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Smokin' Poker - The ABC of 2NL

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Make some coffee, because this one's pretty epic in length, if nothing else.

In my previous ABC blog, I talked in general terms about assessing the relative strength of your hand when choosing whether you want to play a big pot (with a big hand) or a small pot (with a small hand). Since relative hand strength is quite tricky for novices to understand, but is of fundamental importance for effective betting (both for value and as a bluff), I'll explain it in depth, but try to be as clear as possible. This article should also help with the thought processes you need to undertake when attempting to range your opponents, in order to maximise your EV against them. I apologise if some of this is completely obvious to regular readers, but I'm continually stunned by hands posted on the forum in which heroes make “value” bets and raises that are literally never getting called by worse. If this blog helps one person avoid value-owning themselves, it's served its purpose.

I'm sure that everyone reading this is aware that - in absolute terms - a hand like is a stronger hand than pre-flop. A pair of jacks is clearly ahead of seven high. In fact, in a single-raised (not 3-bet) pot, pocket jacks are likely to be leading any hand that goes to a flop against them.
After the flop, however, everything can change. Flop textures will greatly impact the relative strength of a hand. If you hold jacks, then you do not want to see a flop containing a queen, king, or ace (unless there's also a jack to make a set) since not only do overcards mean you could now be losing to a better pair, but when you're behind you only have two outs to regain the lead. You should understand, therefore, that JJ is absolutely strong pre-flop, but it is relatively weak when the flop contains overcards. What's even more important from a value-betting perspective is that if your hand is relatively weak post-flop, it will be harder (or even impossible) to get value from worse. Indeed, if there are many potential better hands than yours, betting for value could be suicidal, as the only hands that would stay in the pot would usually be stronger than yours.

I think this concept would be best illustrated by looking at an example flop and categorising some potential holdings. For the sake of simplicity, we'll assume two players see a single-raised pot heads up. The flop comes...

On this flop, the very best holding is pocket nines. 99 might only be a medium pair pre-flop, but on this board, top set nines is the nuts. It might not still be the best hand once all the community cards have been dealt, but on the flop itself, 99 is the nuts and a favourite against any hand you care to name. Pocket eights and pocket deuces are also extremely strong here. The next best hand on this board is 98, top two pairs. It's not as strong as a set, but it's still considered to be relatively strong, because it's only losing to the three hands that made sets. Two pairs with 92 and 82 are highly unlikely holdings in a raised pot, so we can largely discount them. The next best hand after two pairs is an overpair, with our old friend pocket aces being the best. TT would be the worst overpair here, but that's still beating TPTK. A9 is a strong hand on a 982 flop, but it's by no means a monster. It is, after all, losing to all the hands I've previously mentioned. A nine with a lower kicker (e.g. J9, T9) is somewhat weaker. Middle pair (e.g. A8s) is another hand with some marginal value and outs to improve, while underpairs and bottom pair are virtually worthless on this board. Something like 44 is beating ace high, but has very little showdown value (and only 2 outs to improve) and will likely see more overcards on the turn and river. Among unmade hands, the strongest draws on this board are the open-ended straight-flush draws for and . These two hands are actually slight favourites to beat most one pair hands (including and ). Other good drawing hands that connect with this board include nut flush draws (), OESDs with backdoor flush draws (, ) and combo gutter/flush draws like .
You should grasp that, of the many hands that connect with this flop, some are very strong (sets, two pairs, combo straight-flush draws) some are medium strength (small overpairs, top pair) and some of them relatively weak (middle pair, gutshot and two overs etc.). The monster made hands and combo draws have a lot of equity against the hands that will give them action, whereas weak hands and draws are going to be big underdogs to top pair or better.
Let's put it in a diagram for clarity:

Relative hand strength

In the diagram above (right-click and open in a new window if it's too small), I've included some - but by no means all - of the hand combinations that may or may not give action on this flop, to give you an idea how to group hands according to relative strength. The combos are only listed in rough order, because their precise equity greatly depends on an opponent's specific hand. e.g. has medium strength against the likely range that gives it action, but it's in horrible shape against in particular. (It's easy to go broke with a dominated flush draw!). You don't need to study the graphic too closely, but if nothing else, noticing that TPTK is only a medium strength hand will help when I talk about pot-control in this and future blogs. Not mentioned on the graphic is that with the monsters and monster draws, I'd usually be happy to stack off on the flop, expecting to print money against the ludicrous hands 2NL villains show up with, whereas I'm generally folding low equity hands and air, except when making a c-bet to collect dead money.

