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An Educational Hand

There’s more than one “right way” to play a hand

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: Nov 26, 2010


One of my poker clients recently gave me a hand that I think has general instructional value. He is relatively new to online poker and sticks to low-stakes no-limit hold’em games. This hand is from a 25¢-50¢ game with a $50 buy-in. Here is what his e-mail said:

“I picked up two red queens in early position and opened for $1.50. A player in middle position called, and so did the small blind. The flop came J♠ 4♠ 3♥. I bet twice the pot size to protect my hand against a flush draw and overcards. The player in middle position called, and the small blind folded. The turn was the A♦. I checked. The pot was now $25, and my opponent bet only $4. I called, because the bet was so small compared to the size of the pot. The last card was the 8♣, which looked like a total blank. I checked again, and my opponent bet all of his money, another $23. I called, because there was a flush draw on the flop that never materialized, so I thought he might be bluffing. My opponent showed me the A♠ 8♠ for aces up. What is your opinion on this hand?”

I would like to run through all of the actions taken on this hand by my student:
Preflop, open-raising with queens is the standard play, and what I normally favor. Tripling the big blind is a good amount to raise in a game with blinds of $5-$10 or larger. I confess to not knowing what the normal raise size is in a game with 25¢-50¢ blinds, as I have never played for that amount. However, with blinds of $1-$2, coming in for four to five times the big blind is more usual than just tripling, so I would prefer to “go with the flow” rather than stubbornly stick to my normal raising ratios. I would limp with the intention of reraising only if I had a short stack, such as just 20 times the big blind. I do not buy in or rebuy for small amounts, but usually wait for the button before reloading after losing most of my chips on a hand, so I occasionally do have a short stack in a money game. I am prudent about buying more chips when in bad position, preferring to wait until my button to reload.

On the flop, it would be rare for me to overbet the pot size. However, I do not think my student’s bet of twice the pot size was bad poker, even though it’s not my cup of tea. I certainly would not make a small bet (compared to the pot size) with the board having all undercards and a possible flush draw. In this hand, the overbet on the flop was not bad at all, and should have helped my client diagnose the hand more accurately.

The turn bet of a mere $4 certainly appears to be an offer that can’t be refused. It looks like some strange kind of poker in which the bettor either has a monster or does not want to risk anything of consequence. It is a bet that few of us would have made in that player’s shoes, but you cannot assume that he is cuckoo just because he made a bet of that size.

The all-in river bet of $23 into a $33 pot looks like either a busted flush draw or a hand that is unafraid. If you call, you do not expect a photo finish. Either he is bluffing or he has you trounced. Which possibility is more likely?

It is difficult for a poker coach to provide an opinion on whether or not an opponent is bluffing without knowing anything about that player. On the other hand, I think a look back at the early betting is helpful in this hand, and some conclusion can be drawn. What might an opponent call with on the flop when the preflop raiser has made a bet of twice the pot size? Some possible hands are top pair with an ace kicker, a slow-played overpair or set, and the nut-flush draw. Of course, a flush draw other than the nut-flush draw is possible, but such a hand might not have called the preflop raise and an oversized pot bet. It is hard for me to believe that any hand other than the nut-flush draw would have adopted the betting pattern we see here — a micro-bet followed by an all-in wager. Top pair would not be very likely to give a cheap card on the turn, or move all in on the river. A set or big overpair would fear the flush draw, for both the drawout possibility and the action killer, and probably would move in on the turn, since the amount in the pot is greater than the amount left in the players’ stacks. The nut-flush draw has less fear of giving a cheap card. The bottom line is that the all-in wager on the river looks more like aces or aces up than a bluff.

I think there are some interesting points about poker revealed in this hand. First, betting large amounts relative to the pot size clearly helps the accuracy of later decisions. I usually do not overbet the pot size unless wanting to go all in, but I do bet enough to get more reliable information than can be gleaned by wagering a wimpy amount. Second, gaining more accurate information is not helpful if you do not act on that information. I would compare what happened here to the frequent limit-poker scenario in which certain players “raise to find out where they are at” — and then call a reraise because they think they are now getting the right price to draw out. Listen to your opponents.

There is also a lesson to be learned here about the fallacy of losing all respect for any player who does not make wagers the way that you (and most of the better players) would. The flop bet of twice the pot size got useful information, even though it was not heeded. The “micro-bet” of $4 into a pot of $25 on the turn not only found out that my client probably did not have a big ace, but also was plenty large enough to protect the hand. The pot odds offered to my client were 29-4, but he had only the Q♣ for an out, so he was a 43-1 underdog. Perhaps if the bettor had not confused my client with his micro-bet, he would not have paid off on the river. So, unorthodox should not be equated to crazy, or if you prefer, there was a method to his madness.
The biggest mistake made by intelligent but inexperienced players wishing to better their game is to think there is one “right way” to play a hand, and if an opponent does not play that way, he is stupid. There is more than one effective way to play poker. ♠

Bob Ciaffone has authored four poker books, Middle Limit Holdem Poker, Pot-limit and No-limit Poker, Improve Your Poker, and Omaha Poker. All can be ordered (autographed to you) from Bob by e-mail: Free U.S. shipping to Card Player readers. Ciaffone is available for poker lessons at a reasonable rate. His website is, where you can get his rulebook, Robert’s Rules of Poker, for free. Bob also has a website called