By Tony Guerrera
You’re playing 6-handed $1-$2 no-limit hold’em. Action folds to you. You have 6h5h in the cut-off, and you raise to $6. The button folds, and both the blinds call. The pot is $18 going to the flop. The flop is 2h4hTc. Both blinds check, and you make a $10 semibluff with what appears to be a 12-outer. The small blind calls, and the big blind folds. The pot is now $38, and the turn is the Ad. Your opponent and you both check, and the river is the 8h. The board is 2h4hTcAd8h, and your opponent leads into you for $20. What’s your play?
Your opponent might be on a naked bluff. Your opponent might have two pair with A-T, A-4, or A-2. He might have a straight with 3-5. Or he might have a flush with AhKh, AhQh, AhJh, AhTh, Ah9h, Ah7h, Ah3h, KhQh, KhJh, KhTh, Kh9h, QhJh, QhTh, JhTh, Jh9h, Th9h, or 9h7h (though he’d probably play a bulk of these draws more aggressively on the flop; his most likely flush holdings are KhQh, KhJh, Kh9h, QhJh, Jh9h, and 9h7h.). It’s doubtful that he has just a pair of aces since that would mean that he called your bet on the flop with ace-high and no draws.
At the very least, you need to call. The big question is whether you should raise (and to how much). Upon first glance, you have a flush, which is a very good hand. However, poker isn’t about absolute hand rankings. Poker is about relative hand rankings. And to be aggressive heads-up on the river with a hand that has a good chance of winning a showdown, you need to be sure that your aggression gets action from a distribution that you win at least 50% of the time against. Of the hands in your opponent’s distribution, you get action from the 6-17 flush combinations that beat you. It’s also possible that you get action from the three or twelve 3-5 combinations with a raise to around $60 (the number of combinations depends on if your opponent will call a preflop raise with 3-5o). The 27 two-pair combinations will have a tough time calling anything but a min raise. All bluffs will probably fold; don’t expect to induce a 3-bet bluff.
If you raise with your baby flush here, the only shot you have at making it a raise for value is by making it a min raise. And even then, it’s a sketchy proposition at best-especially if you’re playing in a tough game. Good players aren’t apt to call raises from the small blind with hands like ace-rag and small one-gaps. Take ace-rag and one-gaps out of the equation, and your opponent is most likely leading on the river with a distribution looking like:
Flushes: AhKh, AhQh, AhJh, AhTh, KhQh, KhJh, KhTh?, QhJh?, QhTh?, JhTh? (6-10 combinations)
Two-Pair: A-T (9 combinations)
Naked Bluffs: (? combinations)
It’s tough to put a good opponent on some of these hands because of the play on the flop and the turn. But then again, good opponents balance their play, in part, by playing the same hand different ways. The only good news for the purposes of manageable analysis is that the number of naked bluff combinations doesn’t impact the decision to value raise: naked bluffs simply fold to a raise. All that matters is figuring out the relative ratio of two-pair hands to flushes. Unfortunately, that ratio looks to be very close to 1:1; close to the point where it’s too tough to know which side of the coin you’re on.
Because of this, let’s look at the issue from a different perspective. Generally, balanced river strategy involves being aggressive with a polarized range. Aggress with the top and the bottom of your range relative to your opponent’s distribution (with the relatively high ratio of made hands to bluffs), and be content to show down the middle part of your range. Because of your opponent’s distribution, the top part of your range is very narrow, making the middle part of your range very wide. Your baby flush falls in this large, middle region, so you should be inclined to call with your baby flush. The only made hand you should raise with here is an ace-high flush. If your river bluff raising frequency is high enough, you can also raise with a king-high flush.
This discussion focused on playing baby flushes in position in response to a lead on the river, but similar analysis applies to situations involving hands like baby two pair and trips with a bad kicker. When you have hands that are very good, but vulnerable, you need to consider whether there’s any value to be had by being aggressive. The word passive carries a negative stigma. But sometimes, the passive line of play is the best line of play.
Tony Guerrera is the author of Killer Poker By The Numbers and co-author of Killer Poker Shorthanded (with John Vorhaus)
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