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Smokin' Poker - The ABC of 2NL

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Hi all! Sorry it's been a while since my last ABC blog. I got bitten by the touney bug, so haven't been thinking about cashgames too often. That being said, today's article will have relevance to all forms of holdem.

It always helps to have a plan for your hand, and that plan begins pre-flop, when you decide if your holecards are even worth playing. Nevertheless, it is your decisions post-flop where most of your skills become apparent, and an edge on your opponents is turned into cold hard cash. Post-flop is where you have to play some poker! A solid pre-flop plan puts you in good shape to see a flop, but the real money is made in poker by reading the board, ranging your opponents, and refining your plan accordingly.
Altering your plan on the fly and value-betting effectively requires you to recognise your hand's relative strength. This means that - if you have a made hand -  you need to work out how close it is to the nuts, estimate how many “likely” hand combinations you are currently beating or losing to, and calculate which worse hands are likely to give you action if you make a value bet. If this sounds complicated, it's because it is. Ranging is the most important and most difficult part of poker, especially for beginners, and can only be improved through experience and observation. Top pros with years of experience just know how much to bet (or whether to bet at all) in any given situation, because they understand the ranges they are playing against, how much equity their hand is likely to have against those ranges, and how those ranges will react to betting actions.Targeting ranges with your value-bets (and also your bluffs) is far too complex for me to explain in a couple of blogs, I'm afraid. (I still have much to learn about it myself!) There's no template I can give you for how best to play your on a board that comes , because I'm not in possession of the full facts. I don't know the stack sizes, number, positions and tendencies of villains, or even what happened pre-flop. I can, however, give some general advice on the types of lines that usually lead to maximum profit (or minimal losses) given some basic starting points, such as the knowledge that you were the pre-flop raiser on the button, with position on a random 2NL player that called in the blinds.

This article, and the next few too, will be giving advice on the “standard” lines you should usually take, and the thought processes you should adopt when trying to get value for a made hand, under these four basic conditions:
* Hero raised pre-flop and has position (is last to act post-flop).
* Hero raised pre-flop, but is out of position post-flop.
* Hero called a raise pre-flop and is in position.
* Hero called a raise pre-flop and is out of position (e.g. in the blinds).

Poker would be easy if you could repeatedly flop the nuts, bet the pot on every street and get paid by the second nuts. The three streets of Valuetown are the Holy Grail of poker, but the dream scenario rarely presents itself. You hardly ever flop the nuts for a start, but even when you do, you're unlikely to get paid in full. Very few hands (maybe 5% of all the hands you're dealt) reach showdown, and the ones that do often don't generate pots as big as you might predict. That happens because there are often streets where no money goes in the pot at all, because a player takes a “pot-control” line. I'll write more about pot control in due course, but first I want to talk more about relative hand strength and planning your hand.

“Big hand, big pot”
With a very strong hand on the flop, you should plan to build a big pot and ultimately get all in. A big hand on the flop is likely to still be good on the river, but you'll only win a big pot if your opponent has something to pay you off with. He's much more likely to have a pay-off hand if the flop is very co-ordinated, or “wet” as we call it. An ideal situation would see you flopping a set and rivering a full house, while the villain flops a combo draw and rivers a flush or a straight. In that kind of situation, you'd be missing value if you didn't put money in the pot on every street, perhaps with a raise or check-raise somewhere along the line. On a drier board, it's harder to build a big pot with your big hand, as your opponent is less likely to have something (I'm sure you've found it hard to win a stack when you flop top set aces on a board of A72), but you should still try, perhaps by making smaller bets.

“Small hand, small pot”
With weaker made hands including one pair (even TPTK), you usually shouldn't try to get your whole stack in the middle, if we're talking about 100bb starting stacks and a single-raised (not 3-bet) pot. With top pair on the flop, you usually have the best hand, but it's both more vulnerable to suckouts than something like a set, and also unlikely to get three streets of value from worse. For these reasons, playing one pair (which is the most likely “value hand” you'll have on the flop) is trickier to get maximum value with, and is a hand with which you'll often take a pot-control line, which means checking on at least one street.

It would be a gross over-simplification if I told you the best line to take with "big hands" is to go pot/pot/shove and the best line with more marginal holdings is bet/check/bet. That kind of advice doesn't account for board textures, or the various hand strengths that fit somewhere between “stone cold nuts” and “one pair”. Before you decide to take a “standard” line when you're planning a hand, you need to recognise on the flop (or even pre-flop) whether you have a hand that is likely to be played for three streets of value, two streets, or even just one. Once you've made that decision, the next thing to do is choose which streets you plan to play aggressively (betting and raising) and also consider how your relative hand strength might change when particular cards hit the board on the turn and river. Just how you judge the “street value” of your hand is complex, but I'll look at that next time, when I propose example situations for a hero that raised pre-flop, and connected with the board in position. Following that will be articles describing the standard lines for playing out of position and as a pre-flop caller, not the raiser. For each situation, the optimal line to take when you have a “value hand” will greatly depend on the strength of your hand, the board texture, and the number and tendencies of villains. There's no "one size fits all” for this game with infinite possibilities, so the “standard” lines I'll provide are merely guidelines to help you with your thought processes.

In these articles, I'll be using shorthand to describe the betting actions - some codes that you may also find useful when taking notes on your opponents - as listed in the table below..

Post-flop shorthand codes

Following the chart above, if you were to take a line of betting all three streets, your line could be coded as bet / bet / bet or b / b / b. Sometimes, you'll take two or more actions on one street, such as making a bet and folding to a raise (bet-fold or b-f) or checking and then raising if a villain bets (check-raise or x-r).
If you were out of position in the blinds, for example, and you flopped a monster like a set, you might decide to check-call the flop, check-raise the turn, and go all in on the river. This line – which is a “nutted” line, as it represents huge strength - would be shown as x-c / x-r / shove.

I'll probably include some hand replays in the next blog, so you get the idea how these lines play out, but until then I hope you plan your hands well and get maximum value! Have fun on the tables!

As always, comments, questions and suggestions are welcome in my forum thread.

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