It has been a question that has been asked recently during some live training streams… when should we play a draw aggressively and raise with it vs. just call?  Of course we should also put folding on the table as an option.  But assuming we feel we at least have a profitable call, then when should we raise instead of call?

The concept of playing a draw aggressively is called semi-bluffing.  Early on in our poker learning we are taught the benefits of aggression.  We put pressure on our opponents.  We force them to have something.  If they can’t take the heat, they might fold and yield the pot. 

If we flop a draw and call a bet with it, we are calling on hand equity.  The price we are getting from the pot right now, plus the prospect of winning future bets when we get there, yielding a positive expectation on our call. This action however requires us to actually make our hand to win. Weak and bad players call with their draws as a default option… they don’t consider things like pot odds, price, or implied odds, or even the prospect of their hand being good should they make it.   They tend to think more along the lines of  “I have a draw, I’m behind now but I might hit a really strong hand and that’s exciting, I call”.   So they end up sometimes calling correctly, sometimes incorrectly, and forever being labeled as a chaser by their opponents regardless.

While we may in fact have a correct price to call with our draw, in some cases we can do better.  This is where semi-bluffing comes into play… raising with a hand that is surely behind right now (bluffing), but that can still suck out and make the best hand if called.  Now we are not just playing our hand equity as is the case when calling with our draw, but we are also leveraging bluff equity… that is the value we create for ourselves by getting them to fold the better hand right now and surrender the pot some of the time.  This is the true power of semi-bluffing. Enhancing the value of our hand by creating 2 ways to win.  Either they fold, or we get there.

The problem that I see players running into is once they get this concept into their game, they make it not only their default play but their rote play, meaning they semi-bluff all their draws.  That’s not great because it’s not always optimal, which leads me full circle back to the original question… when should we play a draw aggressively vs. passively?

The value of our semi-bluff (let’s call it V) = fold equity + hand equity

So for starters, as our fold equity goes down, so does the value of playing our draw aggressively.  Take an extreme example… suppose our opponent has a particular tell when they have the nuts, and they have just bet displaying this tell.  Obviously if they have the best possible hand right now, they will never fold to a raise, so the fold equity part of the equation literally becomes zero.  Raising is, essentially, only charging ourselves more to draw. 

The other factor in V is hand equity of course.  The weaker our draw, the smaller this component of the equation.  For instance, consider a flop of 56J with 2 hearts.  A hand like AhKh has a lot more hand value than does 9h2h… the latter having significantly less value from just making a pair as well as occasionally improving to a flush and still losing to a bigger flush.  A hand like 3c4c would provide about the least hand equity possible as it’s one of the weakest draws on this board, with minimal pair value and both bigger straight and flush draws to pip it.  If we hold one of the weaker draws but estimate our fold equity component to be solid, then playing our draw aggressively can turn a marginal loser into a winning proposition.   If our fold equity component is poor or close to zero, and we can’t profitably call with our draw, then folding it becomes the best play.

What about when our hand equity is high because we have a huge combo draw?  Let’s say AhJh on a flop of QhTh9c.  In this case if we perceive any measure of fold equity either now or later in the hand, we usually have a good spot to get and stay aggressive.  The fact we have so many outs bolstering our hand equity helps offset the times we find ourselves in a situation where fold equity is small or zero like when we run into the top of their range (a set for example), and allows us to build the pot vs. the parts of their range our hand equity is high against.  With 2 cards to come we may even be a favorite over some made hands, and of course we are in great shape vs. other, dominated draws in a spot like this. 

Also keep in mind here, as fold equity goes down due to the opponents hand strength, our implied odds go up.  That is, the stronger their hand the more likely we are to get paid off should we make our draw.  In spots were we rate our opponent to have a very strong hand such that they are unlikely to fold to a raise and more likely to pay off when we get there, calling is often better than raising so we draw as cheaply as possible while still expecting to get good value when we hit.

I would like to close by sharing with you a hand example that I hope illustrates how these concepts play into the decision.  The SB is a solid, tight-aggressive player. 

UTG: $83.08
Hero (CO): $89.43
BTN: $68.02
SB: $69.25
BB: $53.33

SB posts SB $0.25, BB posts BB $0.50

Pre Flop: (pot: $0.75) Hero has 8:diamond 9:diamond

UTG raises to $1.50
Hero calls $1.50
SB calls $1.25

Flop: ($5.00, 3 players)  5:club  9:spade  7:heart

SB checks
UTG checks
Hero bets $3.16
SB raises to $8.00
Hero calls $4.84

Turn: ($21.00, 2 players)  J:heart

SB bets $15.00

At this point in the hand, the SB player looks very strong.  After hero bets into a multiway pot,  they have check-raised to a reasonable sizing, and followed up on the turn with a 71% pot bet.  Additionally they have all the *****d hands in their range, as  they might play T8s, 86s, 99, 77, 55 all in this manner. 

While raising the turn can look strong, it’s a spot where the SB is likely very strong themselves and not folding.  Hero’s draw isn’t very good (catching a 9 or 8 are not likely to be wins and it would be much better if her held hearts obviously), so the desire to create some value through fold equity is admirable, but it’s just ill-timed vs a very strong range.  This would be much better placed against a weaker or more tenuous range.  But our hero misapplies the concept and chooses to move all in, which if SB’s range is as strong as it looks, creates little fold equity and essentially only charges himself the maximum to draw while getting it in as a significant dog.

Hero raises to $79.93 and is all-in

SB calls $44.75 and is all-in

River: ($140.50, 2 players)   6:heart:

Hero shows 8:diamond 9:diamond
SB shows 5:diamond 5:heart

Hero wins $138.50 with a 9 high straight

Of course, a little luck never hurts.  The Hero catches one of his straight cards and comes from behind to win a nice pot.  While the short term result was good, the long term results may suffer, as this is a pot most hero’s won’t scrutinize and it may serve to reinforce the bad habit of playing draws aggressively with blinders on, not considering the situation or ranges appropriately.

I hope this helps answer the question of when to play draws aggressively.  If it’s created more questions than answers for you, that’s a good thing.   The next step is to start reviewing your drawing hands and apply the ideas above to view them in a new light.   

V = FE + HE

What looks like the best way to make V bigger in each case?  If there is a tangible fold equity component, then aggression taps into that part of the equation.  If fold equity is low, consider not charging yourself to draw, but rather realize your hand equity on the cheap, and make them pay when you get there.   Now, time to get to work…