In poker the best hand before the river doesn’t always win

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On a recent Friday evening, I was playing in a lively low-limit game at the Hustler Casino in Gardena, California. The casino was bursting over with lots of poker players anxious to prove their worth at the tables ranging from $2-$4 to no-limit stakes.

For me, it was one of those (hopefully very rare) nights when I kept making second-best hands. I was quite a bit behind when, from a middle position, I looked down at pocket Kings. Two powerful red Kings stared up at me – the second-best starting hand in hold’em!

My luck was about to change for the better, I thought (or so I hoped). We all know patience is a key trait for winning at the poker tables. I had endured to this point. Perhaps the poker gods were about to reward me. Maybe…

Preflop, I raised the bet to force out some opponents so my K-K would have a better chance to hold up to the end. I call that reducing the size of the playing field. The chance of making a set on the flop is about 8-to-1 against. Most likely the K-K will be your best hand if you get to the showdown – but you never know.

Another reason for the preflop raise is to try to force out hands like A-rag and small pairs. If many such hands stay in, your chance of winning with K-K is greatly reduced.

As it turned out, my raise didn’t get many folds. Six of us saw the flop. And what a flop it was: K-clubs, Q-hearts, J-hearts.

Starting with my two beautiful red Kings, I had flopped a set of Kings. Wow!!! I could hardly believe my eyes. An early-position player opened the betting. After two callers, I raised. I was betting for both value – hoping to build the pot size – and to thin the field a bit.

On the turn: Four of us saw the turn. The dealer calmly placed a third heart on the board. The 10-hearts was a scary card. Anyone holding two hearts in the hole for the flush, or an Ace for a straight would beat my set of Kings.

Based on the betting, I thought my three Kings were still well in the lead. Besides, I had lots of outs: A fourth King was a very long-shot; an Ace would give me the nut straight. Better yet, I could catch a full-house or a straight flush on the river. I silently prayed for the dealer to pair the board for my full-house.

When the betting was checked to me, I assumed no one had a flush or the straight; my set of Kings was still the best hand and I had so many wonderful outs. All in all, I estimated I had over 20. What’s more, my set of Kings still looked powerful. So I made the big bet. Three opponents called. No raises.

On the river: Ah that magical card that so often makes or breaks your hand – was the 3-hearts. I wasn’t pleased; a full-house would have been better. But I did hold the second-nut flush, King-high. I figured only way anyone could beat me was with the A-hearts in the hole.

With no pairs on the board, a full-house was not possible. I could only hope no one held the A-hearts. The betting was checked to me. I hesitated but I made the big bet. However, deep down I sensed one of my opponents was sitting on the big Ace of hearts.

Sure enough, the button raised me. The others folded. I knew the raiser was a loose-aggressive player, I hoped he had a smaller flush than mine as I called his raise.

Showdown: He slowly turned up the 10-clubs, and then, with a big smile, the Ace of hearts. Second-best is costly! Until the river, I had the best hand. But the best hand before the river doesn’t always win. Ah, the River.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at [email protected].

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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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