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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: When To Play ABC Poker

Sometimes Playing Basic Strategy Isn't So Bad


Ed MillerOver the years, I have been unkind to ABC play. The subtitle to my book Playing The Player is Moving Beyond ABC Poker To Dominate Your Opponents. I regularly write articles about how to beat ABC-playing opponents. If you read too much of my stuff, you might come to think of ABC as a dirty word.

I’ve been a bit unfair. ABC play isn’t all bad. In fact, sometimes it’s just about the best way to play. Here are the game conditions under which an ABC strategy should get the money.

Short Stacks

No-limit cash games play with a variety of stack sizes, particularly at the $1-$2 and $1-$3 levels. In Las Vegas, you can easily play a $1-$2 game where most players have at least $200. Then you can go to the cardroom next door and find a game where most players have $60 in front of them. While an ABC strategy (perhaps with some modifications) might work in the game with $200 stacks, it should be your first choice in the game with $60 stacks.

An ABC strategy focuses on a few things. First, you play strong preflop hands while folding most of the marginal stuff. Second, you bet strongly for value after the flop with good hands like top pair or better. Third, you refuse to give your opponents action when you hold an iffy hand like a medium pair or a weak draw.

An ABC strategy makes money when opponents with iffy hands are willing to give your value bets action while you refuse the same action to your opponents. The tight preflop play ensures that you will have a good strong-to-iffy hand ratio.

When stacks are short, you can expect these conditions to hold for two reasons. First, players who buy in shallow tend to be less sophisticated than those who buy in deeper. This is not because there’s anything inherently wrong with buying in short, but nevertheless, it tends to be true. Less sophisticated players tend to give too much action with their iffy hands because they don’t understand how to properly value hands on various board textures.

Second, short stacks encourage players to pay off more because they have less to lose. It’s much easier for most players to say, “What the heck,” and call off $50 than $150.
So if you see a table full of half stacks, you can expect less sophisticated players (on average) and a solid what-the-heck factor. Sticking to ABC play should be rewarded.
Lots of Showdowns

In many no-limit games these days, showdowns are almost a rarity. One player bets the flop, everyone folds. Next hand, someone bets the turn, and everyone folds. Fold, fold, fold. You don’t see a hand for 20 minutes.

Some games, on the other hand, are an exception to this trend. Someone is always calling down to the river. This often happens especially in games where most players tend to make relatively small bets. So even if they’re playing $1-$2 with $150 stacks, the typical river bet is only $25 or $30.

Whenever you’re in a game where hands get shown down a lot and bets tend to be on the small size, ABC play should form the foundation of your strategy. It’s probably not a good idea to run a three-barrel bluff with your 7-7 on an ace-high board to represent the ace, because that woman who called twice probably has an ace and probably plans to call one more time.

Instead, focus on playing good hands preflop, making top pair or better, and betting for value.

A Lack of Bluffing

This one is a really great reason to play an ABC strategy. When your opponents bet their good hands and check their weak ones, you should often do the same (with a twist). Say, for example, that you have A-Q. Two players limp, and you make it $10 to go in a $1-$2 no-limit hodle’m game. One limper calls.

The flop is K-10-4. Your opponent checks, and you check.

The turn is a 5. Your opponent checks, and you check.

The river is another 5 making the final board K-10-4-5-5.

Your opponent checks again. If you think an opponent might fold a hand like 6-6 to a bet on the end, you can maybe bet here. But you can also check it down.

“But Ed,” you are saying, “Isn’t this horribly passive? Shouldn’t you be betting and trying to dominate the action?”

What is the point of all the checking?

It’s information gathering. When you check it back, you are asking your opponent, “Hey, you got anything?” A turn bet means yes, and a check means no.

Many players, particularly at the $1-$2 level, will give you this information with little attempt to disguise it. Checking back the K-10-4 flop says, “You got a king?” and a turn check says no—and it’s usually a reliable answer.

If you can ask a question with a check and get a fairly reliable answer, then why bet a weak hand? Why not check, get your answer, and go from there?

When you bet the flop and an opponent calls, you do get some information. You learn your opponent has “something,” whatever that is. But meanwhile, you just paid some amount to get that information. And, often, it’s not as useful as the information you get when you check. Your opponent can be calling with a weak pair or a gutshot or with a good top pair. You won’t be able to narrow it down further without more betting.

On the other hand, after you check it back, your opponent might bet the top pairs and check the weak hands. You get better information, cheaper.

This is the blessing of playing against poor poker players. This line of thinking breaks down completely against strong, tricky players. They will shove those flop checks down your throat, particularly if you take them predominantly with weak hands.

But when your opponents are passive and won’t attack you when you check weak hands, take advantage! Check your weak hands and let them tell you where they’re at. If they keep checking, assume they are weak and proceed accordingly. With a hand that has showdown value like a strong ace-high or unimproved pocket pair, check it to showdown. With a weaker hand like queen-high, take a stab at the pot.

Final Thoughts

ABC poker is sometimes the perfect strategy to get the money. When stacks are short or your opponents like calling to showdown, you profit from a simple arrangement. You make good hands, bet them, and get called. Your opponents make good hands, bet them, and you fold.

And when your opponents also fail to bluff, you can afford to feel them out early in hands with checks. If you check ace-high, and they check again, you might have a winner. If they bet, you move on to the next hand.

Games where this strategy works are becoming less common these days. But when the conditions are right, playing ABC is hard to beat. ♠

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