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Sometimes It’s What You Don’t See

by Ed Miller |  Published: Oct 11, 2017

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One big mistake I see at the $2-$5 live level is that players take certain bets too seriously. Now if you’ve followed me for a while, you may find this claim puzzling, since one of my favorite bits of simple advice in small-stakes no-limit live games is that you should take big bets seriously and fold to them.

As a general rule, this is the best thing to do. When someone makes a big bet on the turn or river, assume they aren’t bluffing, and if you can’t beat some of the strong hands they are representing, fold.

But rules have exceptions. If I had to sum up the most common exception to rule about folding to big bets, it comes when the bets are too big.

Okay, I know that’s not very helpful. I’ll explain.

Here’s the basic idea. Most $2-$5 level players are too timid when making big bets. This causes most $2-$5 level players to become timid when facing big bets. This is very rational. If big bets are rarely bluffs and usually big hands, it doesn’t make sense to call them all that often.

This creates a dynamic where big bets (i.e., those big enough to get full-sized stacks in) are rarely made and, when made, rarely called.

Some $2-$5 players recognize this dynamic and try to exploit it by launching big bluffs. This is also rational. If players are too timid about calling big bets, then make them as bluffs.

But you can sniff these bluffs out using a bit of logic. The key idea is that legitimate hands that are worth betting on the flop, turn, and river (ending in a stack-sized river bet) are rare. They’re not so rare that you won’t see them from time to time playing at a 10-handed table. But they’re rare.

Beyond that, they are much more common on some board types than on others. Some boards naturally create these sorts of hands—on these boards you should generally be believing. Here’s an example.

It’s a $2-$5 game with $800 stacks. Two players limp, and then the button raises to $25. The big blind calls, as do both limpers. There’s $102 in the pot and four players.

The flop comes JHeart Suit 8Spade Suit 5Spade Suit. Everyone checks to the preflop raiser, who bets $50. Two players call. There’s $252 in the pot and three players left.

The turn is the 4Spade Suit. It’s checked to the preflop raiser, who bets $130. One player calls. There’s $512 in the pot and $595 left in the stacks.

The river is the 3Diamond Suit. The first player checks, and the button bets $330.

The preflop raiser is representing a spade flush, and there’s quite a good chance that’s what he has. It’s natural for a preflop raiser to bet half-pot on the flop with a flush draw. It could be an ace-high flush draw or maybe a combo draw with a hand like QSpade Suit 10Spade Suit or 7Spade Suit 6Spade Suit. Then when the spade comes on the turn, it’s reasonable to expect a player to bet twice for value.

Furthermore, the turn call from an opponent is fairly strong—there’s no reason the preflop raiser would necessarily expect the turn caller to fold to a bet of this size on the river. Against many $2-$5 players, I would tend to give credit here and fold if I couldn’t beat at least a hand like 10Spade Suit 9Spade Suit.

When the board plays out like this—with an easy opportunity bet a draw on the flop, make it on the turn, and bet it twice for value—the big hand worth playing for stacks is a bit less rare. But on other boards it’s much less likely. Here’s an example.
It’s a $2-$5 game with $800 stacks. Two players limp, and the player on the button raises to $25. The big blind calls and both limpers call. There’s $102 in the pot and four players.

The flop comes 8Diamond Suit 7Diamond Suit 2Spade Suit. Everyone checks to the preflop raiser, who bets $50. One player calls. There’s $202 in the pot.

The turn is the 2Club Suit. The first player checks, and the preflop raiser bets $140. The other player calls. There’s $482 in the pot with $585 left in the stacks.

The river is the 8Club Suit. The first player checks, and the preflop raiser bets $300.

It’s possible that the preflop raiser has an eight. But with a weaker eight like 9-8 or J-8, I’d expect most $2-$5 players to check back the turn. The full house 8-7 is possible, but again that hand is weak on the turn and I’d tend to expect a check. Even with A-8 many players would check back the turn.

And there’s a good chance a $2-$5 player on the button would limp preflop rather than raise with any of those hands.

An overpair is likely up to the river, but few players would bet that big on the river when the eight pairs.

Quads is possible, of course.

Other than that, nothing really makes sense. The key idea here is that a pair of eights on the turn would not be bet—and bet so large—by most $2-$5 players. Many players want to check back or make small bets with their medium strength hands on the turn. The reason is obvious—to control the pot and avoid big losses.

But then on other hands they want to pretend that’s not what they do and blast away on all streets.

There’s a fairly good chance that your opponent has a busted draw like diamonds or a straight draw. Or perhaps even just has offsuit overcards. It’s the fact that you don’t usually see a turn bet with a medium-strength hand that allows you to sniff out this possible bluffing situation.

Final Thoughts

There are some fairly simple rules that you can follow and get decent results playing poker. One of these rules for small-stakes no-limit games is to take big turn and river bets seriously and usually fold.

But learning what the exceptions might be to these rules are important if you want to improve. On some board runouts, it’s very unlikely a typical $2-$5 player is bluffing. In the example above, it was reasonable for either player to hold a flush. Most players at this level don’t want to get caught bluffing into an “obvious” flush, so they will just check down most of their non-flushes.

On the other hand, other board runouts make legitimate hands quite unlikely. These are often the boards that would-be bluffers choose to take shots at—even though theoretically they should be bluffing more when it’s likelier they have a hand and less when it’s unlikely.

If you use some deductive reasoning, even at $2-$5 you can find some situations to call that big river bluff. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.