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Visualize Before the Card Falls

by Dan Abrams |  Published: Jun 14, 2005


Visualization, athletes use this technique all the time. The golfer visualizes the ball going into the cup before he putts. The bowler sees his strike before he rolls his ball. While composing himself on the mound, in his mind, the pitcher watches the batter stand stunned as the ball whips past. They visualize so that they can better prepare for what they want to accomplish.

Good poker players do the same thing for even more tactical reasons. Let's say you're playing no-limit hold'em with $5-$10 blinds and you have $2,000 in chips. You hold the J 10 and the board on the turn shows K Q 7 2. There is $400 in the pot and you're first to act with two players behind you. It's checked around. Now, any ace or 9 gives you the nuts. But how will you play it? Do you normally just pray and wait for the card? What if a brick falls? Will you bluff? You should know the answers to these questions before you see what the river brings.

If you don't know the answers beforehand, when the river comes, you will have to think about it. And even if you're confident that you have the perfect poker face, you must admit that there's some chance we're going to see your gears turning.

Let's say you're up against an overly excited amateur who's been calling all along. If you bet big or go all in with the nuts right away, he may erroneously read that as a bluff and call instinctually. If you mull it over for a while, he may see the potential straight and wisely fold his two pair.

If you are up against a wildly aggressive maniac and you check quickly, that might induce a bluff. But if you take your time, he might smell a trap.

Let's say that it's the same situation (you have the nuts) but you're last to act. If someone bets in front of you, will you go all in or raise the minimum? Maybe you want to take your time (like 15-20 seconds) and "think about folding" before you raise with the nuts. That way, you might add credibility to your river bluffs on future hands.

In all of these examples, knowing what you will do before the card falls will give you more options. You can fake "taking your time" or you may act quickly, depending on the reaction you plan and hope to get.

And, of course, the same is true if you don't make your hand. If the river is a rag and you've been betting your draw all the way, maybe you can take the pot with a big bet. If you've been check-calling all the way, maybe betting out will be seen as a bluff attempt and you'll get picked off. So, maybe your only successful play is to check-raise bluff, if you have the right read, the right image, and sufficient courage.

Now, let's say you're playing the same game and have $2,000 in chips. You hold the 10 8 on the button against two players and flop shows A Q J. The first player bets $50, the second player calls and now there is $250 in the pot. You're getting 5-1 on your money and you have eight outs to make a straight (any king or 9). Two of those cards make a flush, so you have to do some discounting. But three cards (non-spade kings) give you the nuts and another three cards (non-spade nines) give you the second nuts. You also have a backdoor-flush draw (which is my personal favorite against weak bettors). In this example, I think the implied odds strongly suggest a call. You could make a semibluff raise, but that might trigger an all in from someone holding a set, A-Q, A-J, Q-J, or the dreaded K-10 (the made nut straight). But you also fear a call from someone who has you beat with as little as a big flush draw (K X, Q X, or 10 9) or even a single pair. A call seems best. But what are you going to do on the turn?

As your Yoda, I say: Visualize, young Jedi. Coming for you the turn card will. Options you must see before it does.

If you make the nuts, don't get too excited. You've still got to extract maximum profit. So, on the flop, visualize making the nuts on the turn or the river. How will you feel? What will you do? Hopefully, now when the card comes, you won't flip out of your chair.

Remember that you have the 10 8 and the flop is A Q J. If a spade comes and they both check, will you bluff and represent the flush? This is a reasonable spot to bluff, so it might work, but consequently it might also be seen as a bluff. And you could be betting into someone who is slow-playing the nut flush.

If a spade comes and one person bets, will you call? This is dangerous because you could be drawing dead. I can tell you that if the bet was small enough, I would be inclined to call.

If you make your straight but it's a spade, will you call a big bet? This is very tricky. The size of the bet and depth of your stack and your opponent's stack would most influence my advice here. But if one opponent bets and another calls, I think it is safe to fold here. If both check, I think you should definitely bet big to prevent cheap draws (two pair or a flush draw) from beating your straight on the river. If one of them comes over the top, you can lay down your hand with some confidence.

If the board pairs, will you bluff if they both check to you? This is a bold play that I would recommend you use only against weak, non-tricky opponents who don't perceive you to be overly aggressive.

If a brick comes on the turn, how big a bet will you be willing to call? Pot odds and implied odds would determine my decision. If one of them bets one-ninth of the pot or less, I would call in a flash (this is another reason to follow my favorite betting advice of "never bet less than half the size of the pot unless you have something close to the nuts"). If they're deep-stacked suckers, I might even call a really big bet.

If a brick comes on the turn, will you check behind to see the river for free? If they both check to you here, the safe decision is for you to check, too. You might make the nuts on the river and crush someone who slow-played a set on the flop. But if you bet the turn, he will blow you out of the water.

There are lots of permutations to work out before the next card falls. But, generally, they boil down to four major types: (1) Your hand improves massively, (2) Your hand improves significantly but other legitimate hands have you beat, (3) Your hand doesn't improve but the card is a "scare card" in that it could easily have made a big hand, or (4) Your hand doesn't improve and it's an obvious brick. Here, the person who has been leading at the pot and betting all along is most likely to get away with the pot (with a bluff or otherwise).

Before the next card falls, you should visualize and think through the possibilities. What would you do in each of those four major cases? Even if you don't have the answer to all of these questions, having the answer to some will make you better prepared.

More important than knowing most everything is knowing when you don't. I don't know everything. Tell me when I'm wrong.

Dan Abrams was the writer/producer of the documentary on the World Series of Poker in 2000 for the Discovery Channel and the post producer/writer for the World Poker Tour in its first season. Currently, he is the senior producer for E! Entertainment Television's "Hollywood Poker Night."