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Andrew Brokos Poker Strategy -- Aiming For Value

Targeting Your Opponent's Hands For Greater Value

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Andrew BrokosLearning to build larger pots and get more value when you have the best hand is the most reliable way to improve your results at the poker table. Though not without its risks, it’s a lot more reliable than bluffing or bluff-catching more aggressively. Best of all, maximizing value is an area where, in my experience, even seasoned players have room for improvement.

Set Your Sights

The key to getting more value is to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to extract value from. Without a clear target, you’ll struggle with whether to slowplay, which streets to bet, and how large your bets should be. Once you identify the hand or hands from which you’re trying to get value, you can make better decisions about how to play your own hand.

Often when you have a strong holding, you’d choose to play it one way if you knew your opponent had one type of hand and a different way if you knew he had something else. Given time and the proper tools, you can enumerate every possibility along with their relative likelihoods and the expected value (EV) of playing against them in a certain way, and then determine mathematically the betting line that will yield the highest return.

In the heat of battle, however, you have neither the time nor the tools to do this, so you need to make a quick decision about how to play your hand. I generally recommend targeting hands that are just a notch or two weaker than yours. If you have kings preflop, you’d really like your opponent to have queens or jacks. If you have A-K on an A-9-5 flop, you’d really like your opponent to have A-Q. These are the hands most likely to pay you off.

So far this may seem obvious. Where many people go wrong is in giving their opponents an opportunity to fold these hands. For example, if a tight player raises in early position, I’m not going to three-bet him with A-K because I want to make sure that he still has A-Q in his range when we see the flop. Of course if he does hold A-Q, the odds of seeing an ace on the flop aren’t that great. That’s the only scenario where I stand to win a big pot, though, so I want to do what I can to make it happen.

If I raise K-K in early position and that same player three-bets me, I’m not going to four-bet him. Even though I expect my kings to be ahead of his three-betting range, I don’t want him to fold Q-Q and J-J. My odds of playing a big pot with him after the flop, if we both make an overpair, are better than my odds of playing a big pot against those hands preflop, at least in this spot.

Exceptions to the Rule

Occasionally, you may choose to target weaker hands in your opponent’s range rather than those that are just slightly worse than yours. One reason for this would be if your hand is so strong that you’re virtually guaranteed to stack slightly weaker hands no matter what you do.

For example, if you hold K-K on an A-K-7 flop, it makes sense to focus on getting value from hands like A-Q and A-J. Stronger hands like 7-7, A-K, and A-7 are so strong that your opponent will probably be willing to do the work of pot-building for you.

You might choose to target weaker holdings if your opponent just isn’t likely to have the hands you’d really like him to have. Suppose that you call a raise in position with 9-9, the flop comes 9Heart Suit 7Heart Suit 4Spade Suit, and the preflop raiser checks. You’d like him to have a smaller set, two-pair, or at least an overpair. Unfortunately, you strongly believe he would have bet those hands, and that he also would have bet his draws.

Your best course of action is to check behind. As much as you’d like to start building a pot, it seems overwhelmingly likely that your opponent is simply checking to give up. You need to think about what sorts of hands he would do that with and then how best to play against those hands. Most of the hands that he would raise preflop but that miss the flop consist of two Broadway cards, so you need to check and hope that he turns either pair. That’s the only way you to stand to extract more value from your set.

If you were playing this same spot without a target in mind, you’d probably bet the flop because it seems like a free card would be dangerous. In truth, your opponent is unlikely to hold either a draw or any sort of hand that could pay off a flop bet, and this is actually a good spot to slowplay.

Tying It All Together

Here’s an example of a hand where, because of these considerations, I choose what may seem like a strange line. The game is $3-$6 no-limit hold ‘em, and we’re playing eight-handed. The player in second position raises to $18, and the action folds to me. I make it $50 with KClub Suit KDiamond Suit on the button. The blinds fold, and the original raiser calls. I’d really like for him to have Q-Q or J-J, and this is how I’d expect him to play those hands. So far, so good.

The flop comes JHeart Suit 5Club Suit 4Diamond Suit. He checks, and I check behind. I can no longer get value from J-J, so now it’s down to Q-Q. I don’t see myself getting three bets from that hand, so I’m going to have to check one street. The flop is the best candidate because, if he does have Q-Q, a check here will boost his confidence. He probably expects me to bet A-A, J-J, and maybe even K-K, so I think he’ll feel a lot better about his queens after I check than he will upon first seeing the flop.

The turn is the KSpade Suit. He checks again. It would be lovely if he had a set, but that doesn’t seem too likely given that he’s checked twice. Q-Q is still the best realistic scenario for me, though A-A and A-K are not out of the question either. I bet $66 into the $109 pot, and he calls.

The river is the QSpade Suit. He checks. There is $241 in the pot, and he has $347 in his stack. If he does have Q-Q, he’d almost certainly call an all-in bet. That’s not the best play, though, because Q-Q is strong enough to raise if I bet a smaller amount. Thus, I might as well bet an amount that A-K, A-A, and K-Q would be willing to call. Even though they aren’t especially likely nor are they the hands just slightly weaker than mine, they are the best targets because stronger holdings will raise me anyway.
I bet $111, my opponent raises to $270, and I put him all-in. He calls, and, is if to prove my point, shows Q-Q. I was right on target. ♠

Andrew Brokos is a professional poker player, writer and coach. He’s a member of Poker Stars Team Online and blogs about poker strategy on ThinkingPoker.net. Andrew is also interested in education reform and founded an after-school debate program for urban youth.