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Bluffing With Board Texture

by Ed Miller |  Published: Jun 24, 2015

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Ed MillerBoard texture is perhaps the defining concept of hold’em. The community cards determine which hands are possible and in what frequencies.

Most small stakes players understand board texture in superficial ways. Board pairs make full houses possible. Three suited cards make a flush possible. High cards are more likely to hit hands than low cards.

The reality is that each of the 22,100 possible flops is unique, and each one offers a different mix of hand distributions. If you understand these distributions better than your opponents do, you can find many bluffing opportunities your opponents will miss.

Here’s an example. Compare ADiamond Suit 8Club Suit 3Spade Suit to KDiamond Suit 8Club Suit 3Spade Suit. Let’s assume our opponents will play 40 percent of hands preflop. This is a number much higher than what’s theoretically correct in a nine-handed full ring game, but it’s fairly typical of many live game players. This range consists of any pair, any ace, many (but not all) suited hands, two high offsuit cards, and offsuit connectors like 7-6.

On the A-8-3 flop, your opponents with the 40 percent range will flop top pair or better about 32.5 percent of the time. Additionally, they will flop a pair below top pair about 22.5 percent of the time. They will flop a gutshot (with a hand like 5-4) another 3.5 percent of the time.

Altogether, players with this preflop hand range will “hit” an A-8-3 flop about 58.5 percent of the time. They will hit it hard (with top pair or better) 32.5 percent of the time.

These numbers support making small bluffs on the flop and turn against a small number of opponents. For example, say you have just one opponent. If you bluff $30 into a $60 pot on the flop, then you can expect to win immediately about 40 percent of the time (the times your opponent misses). If called, you can then bluff $60 into the $120 pot and expect to win about 40 percent of the time again (the times your opponent calls the flop with a gutshot or a pair less than top pair and misses the turn).

Both of these bets show an immediate profit, because you’re giving yourself 2-to-1 odds, and your opponent will fold more often than 33 percent of the time to each bet.

But if you have three or four opponents, the chance someone holds at least an ace gets quite high. With three opponents, for example, and using the 32.5 percent chance of flopping top pair or better, one of your opponents will have at least an ace about 70 percent of the time. Therefore, if you try to bluff into three players on this flop, you will usually get called on both the flop and turn.

Now compare the K-8-3 flop. It seems like perhaps a trivial change to the flop. But the numbers change quite a bit. Assuming the same starting hand range for our opponents, they will flop top pair or better just 17.4 percent of the time. They will flop a pair less than top pair another 24.6 percent of the time, and no gutshots are possible on this board.

This means your opponents have a “hit” rate of only 42 percent on this flop, compared to 58.5 percent of the time on the ace-high flop.

Furthermore, a far greater proportion of hits on the king-high flop are weak hits—pairs less than a king that most players will release on the turn. On this board, a whopping 59 percent of flop “hits” are less than top pair. (This number includes unimproved pocket pairs.) This means that you can fire the turn and expect your opponents to fold more often than not. Compare this number to roughly 40 percent for the ace-high flop.

While it’s marginally profitable to bet the flop and turn on the ace-high flop against one opponent, it’s wildly profitable to do so against the same opponent on the king-high flop.

Furthermore, your prospects against a field are much improved on the king-high flop. With three opponents, all three opponents will have missed this flop about 20 percent of the time. While this number is less than the 33 percent you’d need to bet $30 into $60 profitably for an immediate profit, it’s still likely profitable because of the types of hands that will call.

If only one player calls the flop, you can bet $60 into $120 on the turn and expect to get a fold nearly 60 percent of the time. This number is so much higher than the 33 necessary to show an immediate profit, that the flop and turn bets taken together will be profitable—regardless of what you hold.

I conducted nearly all this analysis without even considering what you might hold. That’s because often it doesn’t matter. Small stakes no-limit players use strategies that can be exploited blind. You don’t even have to look at your cards to beat them in many situations. So what’s the error that the small stakes players are making in this example?

First, they are playing far too many hands preflop. When you play too many hands preflop, you end up with too many junk hands after the flop. No matter what the flop comes, these hands will always pad the percentage of folding hands, making bluffs more attractive. But this effect is particularly strong on flops like K-8-3 where most of the extra hands (stuff like 9-6 suited or 6-5 offsuit) look hopeless.

Second, they are giving bets too much credit. When I bet $30 into $60, they fold a lot of hands. Then when I bet $60 into $120, they fold still more hands. Since these bets are profitable with any two cards, I’ll make them with any two cards. A flop like K-8-3 is hard to hit even with a tight set of preflop hands. These players shouldn’t give my bets so much credit. I could have anything.

Overall, most small stakes players use a strategy that requires them to hit flops hard with many weak hands to turn a profit. Since, mathematically, this is quite unlikely, it’s a really poor strategy.

After all this analysis, you might be thinking, “Well, duh, people like to play aces. Of course it’s easier to push people off hands where no ace flops.” And, sure, that’s fairly intuitive. But there are 22,100 possible flops, and the analysis is not intuitive for most of them. For example, how do you think a QDiamond Suit JDiamond Suit 3Diamond Suit flop fares if you look for hands that call the flop and then hands that also call the turn? How about a 4-2-2 flop? How about a KHeart Suit QDiamond Suit 4Spade Suit flop?

Here’s the bottom line. In small stakes games, you can frequently tell if it will be profitable to bluff a flop and turn just by looking at the board texture and your number of opponents. You don’t have to know much about your opponents, and you don’t even have to look at your hand. That’s power that shouldn’t be underestimated. ♠

Ed’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.