Good poker isn’t about making decisions on the fly. As with any profitable business, it pays to have a plan
Having a plan for a hand is a key skill in playing poker to a decent level, especially if you’re playing with deep stacks. It’s similar to some other poker concepts in that it sounds very obvious, but most players don’t put it into action when they play.
It’s very, very easy to switch off when playing and not think actively, such that you end up playing by rote. ‘I have a decent hand,’ you think, ‘so I’ll bet’ – and then you get raised and don’t know what to do. Too often players think about the action only as it happens, but this gives your opponent the initiative in the hand and means you can miss opportunities to value-bet or pull off a bluff. To be a good poker player it’s vital that you always have a plan for the hand. You should formulate your strategy as early as possible and make it as comprehensive as you can. Let’s find out why…
One of the best young coaches around is CardRunners stalwart Corwin Cole (aka [vital]Myth), and he was recently asked what gave him an edge over other players. His answer, slightly paraphrased, was that whenever he’s involved in a hand he constantly tries to consider all the possible outcomes his actions could generate on each street ahead of time. As you read this article, ask yourself how often you think about future actions when playing a hand, and how often you’re just acting in the moment and reacting to what your opponents do…
Let’s look at a simple example. You hold A-K and the flop is K-8-6. This is a situation where you have the best hand the vast majority of the time. However, if you face aggression on the flop or turn, it puts you in a spot where you may be crushed, but you may still have the best hand.
Instead of just throwing out a bet because you have the best hand most of the time, you should have a plan for the entire hand. For example, how many streets of value are you trying to get when you do have the best hand? Is your opponent the kind that will pay off three streets if he has top pair or worse? If you’re raised on the flop are you three-betting or just flat-calling? If you get raised on a later street does it mean the villain is always representing the virtual nuts? How much are you going to bet on each street to ensure you get stacks in if you’re convinced you have the best hand? Is there anything you can do to under-represent your hand or trap your opponent? These are the kinds of questions you need to be thinking about to prepare your plan for the hand and play it as perfectly as possible.
The point about planning ahead is that poker is a situational game and not one that can be played on auto-pilot. If you’re not actively thinking in a poker game it becomes very difficult to win. In fact the best possible poker player wouldn’t have a set ‘style’ or way of playing, as he’d be able to find the best line for any situation and continually adapt. As such, the point of thinking ahead in a hand is not to tie yourself into one course of action but to consider different outcomes and how you’d respond to them.
To take another straightforward example, let’s say you hold A-A and are heads-up with a weak/passive opponent. The flop is T-8-2 rainbow and your plan is to extract maximum value from the calling station; that is, you’re going to try to get stacks in by betting all three streets. You bet the flop and are called. The turn is a Seven. You bet again and your opponent instantly min-raises. The danger now is that you become tied into your ‘plan for the hand’ and immediately look to get your money in as you’d hoped to do before the turn action.
However, if your opponent is really passive the situation has changed here. He could have slow-played a set, turned a straight or two pair, or even be playing a hand he thinks is best, like A-T or J-J, in a strange way.
Your next action should be determined by a whole string of factors such as your image, his image, any history between you, stack sizes and so on.
However, the two critical things are that you thought about this ahead of time and that your thinking doesn’t get tied into one specific plan but adjusts to different actions. Ideally you would have anticipated this eventuality, so you’re not suddenly panicked by his turn aggression. Therefore a more complete thought process might be: I’m trying to get three streets of value from this guy’s one-pair hands, but if he shows aggression at any point after the flop I know how passive he is and I can make a safe fold.
Planning early in the hand is vital to your success. For example, let’s say it’s folded to you in the cutoff and you’re considering making a raise. It’s not good enough just to be thinking, ‘I have Q-T, I’ll raise.’ You should take this much further and think about the players behind you, how often they’ll three-bet, what your response to that will be, what range they’ll do it with, what range they’ll defend their blinds with and so on. You should also be thinking beyond the preflop action, about what kinds of flops you’ll be continuation-betting against which players, how much value you can get from each of them if you flop a pair, and how your opponents’ stack depths will change your actions.
A really good rule of thumb to employ when planning the early stages of a hand is to avoid playing hands where you will put just one bet in on the flop and then give up. Either you should put in more than one bet as a continuing bluff, or not put in a bet in the first place. You can only accomplish this by thinking ahead when playing preflop and analysing how you’ll continue on different flop textures with your hand against the different opponents you’re playing.
Down the streets you should still be planning ahead and evolving your thoughts about the hand. Let’s say you hold a hand like A-Q, which hasn’t improved on the flop, and you’ve made a continuation bet and been called. Clearly you should be thinking about your opponent’s range and what type of hands he’d make the call with. However, you should also be thinking about future streets.
In this type of situation you should specifically be thinking about which cards enable you to fire a second or third barrel. Here you’ll be considering how each card will affect how your opponent views your range and how it affects his hand.
For instance, let’s say a King arrives on the turn. Against a standard non-thinking player this is a good card to bet again, and also on the river, as most of the time it hasn’t helped your opponent but could certainly have hit your hand. Firing the second bullet becomes more complicated on draw-heavy boards, as you will have to make a plan for draw-completing cards. For example, if the flush draw comes can you bet again and represent it? Will it be a credible bet? And how much of your opponent’s range is made up of flush draws?
Clearly there are endless situations you can encounter, but the idea is to make sure you are actively thinking and planning for the cards to come in order to be one step ahead of your opponents.
It’s a good idea to imagine that there’s a good player standing behind you while you’re playing. At any time he could point at one of your tables and ask ‘What are you doing if the flush comes on the river?’ or ‘What if this guy shoves?’ The more you can answer these questions the more you’re planning your hands and thinking actively during your sessions – and the more complete a player you’ll become.
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