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One of my old poker buddies and I were sitting at a vacant table at the Hustler Casino in Gardena, Calif., waiting to be called for a new game soon to be started.

John complained to me that he had been getting “too many second-best hands lately; and they were costly.” He gave an example: Frequently, he is dealt a medium pocket pair – like 9-9.  He pays to see the flop, but never seems to improve on the flop or afterwards.  He asked my advice.

“There is a rule – a very wise rule,” I told him, “that it is important to improve your hand when you start with a medium or small pair. But the odds are about 8-1 that you will not catch a third 9 on the flop; it’s a long shot. 

Another way to improve is to get a flop such as 7-8-10, giving you a draw to an open-ended straight.

“If your hand does not improve on the flop,” I emphasized, “plan to fold if a card higher than 9 falls on the board – unless the betting is checked all around.

“If no card higher than 9 falls on the flop, your pocket 9’s may still be in the lead. In that case, if the betting is checked around to you, assume you are ahead and bet out.

“The idea is to reduce the size of the playing field.  With fewer opponents staying in the pot, your pocket 9’s have a better chance of taking the pot even if it does not improve on the turn or the river.”

“Even so,” I cautioned, “it’s wise to be careful. An opponent may catch two-pair or better.  If a tight player opens the betting, chances are he has you beat.  Only if the implied pot odds are favorable (you have a Positive Expectation), should you call a bet with your pocket 9’s.”

“On the other hand, anytime a deceptive opponent who often bluffs, opens the betting, calling could well be appropriate. He may be trying to force you out, so he wins the pot by default. It pays to know your opponents’ playing traits.

“You should also look for a tell.” Then, we discussed my book, The Art of Bluffing, that describes typical bluffing tells.

Some Examples: Leaning back in his chair; Covering his mouth with his hand; Stroking his neck; Licking his lips; and Taking a deep breath and holding it.  (Note:  If you are doing the bluffing, you should avoid making these tells.)

John nodded and thanked me. Turning around to see the sign-in board, he observed that we still needed a few more players to start a new game. “Can you give me some more ways to avoid being second-best?”

Smiling, I told him about situations when you hold a big pair other than A-A or K-K.

“As the hand progresses, there are straight and/or flush possibilities on the board. Chances are that an opponent – maybe more than one – already has a straight or flush.

“Caution is the best way to avoid being second-best.  When in doubt, err on the side of caution and fold your hand.  Don’t depend on Luck.”

Then I asked him a question: “John, do you play suited cards that have a wide gap – such as J-5 or Q-6?” He nodded, thoughtfully, indicating that he does play such starting hands.

I went on, “I call these Hi-Lo hands – one fairly high card and one rag (7 or lower). Even if your hand improves, chances are it will lose the pot – second-best or worse. Sure, there will be occasions when such a hand improves enough to take the pot; but that is so rare.  More often, it’s bound to be second-best.”

At that point, we were called to the table to play $4-$8 limit hold’em with Half-Kill. We shook hands, smiled, and wished each other Good luck.

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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