Playing Poker Online - Reading the Boards

Here we will address three mistakes which novice and intermediate players frequently make on the turn.

Mistake #1 - Continuing a Semi Bluff in a Multiway Pot

A 'semi bluff' is a bet that you make when you don't figure to have the best hand right now, but your chances of improving the hand, coupled with your chances of taking the pot outright, make the bet profitable. For example, anytime you bet with a flush draw, you are making a 'semi bluff'. Semi bluffs are powerful bets, since you can often persuade your opponents to fold hands that they would call or raise with if they knew what you had. Like most poker plays, however, they have their place. Typically, you want to limit your semi bluffs to those times where the pot is small (most opponents will be more inclined to fold a marginal hand in a small pot than a big pot) and being contested by only a few players (usually four or less). There are a huge range of hands that one can semi bluff with: Two overcards to the board, an inside straight draw, a flush draw, an open ended straight draw, middle pair with an overcard to the board or a three flush - all these hands are candidates for the semi bluff. A problem arises, however, when you are called on the flop. Remember: what made the semi bluff profitable in the first place was the combined probability of having your opponents fold and the chance that you might improve. Yet when you are called on the flop, your chances of having everyone fold on the turn have greatly decreased. When you bet the flop, you often have no real idea if the flop helped anyone. But if they call the flop bet, you now know that the flop didn't completely miss them. Hence, the chances that they'll fold on the turn if you bet are much lower than the odds were that they would fold on the flop.

If you're still confused, think of it this way: when you bet the flop you're considering the probability that all your opponents will fold. If you have three opponents, each who will fold 60% of the time to your bet, you can count on all three opponents folding about 22% of the time (.60 times .60 times .60 = .216, or 21.6%). If all three opponents call on the flop, you must reduce this number considerably, because at least one and probably more- of your opponents are now likely to 'have something'. Thus, instead of each opponent having a 60% of folding to your bet, they each may only fold 40% of the time, which means your chances of getting all three to fold now are (.4 times .4 times .4), or 6.4%. This is a far cry from the 22% chance you enjoyed on the flop.

It then follows that you should slow down on the turn if you haven't improved your hand. But many players will still bet out, since 'nobody showed any strength on the flop'. Well, true nobody raised you. But in low limit poker your opponents will call with such a wide range of hands that you often can't be all sure of the strength of their holding. There is no shortage of low limit players who will gladly call you down on the river with pocket 4's on a As Kh 8h 8s 3c board. Simply because they call doesn't mean they're looking for an excuse to fold on a later round.

To further illustrate this concept, let me show you an example.

You have As Kd in middle position. One early position player calls, you raise, and everyone folds to the small blind. The small blind calls, as does the big blind. Four of you look at a flop of Ts 6h 5c. Everyone checks to you, and you bet ( by the way, this is probably a good time to mention that a bet on the flop here is not mandatory. However, if it's wrong, it's probably not wrong by much, so for the sake of argument let's say you bet). Now the turn brings the 9h. Everyone checks again.

Most players will continue the semi bluff by betting again. Yet for the reasons previously mentioned this is often a bad idea. In short: when you semi bluff the flop and are called in more than one spot it's time to reassess. Blindly firing the second barrel on the turn is tantamount to throwing money away.

Mistake #2 - Calling Two Bets Cold With A Non-Nut Draw

This is another costly error. Simply put, when you find yourself calling two bets 'cold' on the turn you want to be drawing to the nuts (calling 'cold' means calling two or more bets before you've had a chance to respond to the most recent bet or raise. Example: you're in late position, an early position player bets and a middle position player raises. Since it's 'two bets to you', you are looking to call both bets cold. This is different than calling a bet, then calling a raise made by a player who raised after you called the first bet). The problem with calling a raise cold with a non-nut draw is that the chances that you're 'drawing dead' have increased dramatically, since a raise on the turn usually indicates a strong hand.

Example: You have As 7s in late position, and call after four other players have called. Both blinds call. The flop comes Qs Ts 4h, giving you the nut flush draw. An early position player bets, the next player raises, you call, and all fold to the original bettor who calls. Three players to the turn with 12 small bets in the pot. The turn is the Th. Now the early position player bets again, and the middle position player raises again. The action is on you.

Many players will call the raise here. They have a big flush draw, for goodness sakes! Yet a closer look will reveal that this call is often wrong. First, you're no longer drawing to the nuts; if someone has a full house, hitting a spade on the river will only get you in more trouble. Also, given the action a full house is looking more and more like a possibility. The first player bet when the ten drop, which would indicate (though certainly not prove) that he likes that card, and the flop raiser raised him again anyway. True, the first player could just have a hand like AQ, and decided to bet the turn in case the flop raiser was raising with a draw, and yes, it's possible that the flop raiser did indeed have a draw. But would he raise with a draw a second time? And if all he had was a pair of tens on the flop, thereby giving him trip tens on the turn, would he have raised with middle pair on the flop?

Making the situation even worse are the meager odds that you're currently getting from the pot. Notice that there are eight big bets in the pot when the action gets to you, and you have to put in another two big bets to continue. This means your current odds are only 9:2, or 4.5:1. Since your chances of completing the flush draw on the river are about 4.4:1, your draw has to be 'live' almost 100% of the time for a call here to be correct. If the pot was bigger (or if either of your opponents were maniacs) a call might be correct. But in the situation described above it almost certainly isn't.

Mistake #3 - Slowplaying The Turn

'Slowplaying' is a term used for those instances where a player just calls or checks a big hand on a betting round in hopes of trapping his opponents for more bets on a later round. As with the semi bluff, there's a time and a place for slowplaying. But that time is virtually never on the turn.

When you get to the turn in a hold 'em hand your opponents will only have the opportunity to look at one more card. If that last card doesn't hit them they'll often check and fold. This means that you don't want to wait to spring to life on the river, since it makes no sense to start betting and raising only after everyone has missed their hand.

Consider a hand like three of a kind. When you flop 'trips' you have a pretty big hand; usually you're going to win a big pot. But the way you make that pot big is by charging your opponents the maximum to continue on with their draws. If you can make a player pay two bets on the flop with a flush draw, and three more bets on the turn with that draw, you have gained tremendously. Yet if you wait for the river to start raising, you've let this player 'off the hook'. He's been allowed to get to the river cheaply with his draw, and can now comfortably fold his hand when he misses the river.

There are times when you'll want to wait for the turn to reveal the true strength of your hand. But you'll almost never want to wait for the river. By getting in lots of bets and raises on the flop and turn, you'll collect from your opponents when they still have hopes of winning the pot. If you wait to the river these bets and raises won't be called, since they'll have no chance of winning. I've seen this play hundreds of times, where players who've flopped enormous hands like full houses and nut flushes will wait for the river to raise for the first time, and I still can't explain it. One of the biggest money makers in hold 'em comes from those few hands where you flop big and can collect from your opponents. So start collecting while they're still donating! By waiting for the river you're giving them a free pass.