How we choose to proceed with our post-flop plan depends greatly on where our actual hand fits in relative to the other hands that are likely to stay in the pot. When value-betting, we aim to win whole stacks when we are towards the top of our range, because we expect our bets to get action from the many possible weaker hands. If we suspect an opponent is likely to also be near the top of his range, or we recognise that there are many worse hands that will stick around, then we will look to get stacks in (“big hand, big pot”), by going for three streets of FAT value. If we have a hand with medium strength relative to the board, we will be more cautious, but can pick up some “thin value” by altering our plan. We won't build a big pot if there's a decent chance that we are behind. We will focus on keeping the pot small, and target weaker hands with our value-bets. If our hand is relatively weak, then we will either abandon the pot entirely, or we will decide to run a bluff (especially if we feel the opponent is fairly weak), by representing that we are actually at the top of our range. (Note: As I often say, bluffing is not advised at nanostakes, because you'll get called too often, and I'll add that you won't be able to run successful bluffs – representing big hands – until you've learned how to play the big hands in the first place!)
Turn and river cards will alter the relative strength of our hands, or - since we're trying to become superior players - ranges. On hand analysis forums, you'll sometimes see phrases like “The turn helps villain's range more than hero's”, and this refers to the “continuance range” of a player; the hands he continues with (doesn't fold) if you bet. If we assign a flop-calling range to a villain of “medium pairs and flush draws”, then a low turn card that completes a flush draw improves the relative strength of his range, but an offsuit Broadway card weakens it. This needs to be borne in mind when deciding if we will continue betting.

If it's not yet clear what I mean about value-betting according to relative hand strength and how it changes during the course of a hand, then perhaps the following example will help:

Hero raises on the button, and a semi-loose passive villain calls in the big blind.

Flop comes . (Hmmm, looks familiar. )

Right now, hero has the second nuts. This is a great spot for a value-bet, because hero is only losing to one hand (99) and can get action from many worse made hands and draws. Depending on the villain's tendencies, hero could get action from everything from another monster down to a low-strength hand like or ; hands that are drawing almost dead. It's a clear FAT value spot, based on relative hand strength, because there are many worse hands that can and will continue.

Villain checks, hero bets, villain calls.
Turn is

Uhoh! The flush draw and an OESD just got there. (And is doing back-flips on the moon!) Hero had the second nuts on the flop, but now he's losing to any two diamonds, JT, and a (highly unlikely) set of queens. Hero's set of 8s has declined in relative strength, although he still has 10 outs to a boat or quads. The set that was the second nuts on the flop is nowhere near the nuts any more. Betting to protect his hand from hands containing just one diamond certainly has merit, but bear in mind the SLP might not have any diamonds, so he might hate this card. This queen is also an overcard to the flop. It's a very scary card for villain unless it actually improved his hand. If the villain has a hand like T9 (which may have seemed relatively strong on the flop), it now feels very weak, since it loses to Qx and the same flushes and straight that hero is worried about. In short, a pair of nines had medium strength on the flop, but on this turn card, a pair of nines is much weaker, because so many hand combinations beat it. If hero bets, the villain may fold many of the hands whose relative strength took a nosedive (so hero misses value), and only continue with the stronger hands in his range, like (top two), (TPTK+NFD), the straight, and all made flushes. Indeed, if villain made a straight or flush, he may plan to check-raise the turn and deny hero the right price to try and boat up. Since hero's hand is no longer super-strong relative to the board and villain's range, and hero doesn't want to make worse hands fold, he takes a cautious line.

Villain checks, hero checks behind.

River is .

This card is great for hero. Not only does it give him a full house, but it also seems non-threatening to whatever the villain holds. The deuce looks like a blank, as it only radically improves the few combos that flopped sets or bottom pair. It doesn't affect the strength of baby flushes (that would have hated to see another diamond roll off) and only counterfeits two pair hands like Q9 and 98 if hero has KK+ or a random deuce.
By pot-controlling the turn, hero under-repped his hand, which makes it easier to get paid on the river. He took a free card that not only improved the absolute strength of his hand (a full house is stronger than a set, obviously) but allowed the villain to regain confidence about the strength of his own holding. After the turn went check-check, villain is likely to feel he has the best hand if he has a flush, two pairs, or trip deuces. Even TPTK seems like a decent holding. After all, hero checked the turn after making a "standard c-bet", so he can't have much, right? The villain might bet here either for value with a medium strength hand, or could even try a bluff with a missed draw (with something like ).

Villain bets, hero raises....

Whether villain is betting for value or as a bluff, hero raises for value here, because his full house is close to the nuts, and his raise can get called by worse hands.

...villain shoves, hero calls.

Final Board: 
Villain shows (Flush, queen high).
Hero shows (Full house, eights over deuces).
Hero drags the pot.

It turned out that the villain had a monster draw on the flop, but played it passively. He missed the straight, but turned the flush. He couldn't get any money in when he was ahead on the turn, as hero checked behind. On the river, the villain was so attached to his flush, that he went all in, failing to see that hero is never calling with worse. Hero, meanwhile, checked a street when he wasn't sure if he was ahead or behind (and wanted to keep worse hands in the pot), but still managed to get his whole stack in when the villain over-valued his hand.

The hand above is obviously a carefully constructed example; the kind of hand that rarely plays out for real (indeed, with my luck, villain would show up with the straight flush or quads!) but I think it illustrates how relative hand strength ebbs and flows during the course of a hand, and how your decision to bet or check can alter your winrate.

Next time around, I'll include some real hands from Pokerstars, in which I chose value-betting lines based on relative hand strength and board texture, and I'll give more examples of the thought processes I go through at each stage of a hand.

Until then, I wish you great success in winning big pots with big hands!

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

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