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Medium-Stakes Cash-Game Strategy

Playing Draws

by Daragh Thomas |  Published: Mar 01, 2008


When most players think of draws, they think of flush draws or straight draws, but, in fact, a draw is whenever you hold a hand that if it went to showdown now, it would probably lose, but if either the turn or river is favourable, you should win the hand. Many draws, such as holding one overcard to the flop, holding an underpair to the entire board, or needing two running cards, are almost worthless and can be disregarded. (In limit poker, very good players will often consider these draws in their play, but that's because the odds they are sometimes offered are hugely greater than pot-limit or no-limit.) What is very important to consider - more so than what you're holding is notionally called, and for several reasons that I will get to in a minute - is your pot equity. Or, in fact, because it's poker, you need to consider your likely pot equity.

Your pot equity is simply the chance your hand gives you to win in a showdown on the river. If it's 25 percent, you will win one-quarter of the time. If it's 0 percent of the time, you will lose all the time and you are said to be drawing dead. Your likely pot equity is your equity against your opponent's range, since you rarely know exactly what he has. Often, an opponent's hand will interfere with yours - for example, if he has a set when you have a flush draw, some of your "outs" will make him a full house, leaving you drawing dead. So, in situations in which your opponent is showing a lot of strength, you need to consider the possibility that you don't have as much pot equity as you would like.

Sometimes you will have such a good draw that your pot equity is more than 50 percent. When this happens, which isn't often, you are more likely to win the hand than your opponent. Counter intuitively, however, you nearly always still want your opponent to fold. This is because when he folds, he gives up his share of the dead money in the pot. It may seem obvious to advanced players, but if your equity is 50 percent or more there is no amount of money that your opponent can bet that you shouldn't call. Although technically you have the draw, whoever has the most pot equity in the hand is the person who makes a profit in the long run.

What is vitally important for players to possess is a way to quickly estimate their likely pot equity with all forms of draws. There are a few methods to do this. One way is to work out how many outs you have and how many cards you have left to see. To take an easy example, let's say that you have a flush draw on the turn. You have two hearts in your hand; there are two on the board. This leaves nine hearts and there are 46 (52 minus two from your hand, and minus four on the board) unknown cards; 9/46 is about 1/5. So, you will make your hand one-fifth of the time. It's important to be able to do this, but the method I prefer is to already know the odds for a variety of common and not-so-common situations. Most online sites allow you only 30 seconds for a decision, so you need to be quick on the draw!

I'll list a few here, but to get a good feel for it, you should play around with the Card Player poker odds calculator ( until you are happy that you have a good feel for scenarios that you are likely to encounter. Make sure to include scenarios in which you have zero, one, and two overcards, as they vastly change your pot equity.

On the flop, heads up:

A flush draw (with no overcards) against a single pair will win 35 percent of the time.

A straight draw (with no overcards) against a single pair will win 32 percent of the time.

A set against a straight or flush will win 33 percent of the time.

As you can see, all of these draws on the flop have roughly the same equity, and, luckily for poker players, it's close to 33.3 percent equity - which is exactly the equity you need to call a pot bet all in on the flop with these draws.

The easiest scenario to analyse with a draw is when you are faced with an all-in bet on the flop. You simply see if you are getting the right odds to call, compared to your likely pot equity. It gets much more complicated when there is substantial money behind. Then, you need to consider other factors. Assuming your opponent has bet, you need to consider the odds you have on making your draw for the next card. This is because you will normally be faced with another, much larger bet on the turn, so you are being charged twice.

If the pot is relatively small compared to the bet, you need to consider two other main factors. First, what are your implied odds (which I will come to in a moment)? Second, could you win the pot now with a raise? Unfortunately, I don't have the space for an in-depth expected value (EV) analysis, but whenever you have a good draw, you should consider making a raise to win the pot. The best time to do this is when your raise is basically all in, but is big enough that your opponent will fold marginal hands. It's not great play to routinely commit your whole stack into medium sized pots with an average eight-or nine-out-draws, however, so always be aware of when your raise commits you to the pot. But if you think you have a good chance of making your opponent fold, you should always consider it.

Implied odds are simply odds that the pot isn't laying you yet; they are odds that your opponent is laying you with his, as yet, unbet stack. A typical example is playing a loose and bad player who is likely to call your bet on the river regardless of the card that falls. So, let's say you are playing $1-$2 no-limit hold'em and your opponent bets $15 into a $15 pot on the turn. You find yourself with a small flush draw. Your opponent isn't sophisticated enough to bet with a flush draw, so you are certain that if you make your flush, you will win. Strictly according to pots odds, you shouldn't call this bet. However, you think that he will call a pot bet on the river should you make your flush. So now you aren't being offered a $30 pot for a $15 wager (or 2-1 odds), you are being offered a $90 pot for $15. This is 6-1, so since your draw is 5-1, you should call.

Unfortunately, poker is rarely that easy, and your opponents will often fold to a big bet on the river. So, you need to take this into account. That's why straight draws are often more valuable than flush draws; they are much less obvious to your opponents, so your implied odds are greater. The best draws are very disguised. Probably my favourite to possess is a double-gutshot draw; for example, 9-7 on a J-8-5-board. This means that any 6 or 10 gives you a straight. Anyone looking at this board might think you have 7-6 or 10-9 (whose outs are 4,9,7, and jack), but will rarely if ever consider a 6 or 10 dangerous. If you happen to pick up a backdoor-flush draw, you are in a very good spot, as well, as players tend not to notice backdoor draws, and even when they do notice them to assign them, a very low priority in their thinking.

Another thing to consider is if you can win the hand with a bluff at a later stage should you miss your draw. Here's word of warning, however: Bluffing on the river after several obvious draws miss is a move that even bad players are now aware of. Much better than that is to bluff on the river when an obvious draw did come in. The most typical example of this is when you flop a straight draw with a flush draw on the board. You miss your straight but the flush card hits. A big bet here can be very profitable. It's better to make this move, because players are much more paranoid about flush draws than straight draws. Against sophisticated opponents, it can work either way.

A very important point to always consider is your position. Your position is always important in poker, but vitally so with draws. There are many benefits to consider; two of the biggest ones are:

On the turn, you are far more likely to get a free card when in position.

On the river, you are far more likely to get paid off when in position.

What this means is that it is very rare for calling a bet out of position to be the right play with a draw. This leads me to my final but important point. When the action is to you and no one has bet yet, it is nearly always the best play to bet yourself. Betting gives you the best chance to win the pot for a reasonable sum. It puts you in control of the betting, enabling you to set your own price before and after you make your draw (hopefully!).

Daragh Thomas has made a living from poker over the last three years. He also coaches other players and writes extensively on the poker forum, under the name hectorjelly.