Phil Hellmuth, arrogant as he is, happens to be one of my favorite Texas Hold-Em poker players. Many of you that are familiar with the game and watch it on television will also be familiar with Phil. One of his favorite sayings is “I can dodge bullets baby!” So what does Phil mean when he says this? What is he talking about? Well, one thing that Phil Hellmuth does better than most other poker players is lay down big hands, hard as that may be to do, because he can figure out when he is beat.
If you want to have continued success at hold-em while making a profit then you are going to have to learn this skill. Being able to lay down your good hand to a hand that happens to be better will save you a lot of money and keep your large chip stack entact at the poker table. When you are playing good poker you will notice that you win a lot of small pots and occasionally pick up a big pot. However, the hands you lose will often be big hands that were good but just not good enough. These are the hands that you need to lay down. By folding these hands instead of getting into a betting war with your opponent, you will notice that you will have fewer negative swings and a bigger chip stack than you are used to.
Before I get into the how, when, and why of these situations, I am going start with a couple of examples to illustrate what I am talking about. (For the purposes of these examples the suits are referred to by a letter after the card. S=Spades, C=Clubs, D=Diamonds, and H=Hearts). First, you are playing at a $1-2 NL table, are on the button and are dealt AsAc. Two players call then one opponent from late position raises 3x the big blind to a total of $6.00. You decide to reraise in order to isolate your opponent and make the total $16.00. The table folds to the other player who raised, and he calls. When he calls this bet you should assume he has a good hand, such as 99 or better. The flop comes 2h 8d Ks. Your opponent checks to you. In this example you decide to make a bet of $17.50 (half of the pot). Your opponent has $50.00 in his chipstack and reraises you all in. You have to wonder why your opponent would do this. After evaluating this situation, including the preflop betting pattern, you wisely choose to fold. You just saved yourself $32.50 because your opponent had KK! That’s good equity on your fold.
As a second example, you are in early position and are dealt KhQd. You decide to call. The rest of the table folds to the player on the button, and he raises to $7.00. You recheck your cards, and decide to call. The flop comes Ac Js 10s. You just flopped the nut straight! But, since it is a scary flop you decide to bet out. You make a half pot sized bet of $8.50. Your opponent quickly calls. The turn comes 8d. You make a bet of $15.00 and your opponent calls after thinking about it for a while. The river card comes 4s. You check, fearing the flush, and your opponent goes all in. His bet was an additional $60.00 (nearly a pot sized bet since the pot is currently $64.00). You decide to not give up on your hand and make the call despite thinking your opponent may have hit the flush. To your dismay, your opponent turns over As Ks and you have just lost a bunch of chips. If only you could have seen this coming! Well, if you are paying attention and practicing your reads… you can!
There are several aspects of the game that are available to assist you when you get tangled up in these types of hand. Let’s take a look at them now.
1. Read your opponent’s tells. Throughout a poker game you should be paying attention to your opponent. Watch how he acts when he has a hand so that when he has to reveal his cards sometimes you will know which actions go with what hands. Remember what your opponent did and how he looked when he had a strong hand, and remember how he acted when he had a weak hand.
2. Know your opponent. If you have been playing with someone for a while, then you probably have a good idea of what kind of player she is. Is she good? Does she like to bluff? Is she aggressive? Does she win a lot of money? Does she play a lot of hands? These things will help you put your opponent on a hand.
3. Practice putting your opponents on hands. Whether you are in a hand or not, try to guess what you think your opponent might have. If you suspect he might have a high pocket pair like KK and he reveals QQ then you know you are doing a reasonably good job. Keep practicing this, as it is a skill that you have to develop and work on to improve.
4. Learn your opponents betting/playing patterns. Most good players will mix up how they bet, but you can still get a good feel for when they bet, why they bet, what their bet means, what they are representing, and what they might have. These types of things will be easier to discover in a weak player and harder to discover in a strong player. However, you will still be able to get some sense of what your opponent has and why your opponent calls, bets, checks, raises, or even folds if you pay close attention.
5. Get a feel for the flow of the game. This is the perhaps the hardest aspect to fully understand and explain. When you understand the flow of the game, you understand all of the above, plus you know when your hold cards are probably good and when they are no good regardless of the community cards. This knowledge will influence your decisions for the rest of the hand that is being played. Sometimes this knowledge is obvious, such as when you are on nothing but a bluff or when you truly have the nuts, but sometimes this can be tricky. Perhaps you have the top two pair and your opponent is showing strength. What could he have? Is he bluffing, does he only have one pair, or has he actually made a set? These are answers that can reveal themselves by knowing the above factors but also by paying attention to how the flow of the hand goes.
6. Trust your gut. If you think your opponent made a set, and then he starts playing his hand like he has a set, chances are he has a set.
Combining the tools listed above will help you when trying to decide to call, raise, or lay down a big hand. The simple fact is you are not going to win everytime you have a good hand. You need to realize this. You need to be able to let go of your big hands without being too attached to them. When you see a board that might have your aces cracked and an opponent who is showing strength, you need to be able to let them go if you want to consistantly win at poker. If you do not make the lay down then you need to think you still have the best hand, not just hope they held up. This is a mistake I see people making over and over at the poker table. They are dealt a very good hand, see a board that might have them beat, play an opponent who is playing like she has them beat, but make the call anyway on either stubborness or false hope. This will lose you a lot of money in the long run and if you are not careful you will only become frustrated with what you believe to be the “bad luck” of poker. Yes, it is unfortunate that your hand was cracked, but it is not “bad luck” when you make the call anyway. That is called making a poor decision at the poker table. Everyone does it, but you need to be careful. You should fold if you think you are beat, regardless of your cards. That is important so I will say it again. You should fold your cards if you think you are beat! I make at least one big lay down almost everytime I play at a poker table.
As a final note, I recommend showing your big cards that you lay down on occasion. This will serve you on several levels. One, if your opponent sees you playing with big cards then she will be less likely to put you on bad hands, making it easier for you to take a stab at a pot or two. Two, showing a big hand that you decide to lay down will make your opponents weary of bluffing at you. They will see that you like to play big hands and the bluffers will always feel like you have a better hand. Even though you were willing to lay one down, this does not mean that you will do it again. A bluffer knows this and will not try to come after you when you decide to show strength. There are of course negatives to showing your hands at a table as well. You might make someone feel good about a bluff she just made or make your opponent feel good about the read she made against you. You do not want to do this for your opponents, but at the same time you do want to show that you are a smart poker player who has good cards. Showing a big fold could be a good way to make your opponents weary of your hold cards and this is something you do want them to think!
Whether you choose to show hands or not is up to you. However, with the right amount of practice, patience, and skill you too can be like Phil Hellmuth and dodge bullets at the poker table!