The poker handbook: Are there hard and fast rules that always work?

How much truth is there in the poker ‘rules’ that many players live by? Nick Wright separates the truth from the fiction

There are few absolutes in poker. Just because there’s one favoured or fashionable way of approaching certain situations doesn’t mean it’s necessarily correct, even if all the cool kids are doing it. Poker is a game where strategy is constantly changing, and most ‘rules’ that existed ten years ago are irrelevant now. Does anyone still think a four-bet is always Aces or Kings?

But there are still a number of strategic poker absolutes that emerged during the poker boom that have stuck around despite being as archaic as the stop-and-go. So let’s look at some of the most common poker assumptions you will hear people telling you are facts and see if they stand up to closer inspection. Because you know what a stubborn player is? A donkey.

Assumption 1

You should always enter the pot with a raise. Calling is the worst option


A tricky situation in a tournament is when it folds to you in the small blind and you’ve got a hand such as A-8, which is good enough to raise with but can’t stand a three-bet. this is particularly tough if you’ve got a good three-bet shoving stack (18-25BB).

In this spot, open-limping and intending to three-bet shove is a valid option. You can do this with hands like A-2 through A-8, weaker Broadway hands like K-t and Q-J, small pairs and suited connectors as weak as 6-5s. You can of course balance your range by doing this with hands that you’re willing to raise/call all-in with, but in general you’re better off just raising with these to build a pot.

The hands you are making this play with all have reasonable equity if called and have plenty of fold equity. While your stack is a little on the large size to simply shove preflop (especially pre-antes), it’s a perfect size to limp-shove. the big blind will also have a wider range for raising if you limp in than if you’d raised, because your limp looks weaker and a raise from him should take the pot most of the time.

Limping behind another limper can also be a viable option when you have a big hand (anything you intend to reraise with if someone else raises). It’s dangerous, as you can often find yourself in a multi-way pot with a big but vulnerable hand, and you need to have some kind of solid read that there’s a player who loves isolating limpers before making this move. You can also limp behind if there are short stacks behind you who will view a pot with multiple limpers as a great spot in which to raise all-in.

Although open-limping is generally going to be worse than raising, there are certainly times when calling is viable both as a default option and as part of a balanced strategy. Go on, make an aggressive call now and again.

Assumption 2

You should never raise and fold from a stack of 15 big blinds or less


A big draw demands a big bet there’s sound logic and maths behind this poker ‘rule’. If you raise and then fold from a stack of 15 big blinds or less you’ve wasted at least 13.3% of your stack and you’ll only need about 40% equity to make a call profitable if you’ve min-raised. It’s a pretty basic leap to realise that you should be raising pretty snugly off this kind of stack size, not least because it’s a great stack for shoving over a raise.

By raise-folding you lose a lot of fold equity for future shoves, and you should be clinging to that at all times in tournaments, as getting to showdown with the best hand is hard. so there need to be extenuating circumstances to make raise-folding off this stack a viable option, but that’s not to say it should never be done.

It’s not hard to come up with common situations where you might consider bigger than your kicker (such as A-4 vs 5-5). Or you may have a hand like J-T, which has 39% equity against A♠-Q♠. Of course we usually think in terms of ranges, so let’s say you hold A♠-9♠ (which should be the bottom of your range) against a tight range of 7-7+, A-t+, K-Q, K-J suited. In that spot you have 37.3% equity and a fold becomes marginal. Here are some other reasons you might consider raise-folding:

A) You’re at a final table or perhaps a satellite bubble and there are a few stacks shorter than you (this is common in turbo structures).

B) You have a really tight image and another player with a really tight image

C) You’re completely at it with a rubbish hand and you get shoved on by a tight player whose likely range has you crushed. this is more likely in a live tournament than online.

Raise-folding is usually terrible, but sometimes it’s the smart option. With the amount of your stack you’re committing by open-raising in the first place, you need to be sure that you’re comprehensively crushed to consider folding, as you shouldn’t be passing up small edges with a stack this short.

Assumption 3

You should always raise to the same amount


I’m going to hold my hands up here and say this is a piece of advice I have given many times in PokerPlayer, and while it’s not wrong, it’s also not 100% correct! Always raising to a consistent amount in tournaments and cash games will make you harder to read and tougher to play against. But there are times when you should stray from the familiar path and alter your raise size. Here are some examples:

A) There’s a fish, a calling station or very loose player in the big blind and you’ve got a solid hand. they’re likely to call anyway, so charge them more!

