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Mastering Scare Cards

by Reid Young |  Published: Apr 16, 2014

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Reid YoungHave you ever been in this spot? You call a preflop raise with a medium pair like 7Heart Suit 7Diamond Suit out of position. The flop is 9Heart Suit 3Spade Suit 2Heart Suit, and you think “that’s not so bad.” You check to your opponent and call his continuation bet (c-bet). The turn is the KSpade Suit and your heart sinks. You check and again your opponent bets. You are probably in for a bumpy ride! Is he bluffing? Would he bet again with only a nine? Or did he hit that king on the turn?

What is a Scare Card?

Scare cards are those community cards that are most likely to adversely affect a particular player’s distribution of holdings and scare that player off of putting more money into the pot with a weak hand. In this case, we, as the out-of-position player, are nearly helpless on the turn king. Besides the heart and spade flush draws and the straight draws that also have two overcards to our pair that we may have to dodge on the river, if our opponent is semibluffing with them on the turn, we also have to worry about being way behind a king. Being against a flush draw and trying to guess which it is the times that the other draw hits the river isn’t so bad, but being a 9-to-1 underdog on the turn against a king is pretty rough.

Our opponent knows that we probably don’t have many kings to take the actions we have taken so far in this hand. Think about it. We only called preflop, so it’s unlikely that we have K-Q or A-K, and we probably don’t play hands like K-9, K-3 or K-2 preflop when we are out of position and facing a raise. If we did have K-Q preflop, then would we check/call with king-high and no draw on a nine-high flop? Probably not.

Based on the unlikely nature that we have a king, our opponent has free reign to abuse us on the turn by betting and by leveraging the possibility of future bets in such a way that maximally takes advantage of how unlikely it is for us to have a king on the turn. If you’re thinking ahead, then you may already be saying to yourself, “well OK, let’s just add some more kings to our flop check-calling distribution.” That’s only part of the answer though because the turn card isn’t always a king. In fact, the turn is going to be a king less than 4/47 of the time, or less than 8.5 percent of the time (since sometimes at least one other player has a king). The other 90 percent or more of the time, we don’t want to simply have to check/fold the turn. That’s like kissing our flop call goodbye a lot of the time.

Representing Scare Cards

Being prepared for the rare king on the turn means that we, as the out-of-position player calling the preflop raiser’s flop bet, need to have at least a few kings in our distribution. That way we can stand the heat at least a little bit better and also prevent our opponent from value betting as thinly. For example, if our opponent tries to value bet a hand like ADiamond Suit 9Diamond Suit on the flop, on a turn king, and on a river deuce, it’s less likely that we face that river bet with a hand that only beats a bluff and loses to his ADiamond Suit 9Diamond Suit. That lowers the value of our opponent’s strategy. Nice. But we still have to keep in mind that every turn isn’t a king.

That means that the ability to represent a scare card is tied to your opponent’s ability to take profitable actions up until the point that the cards comes off the top of the deck and is placed into the community cards that can make up all players’ hands. If a player can’t profitably get to a particular turn or river and have a particular hand, then it’s hell on him to try to defend against an aggressive player’s betting strategy. However, players can plan ahead to try to mitigate the effects of scare cards.

Mastering Scare Cards

If you learn how to recognize players that over-do bluffing on scare cards, then you can counter-exploit the fear that they try to leverage. In other words, a good player is going to make your life tough when the board gets bad for your hand and there is really not much that you can do to prevent losing money in the long run; however, an overly aggressive player gets greedy, and we can make him pay.

Recall the 9-3-2-K board. What if we, as the out of position preflop calling player, decide to check/call our king-high flush draws on the flop, as well as all our combinations of pocket deuces. Now, all of a sudden, on the turn king we aren’t so worried about folding a marginal hand. Of course, it’s very easy for our opponent to go wild bluffing and have us very worried about the value of our middling hands, like those red sevens. On the other hand, he’s occasionally going to run into our king or our set of deuces.

By planning ahead and knowing that a lot of the turn cards in the deck are actually pretty terrible for us the times that we have pocket sevens, we can start to understand exactly what other types of hands should be in our flop check/calling distribution. That is, if we take an action with a certain type of hand that ends extremely poorly on several common board run outs, then it gets to be clear that we should probably mix up our flop play a little more and add in some hands that are deceptive on a number of turn cards, and then on a number of river cards.

Stopping the Inevitable

It’s extremely important to understand that it is very difficult to offset the positional disadvantage in poker, especially as the board gets more dangerous for the bulk of your holdings. The most important idea to take from an overview of scare cards is that we can mitigate these negatives by constructing a versatile distribution.

While it’s ridiculous to assume you’ll have the best of it in all positions on all run outs, you can do better than your opponent when we put him into the same position. When you’re playing a hand out of position, often your only goal is to do better than you would have done by surrendering your blind bet outright. Many players assume they need to win most of the hands that they play from the blinds and try to make moves too often and win more than their fair share. Against a passive or exploitable opponent, that strategy might work well. However, the better players are going to tear up that strategy and just call you down when they turn their kings and fold their bluffs in proportion to your bluff size on the turn. So what if we want to do something about that turn bet than just check and call?

Fighting Back

We know that a lot of players over-do it on the turn scare card. They bet far more often than they could actually have a king or a better hand like pocket nines or pocket aces on that turn. Because our opponent is bluffing a lot of the time and the river is usually going to be incredibly scary, regardless of how often we believe our opponent is bluffing, we may want to raise the turn periodically to end the hand with our own bluff.

But if we are bluffing, then what are we value betting? Remember those pocket deuces that we decided to check/call on the flop the second time around. Now you’re getting it! If we are ready for all possible outcomes and we have a plan going forward that accomplishes getting money into the middle with our best hands and also protecting against aggressive players who leverage future bets on scare cards, then we have a balanced strategy. The most difficult player is in many ways the least predictable player.

Being able to have a strong hand on any board run out ensures that you don’t fall victim to being abused by scare cards. Also, keep in mind how your actions with a particular distribution of hands readies you for play on the next street! ♠

Reid Young is a successful cash game player and poker coach. He is the founder of TransformPoker.com.