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Low Flop and the Continuation Bet

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By John Vorhaus

In the psychology of no limit hold’em, most people look to the preflop raiser to lead the action postflop. This bet, famously called a continuation bet, can bring all sorts of grief to a preflop raiser when the flop misses his hand — especially if the flop comes low and ragged. While he’s generally expected to bet (because he raised preflop), he’s also suspected to have missed the flop (because it’s junk). Let’s parse this conundrum and see if we can find a plan for the hand when the flop doesn’t go our way.

You’re playing in a $500 minimum buy-in NLHE cash game with $5 and $10 blinds and the game seems tame. You’ve been throwing in a few raises, and your image is middling loose. Now you open in middle position for your standard raise of $25. I’m not assigning you a hand value here because in this instance it really doesn’t matter what you have. The issue isn’t what cards you hold, but what cards your opponents think you hold.

So. You get one late position caller, and the blinds both fold. The flop comes 5-3-2 rainbow. Action’s on you. How will you proceed, and why?

This flop is a problem.

The situation seems to cry out for a continuation bet, but who would believe that you have a piece of that flop? With a high card flop, you could have represented a fit with any typical high card preflop raising hand. In this case, though, you’re just hanging out there, hoping your foe will put you on a medium-to-large pocket pair, but knowing that he can just as easily put you on unpaired overcards. Now you run the risk of getting messed with by someone who assumes — probably rightly — that the flop was a complete whiff for you.

How it looks if you bet.

Come out betting here and you’re basically saying, “Yeah, I’m making a continuation bet. What are you going to do about it?” Many foes will fold, God love them, because they’re Timmies who have no stomach for a fight. Trouble is, not all foes are Timmies, and those who are not have lots of options here, including just calling and basically daring you to fire again on the turn. They may even be running a program on you, a betting sequence in which they flat-call any bet on the flop and raise any bet on the turn (or bet if you check), thus extracting maximum value from your (mandated) continuation bet before taking the pot away.

Against such foes you’d probably have to shut it down on the turn, and fold to any bet. That’s a pretty meek play, though, and you’ll lose a lot of image equity, plus chips, if that’s the play you make.

What happens if you check.

If betting the flop and then checking the turn is meek, then checking the flop is meeker still. In the best case, your foe is equally meek and checks behind you. Should that happen, you do pick up some elbow room on the turn. For instance, if the turn card is low — another five, say — you can bet as if to say, “Well, since you don’t want this pot, I guess I’ll take it with my mere ace-high.”

Alternatively, if a wheelhouse card (ten through ace) comes, you can bet it like you own it, now claiming, “Yes, I was out of line preflop, but I got a free card on the flop and was lucky enough to hit on the turn. So now this pot is mine.” Of course, there’s no guarantee that your foe will check behind you on the flop; he may bet, in which case you’ll probably have to pass. Then again, if he should check the flop, he could hit his card on the turn (or decide that your check on the flop means you’re definitely lying/stealing now) in which case he’ll attack back on the turn and take the pot away then.

If your foe is frisky.

If your foe is frisky, then your check on the flop has added value, in that it may inspire him to bluff. If he does — and if you have him well tabbed as a frisky player — you can go ahead and check-raise, signaling that you’ve either trapped him with a better hand (a premium pair, say) or goaded him into a bluff, which you’re now snapping off.

This move requires stones, true; the safer course is to fold. However, it does have the advantage of keeping your image strong. You’re showing yourself capable of a check-raise where a continuation bet is called for. This will not only earn you some image equity now, it may give you a free card in another hand, the next time a continuation bet is called for, but the flop isn’t favorable for your holding.

Think of what you’re afraid of.

In this circumstance, your main concern is that your foe hit the flop. Well, guess what? That’s his main concern, too! Even if the flop isn’t obviously scary, either your straightforward continuation bet or your check-raise bluff will send the strong signal that, of all the hands you’re willing to raise with preflop, this time you have the hand he fears most — a big pocket pair. Remember that two thirds of the time, any two unpaired cards do not hit a pair on the flop. Remember also that if the flop is low and ragged, any pair your foe makes here must necessarily be a low one.

Let’s say he called with A-5, which has now turned into top pair, top kicker. That’s a fragile holding. Literally any middle or high card on the turn (except an ace) will probably slow him down. In any case, his likeliest holding is mere overcards, and if he has overcards without an ace, he really can’t afford to call, because he can’t figure his hand to be a favorite to even the weakest ace you might have raised with.

Sometimes you do what’s expected.

You’re expected to make a continuation bet here, and even though you feel exposed and vulnerable, I think you have to follow through. Why? Because your foe feels exposed and vulnerable, too! Even if he figures you for a naked steal, he needs to have a hand that can beat a steal. He may not have such a hand, nor have the will to fight. But here’s the thing: How can you push him off his hand if you don’t push? Bet! Bet, and give him a chance to fold.

The preflop raise and the delicate dance.

In most cases, we want to be the aggressor. In most cases, we want to put in raises preflop. This means that we’re going to face the nasty continuation bet conundrum many, many times. For the sake of avoiding predictability we can’t play it the same way every time, but most of the time we’re going to try to retain the initiative. Why? Two reasons:

  1. IT’S HARD TO MAKE A HAND. Just because we missed doesn’t mean our foe didn’t miss, too.
  2. THEY CAN’T FOLD IF WE DON’T BET. And if they do fold, you win not just chips, but image equity, too.

Think about all this the next time you face the continuation bet conundrum. Even though you missed your flop, you haven’t necessarily missed your shot.

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