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The Utility Underbet

A useful strategic tool

by John Vorhaus |  Published: Sep 04, 2009


A few issues back, I discussed a cool tool called the grandstand overbet, a technique for controlling the flow of a weak-passive no-limit hold’em game by raising big behind fields of limpers. I’m now going to discuss a complementary tool, the utility underbet, which is useful for controlling the size of a pot and giving your draws the right price. As is the case with the grandstand overbet, it’s situationally useful, and a handy trick to have up your poker sleeve. It starts with a gift: an uncharacteristic limpfest in an otherwise aggressive low buy-in no-limit hold’em game that puts you in the big blind in a four-way pot with a free look at the flop. The blinds in this game are $1-$2, and you have about $100 in front of you, as do the other three players. Holding the KClub Suit 3Club Suit, you flop the nut-flush draw: AClub Suit 10Diamond Suit 6Club Suit. There’s about $9 in the pot, including the small blind’s surrendered dollar and considering the rake. How would you like to proceed?

Maybe you’ll just check here. If everyone else checks, you’ll get to see the turn card for free, and possibly hit your flush. But with two high cards out there, it’s likely that one of the limpers has a piece of this flop and will bet. Your opponents see those two clubs as clearly as you do, and will be disinclined to give a free draw to the flush. But let’s suppose that they all check and you hit your flush on the turn. How much action are you likely to get when you lead into a board with such obvious texture?

You could make a pot-size bet on the flop, hoping that everyone will fold, or if they call, that you’ll connect on the turn. The trouble is, you’re out of position. If you bet now and get callers, you’ll need either a club on the turn or sufficient stones to fire again. But let’s suppose that you run into a big reraise. Now you’re up against an unknown holding, out of position, with incorrect odds for your draw. Your big semibluff on the flop, then, puts you out ahead of your hand, and at the mercy of the cards or your foes’ weakness.

Cards may fall, but you can’t count on weakness. Inasmuch as we have identified this game as being generally aggressive, we kind of have to wonder why they all turned passive on this hand preflop. Either someone is dragging (slow-playing) a big pair or there are lots of middling hands out there, like A-8, K-J, 7-7, and so on — none of which you can currently beat. The bottom line is: big semibluff equals big trouble.

I like a small bet here. There’s $9 in play. Let’s suppose that you bet $3. If you get no callers, that’s fine, as you win the pot and move on. But I think you will get callers. Bad aces will call, looking to hit their kickers. Worse flush draws than yours will be delighted that you made the “mistake” of giving them correct odds to call. Even something like Q-J might call, taking an incorrect (but cheap) flier on an inside straight. If you get so much as a single caller, you’ve created a pot that offers roughly the correct odds to try to make your flush on the turn (4-1 or better, depending on the number of callers).

And if you get raised? It’s not the end of the world. If the raise is big, you can get away from your hand, having used a teaser bet to flush a big holding out of the weeds. If the raise is small, though, simply recalculate the odds and see where you stand. You might find yourself correctly priced into the pot twice on the same betting round. Let’s suppose that you start by betting $3. Now there’s $12 in the pot. Two callers build the pot to $18. Then, someone makes it $10 to go. It’s back to you. The pot contains $28, and you have to call $7. There’s your 4-1 odds again, and it’s highly likely that both of the $3 callers also will chip in another $7, giving you an even better price for your call.

OK, let’s suppose that you make that small bet on the flop and just get called. Now, the turn is the 2Diamond Suit — a true hold’em brick. Go ahead and underbet again. You can give yourself the same favorable odds in exactly the same way. Let’s say the pot is $21 ($9 preflop plus your $3 flop bet and three callers). A small bet here (say, $7) might look like a “Hoover” bet from a really strong hand — one designed to suck in callers. Or, it may be an enticement to players drawing to worse hands than yours. If no one calls, great, you win, but if even one player calls, you’ve got odds for your final flush draw. Should you face a raise, simply make the same calculation as before, sticking around if the odds warrant and folding if they don’t. Of course, if you hit your flush on the turn, you have all sorts of options, including making the very same small bet and hoping that someone raises so that you can come over the top.

We often think of implied odds in terms of calling: “If I call this bet now, how much might I win later?” In this instance, we’re looking at the implied odds surrounding a bet you make rather than a bet you call. When your underbet money goes into the pot, you’re not getting the right price, but as soon as someone else’s money goes in, you are. If no one else calls, you don’t get the right odds, but you do get the pot! Plus, by betting, even underbetting, you keep aggressiveness on your side, which is never a bad thing. Against the right type of opponents, you can actually give yourself correct odds to draw over and over. If you hit, you’ll win the pot, and if you miss, you’ll get away from the hand at minimal cost. It pays to think ahead.

Many people misconstrue the odds of their drawing hands. On the flop, for instance, they know that they’re about 2-1 against completing a four-flush with two cards to come, but they forget (or conveniently ignore) the fact that they won’t necessarily get to see two cards for the price of a call on the flop. Naturally, this is wrong, but it’s a common mistake, commonly made. The reason for underbetting your draws, then, is to manipulate the size of the pot so that you get the right price to draw every time that you put money into the pot.

There’s a problem, though. This bet is so useful that it quickly becomes transparently so. Once your savvy opponents recognize that you’re trying to price yourself into your draws, they’ll make you pay with big raises, whether they have a hand or not. To pre-empt this, throw in the odd underbet in other situations, as well, especially ones in which no straight draw or flush draw is present on the board. Your foes will read you as being a timid bettor, and your utility underbet will be effectively disguised for when you need it most. Spade Suit

John Vorhaus is the author of the Killer Poker book series and the new poker novel Under the Gun, in bookstores now. He resides in cyberspace at, and blogs the world from John Vorhaus’ photo: Gerard Brewer.