Monday, November 21, 2005

Hand Protection? Maybe Not

I first read "Small Stakes Hold 'em" by Miller, Sklansky and Malmuth about a year ago. I still consider this book to be the bible of limit hold 'em. When I learned about how to protect your hand, I thought that was the key to playing winning poker. If you can make the odds incorrect for your opponent, how can you lose?

Well, sure. If you can pull it off.

The more I think about hand protection, the more I believe it's utility is limited when compared to a more important concept: value betting.

Now, I'm not saying that trying to protect your hand is wrong. I think it's an important part of any solid poker game. What I am saying is that many times, players cost themselves money because they are more concerned about protecting their hand than they are about getting the most from it.

As a simple example, you may have a hand like AA or two pair that you decide is almost certainly the best hand. Sometimes when you decide to wait until the turn to pop in a raise, you may have improved your winning chances slightly, but the pot will often be much smaller. Instead of winning a huge multiway pot, most players will simply fold or call on the turn.

Here's the problem: It is correct for any hand to continue playing if the odds justify it. Many times, especially in large pots, it is difficult to force out players who have strong draws.

But just because someone has a strong draw doesn't mean you shouldn't make them pay for it. Any time a player has an equity advantage in a hand, he is making money by betting and raising. Any time a player foregos that opportunity to raise, he is reducing his earning potential.

For example, it is difficult to drive out flush and straight draws on the flop. A flush draw (nine outs) only needs 4.1:1 odds to continue, and an open-ended straight draw (eight outs) only needs 4.75:1 to continue. In limit hold 'em, those odds (plus implied odds) usually justify a call, raise or re-raise (especially from late position to try for a free card).

Most of the time, you are not going to have any luck protecting your hand from these and other powerful draws.

The places where you can protect your hand are in pots against more marginal draws. You do want to drive out hands like second pair (up to five outs), bottom pair with a backdoor draw (about 6.5 outs) or gutshot draws (four outs). These are the hands that you can frequently re-raise or check-raise to alter the pot odds to the point where they're making a mistake not to fold.

When you're involved in a hand, your goal is to make the most money over the long run. Many times, this means you want to ram and jam the flop rather than wait for a slightly higher equity advantage on the turn.

Links to columns about hand protection:
"Protecting Hands in Limit HE," from Sound of a Suckout
"Forego Time?," from the 2+2 Small Stakes forum

1 comment:

PokerSweetHome said...

Hey Mark,

Great post! There's some truly good advice in there. One thing to mention is that in low limit hold'em you often see poor players check the flop with a monster only to bet or raise the turn. Everyone shuts down and they win a small pot that they have slow-played. If you have a monster, jam the flop, jam the turn and jam the river. For some reason, low limit players never expect you to do that. They're always surprised to see that flopped boat, nut flush or whatever, and they will call you down with the most improbably holdings.