Knowing when to protect your hand in poker

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A vulnerable poker hand is one that is at risk. Only the nuts has zero vulnerability.

We focus here on hands that are likely the best at this point in the hand, but there are two or more unseen cards in the deck that could render them a costly second-best. (Call these “negative outs.”) Such a hand is susceptible to being beaten by an opponent when a subsequent card is dealt out on the board.

Vulnerable hands need protection! It’s like using body armor to protect yourself from a rifle bullet fired in your direction. There is a chance it will hit you. The protective armor will prevent serious injury.

Fact, theory, superstition at the table

When gambling think loss rate, not payback

Here’s a typical hand to illustrate the point: In a late position, you see the flop with 10-9 offsuit in the hole. (According to the Hold’em Algorithm, that hand represents 26 points and is playable from any position. See ad elsewhere in GT.)

The flop comes down 10-9-5 rainbow. You have top two-pair on the board – likely the best hand at this point. But there are so many hands your opponents could catch that would render your 10s and 9s second-best.

And, it would likely be a very costly second-best as you bet or call all the way to the river, losing to an opponent who holds a higher pair in the hole and makes a higher two-pair when the board pairs; or connects with trip fives on the turn, or perhaps a straight on the river. It happens.

How to protect a vulnerable hand? There is only one way – bet/raise to force out opponents who hold hands with the potential of making a stronger hand than yours. But that also presents a bit of a dilemma. Forcing out opponents will reduce your profits when your hand holds up to the end, and takes the pot.

Here’s where probability takes over. The more opponents drawing against your two-pair, the more likely one will catch a card that makes your hand a poor second-best. Wouldn’t you rather win a smaller pot than lose a bigger one?!

The only way you can hope to “reduce the size of the playing field” is by betting or raising sufficient chips to make calling a bad bet for your opponents.

Generally, it’s OK to have one or two opponents staying in, chasing you. More than that is a DANGER signal. (Flashing red light!) If, on the flop, your hand is, say, an 80% favorite over each of your remaining opponents, then with three opponents, your odds of survival have dropped to just over 50% – a coin-toss!

Vulnerable vs. Monster Hands: As a matter of simple logic, the better your hand, the less likely an opponent will draw out on you. But the texture of the board can make a huge difference. For example, trip 10s on the flop is a true monster of a hand. Every poker player would relish it!

What if the board shows a Queen along with the 10-10? An opponent with A-Q in the hole will have flopped a pair of Queens, top pair on the board, with Ace kicker. Your bet/raise won’t get him to fold. Indeed, the card odds strongly favor you; so don’t worry if he calls your big bet on the flop.

What about other opponents who are still in the pot? With that flop, a player with K-9 in the hole now has four-to-an-inside straight; he needs a Jack to complete his big straight. With only four outs, he is a big long-shot. If he’s smart, he will fold to a large bet/raise rather than chase.

He knows that would be costly and unlikely to succeed. The same applies to other long-shots. If they suspect you have trips, they would be wise to fold. To the extent that some of these opponents will fold to your bet/raise, that’s to your advantage in so far as protecting your trip 10s.

Of course, there is the chance you might fill up for a full boat. Then it’s another ballgame.

“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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