re not essential, but they’re pretty cool and they add to the value of our property. However, what’s of far, far more importance is the foundation. If it’s at risk of falling down or blowing over in the wind then it doesn’t matter how many amazing gizmos you have – you still have a house that is useless. The same is true in poker. If you are incapable of getting value when you have a big hand or being able to fold when your hand is clearly second-best, then your fundamentals are rotten. Fixing these leaks postflop should be your first priority.

A common example is players stacking off when it’s clear they shouldn’t. Even a strong hand, such as top-pair top-kicker, can quickly shrink down on certain board textures and against aggressive action. It’s vital that you recognise this and adjust accordingly. For example, A-Q on a Q-J-T flop may look like a strong hand, but it’s actually very vulnerable and if you face aggression you should usually fold. Similarly, a hand as strong as T-T is quickly reduced to nothing more than a bluff-catcher on a 8-9-T-J-x board. Instead of betting and calling a shove just because you have a set, it’s much better to either bet and fold to a raise or just check-call.

In poker, your aim should always be to avoid being put in difficult spots as much as possible, while inflicting that pain on your opponents instead. Working on your fundamentals and not playing big pots when you are possibly drawing dead is one simple, essential way you can do that.

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