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Button, Button, Who Needs the Button?

“The second liar never has a chance.”

by John Vorhaus |  Published: Feb 18, 2011

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There’s a saying where I come from (a place where I make up all the sayings): “The second liar never has a chance.” In this column, we’re going to examine how we can use this truth about lying to our advantage when defending our blinds.
Conventional wisdom has it that position is critically important in no-limit hold’em, and that the later your position is, the better off you are. For the most part, this insight is right on. There are times, however, when position is irrelevant — times, in fact, that early position can come to your aid in stealing pots that would not otherwise be yours.
Consider this example: In a typical low buy-in, capped buy-in no-limit hold’em game, you find yourself in the big blind with … well, for the sake of conversation, we’ll give you something really awful, the Numpty, 6-2 suited, if only to demonstrate that sometimes the cards you hold matter as little as the position you’re in.
It’s folded around to the button, a fairly good, fairly tight-aggressive player. He raises, as expected and sensible, since he’s got to get through only the small blind and you, and you’re both on random hands. From his point of view, if you fold, that’s fine, but then again, he wouldn’t mind inducing action from your random hands, because he thinks he can take the pot away from you on most flops, thanks to the power of position. As he’s about to discover, though … not so much.
The small blind folds, leaving it up to you to decide how to play your Numpty. Remember, your foe puts you on a random hand. In other words, he doesn’t have a clue what you’ve got! What do you think he has? He raised from the button, where any half-a-hand is good for a raise into an unopened pot. So, let’s put him on exactly that: half-a-hand; maybe K-10, maybe 6-6, and maybe some real egregious cheese like 9-6 suited, but probably something a little more utile than that. He wants to have at least a little something to go to war with on the flop if you should happen to call — which you do.
Now, here’s the cool part: No matter how the flop comes, he’s an odds-on favorite to miss it. It’s hold’em’s favorite number. Anytime a player holds two unpaired cards, he’ll pair the board only about one-third of the time. Fully two-thirds of the time, then, he’ll whiff the flop — completely swing and miss. This is crucial to our understanding of what comes next, because while it’s true that you’re every bit as likely as he is to miss the flop, your position gives you first crack at this one! You get to speak first; the second liar never has a chance.
What you’re specifically looking for here is a certain variety of orphan flop, the sort of flop that’s unlikely for your foe to have hit, and one that doesn’t offer much in the way of attractive draws. 8-8-3 is an orphan flop, and so is 10-6-2 rainbow. The 10♣ 9♣ 8♣ is not an orphan flop. That’s a super-textured flop, just dripping with straight draws, flush draws, and weak made hands like A-8 and A-9. If you bet into that scary flop, or one similar, you’re just asking to play multiple streets out of position. You don’t want that. You want to end the hand right here.
That’s why you bet into only orphan flops — very dry, very non-threatening boards. Lead into them. Bet them like you own them. Be the first liar. Remember, your foe puts you on a random hand, and what kind of flops do random hands hit? Why, random ones, of course. You, meanwhile, can put him on a slightly less random hand. You can give him credit for having some sort of coordinated holding, and coordinated holdings hate uncoordinated flops when they miss them — which your foe is an odds-on favorite to have just done.
So, go ahead and bet. Bet about two-thirds the size of the pot. This is a large enough bet to be taken seriously, and not look like a weak steal attempt. It’s also big enough to deny the right price to draws. Yet, it’s a small enough bet that if he comes over the top and you don’t think he’s restealing, you can get away from your hand fairly cheaply. Go to school on that bet size. It’s a real workhorse, and should be a standard weapon in your arsenal.
Could you check-raise bluff here? Sure, you could. In one sense, the situation seems to call for it, since most players will continuation-bet into that dry board as a matter of course. So, the way you’d like it to go is check, bet, raise, fold, next case. Yeah, a lot of times that’ll work, but I’d still rather take the lead away from him, for four reasons that I can think of. First, you minimize your financial risk, getting the most bluff-bang for your buck. Second, he might not oblige you by betting, and if he checks behind, you’ve given him a free chance to hit some miracle out. Third, if the action goes check, check, and you then bet the turn, he can more reliably read your bet for the bluff that it is.
Fourth, and most important, your goal here is to win the money that’s already in the pot. Be satisfied to do that. Go ahead and make your move now, when the time is right. Bet into that ragged flop, knowing that most of the time, your conventional-minded foe won’t be able to call, and that when he does call, you can reliably put him on a hand and back off your steal attempt. Plus, if you show a player on the button that you not only will call from the big blind, but also will seize control on the flop, it won’t take him too long to conclude that he’d be better off attacking other, less frisky players than you. This means that he’ll stop molesting your big blind when he has the button, and what’s not to like about that?
One last thing: Although you might be tempted to show him how you stole a pot with your Numpty, or whatever, please resist that urge. Don’t show your cards! You might want to use that trick again sometime (maybe even next time). Let your foes think you’re always lucky enough to pick up a big hand in the big blind, and their precious button will become useless to them — at least against someone who knows that the second liar really never has a chance. ♠

John Vorhaus is the author of the Killer Poker book series and the poker novel Under the Gun. He resides in cyberspace at radarenterprizes.com. Photo: Gerard Brewer.