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Smokin' Poker - The ABC of 2NL

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In today's blog, I'm going to show you some typical (or “standard”) lines of action to take when you have a value hand (usually top pair+) in the most common post-flop situation: you raised pre-flop and have position on one player that called. Specifically, I'll describe lines of action that go bet-bet-bet for maximum value, and the two most common pot-control lines, which are bet-check-bet and bet-bet-check.

When you're heads up in position as the pre-flop raiser, your opponent will usually check to you. If he leads out with a donkbet, he steals the initiative, and your plan is no longer so straightforward. Dealing with donkbets is a topic I'll write about in the future. For now, let's just look at what to do when you have a made hand on the flop, villain checks to you and you want to make a value-bet.
Right off the bat, you should make a plan to go for one, two, or three streets of value, and you can do this by assessing your relative hand strength (see my previous ABC blog) and putting your opponent on a likely range for continuing. With strong hands on wet boards, you'll typically plan to go for three streets of value. Since you're near the top of your range, and lots of worse hands can call, you want to build a big pot which you expect to win at showdown. That's not to say you'll always get paid on all three streets. When I ran some filters on my hand history database  I was surprised by how few hands I found in which I took a villain to Valuetown and got paid in full. The two main reasons for the scarcity of three-street pay-offs are:
* Betting every street represents a very big hand, so a villain will often fold marginal hands on the river, if not before.
* Villain will fold on the river if he was chasing a draw but didn't hit it.

That said, let's look at a hand where I flopped a very strong hand, and succeeded in taking my opponent to Valuetown.
This hand is from a long time ago, when I was mid-stacking with 60bb.

Pre-flop, I have 55 on the button. I make a small isolation raise, hoping to make the blinds fold and get me heads up against the limper. I'll also be quite happy if everyone folds. Here, my raise is actually called by 3 players. Since an unimproved 55 is unlikely to get to showdown as the best hand, my plan has already changed. I'm now set-mining. I'm not even going to fire a c-bet if I miss, because one of these players is almost certain to have out-flopped me if they weren't already ahead pre-flop, so I'll be throwing money away if I bet into them with such a weak hand and only 2 outs.
As luck would have it, I flopped a set on an ace-high board. On an A95r flop, I can target all the Ax hands, and don't yet have to worry about flush or straight draws, unless someone makes a loose call with a gutshot like 76s. When the action is checked to me, I therefore make a decent bet for value of about 70% of pot. The small blind calls and I notice he's pretty short-stacked too. I am now committed to getting my stack in, no matter what cards come on later streets. The other players fold, so I'm heads up on the turn. The king is a safe card to keep betting. If villain has AK that didn't 3-bet pre-flop, he's never getting away. This card also completed a 4-card rainbow, so no flush will be possible. The only draws are gutshots, but hands like QJ would usually have folded on the flop. I'm therefore targeting the same hands as I was on the flop. Villain nearly always has an ace, and I want him to be committed to getting all in with his top pair on the river. On the turn, there's 59c in the pot, and the effective stack is 81c. Shoving now would be an overbet, so I make a bet of 33c (just over half pot) fully expecting villain to call (leaving him absolutely committed) or to check-shove. He calls, and now the river is a trivial shove all in for the last 48c in villain's stack. The river  isn't all that scary, as only QJ sucked out. I'm hoping villain has AT here, as he's certainly never folding two pairs. He calls with AJ, and I win his whole stack, plus some bonus money from the pre-flop callers.

That hand was very straightforward. I'm sure most of you would play it the same way: Flop a set and bet-bet-bet. The cards that came on the turn and river weren't very scary to me, as villain's range consisted mainly of Ax hands, so there was no reason for me to slow down. If villain had a stronger hand, I would have expected a raise on an earlier street, but even then I would have stacked off, as a set is a monster (particularly on a dry board) and would be crushing hands like two pairs. On the river, villain nearly always has one or two pairs, and is committed to calling, so I put him all in. Easy game.

Now let's look at a hand where my relative hand strength is much weaker than a set. In this one, which is a 6-max hand, I isolate a limper with AT in position.

The flop is a very dry A93, so I go with a smaller c-bet, since villain is unlikely to have a draw. I'm targeting Ax, 9x and maybe some pocket pairs that will peel at least one street. When I make top pair with AT, my kicker is fairly marginal. I could be value-owning myself if villain limped in with AJ+, so I don't want to build a big pot. I'm looking to get 2 streets of value. The turn pairs the board. It's unlikely villain has a random 3 in his hand, unless he just made a boat with A3, but I'm still concerned about better aces, and a slowplayed set of 9s. Betting here wouldn't be a huge mistake, but I decided to check behind. This keeps worse hands in the pot (like 9x, 77, A5) that might have folded to a second barrel, and certainly wouldn't call three. When you take a pot-control line of checking the turn, it makes it much more likely that a villain will make a curiosity call with a weak hand on the river. I've had great success with the bet-check-bet line at 2NL. If you have a medium strength hand like top pair average kicker, then taking this line can get you looked up on the river by all kinds of random junk that you beat, especially if you bet quite small, because bet-check-bet looks like two weak attempts to steal the pot in position.
A flush draw developed on the turn in this hand, but I'm not overly concerned about draws. It would be pretty weird for villain to have a backdoor flush draw when he called on the dry flop, unless he specifically has Axs in spades. Even if he does, I'll be able to get away (having only invested one bet) if he bombs the river when the flush completes. So I check, and the river comes an inconsequential . The only hands this improved are 96s (pretty unlikely), A6s (certainly possible) and 66 (again, quite unlikely, but not impossible). When villain checks again, I'm almost certain I have the best hand, because better hands than mine would usually lead out for value, as they don't want me checking behind with something like JJ. I make a small value-bet of half pot on the river, and villain calls with worse. His hand isn't shown, but it's probably something like A5 that was out-kicked, or a bluffcatcher like 88 trying to keep me honest.

