Raising in poker: Part 1

During the past few months we’ve been examining strategies for lower limit and beginning hold’em players, and we’ve done so by examining strategic concepts which apply to various stages of a hand: before the flop, on the flop, the turn, and the river. But some strategic concepts can be called into action anytime a hand is in play. In fact, for the next few issues we’ll explore a variety of these strategic ideas, so that you can accumulate an arsenal of hold’em weapons. Once you’ve acquired them, all you need do is determine which strategic concept is best employed in any given situation, and you’ll be well on your way to being a significantly better poker player.

The question of when, and whether to raise is a strategic decision unrelated to the stage of the hand you’re playing. You can face a decision to raise at any point during a hand, from that pair of kings you’ve been dealt before the flop, to that straight you’ve made on the turn or river.

Players handle raising in a variety of ways — from overly cautious, to overly aggressive, to downright maniacal. And while there are exceptions to every rule, let’s see if we can build a strategy which is correct for most situations you’re likely to encounter at the table.

Why Raise?
Raising is one of poker’s eternal enigmas. Some players love to fire in raise after raise. The more action they create, the happier they are — never mind whether their cards justify it. Others never raise unless they’re holding the nuts, and even then its done with trepidation.

I’ve seen some players who will raise from early position with a hand like As-8s, believing that any suited ace is a powerhouse. Other players routinely raise in early position with hands like K-J or even Q-J. Some players always raise with Big Slick. Others, far fewer in number, treat A-K like any other drawing hand, and call with it.

Some players will raise with any pair of 7’s or bigger, and they’ll do it from any position, regardless of the texture of the game. Others never raise with aces when they’re in the blind, for fear of giving away too much information about their hand.

Who’s right? When should you raise, and why should you do it? To generate a plan of action, we need to explore the reasons players raise.

Here are four reasons to raise the pot in hold’em. Let’s look at each of them:

1. Raising To Get More Money In the Pot
What’s the most common reason for raising? This one! You’ve got a powerhouse hand. Someone bets, there are three callers, and it’s your turn to act. What do you do? You raise. Of course! You’re holding a winner, and want to get more money into the pot, since that pot figures to migrate over to your stack of chips once the hand has been concluded.

Getting more money in the pot is the most common reason players raise. But you don’t always have to hold the best hand to raise. Suppose you’re on the button with Ad-Kd and the flop is Jd-9d-6c. It’s a loose game. The blind comes out betting and is called by 4 others. Now it’s your turn to act. You’re getting 5:1 on your money, and with two cards to come the odds against making the nut flush are better than 2:1. Since this bet has a positive expectation, it is worth money each time you make it — regardless of whether you win that particular time.

Since that’s the case, go ahead and raise. You might as well make as much as you can when you’re lucky enough to hit your hand.

2. Raising To Eliminate Opponents
You’ve got a pair of queens. You’re in fifth position and no one has called the blinds. Your pair of queens will play better against one or two opponents than a whole slew of them. Fire when ready. Go ahead and raise.

Here’s another situation. You’ve got that same pair of queens, and you’re in fifth position. The player to your immediate right raises. What should you do? Fire away! Make it three bets. If your opponent is the type who would raise with aces, kings, jacks or A-K, A-Q, A-J, K-Q, K-J or maybe even A-10s, the odds are against him having a pair bigger than yours. They favor his holding two big cards. Go ahead and reraise. If the flop doesn’t produce any overcards to your queens, you’re the favorite.

If two overcards fall, you’re probably an underdog, and ought to give it up if your opponent bets into you. If just one overcard falls and you’re heads up, its a judgment call, and unless you’ve got a terrific read on your opponent, you’ll seldom be sure where you stand.

If he’s clever, and tries for a checkraise by checking the flop and turn, go ahead and check behind him. If he bets the river, you’re going to call him anyway, but you’ve also given him an opportunity to bluff with a hand which is worse than your pair of queens, so calling is not that bad an option.

But if you bet and he checkraises on the turn, you’re probably beaten. Fold.

3. Any time you’ve got a hand which plays better against fewer, rather than many opponents, raise or re-raise to limit your opposition.

4. Raising To Get a Free Card on a More Expensive Street
You’re last to act with a Q-J. The flop was 10-9-4 of mixed suits and you’re facing three opponents. The player who is first to act bets, and is called by the others. Can you raise? Sure! If the turn card is not the king or eight you’re looking for, the fact that you raised enables you to see the river for free, as long as the bettor and subsequent callers each check the turn. And if you make the nut straight on the turn, well, you’ve gotten more money in a pot — which by all appearances will soon belong to you.

Next issue we’ll continue to explore the whys and wherefores of raising. You’ll learn about raising to define your hand, and when to raise to prevent your opponent from getting a free card. As always, we’ll summarize the lessons learned in these two articles. Until then, keep flopping aces.