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Betting Two-Way Hands — Part II

The best strategy when you have a big hand

by Michael Cappelletti |  Published: Aug 20, 2010

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In my last column, I discussed the merits of making a big move against one opponent in pot-limit Omaha high-low when you have a possible winner in both directions and judge it to be very unlikely that your opponent has you beat both ways. Of course, it is also “routine” to make a big bet when you have the nuts in one direction, to try to shake off an opponent who might win the other half of the pot.

But if you have a good hand that is quite likely to win in both directions, you usually should not make a big move, because your opponent will often fold — and that will cost you money that you might have won. So, what is the best strategy when you have a big hand? Perhaps the main consideration is your knowledge of your opponent’s tendencies and your previous interactions. Against a timid or frugal calling station, simply bet as much as you think he is likely to call. But against an aggressive, opportunistic player, it will often be best to check and “hand him the ball.”

When your opponent has been doing the betting and you make a big hand, trapping is usually most effective. In the following example, you are playing in a pot-limit Omaha high-low tournament with two tables remaining (you are already in the money). In your 600 big blind, you pick up the KHeart Suit 2Heart Suit 4Diamond Suit 3Diamond Suit. After one crawler, a very aggressive player who has about 30,000 in chips makes it 1,800 to go. Since some of his previous raises were made with hands that you wouldn’t even play, you are quite happy to call the extra 1,200. The crawler folds.

In heads-up action, the flop comes 9Heart Suit 7Diamond Suit 5Heart Suit. So, you have a king-high flush draw, the third-best low draw, and a gutshot-straight draw (6), which might already be beat (by an 8-6). You check to your opponent, who bets 2,500. But why only 2,500 (the pot was 4,500)? On several previous occasions, he had followed up his preflop raise by betting the pot after the flop. Is he trying to make it easier for you to call? You’d better keep that in mind. You have about 17,000 in chips remaining. You decide to simply call the 2,500.

The 2Diamond Suit turns, giving you the third-best low (your 4-3 would lose to an A-3 or A-4). But that deuce just might have counterfeited his A-2 (a popular holding for a preflop raise). Also, you now have yet another flush draw (albeit the lowest). This hand certainly does have two-way potential, but you check to see what your opponent will do. He confidently slams 3,000 into the pot. Again, you simply call.

The river card is the QDiamond Suit, which gives you a very low flush. So, what do you do in this position? If you check, might he check because he doesn’t like the river diamond?

In the actual hand, my opponent and I each had more than 7,000 in the pot. And now, since there was at least a fair chance that I had him beat in both directions, my first impulse was to push my remaining 11,000-plus in chips into the pot, since I felt it was very unlikely that he had me beat both ways. Of course, if he had me beat even just one way, he certainly would call whatever I bet (and we would just split the pot), so in that case, whatever I did didn’t matter.

But what if I actually had him beat both ways? If I bet my 11,000-plus, he probably would have to fold, and that would cost me money that I might have won. So, how much could I bet that he would be likely to call? If I bet half of my stack, would he be only half as likely to fold (economic theory applied to poker)? Another possibility was that I should make a smaller bet, perhaps 3,000, the amount of his last bet. Since I suspected that he liked the flop, he probably had enough to call a small bet.

But note that whenever a player who has been checking and calling suddenly pounces with a lead bet, that action certainly breaks the previous momentum and gets the full attention of his opponent. It is somewhat analogous to the chess situation in which a defender suddenly attacks and grabs the initiative. It serves as a warning or perhaps a wake-up call to his opponent.

In poker, generally, when you make a big hand against a lead-betting opponent, the best action is to continue to lay low (trap) or to make a small bet that might provoke a raise. A big bet figures to get paid off only if your opponent has a good hand or if you have a bluffing history that might tempt him to call (your bluff) with a lesser hand. But, all in all, given my opponent’s previous betting momentum, I judged that it would be unwise to disturb the flow by making any kind of bet here.

So, since I judged this particular opponent to be rather hot, I checked. Almost instantly, he reached for his stack and pushed it in! So, was my operation a success, or had he also hit the backdoor flush and maybe been betting a good low? I often fold a second-nut low (and some second-nut high hands) rather than risk my whole stack and elimination. But in this two-way situation, in which I had a decent holding in both directions, it was really quite unlikely that he had me beat both ways. It was much more likely that he had me beat in one direction and was trying to scare me off.

I clearly had to make the big call. He showed his A-A-9-9 hand. He had flopped a set of nines and then tried to bulldoze on the river. So, I scooped a big pot, which enabled me to coast to the final table. Note that if I had pushed my stack or made a large bet, he certainly would have noticed the third diamond and might have folded.

So, if you happen to end up with a very good two-way hand when playing against an opponent who is aggressively betting, it is probably wrong to make a big bet that might change the flow and scare him off. Depending on his history and your judgment of his present momentum, it is generally best to continue trapping or to make a small provocative bet. Spade Suit

Formerly a career lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice, Mike Cappelletti has written numerous books on poker and bridge, and is considered to be one of the leading authorities on Omaha. Mike has also represented the U.S. in international bridge competition, and he and his wife were featured in a four-page Couples Section in People magazine. His books include Cappelletti on Omaha, Poker at the Millennium (with Mike Caro), and Omaha High Low Poker.