Now that I've got your attention with this catchy title, what am I on about?
When we first start playing No-Limit Hold'em, as new players we have no idea what we're doing. We don't know when to bet, or how much to bet. We don't know what various bet sizes from our opponents mean. We're unsure how to play our big hands, or if to play our more marginal ones. We don't know when to continuation bet, what size to choose, etc.
So as we begin the learning process, we look for rules to follow. As humans, they give us a comfort level that allows us to start playing with some confidence, while simultaneously acting to keep us our chips out of harm's way as much as possible. It's a great place to start as we dive headlong into this wonderful game called poker.
Unfortunately, many players get stuck in the rules they learn. In order to progress your game beyond a beginner or early intermediate level, it's essential to learn to move past that. Poker is a fluid, dynamic game. There is no cookbook recipe that allows you to win if you follow it to the letter. In fact, the opposite may be true: rigidly adhering to general rules without developing an understanding of when to deviate from them will only take you so far, and from there it will hold you back. Let's talk about a few examples.
Starting Hand Charts.Starting hand guidelines are perhaps essential for the novice player. They will help keep the said player out of trouble derived by playing inadequate hand values while they gain experience at the tables. But all starting hand guides for No Limit Hold'em are basic and it's essential to move past them once you're beyond the level of a novice. This derives from the nature of the game. For instance, your starting hand chart may say to open for a raise from the button with a certain range, but if both the players in the blinds are very tight and conservative, you can certainly open profitably with a wider range of hands than any chart would advise. Where does 76s come into play on your starting hand charts? This hands value is very different on 250 big blinds than it is on 25 big blinds. Learning when to deviate from starting hand charts and why deviating in a certain way is profitable is critical to your poker growth beyond the novice level.
Open Raise Sizing.Open raise 3 times the big blind, plus 1 more big blind for every limper. Sound familiar? Whatever your script is that you've learned, unlearn it. These guidelines are basic for the novice to follow, but as we gain experience and grow our games, we should start learning when and how to deviate from this starting point guideline. Is the effective stack 13 big blinds? Min-raising or moving all-in directly may make more sense than a 3x open. Is the effective stack 250 big blinds? 3x is now too small, allowing players in position and the blinds to take a cost-effective cheap go at our stack from a risk to reward perspective, making a small investment with the large implied odds of our 250 big blind stack behind. Are you raising to isolate a limper in a loose/fishy lineup? 3x+1 isn't likely to achieve the goal of isolation, maybe you need to go 6x or even higher to accomplish the task. There are many different situations that may warrant sizing up or down from your "standard" open. If you don't open your mind and put down the playbook, you'll make mistakes and miss these spots.
Continuation Betting.A continuation bet occurs when the aggressor from the prior betting round bets again on the current round, "continuing" their betting lead in the hand. What does your cookbook recipe say about how frequently you should continuation bet? What hand strengths and what sizing to use? Doesn't matter, it's wrong. Again, there are basic guidelines which are really better suited to the early stages learner regarding what to cbet, when, and in what sizes. Those are just that… basic guidelines. When you apply them in a rigid, close-minded manner you are going to miss many opportunities to profitably deviate from them in ways that make sense. Let's say you raised preflop from the button, and both blinds, who are tight/aggressive and non-creative players called. The flop comes A63 with a couple hearts and they both check to you. Do you cbet here? Perhaps your guideline you've picked up along the way says in 3-way pots you must cbet 2/3rds pot, so you blindly fire away with that bet with or A5o, both hands you may have reasonably opened on the button. The cookbook may be leading you astray.
Most of your range that c-bets can do so for a much smaller bet on this board texture. If you are bluffing with JT, a 1/3rd or 1/4th pot c-bet may be sufficient to make these players fold all their non-ace, non-heart holdings, saving your chips when they continue and have you in bad shape. With A5o, this 2/3rds pot cbet is fairly dismal. These player types will only give us continued action with a range that is fairly high equity… hearts (which we're ahead of but has decent equity), sets/2 pairs (which crush us) and Ax (most of which crushes our 5 kicker). Checking behind on the flop and not c-betting with our weakest aces makes a lot of sense in this spot… we may induce some semi-bluffs on the turn or lighter call downs from hands like 88, and we protect our flop checking range when we have hands like KK or KQ with a heart, so we can't just be bet off easily when we check the flop. What if the big blind is instead, a loose-passive calling station?
Now a decently sized cbet makes more sense with A5o, as they will still call with the above-mentioned hands, but also call us with that 88, 65s, KJ with a back door flush draw, etc… much worse, low equity hands we now crush. And likewise, JTs the small c-bet seems more appropriate… if the station whiffed they'll fold, and if they are going to continue we can shut down, as we know they will never fold better hands but will always check the turn to us, allowing us to check behind and realize our equity with back door flush draws, and pair outs vs. 88 or 65s and the like.
These are three examples, but there are others. When we first start learning the game of poker, arming ourselves with good general rules of thumb for our actions makes sense. They fall away from being ideal a fair bit, but as a new or inexperienced player, we have little idea what we're doing yet anyway. Once we start gaining some experience, some comfort level with "the basics" however, it's time to break out of that mould and start pushing the learning process towards when and how to deviate in profitable ways that makes sense. Don't fall into the trap of getting stuck in the comfortable serenity of your rules book, because that won't serve you well in the long term in a game as fluid and dynamic as poker. Some rules were meant to be broken.
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