Monday, October 25, 2010

Limit Hold'em: Should You Go For A Free Card With a Draw?

How the West Was Won (TV series)Image via WikipediaLimit Hold'em: Should You Go For A Free Card With a Draw?

One area that I have been experimenting with is to develop a guideline for playing draws in limit poker. I believe that drawing hands are an area that most limit players lose most of their money.

One reason for these loses is that these players hit a flush draw a few times, win a big pot, and decide that they know how to play these hands. But, in reality, they
are making the wrong plays and it is costing them big time.

Here, I want to address the notion of raising in position on the flop for a free card when you have a draw, most often, a flush draw.

The Free Card: Example

An example of a taking a free card is when you are on the button with As-5s and you limp in against 3 opponents. The flop comes Ks-Ts-4h. The small bets out and the next two players call. Here, the standard "free card" play is to raise since your opponents are likely to call your bet and check to you on the turn. If this happens, you can check the turn and get a free card.

A couple of key problems with this advice:
1. The initial bettor may re-raise your flop bet. This re-raise will cost you more, may get other players to fold, and reduce your expected return if you do make your flush.
2. When you check the turn when you miss your flush, you essential reveal your hand to your opponents. In fact, some authors suggest you should bet the turn as well, since the odds of making a flush are 36% and you are getting 3 to 1 on your money. I think is a bad play.

A Better Approach To The Free Card

A better approach is to plan ahead before you blindly go for that free card raise. You should consider the number of opponents, the composition of the flop, the style of your opponents, and your table image. (Note: Position is also critical, but in the example, you are on the button with the best absolute position.)

The number of opponents:
Since you have three opponents, you are in a situation where you are getting 3 to 1 on your money. That is, for every one bet, you can earn 3 bets, or 25%. This appears favorable as your odds of making a flush are higher. However, I think that your bet on the flop is to make your flush on the turn. It may cost you more on the turn. The odds are actually less than 25% to hit your flush on the turn.

In addition, as stated before, the more opponents the less likely you are to get a free card on the turn.

The composition of the flop:
In limit poker, the cards that are most often in play are in the playing zone of between 9 to Ace. If two cards hit the flop which are in the playing zone, the more likely your opponents are going to stick in the hand. In fact, I believe, a ten on the board is even stickier, as this card is needed to make a straight.

You really need to understand the composition of a flop. A coordinated flop tends to keep players in a hand as it presents opportunities to hit draws. So, if you believe that a raise on the flop and a bet on the turn (when you miss your flush) will get players to fold in a highly coordinated flop, you are usually mistaken.

The style of your opponents:
If your opponents are good, you have to worry about that small blind holding a hand that hurts your probability of taking down the pot. The small blind has bet into three players which usually means he has a King with a decent kicker, a set, or two small pair. Of course, he could be betting a straight draw or a flush draw. And, a flush draw here would mean your odds are not as good as you believe.

If you are playing in a low limit game, where players just play their cards, then your opponents can hold any two cards. But, at middle limits, I would read the small blind bet (assuming he is a typical player) as most likely being a bet to a top pair or a drawing hand.

Your table image:
If your opponents have seen you make this raise to get a free card before, it is more likely that you will be re-raised by the bettor. If you are seen as a tight player, it will more likely get your opponents to call your bet.

How I Would Play this Hand

In the example above, let me share with you my thinking. Again, you are on the button in that classic, free card play situation.

I would only call the flop bet as I am concerned the small blind will re-raise me and even if he doesn't, if I check the turn when I miss, I may as well show my cards to my opponents.

I know that if I hit my flush on the turn, that third spade on the board will scare most of my opponents into folding or slowing down. If I hit my flush on the river, at best I will only get one caller. Of course, if I miss my flush on the turn and river, and no one else bets, I only put in one big bet on the flop by raising for a free card.

Instead, I prefer to call the flop bet to keep those three opponents in the hand and to see how the hand develops. This is a coordinated flop, so all my opponents have some piece or draw to call that small blind bet. Granted, I may lose more if I miss, as it will cost me one one small bet and one big bet (the flop and turn--assuming no raises on the turn). But, if I do hit my flush on the turn, I can bet and/or raise here, or if I hit my flush on the river, I will probably get a nice pay off by keeping my opponents in the hand.

My belief is that while building a pot is a good play at times (especially with the nut flush draw), a key question to ask yourself in limit poker is "Will my bet get my opponents to fold?" Here, that is not going to happen. So, if you are trying to build a pot and take less risk with a nice return, why not just let the hand play out on the turn? The pot will build itself here on its own.

What do you think?
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