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Texas hold’em poker is much more multifaceted and complex a game than meets the eye.

It’s considerably more than knowing the basic rules of the game; more than prudent starting-hand selection; more than a basic understanding and use of probability; more than understanding the importance of position; more than knowing your opponents’ playing traits; even more than “reading” opponents’ tells. We could go on and on.

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A hand runs about two minutes long, so you must think and act very quickly. Mistakes can be costly. Information is essential to avoid mistakes. And there are so many tells that can make the difference, many of which pass before our eyes without our focusing on their significance.

Your opponents’ raises are a good example. It all boils down to making the “right” decisions as the hand progresses — from start to finish.

There are five key decision choices when it is your turn to act during the four rounds of betting: (1) bet out, (2) call a previous bet (termed “limping” before the flop), (3) check (after the flop), (4) fold, or (5) raise. Has it occurred to you that when an opponent raises a bet — an aggressive action, he is giving you a tell — information that may be valuable to you as you make your subsequent decisions?

What is a raise? It is more than a raised bet — a bigger pot and higher cost-to-play. For the smart player, it’s also an essential piece of information — a tell.

One might question whether raising is a tell. A “tell” is defined as a change in a player’s usual behavior or demeanor that can give clues to his assessment of his hand and/or the action he is considering.

For example, here are several common ones: A player picks up a handful of chips before it’s his turn to declare, or turning away from the table, or holding his cards in preparation for mucking them, or suddenly paying more attention to the cards on the board. 

Each of these actions can give you valuable information if you observe and understand its significance — its meaning.

For all practical purposes, the raise does the same for the smart player. You don’t have to seek it out; it’s staring you in the face. You gain an advantage so long as you can interpret the probable meaning of that aggressive action by your opponent. Call it a “virtual” tell.

Much depends on your assessment of that opponent’s playing style. If a tight player (who consistently plays few starting hands — less than one out of six, on average) is the raiser, consider mucking your cards.

There are two exceptions:

First, you are the big blind and it is a multiway pot (three or more opponents remain in the pot) with no re-raise — so you can see the flop at no additional cost; and,

Second, you have a strong hand (e.g., your A-K in the hole could easily become the best hand on the flop).

Even so, knowing that the raiser is a tight player, proceed with caution unless you catch a monster (best is the nuts).

On the other hand, what if the raiser is a deceptive player?

Based on earlier observations, you have determined that he often bluffs and steals the blinds. In that case, a call is appropriate when you have lots of good outs — e.g., four to a big flush or an open-ended straight draw. In that case, use the Hold’em Caveat (Reference: Hold’em or Fold’em? An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision) — it is a multi-way pot and no further raises are expected.

Better yet, consider making a reraise (a 3-bet) to thin the field when you have a viable starting hand. As the other opponents fold to your 3-bet, the original raiser is likely to call. Then, the hand becomes heads-up with just the two of you involved. You have isolated Mr. Deceptive. Most often, he has a weak or mediocre hand. Now, your chance of winning that pot is much enhanced.

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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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