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Slowing Down

by Ed Miller |  Published: Jan 20, 2016


Ed MillerLast issue I wrote about how it’s better to look at cash game no-limit hold’em as a war of information rather than to try to follow a complicated set of rules.

In this article, I’ll go through one example of how adopting an information paradigm can improve your advantage in small stakes cash games.

Let’s say you’re playing $2-$5 with $400 stacks. An opponent opens for $20, and there’s a call. You call on the button with 5Club Suit 4Club Suit. The big blind calls.

The flop is KClub Suit 9Club Suit 8Diamond Suit. The big blind checks, and the preflop raiser bets $40 into the $82 pot. The next player folds, and it’s on you.

Here, you have a flush draw. Some rules-based players would raise in this situation, because they always semibluff with flopped flush draws.

Other rules-based players would always call in this situation, because they rarely semibluff with flopped flush draws—those times they do semibluff with flush draws, they want more hand value like a combination straight draw, a pair, overcards, or the like.

Both of these rules—always semibluff, or only semibluff with added value—focus mainly on the cards. These rules say, “Do A if hand is X, otherwise do B.” They ignore two important variables.

First, they ignore the particulars of the situation. Why did the preflop raiser bet into three opponents? And why did the preflop raiser choose to bet $40 into the $82 pot rather than $25, $60, $80, or some other substantially different number?

There’s information in the answers to these questions. Most $2-$5 players these days won’t continuation bet just any old hand on any old flop into three opponents. Would this player bet 4-4 into three opponents on a K-9-8 flop? Or would he check? Many—if not most—$2-$5 players these days would check.

And why did he choose $40? It could be because he always bets half-pot no matter what. But that’s not typical behavior for $2-$5 players. This is a board with straight and flush draws on it. If the preflop raiser held A-A, for instance, he might not be willing to give such a cheap turn card to three opponents. He might want to bet more—perhaps $60 or $70.

So there’s already a good bit of information available to us on the button. We know the preflop raiser probably has something, and we know there’s a chance it’s not a hand like A-A or A-K, as he might have made a bigger bet with one of those hands.

The idea of an information-based paradigm is that you use the information available to make decisions. This information might argue for raising as a semibluff, as if we can discount the chance the raiser has A-A or A-K, it increases the chance he’ll end up folding at some point.

But there’s still a second variable to consider. Will seeing future streets reveal more and better information to work with?

Seeing another street gives two types of information. First, you see another card. Second, especially if you have the button, you throw the action to your opponents, and you can see what they do.

You always get some extra information by taking the hand to the next street. Sometimes that information will be more valuable than others. And occasionally, the information may benefit your opponents more than it does you. Figuring out when the information is most likely to help you is an important skill to develop.

Let’s return to the hand example. Say you chose to just call the flop raise. The big blind checks, the raiser bets $40 into $82, the next player folds, and you call. The big blind folds. There’s $162 in the pot and $340 remaining in the stacks.

Consider two possible turn cards. First, a brick—the 3Spade Suit — making the board KClub Suit 9Club Suit 8Diamond Suit 3Spade Suit. Say your opponent checks.

There is tremendous information in this check. It signals that in the significant majority of cases, your opponent doesn’t want to put the remaining $340 in the pot. He might have a hand like Q-Q, for example. You can bet the turn and, if called, shove the river and expect to make a profit on average without any further information.

What if instead of checking the turn, he bets $120 into the $162 pot? This bet would also give you tremendous information. With just $220 behind, it’s a great signal that he intends to take the hand to showdown, and a semi-bluff at this point would be fruitless.

What if he bets $60? There’s information in this bet as well. It’s further evidence he likely doesn’t have a hand like A-A or A-K. Most players holding those hands would react to this good turn card with a healthy bet size. In this situation, $60 into $162 is on the small side. There’s a decent chance, therefore, that a semi-bluff raise will take the pot.

Now consider a different turn card — 10Spade Suit — making the board KClub Suit 9Club Suit 8Diamond Suit 10Spade Suit. This card puts a possible straight on board, and it also gives anyone holding a queen or jack a one-card straight draw.

Say the player checks. This check is meaningful, but it doesn’t signal quite the willingness to fold that a check did on the 3Spade Suit turn. Here he could be checking hands like K-Q, K-J, Q-Q, J-J, Q-10, and J-10. These are hands he wants to see the river with because of the straight draws, but hands he doesn’t want to have to get all-in with. So instead of betting out and risking an all-in raise, he checks to control the pot.

Against some players, you could react to this information by betting small on the turn and, if called (as is likely), planning to shove the river if it doesn’t bring a non-club king, queen, jack, or seven.

What if instead of checking the turn, he bets $120 into the $162 pot? As on the 3s turn, this bet suggests that, whatever he has, he has no intention of folding. He might have something like K-K or 9-9. Not a good time to semibluff.

What if he bets $60? This bet can signal some of the same sorts of hands that I listed in the checking section. (You obviously never know with certainty how opponents will play their hands.) It’s a questionable spot to semibluff, however, since many of the hands that would bet $60 will feel compelled to call a raise in order to see the river.

If the stacks were deeper, it might make sense to min-raise with the plan of shoving the river if a brick hits. With these stacks, however, it’s probably better to call and gather yet another street’s worth of information before making a final decision.

Final Thoughts

In live no-limit games, opponents will give away lots of information through range imbalances and bet-sizing tells. They will often tell you how to play against them if you let them. You don’t always have to shove the money in at the earliest opportunity. Slow down, listen to what your opponent is telling you, and then act. You’ll have better results. ♠

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