B) There’s a serial limper who’s entered the pot and you’ve got position on him and a solid hand. Good players will spot that you’re isolating a serial limper, so you don’t want to do it too often with weak holdings. Why just make it 4BB, when he’s going to call 6BB? Build a bigger pot now and that small difference preflop can multiply down the streets.

C) You’ve got a number of 15-20 big blind stacks behind you who are poised to three-bet shove. In this situation just min-raising your entire range is the way to go rather than making your regular raise. With antes in play you should be opening fairly wide, but you’re likely to face a shove with those kind of stacks and will lose the minimum if you have to fold.

The same rules hold true for three-betting. It’s good to have a standard three-betting size, but there are times when you need to mix it up. It could be that you need to three-bet smaller to give the illusion of fold equity to an opponent and induce a four-bet shove.

Against good players you should never give away free information and never vary your raise size based on hand strength. But against bad players you mustn’t miss value by always raising the standard amount.

Assumption 4

You have to fire a continuation bet if it is checked to you in position


Continuation-betting every hand is a mindset many players get into because they feel that by checking the flop, especially when in position, they’re giving up control of the pot. However let’s revisit one of the simplest (and easiest to remember) stats in poker. two unpaired hole cards will miss the flop (as in not make a pair) 66% of time. this is in part why c-betting is so powerful, but also why c-bets get called so often.

There are certain board textures that do demand a c-bet when you were the preflop raiser and have position, such as King or Ace-high rainbow boards. But there are boards that just smack a preflop caller’s range square in the face, and c-betting on them, especially in multi-way pots, can be very foolish. It’s tough to get a c-bet through on boards with two connected cards and/or a flush draw on them. they are not only likely to have hit preflop callers, but are also draw- heavy enough that many players will float to see if you’ll fire a second barrel.

On very connected flops such as 9-T-8 or T♠-7♣-6♠, c-betting with a hand such as A-K♣ or other unpaired cards can see you put money into pots with little equity. You have pair draws, sure, but you need runner-runner for something more substantial. Even in heads-up pots it’s wise to check to the turn, and in multi-way pots it’s not criminal just to check and give up.

Checking the flop also has an added benefit on draw-heavy boards. If your opponent has some kind of made hand they’ll usually lead the turn. However, if they check to you, a delayed c-bet can often win the pot. not only have they shown weakness twice, but any marginal draw such as a gutshot and overcard has lost a lot of its equity and will be hard pushed to call a turn c-bet.

It’s not bad poker to check back certain flops. You gain more fold equity making a delayed c-bet on the turn and avoid firing two barrels with no equity in some situations.

Assumption 5

A big draw demands a big bet


When you flop a big draw, it’s said that you should always play it fast and get a lot of chips in the middle, often making a large check-raise out of position. the reason? You’ve got two ways to win the pot if you play it fast: either you force a fold and win the pot or you could hit your draw if they call.

But while semi-bluffing with a big draw is never going to be a massive mistake, there are other alternatives to consider rather than just mindlessly playing every big draw the same way.

The first question to ask is, are you willing to go with your hand? With a massive draw such as the nut flush draw you’ll often have an overcard to go with your draw, but a hand such as 6♠-5♠ on an 8♣-7♣-2♠ board is much more vulnerable. Not only is it the idiot end of the straight draw, but two of your outs may be dead as they’ll make your opponent a flush. there are also six overpairs to this flop which are usually going nowhere. Here are some other things to consider:

A) If you check-raise the flop and you get called, can you comfortably shove the turn and still have some fold equity? Are you willing to shove when you miss? If you can answer yes to both of these questions a check-raise works. If not then calling may be the better option.

B) Is your opponent ever folding? the more often he folds to a check-raise or aggression the better. If you have a hand like Q♣-J♣ on an 8♣-9♣-A board and you suspect your opponent likely has an Ace, he’s probably not going anywhere. You could be better off playing the draw more slowly. If you wait until more scare cards hit then you can bluff him off his hand. Or you could always hit your draw.

Playing fast and loose with a draw is not always a good play. Make sure you have a strong draw that you’re willing to go all the way with and that your opponent is capable of folding.

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