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Four Tips for Playing the Flop

It’s a critical pot-building betting round

by Ed Miller |  Published: Feb 18, 2011

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In the last couple of columns, I’ve been working backward, offering four tips for playing the river and then four tips for playing the turn. This column will discuss playing the flop.
The cliche about the flop is that it’s the turning point of the hand, since it’s where more than half of the boardcards are revealed. But the flop isn’t important just because of the number of boardcards that come out. The flop is a critical pot-building betting round. Pots with a flop bet become much larger, on average, than pots without one.
This fact makes betting the flop generally attractive, especially against opponents who are passive and unlikely to make large bets on later rounds that test you. If you are adept at playing the large betting rounds, and your opponents aren’t, you want to build the pot. Big pots will enable you to leverage your late-round advantage to generate a bigger win rate.
Of course, more big pots mean more variance. But none of the best no-limit hold’em players I know shy away from a good gamble. When in doubt, bet the flop. Here are four more tips for playing the flop:
Tip No. 1: Pay attention to the board texture. Board texture is a critical factor in all hold’em hands. Too many people look at the flop and think only, “I hit the flop,” or, “I missed.” It’s just as important to consider how likely your opponents are to have hit or missed the flop, and how they’ll play.
Consider a flop like the 9♥ 9♠ 7♣. If you have the K♦ Q♦, you missed the flop. But think further than that. If you bet and get called, what sorts of hands could your opponent have? He could have a 9, a 7, or a pocket pair. He also could have a straight draw with a hand like J-10, 10-8, J-8, and so forth. He could even have ace high or king high — overcards like you have. Because paired boards are harder to hit than unpaired boards, many players call on these boards with hands like unimproved overcards that they would fold on a different board type.
There’s no way to play the turn and river well without thinking about what sorts of hands your opponents could have on the flop. And your opponents will have different types of hands on different board textures. Always consider the board texture when you’re planning your flop play and beyond.
Tip No. 2: Adjust bet size to board texture. One important way that board texture should alter your flop play is that you should make different bets on different board textures. Generally speaking, you should make smaller bets on dryer and paired boards, and bigger bets on more coordinated boards.
You’re betting the flop. You generally should bet more on a Q♦ J♦ 9♠ flop than you would on a 7♣ 2♠ 2♥ flop. Why? Your opponent is more likely to have hit the former flop, particularly with a moderate-strength hand like a pair and a draw. He should be willing to pay more, on average, to see a turn card.
A flop like the 7♣ 2♠ 2♥ rarely improves either player’s hand, and offers no draws. If you were ahead preflop, you’re likely to still be ahead, and you’ll likely still be ahead on the river. The static nature of a dry board like this one makes opponents less willing to pay to draw.
Therefore, you bet more on coordinated flops than on dry ones. I tend to bet close to the pot amount on coordinated flops, and closer to half of the pot amount on dry flops. This bet size depends on the board texture, but not on whether I hit the flop or not. If I have A-A on a 7-2-2 flop, I still will bet small, even though my hand is very strong. If I have A-K on a Q-J-9 flop, I still will bet large, even though my hand is marginal. The board texture, not the strength of my hand, determines the bet size.
Tip No. 3: Attack continuation-bets with small raises. There’s a common breed of live, small-stakes no-limit hold’em player. He raises a lot of hands preflop. He’ll raise with things like Q-J from early or middle position, Q-4 suited from late position, and so forth. You’ll know him because eventually someone will complain to him after losing a hand, “What the heck were you raising with that for?”
He not only raises a lot preflop, but likes to continuation-bet on the flop, as well. If he gets called on the flop, he’ll often slow down on the turn and play his hand closer to its true strength. This player gets away with his loose and aggressive preflop and flop strategy mostly because people don’t adjust to it, and give him too much credit on these early streets.
You can foil him. Challenge his flop bets with small raises. For instance, in a $1-$2 game, he makes it $10 before the flop from early position. He can have hands like 7-6 suited, 3-3, K-10 offsuit, and so forth. You call from the button with the K♦ J♦. Everyone else folds. The flop comes 10♣ 9♠ 9♦, giving you a gutshot and a backdoor-flush draw. He bets $20 into the $23 pot. He would do this with any hand.
You can raise to $45 or $50. This is a small raise compared to the pot size, only $25 or $30 into a pot of $60 plus. But you have position, and he will have a wide array of hands that have missed the board completely — things like A-3 and 6-5 suited. He’ll likely fold these hands even to the small raise.
If he calls the raise, he will often have something marginal, like Q-J or 4-4. If the turn and river brick, you may be able to suss out these hands and get him off them with a good-sized river bet.
But more often than not, you’ll just pick up the pot with your small, stabby bluff. When players play overly loose and aggressive on the early streets, they are vulnerable to being challenged by small early raises. Give it a try.
Tip No. 4: Make fewer speculative calls against aggressive players. Most players like to make speculative flop calls. The bets are still small, and hey, you could hit that gutshot on the turn, right? Speculative calls are OK when you have position and your opponent is passive. Your flop call will often earn a turn check and a free card, or an opportunity to steal the pot.
But against aggressive players, you’re just throwing away money when you make shrugging flop calls with gutshots. They’ll often follow up on the turn with another bet, and you’ll have to fold. So, keep making those speculative calls against weak players, but snug up against the aggressive ones. Punish their aggression by playing tighter and attacking them with position, and when, given the board texture, they are likely to be weak. ♠

Ed’s latest book, Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em, is available for purchase at smallstakesnolimit-holdem.com. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/edmillerauthor, and you also can check out his online poker advice column, notedpokerauthority.com