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Head Games - Take the Initiative to Take Down More Pots

Head Games - Take the Initiative to Take Down More Pots

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: May 06, 2011


Craig Tapscott: How important is having initiative in a hand, and what opportunities does it create from the beginning of a hand to its completion?

Corwin Cole: All stratagems for playing out a poker hand begin with a read on the opponent. If we’re talking about having and keeping the initiative, we essentially have to answer one question: Is our opponent the type who will bluff at any sign of weakness? If that’s the case, it’s important not to have the lead in the hand, so that he can put a bunch of money in with nothing before we win the pot. By the time it’s over, we can win in two ways: We may win the pot by putting in the final rebluff and getting all in first, or we can just have something that will beat a bluff at showdown, and call with it. When the opponent is not such a crazy bluffer, we will benefit a lot from having the initiative. If we are betting or raising rather than calling, it’s always possible that we’re bluffing, and we are never predictable or easy to read. We also get to choose the size of the bets, which can sometimes lead to substantial extra profits when we win the pot, or savings when we lose the pot. Finally, our opponent, by not having the initiative, will usually define his hand early on, and we can make a good read and prudent decision before the pot gets too big.

Martin Fournier-Giguere: One thing people don’t understand very well is that you can basically steal the initiative at absolutely any moment during a hand. People just don’t do it enough, whether it’s because they never properly learned how to or because they’re uncomfortable in those situations. The one thing that initiative will do for a player is usually widen his hand range a lot, making it much more difficult to read his hands. The player who reraised preflop has many more possible holdings than the player who flat-called, including all of the preflop monsters that are tough to play against. The same is true for the guy who bets or raises on any street; he could have anything from a monster to absolute air, which is rarely true for someone who’s playing a hand passively. The bigger your hand range, the tougher you are to read and the more likely it is that your opponents will make mistakes. 

Sean Nolan: I think having the initiative in a hand is critical. The only time that it can be beneficial not to have the initiative is when you are trapping, and in order to trap, you need to have a very strong hand. The opportunities for having a strong hand are quite rare, and due to this, having the initiative is going to be extremely important overall, in order to show a profit in the long run. The most basic benefit of having the initiative is that you are going to be able to set the tone of the hand. What I mean by this is that you are likely going to be the one determining the size of the pot. You choose the bet sizes, and therefore force your opponent to have to react to the terms that you set. When you force your opponent to be reactionary to what you are doing, you give him more opportunities to make errors, and therefore should be able to outplay him if you are using reads and information correctly.

Craig Tapscott: You have position on an opponent who has flat-called your preflop raise or reraise. What are your options when he attempts to take the initiative from you by leading out on the flop?

Corwin Cole: When facing a lead-out bet on the flop from an out-of-position opponent, there’s only one thing to do: make a read on his motivations for the bet, and develop a plan for the hand, accordingly. Did he lead so that he could “find out where he’s at”? If so, and we have nothing, we probably should go ahead and raise, to take the pot down now; on the other hand, if we have a decent hand, we probably should just call and expect to get to showdown cheaply, winning the pot some fair percentage of the time. That covers lead-out bets made for information, but what if he led out on the flop as a pure bluff? With a decent or strong hand, we should call and give him a chance to keep bluffing, so that we can keep calling. And when we have nothing, we probably should call, as well, and give him a chance to keep bluffing, so that we can raise later. When an opponent is bluffing, we ought to let him bluff off as much money as he’s willing to bluff off before we take the pot away. Finally, he may have led out on the flop to start building a pot with a real hand, thinking that we won’t bet if he checks. When that’s the case, we ought to fold with nothing and decide whether to call or raise when we have something, depending on just how strong that “something” is.

Martin Fournier-Giguere: The very first thing you want to do in that situation is find a way to figure out what kind of holdings your opponent is doing that with. This seems pretty obvious, but the thing about donk-leading is that there are basically no real “standards” that most people use to determine their reads. That part of the game is really difficult; hence, it’s not being taught too much, so people do what they are comfortable with doing — and that will vary a lot from player to player. To do it as accurately as possible, you have to evaluate the board texture along with your knowledge of your opponent’s thought process. How many draws are out there? How many strong made hands could he have? Could he lead with top pair? Is he going to fold to a raise? And so on. Then, you have to figure out a plan to make him do what you want him to do for the rest of the hand. There’s no magic trick or great secret for that; you just want to correctly process as much information as possible for making a good decision. The most important thing is to be confident in your decisions and never be afraid of being aggressive. Practice, analysis, and trial and error will always make you better, especially in unconventional situations.

Sean Nolan: A lot of what you will do here is going to depend on the strength of your hand and your information on the opponent. The majority of players in this situation are usually tossing out a “feeler” bet or just totally bluffing, hoping that the board did not hit you and you will not be able to continue. Given this, how I react is going to depend on my hand. If I am certain that someone is doing this as a feeler bet, and I have a very strong hand and the board is safe enough, I generally will slow-play and see if he will make a second attempt on the turn. If my hand is weaker, it can be better to raise. I have shown strength before the flop, and it continues to sell the story that I’m strong if I raise again. In situations against more creative opponents, it can become much more complex. Good players are capable of doing this with strong hands and draws, anticipating a raise so that they can come over the top. Against a creative and aggressive player like this, it is good to balance your play, and sometimes call even with strong hands like overpairs, to re-evaluate what you want to do on the turn after seeing what he does. In these situations, you really have to know your opponent and be willing to mix up your play accordingly. ♠