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Calling With a Really Bad Hand

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Jun 07, 2011


Steve Zolotow

In the late stages of a tournament, you may find yourself with a short stack. Usually, this happens when you have just lost a big pot to someone who started the hand with almost as many chips as you had. Occasionally, your stack gets eaten up by antes and blinds without any reasonable opportunity to get involved. You have been looking for a spot where no one has entered the pot yet, so that you can go all in. This gives you two ways to win. Sometimes, no one finds a hand with which to call and you win the blinds and antes. The rest of the time, you get called and then have to end up showing down the winning hand.

At times, however, you will find yourself in the big blind without having had the chance to move in on one of the previous hands. This also may happen when you lose most of your chips while under the gun and find yourself putting in the big blind the next hand. Someone raises enough to put you in. You have some really pathetic hand. Should you ever call? It is pretty clear that if you have 10 percent or less of your stack in the pot, you should fold. If you have 70 percent or more of your stack in the pot, you should call. What about all of the times that you have somewhere between 10 percent and 70 percent of your stack in the pot?

Let’s take a look at a sample case: You have 1,000 in chips before posting your big blind. A tight player has raised, and you think he has a hand like A-K suited. You have 7-2 offsuit. (The 7♠ 2♥ wins about 30.7 percent of the time against the A♦ K♦.) So, based on that, when should you call, and why? Here is a chart that looks at various levels of blinds (no antes), and compares the average amount in chips that you will have by folding and by calling. The Total Pot column is composed of 1,000 each from you and the raiser, plus the amount of the small blind. The Fold column shows what you’ll have left if you fold. The Call column shows the average amount that you’ll have left if you call, which is 30.7 percent of the total pot.

Blinds Total Pot Fold Call
50-100 2,050 900 629
75-150 2,075 850 637
100-200 2,100 800 645
150-300 2,150 700 660
200-400 2,200 600 675
300-600 2,300 400 706

With 30 percent of your stack in the pot, it is still right to fold. After that, it is clearly right to call. Note that if there were antes and blinds, the pot would be bigger, and there would be even more reason to call. Here is a simple rule of thumb: Call whenever you have more than one-third of your stack in the pot. Yes, there are times when it turns out that you will win less than 20 percent of the time, but sometimes your opponent is out of line, and then your chances turn out to be better than you expect. So, if your hand is really weak and you suspect that your opponent is really strong, call only when you have 35 percent to 40 percent of your stack in the pot. But if your hand is a little better and his might be worse, call when you have only 25 percent to 30 percent of your stack in the pot. For example, he has the A♠ 5♥ and you have the 9♦ 6♣. Now, you will win nearly 42 percent of the time.

The rule of calling when you have more than one-third of your stack in the pot also may apply in other situations. I was recently in a $5-$10 blinds cash game with a stack of around $350. I was in the big blind with the Q♥ 10♥, and everyone folded to the button, a loose-aggressive player with a big stack. He raised to $40. I decided that this was a good time to resteal, since I had a playable hand if he called. I reraised to $120. He quickly moved all in. I didn’t think he was bluffing, but he didn’t necessarily have to have a monster. I had more than one-third of my stack in the pot, so I called. It turned out that he had the 9♠ 9♣, which was a small favorite over my hand. Based on our actual hands, my final call was clearly correct, but when I won the pot, he launched into a long rant that focused on the fact that pros don’t know anything about poker, and included a lot of four-letter words. ♠

Steve “Zee” Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful games player. He currently devotes most of his time to poker. He can be found at many major tournaments and playing on Full Tilt, as one of its pros. When escaping from poker, he hangs out in his bars on Avenue A — Nice Guy Eddie’s at Houston and Doc Holliday’s at 9th Street — in New York City.