Handling the big moments

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Playing Texas hold’em in your Sunday afternoon home game, from a middle position, you are dealt Kd-Jc and limp to see the flop along with several other players. The flop comes down on the board, showing Ks-9d-3d. That gives you top pair on the board – an Aha! moment for you.

A few hands later, you look down at Ac-9d in the hole. Calling from a middle position to see the flop along with four others, the dealer places Ah-8h-3s on the board. Top pair! It’s another Aha! moment for you. Situations of this type are quite common. You have top pair on the board with two more cards, the turn and river, to come. Your morale is high; and, of course, you keep a poker face and take care not to give any tells.

Intuitively, you know you are almost certain to be ahead of each of your opponents. The trick is to keep the lead and win the pot at the showdown. Chances are small your hand will further improve. Second-best is not the way to go home a winner!

Let’s examine the latter case as an example. You estimate, on average, you are probably an 80 percent favorite over each of the others who called to see the flop with you. Recalling your senior high-school class (perhaps it was while in college) on probability and statistics, you realize the probability (likelihood) of winning that pot is determined by multiplying the probability for each of your opponents who stay to see the turn: 80% x 80% x 80% x 80% = 41%. Anything less than 50% is an underdog.

Thus, holding a pair of Aces on the flop, if four or more opponents stay to see the turn with you, makes you are an underdog, and most of the time your hand will be beaten by one of the other players. (With a pair of Kings, it would be fewer opponents.) That’s not the way to go home a winner.

Yes, your top pair is beautiful to behold, but it is highly vulnerable. An opponent with a small pair could catch a set on the turn or on the river; that could be quite costly for you. (Like me, I’m sure you hate to be rivered; but it does happen quite often. And it’s almost always bound to be expensive for you.) Another opponent who saw the flop with you may now be holding three-to-a-flush; he could catch runner-runner of his suit. That would leave your hand as an “also-ran.” Such situations are quite common. You loved that Aha! moment, but realize your top pair is quite vulnerable.

There is only one way to protect your top pair in such situations: bet or raise to reduce the size of the playing field. I call it RSPF. Ideally, you would like to play the rest of the hand against two or, at most, three opponents. But, it’s OK if all the others fold. Better to win a small pot than lose a big one.

I have seen so many other players simply limp along in such situations. They play it tight, so to speak. Perhaps they never learned about probability. I’ll wager such players are losers. They may hope their top pair keeps the lead, or better yet, improves to a set or better. But, they fail to protect such a hand.

Bottom line: Aha! moments, beautiful as they are to behold, are great for your morale. They make you feel so good. But they are quite vulnerable. In that regard, more important is how you play that hand from here on.

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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