The most important poker lesson: What makes a big hand

online-pokerThe most important lesson I ever learned in no limit hold’em was this: when you have a big hand play a big pot and when you have a small hand, play a small pot, and one pair is almost always a small hand. Once I learned this lesson, I immediately changed my results from a losing player to a winning player. This is why I feel this is probably the most important lesson for any poker player to learn and remember.

When you have a big hand you should attempt to play a big pot. That means that your default line should be to bet and raise in an attempt to try to get as many chips as possible into the pot. The following hand illustrates a basic error that many players make.

Hand: 5♦ 5♠

Position: CO

Blinds: 50/100

 

In this hand, we have a  read on the villain that he is a loose passive player.

 

EP1

EP2

MP1

MP2

MP3

CO

Button

SB

BB

t10,000 t11,000 t8,000 t10,000 t9,000 t10,000 t11,000 t12,000 t9,000
          Hero   Villain  
Preflop (t150) – 5 folds, hero raises to t300, 1 fold, villain calls, 1 fold.

Flop (t700) – A♥ J♦ 5♣ – SB checks, hero checks.

Hero flopped a big hand, but instead of betting, hero checks. Slow playing violates the guideline to play a big pot with a big hand. The best way to get chips into the pot is by putting them there and betting ourselves. Don’t rely on opponent putting hips into the pot for you. Instead, too many players try slow playing when they flop a monster. They are afraid that if they bet, the villain will fold and they will get no value.

If the villain flopped nothing at all, you won’t get many chips into the pot no matter what line you take. You may induce him to put one bet into the pot if he has a weak hand, but rarely much more. However, if the small blind, called with an ace, you are missing tremendous value by not betting. Let’s examine the difference. If the villain totally missed that flop, you may get one bet out of him for maybe t400. If however, he has an ace, it is conceivable you will get 3 bets called for a total of t2,800. Since no limit pots grow exponentially, if you miss one of those bets, your profit will shrink to about t1,200. That would be a disaster to miss out on the opportunity to win another t1,600 chips at this stage of the tournament.

When you flop a monster, bet or raise. There are times for slow playing, but slow playing should not be your default play. It should be the exception for the right time and the right opponent.

When you have a small hand, you should play a small pot. You can control that by checking on the flop or turn to control the pot size. Further, if your opponent is attempting to play a big pot, it is usually best to get out of the way. An example of this type of mistake below.

Hand A♠ T♠

Position: MP2

Blinds: 50/100

 

In this hand we have a  read that the villain has not done anything out of the ordinary for the first 30 minutes.  He has played a standard tight aggressive game so far. 

 

EP1

EP2

MP1

MP2

MP3

CO

Button

SB

BB

t10,000 t12,000 t8,000 t10,000 t9,000 t10,000 t11,000 t11,000 t9,000
      Hero       Villain  
Preflop (t150) – 3 folds, Hero raises to t300, 3 folds, villain calls, 1 fold.

Flop (t650) – A♥ J♦ 9♦ – villain checks, hero bets t425, villain calls

Turn (t1,500) – 5♣ –  villain checks, hero bets t1,000, villain raises to t3,000, hero calls

River (t7,500) – 7♠ –  villain bets all in, hero calls

In this hand the hero made a serious error. He overvalued his one pair hand and played a huge pot with a small hand. One pair is almost always a small hand, no matter how big the pair is or how good a kicker you have. In fact, in this example, hero should have given serious consideration to folding the turn. In fact, he may have been much better off checking the turn to control the size of the pot.

When you have a one pair hand with deep stacks, your first thought should be pot control. The best way to pot control is to check the flop or turn. One would argue that this is a draw heavy board and you have to bet to protect your hand. In tournaments, surviving the hand holds a higher priority than protecting a weak one pair hand. If the villain had a diamond in this last hand, do you think he would fold to the turn bet? No, most villains will call the turn. Then what does hero do when the diamond hits and he leads the river? If he checks behind on the turn and the villain leads the river, his bet is only about t1,000. If hero has a read that villain can lead bluff that scare card, he can can call that bet. But if hero bets the turn, the villain’s river bet may be about t2,500. Now if hero reads that the villain can bluff the scare card and feels he must call, now he will have to invest t2,500 to get to the same place t1,000 would have gotten him if he had decided to use pot control.

Of course, like everything else in poker, what counts as a small hand and a big hand is relative. It is relative to the board, the opponent, the stack sizes, and the game flow.

So if you want an immediate improvement in your game, learn and apply this guideline: When you have a big hand, play a big pot, when you have a small hand, play a small pot, and one pair is almost always a small hand.

Joseph Pregler plays regularly in live tournaments on the East Coast and enjoys sharing his wisdom and experience to novice and intermediate players.  You can follow him at www.facebook.com/jjpregler 

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