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Free Cards - Part IV

Defenses against free-card raises

by Barry Tanenbaum |  Published: Apr 09, 2008


In this column, we continue our look at free cards and related topics by discussing defenses against free-card raises in limit hold'em.

On the surface, defending against free-card raises is pretty simple: If you suspect that an opponent is raising to take a free card, don't give him one. The two ways to keep him from getting a free card are to reraise on the flop and keep on betting, or to wait and see if a likely draw-completing card appears on the turn, and bet if it does not.

As always seems to be the case in poker, once you get past the simple stuff, complicated issues lurk behind. In this case, we have several to look at:

• What are the chances that his raise represents a made hand versus a draw?

• Which defensive play should you select?

• What if you are also drawing?

What are the chances that his raise represents a made hand versus a draw?

In general, the more draws there are on the board, the more likely your opponent is to have one. A flop of K 7 3 has much less chance of a player raising for a free card than one of J 10 5. This is not definitive, though, because a player with, say, the A 3 might decide that he has five outs and a backdoor-flush draw and raise for a free card on the first board. Nevertheless, poker is a game of odds, and the chances that the raiser on the second flop has a draw are vastly greater.

Also of significance is the opponent. Just as I emphasized balance in determining whether to make a free-card raise (previous columns in this series are available at, not all raisers are equal. Some never raise the flop except for a free-card play, while others never try a free-card raise at all. When I first began to play, a player, "Hawk," constantly frightened me by three-betting the flop. It took me a while to figure out that every time Hawk three-bet, it was a free-card raise. If he had a hand good enough to make a business raise, he always waited for the turn. Needless to say, I stopped being frightened and started playing back.

Finally, consider your image when deciding whether a player is trying for a free card. If you are seen as a fierce defender who always plays back, far fewer opponents will try to get a free card from you. Similarly, if you are seen as passive, opponents will try to push you around more often. Clearly, this also calls for balance on your part and an understanding of what they think of you. Ironically, it also requires you to play against the type of player you are. If you are an aggressive defender, the raises you see will probably be real hands, and you should be playing back less. If you are generally passive, you will see many more free-card raises, and you will need to start playing back more.

With the exception of players like Hawk, you can never be certain of what sort of raise you are facing; you can only suspect. If you guess free-card raise and are instead facing a better hand, you will lose extra money. If you "play it safe" and assume that every raise is a powerful hand, you will be giving up a lot of free cards, which also costs money. No one gets it right all of the time, but the more attention you pay to the type of board you're facing, your opponents' tendencies, and your current table image, the better your judgment will be.

Which defensive play should you select?

As I discussed, your choices are reraising now, or waiting to see the turn and then bet if it looks benign. While there are no real rules governing this, take the following factors into account:

1. The strength of your hand

2. Intervening opponents

3. Your ability to recognize the completed draw

1. The strength of your hand: The better your hand, the more you should be inclined to three-bet. This actually relates to the fact that the raise is potentially ambiguous, and could be a real hand. The more certain you are that your hand is the best, the happier you are to put the maximum amount of money in the pot.

2. Intervening opponents: Ironically, this factor comes into play when your hand is vulnerable. If you believe there is a good chance that opponents who already called a single bet may fold if you reraise, make that play. These opponents already had a chance to raise and did not, so they cannot have that good a hand (unless they are slow-playing a monster). By leveraging the free-card raise to put pressure on these players, you can potentially eliminate them and any threat they represent to take your pot away.

3. Your ability to recognize the completed draw: If your plan is to call and then bet if a draw-completing card does not hit on the turn, you had best be sure you can recognize that card when it comes. If, for example, the board is Q 8 3, you can be fairly sure that your opponent is looking for a diamond. If, on the other hand, the flop is Q J 5, it is possible that any ace, king, 10, 9, 8, or diamond will complete his hand. This is about half the deck. Since you do not wish to check every time anything scary comes, you may as well three-bet the flop, bet the turn, and see what he does. You may have to make a difficult read later in the hand, but at least you are staying aggressive and profiting when he misses.

What if you are also drawing?

Some of the more interesting situations arise when you are semibluffing and your opponent makes what you think is a free-card raise. Too many players call here and check the turn, figuring they could use a free card, too, and are happy to take one. Resist this temptation; instead, play the hand as if you were betting a made hand. Adopt the free-card defense play you would make if you had the best hand. This play often convinces opponents that you must have a hand, and they tend to respect it. Of course, you will also make your hand occasionally, and keep everyone off balance.

Next issue, we will explore some situations in which you may wish to give a free card.

Barry Tanenbaum is the author of Advanced Limit Hold'em Strategy, and collaborator on Limit Hold'em: Winning Short-Handed Strategies, both available at Barry offers private lessons tailored to the individual student. Please see his website,, or write to him at