How Bad is Bad?
In a hold'em game, if you bet the flop, believing that you have the best hand, it is nice when your hand improves on the turn. But in reality this doesn't happen very much, especially when you have top pair or an overpair. With top pair, you usually have five outs for a meaningful improvement, and with an overpair, only two outs. So, you would be happy to buy a blank and stay ahead of your opponents.
Unfortunately, with most flops and most of your hands, there are lots of possible boardcards that are neither helpers for your hand nor blanks to hold the enemy at bay. You cannot take your foot off the gas pedal every time the turn card could help someone. That would be wimpy poker that would often cause you to lose the initiative unnecessarily. So, when an unpleasant turn card arrives, you must ask yourself this question: "How bad is bad?"
Deciding whether to bet again on the turn requires the input of several factors. What is your position? How many opponents do you have? How many ways could that card help an opponent's hand? These and other questions need to be answered in order for you to make an intelligent estimate of the situation.
First, what is your position? Acting first means that a check reveals your weakness. A probable reaction to your blinking is a bet by an opponent. So, if you call his bet, the fee for staying in may be the same as if you had bet yourself. Of course, checking and calling deprives you of any chance to win the pot on that betting round. That is why good players tend to be aggressive optimists.
If you are last to act and check, at least you can stay for nothing. However, the fact that the enemy has checked reduces the chance that someone drew out on you. Also, a check when last to act is an almost sure sign of weakness (whereas a check from up front might be a trap). Opponents may be emboldened in the river betting by your weak check, either betting a modest hand for value or running a bluff. Had you bet, you might have bought a free showdown on the end - or even won the pot. So, once again, a check on the turn may not save you any money in playing out the hand.
Second, how many opponents do you have? When a bad card comes, the more opponents you have, the more likely it is that someone's hand is helped. The degree of danger rises dramatically when you have two opponents instead of one, or three instead of two. Often, putting an additional opponent into a poker situation in which you will either bet or check changes your decision to the more passive action.
Third, just how bad is that ugly turn card? After all, not all threats to your hand are equal. We have to look at the likelihood of an opponent having the right hand to take advantage of the situation, and how many different types of hands could have been helped.
Let us suppose that you have two red queens and the flop is J 9 3. You have an overpair - of course, a hand worth betting on the flop. Here are a few cards that could come; let's analyze how severe a threat each one is to your hand. The A is an overcard, which is obviously bad for you. But at least it can be used to make only a pair of aces. Worse is the A, the suit of the two-flush. The worst card in the deck is the K, which is an overcard that can also complete either the flush or an open-end straight draw. Some of my friends like to call a triple-threat card like K the "death card."
There are some other considerations involved in deciding whether to bet the turn. Especially when there's only one or two opponents, who they are and their style of play makes a difference. Does your opponent have some tricky moves, whereby a check might be a prelude to a check-raise? Is he aggressive enough to raise you on the turn when a scare card comes? How well does he know your style of play? In trying to analyze the following situations, let us pretend that you are faced with strangers, or rather ordinary players.
Let's assume the situation of your having two red queens with a flop of J 9 3, and ask the following question for each of the cards discussed above: How many opponents would you need to have in order to prefer a check to a bet, if you were first to act? I'm sure there would be a variance of opinion if you asked a group of top players, but I will give you my opinion.
A - Against one player, it is ridiculous to let an overcard stop you from betting. I also prefer to fire into two opponents. At some point, however, you have to say the field is too large for you to bet. I do not know if that point is three or four opponents.
A - I cannot bring myself to check when I have only one opponent. With two opponents, I would be very nervous, and with three of them, I'm definitely done with it.
K - Even with the death card, I still grit my teeth and bet into only one opponent. With the junk some people call with, a check and fold is too wimpy. There's still a number of hands a person can have that were not helped, such as top, middle, or bottom pair (without a king for a kicker). However, I do not have enough intestinal fortitude to stomach a bet into multiple opponents.
It is not the purpose of this column to present you with a table to be memorized. Rather, it is simply to show you how to go about analyzing the strength of a bad card against your hand. You must look at the number of opponents and the various ways they could have been helped by the turn card. We also see that against one opponent, whenever the board changes status, you have to pretend to say, "That's me," and bet again. If the death card for your hand didn't help your lone opponent, he will also be afraid of it, and you'll probably win the pot.