Understanding showdown value

Sometimes the best course of action is to get your hand to showdown as cheaply as possible

You might have heard people talking about showdown value – but what is it exactly?

Imagine you’re playing heads-up hold’em and you have 3-2 offsuit. The final board is 4-5-7-8-9 with no flush, meaning you are playing the board. In this situation, your equity against a random hand is a mere 0.46%, as every hand your opponent can possibly hold (except for 3-2) will beat you if the showdown is reached. Next, imagine your hand is K-Q. Now you beat some hands your opponent might hold, such as K-J, K-T, Q-J and Q-T. Your hand’s showdown equity has increased to 18.2%. Replace your hand with A-K, and it increases even more, to 27.1%, as you now beat worse Ace-high hands too. Replace your hand with J-T, and you beat or tie with every possible hand your opponent can hold, so your showdown equity increases to 99.5%.

How showdown value affects strategy

We’ve seen that showdown value lies between two extremes. However, when people discuss ‘showdown value’ they are typically referring to the intermediate hands that will neither win every time nor lose every time.

Every time you fold a hand that would have won at showdown, you are making a mistake that costs you the pot. So when your hand has showdown value, but you’re not sure if it’s strong enough to bet for value, it may be better to play your hand in a way that ensures you reach the showdown, and not give your opponent the opportunity to bluff you off the hand.

For example, let’s say you’re playing a deep-stacked six-max NLHE game online. It’s folded to you on the button, and you raise with 6-6. The big blind, an aggressive opponent, calls, and you see a flop of Q-J-7, giving you an underpair to the board. The big blind checks to you. You now have two possible courses of action – check or make a continuation bet. Let’s look at the consequences of each.

There are several arguments for betting in this scenario. One is that you are protecting your hand against an inferior holding that might out draw you. Another is that by betting, you gain information about your opponent’s holding. A further argument is that you might get your opponent to fold a better hand. However, betting would often be a mistake. Your aggressive opponent is certainly going to at least call with a better hand and will also call or raise with lots of worse hands (like T-9 as a semi-bluff, or Ace-high, or any two cards as a ‘float’) since all you’ve done is make an entirely predictable c-bet.

So not only have you failed to protect yourself or get your opponent to fold a better hand, you have also failed to gain any information. You’re building a big pot with no clue as to what you’re up against and no plan for future streets. What’s more, if your opponent raises, you will usually fold your underpair to the board. Since your opponent is often going to raise with a worse hand, you are setting them up to bluff you off a hand with showdown value. In effect, you’re giving your opponent the opportunity to punish you for betting – an opportunity that you don’t have to give them.

Contrast this with checking. Although you don’t gain any immediate value from your hand, and there is of course the chance that you will allow a worse hand to catch up, you do get one step closer to the showdown, where your hand has a decent possibility of winning. More importantly, you’ve denied your opponent the chance to force you into a terrible mistake.

When you check, you are inducing your opponent to bluff you on future streets, and therefore you won’t usually fold to a bet, especially if the turn and river are innocuous cards. When playing your hand as a bluff-catcher turns out to be a mistake, at least the pot will be small so you won’t lose much. But on the upside, when you are correct, you gain value from your opponent that you wouldn’t have gained by betting. This sort of play is key to a ‘small ball’ strategy like that used by Daniel Negreanu.

The key point to remember is this – if your hand has showdown value but you’re not sure where you stand, keep the pot small and don’t allow yourself to get bet off a hand that could potentially win the pot by giving your foe the ‘perfect play’.

Relative strength

Whether your hand has showdown value depends greatly on your opponent’s range of hands. The looser your opponent, the more hands they can hold that are inferior to yours. Of course, some situations force your opponent to widen their range – for example, in a heads-up game, your opponent’s range is going to be a lot wider than in a full-ring game. Also, a decent opponent’s range will be wider when they are in late position, so weaker hands might have showdown value.

Multi-way pots also affect your showdown value significantly. A hand that was a favourite to win at showdown against one player might be pretty worthless when there are four opponents in the hand. Take the same board as before, 4-5-7-8-9. When you held A-K, your showdown equity was 27.1%. Add a single extra opponent to the pot, and it plummets to 6.8%! In a four-way pot, it drops again, to 1.6%. As you can see, in multi-way pots you need something significantly stronger to have the same showdown value.

Potential pitfalls

It’s also easy to mistake hands that really should be value-bet as ‘showdown hands’. Some players check down hands like A-K on an Ace-high board after their flop bet was called, because they’ve decided their hand has showdown value but isn’t strong enough to bet again. Needless to say, these players are missing a lot of value from worse hands like A-Q and A-J! It’s important that when you feel you have the best hand, you don’t talk yourself out of value-betting by dreaming up lots of unlikely ways you might lose. Playing your hand for its showdown value is for when you’re not really sure where you are in the hand, not for when you have good reason to believe you are ahead.

There is an argument that strong, aggressive opponents won’t allow you to get to the showdown unchallenged, so the showdown value concept is less important. However, aggressive opponents are exactly the kinds of players that you want to play a bluff-catching strategy against. The fact that your opponent is aggressive simply increases the variance of the strategy, it doesn’t make it incorrect. However, it definitely helps to be able to distinguish between times when your opponent is being aggressive because they have a strong hand, and times when your opponent is betting because they have seen through your strategy and simply think you will fold to heavy action.

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