Here's another example of pot-controlling with a medium-strength hand:

I make a fairly loose steal attempt with J7s on the button and get called by the BB and I make top pair on a very co-ordinated flop. Many hands connect with this flop, often as a pair+draw. It's also possible that I'm drawing dead against the flopped nuts. Nonetheless, I have to bet, since giving free cards to hands like AQ/88 could be a disaster. I'm actually hoping villain will fold to my c-bet quite often, as I don't want to play a big pot with top pair no kicker on such a wet board. My plan is simply to bet-fold. Even the draws in villain's range have good equity against me, so I'm not gonna take a stand if he raises. Villain calls the flop bet. I think he'd raise 2pr+, so I think he mostly has a pair plus a draw, like KJ/QJ/KT/QT. I'm only beating the Tx hands, as villain has no worse jacks in his range than mine. As with the previous hand example, the board pairs on the turn. This is a bad card for me. Trips are a possibility, but more importantly I won't be able to fold out any better hands than mine if they called on the flop, since villain won't put me on 9x. If he has KJ, he thinks he's winning (indeed he would be!) and he still has a draw to the straight. I opt for pot-control, presuming that I'm flipping at best against villain's range. I just want to get to a cheap showdown, as I'll win about half the time, I suspect. The  on the river is a super-blank. When villain doesn't bet here, I'm certain he doesn't have a straight, trips or JT, as I think he'd bet those for value. I also think AJ would lead out most of the time. I could certainly check behind, but I decided to go for thin value, betting a third of the pot, hoping to get called by Tx. It seems to have worked, because villain called with worse than J7. I suspect he held AT/KT/QT (or maybe even AK/AQ high) and thought he had to call with second pair due to the tempting pot odds I offered. Once again, the pot-control line of bet-check-bet squeaked out two streets of value when I had a marginal top pair.

I should point out, in case it's not obvious, that you should avoid taking the bet-check-bet line if you have total air. It looks so bluffy that you'll get called very often. Use pot-control lines when your hand is of medium strength, like top pair average kicker. Do not make “suicide bluffs” with air. If you have nothing at all, fire two big barrels and then give up, or just give up immediately if you get called on the flop and don't pick up any outs. Bluffing the river after checking the turn is just spew. It's a story that doesn't make sense, so it's unlikely to be believed. Only bet the river with one pair if you expect to get called by worse. If you can't get called by worse, just check it down. You don't have to chase every bit of thin value in the micros, and you might just valueown yourself when a passive player had you beat all along.

I've not included an example hand replay here, but an alternative pot-control line is bet-bet-check. This is a fine line to take when the flop is wet. (In fact, it's possibly a better line than the one I took with J7s example above, although the board pairing on the turn complicated matters). On wet boards with one pair, you can get value from drawing hands on the flop and turn, and then check back the river when it's unlikely villain is calling with a worse hand.
e.g. If you have and the flop is , you should c-bet for value in position. On this fairly wet flop there are several draws you need to protect against. You should also bet almost all turn cards for the same reason. If the turn was a blank , I'd still recommend betting about half pot for value, as you can get called by draws like KT/QT/87s, any two clubs, and a couple of worse jacks like JT/J8. On most rivers, you should usually check behind, as draws won't call if they missed, and a third barrel is unlikely to get called by worse one pair hands (AJ/KJ aren't folding), and you could run into a random 2 pairs or even a set.

I think this just about wraps up the basics on how to play value hands in position as the pre-flop raiser. To summarize:
* With big hands (sets, 2pr, TPTK) go for three streets of value, by betting at least half pot on flop, turn and river. Size your bets on the larger side on wet boards in order to set up a river shove that isn't an overbet.
* With marginal one pair hands (TPGK) go for two streets, betting flop and turn on wet boards (charging the draws) and taking the bet-check-bet line on drier boards.

Naturally, these “standard” lines aren't set in stone. Against stationy villains, firing three barrels with top pair, good kicker might be appropriate, whereas against a nitty set-miner, you might not get more than one street of value, so you might choose to bet the flop and then check it down, or even check the flop, planning to only put money in on the turn.

Next time around, I'll look at value-betting as the pre-flop aggressor when you're out of position, a much trickier proposition.

Till then, may all your value-bets get called by worse.

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

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