Raising in poker: Part 2

In Part 1 we explored various reasons to raise, including: raising to get more money in the pot, raising to eliminate opponents, and raising to get a free card on a more expensive street. Now you’ll learn how to raise to define your hand and how to raise to prevent your opponent from getting a free card. We’ll also summarize all the main points covered in these two articles.

Raising To Define Your Hand
I recall a game where I was last to act with kings, and reraised a very strong player to my right. The flop was Ac-Kh-4s. My opponent bet, I raised, and he reraised. Because I know his play so well, I was sure he would not have raised if he flopped a set of aces. He would have checked the flop, called my bet and checkraised on the turn. I put him on A-K, with a smaller possibility he held a hand like Ah-Jh. The turn card was the 6h. He bet, and I raised. He called. If he had flopped a set of aces, he would have had reraised, since a set of aces would have been the best possible hand on the turn.

Now I figured him for A-K. Since my opponent also knows my play very well, I didn’t believe he would have called with less than two pair. I was also quite sure my raise told him I had at least two pair, and more likely a set. When the 8h fell on the river he bet, I raised, and he re-raised. It was then I knew my assessment was wrong. He could not possibly have A-K. He had to have entered the pot with a hand like A-J suited and tried to steal the pot with his bet on the turn — since he had top pair with a reasonably good kicker as well as an opportunity to draw out if another heart fell on the river. That’s exactly what happened. He made the nut flush. Although my analysis was correct, I was too late to save myself any money, and he won a big pot.

With the benefit of the instant replay described above, you can see how each of us, by virtue of our bets, raises and re-raises, were defining our hands in terms of what we presumed each other was holding. Although I defined my set of kings against the possible hands he could have been holding, I incorrectly assumed he made two pair. While this was a costly error in judgment, you can learn something at my expense about how to raise and re-raise to define your own hand against what you suspect your opponent might have.

Raising To Prevent a Free Card
Just as it is correct in certain situations to raise on the flop in order to gain a free card on the turn, it is also correct to raise in order to prevent your opponents from getting a free, or relatively inexpensive card.

Here’s an example. You hold A-10 in fifth position. On the flop only three other players are active: the big blind, and seats eight and nine. The flop comes A-9-7. The big blind bets. With no raise before the flop, there’s no way to determine what he might be holding. You may be out-kicked if he holds A-K, A-Q or A-J. If he holds A-9 or A-7 or 9-7 you’re also beaten. On the other hand, he may be betting with A-6, trying to win the pot right there if no one else holds an ace.

While you have some idea about the players in seats eight and nine, you’re not certain you have the best hand. However, it’s fair to assume that if either seats eight or nine had A-K, A-Q or A-J, they probably would have raised before the flop. While they may have called with a hand like A-5 suited, its more likely they’re holding connectors or a small pair. It is also possible one of them flopped a set, although the odds do not favor it. If they did, however, you’ll not hear from them now. They’ll wait and raise on the turn — when the bets double.

What should you do in this position? While calling is not a bad idea, raising is probably better. If the players in seats eight or nine hold hands like 10-9 or 9-8, they may call a single bet on the flop, in hopes of catching a miracle card on the turn, or perhaps picking up a straight draw. However, if they are reasonably prudent players, they will not call a raised pot with second or third pair and little else to support it.

Is this a form of raising to thin out the field? Yes, it is. But in this case, you’re doing so after the flop has defined — or partially defined — your opponents hands. If it’s the kind of flop which provides some help to your opponents, enough so they might stick around in hopes of outdrawing you if they can see another card for free, or for no more than a single bet, then a raise which forces them to fold is correct.

If your raise forces seats eight and nine to fold, you are heads up against the blind, and you have the added advantage of acting last on the turn and the river. You may also have the best hand. Unless the blind has flopped a big hand, like two pair or a set, he is probably not going to bet into you on the turn. This gives you the opportunity to check behind him. If he isn’t holding much of a hand, and is an aggressive player, checking behind him may elicit a bluff on the river, which you can easily snap off.

If he is not a particularly aggressive player, but tends to call too much with too little, you can bet the turn and the river without much fear of a raise, but with the certainty he will call you with very marginal hands.

If, however, one of your opponents has flopped either a set or two pair, your strategy will fail. You’ll be called on the flop, and if you bet the turn you’ll be looking at a checkraise. If that’s the case, you’re probably better off releasing the hand at that point, since it is hard to envision anyone raising with a hand worse than yours, unless they are fond of bluff-raising. Since you just don’t see too many bluff raises in lower limit games, you might as well assume you’re beaten and save your money.

These five reasons to raise often act in concert with one another. While it is logical to raise solely to limit the field, it is seldom worth a raise just to define your hand — and for no other reason. But by raising to limit the field, you will always gain some information about how your hand stacks up against the competition.

If, for example, you’ve raised with a pair of tens and are re-raised, there’s bad news and good news in the air. You may well have achieved your goal of going heads up against one opponent, but you may also be beaten. If two overcards fall on the flop, you ought to assume you are beaten. The good news, scant as it may be, is that you’ve learned enough about the quality of your opponent’s hand to save money by folding as soon as he bets the flop.

Raising can be a dicey proposition. Most of the time you raise you will not be entirely sure you have the best hand. Moreover, you’ll encounter some opponents who take raising so personally that their response to any raise is simply to raise back — even when their hands don’t warrant it. Although they’re making the wrong play, it can sew seeds of confusion in your own mind. You’ll ask yourself; “Just what could they be holding?”

This is another reason why it is so critically important to know your opponents. Once you get a fix on their play, you’ll be able to tell who is likely to be out of line when they raise or re-raise, and which players usually have the hand they represent when they take similar action.

If you’re going to be a selectively aggressive player, you can’t let the fear of a re-raise stop you from raising when proper strategy calls for it. Most of the time you’ll be correct in your assessment of the relative value of your hand versus that of your opponent. Sometimes you’ll misread them, like I did in the example cited earlier. Not to worry. Poker is a game where you’ll seldom be making decisions with 100% of the fact available to you. It is a game of decisions based on incomplete information. In fact, if you waited to raise until you held the nuts, you would never lose a big pot like I described, but your net winnings would be substantially less. Why? Because you were unwilling to take a risk warranted by your hand and the play of your opponents.

Remember, in poker your batting average, while important, is not critical. You want to be selective, but not so selective that you pass on money you could have won, but for the fact that you didn’t have absolute certainty about the value of your hand compared to your opponent’s.

You are looking for that proverbial fine line. You want to be aggressive enough to optimize your winnings. Optimize is the operative word! You are not playing to maximize your winning opportunities. If you did you’d simply play every hand, and you would go broke while winning more hands than anyone else at the table. You are also not playing to minimize your losing opportunities. If you did, you’d be playing nothing but very big hands, and your opponents would soon wise up, and the only time you’d get any action is when your opponent holds a better hand than yours.