Let’s face it, when we first start out in poker, it is no fun to play the role of the defender. In other words, when we call a pre-flop raise or 3-Bet and are forced to navigate post-flop waters, it can get uncomfortable fast. We call these situations playing ‘without the initiative’ but before we get our teeth into some strategy, let me talk a little about what this puzzling term really means.
What is Initiative?
We talk about initiative in sports all the time and for good reason. A football team is said to have the initiative when it is pressing hard for a goal and the other team is defending. In boxing, the fighter who is doing the attacking is said to have the initiative. In poker, the term is exactly the same. The pre-flop raiser is the one pressing; attacking; trying to win the pot, while the pre-flop caller has defended his blind (or maybe his button). On the flop it is customary for the weaker, capped range to check to the stronger uncapped range. This is because the opener normally has a stronger range. He entered the pot voluntarily without having posted a big blind. The BB caller, on the other hand, was priced in to see a flop and defend his blind with a lot of different hands. For this reason, the BB is in a defensive position as far as range vs. range goes. Therefore, he can be said to lack the initiative. There is no magical property to initiative that makes the opener’s EV higher – it is just a function of his range advantage, and in many cases, favourable position to boot.
As the BB defender, we check to the pre-flop raiser not because he wields a magical sword called initiative, but because his range is stronger than ours. His range outperforms ours on most board textures. With the bulk of our range, we did not defend our blind because we expected to win money, but because we sought to reduce our losses. Optimal big blind play is all about doing exactly that and no one wins from this position on the table in the long run – literally no one – in any game – ever.
Checking to the raiser is the norm because we do not wish to build the pot, all things being equal, with our average hand against our opponent’s average hand. Of course, we might have a particularly strong hand, but even then, we do not wish to build the pot in the manner of leading out. The problem is obvious. If we donk-lead our good hands and check our bad ones, we telegraph our hand strength to our opponent and allow him to destroy us in the long-term. In my book The Grinder’s Manual I call this automatic check the ‘procedural check’. It is literally a matter of habit unless we have information to the contrary.
Unless you have flat called a freakishly strong range out of the BB to a raise, it is theoretically sub-optimal to donk-bet at any reasonable frequency on the flop. However, we can elect to donk-bet for exploitative purposes. Against passive players who do not bluff raise, a cheap donk-bet can be a great way of simply winning the pot when both players have bricked the flop. The best board textures on which to make this play vs. the right sort of placid opponent are wetter, lower ones. On these boards, our decent hands are vulnerable and do not at all mind if Villain folds a worse hand with two overcards to our pair. Moreover, much of Villain’s range will be unpaired at this point and on a flop like 8♦ 7♦ 3♥, an unimaginative timid player will have a very hard time defending often enough to a 66% pot sized donk-bet.
Provided that we do check without the initiative as will normally be the case, there are still combative options in our toolkit. When Villain makes a one third pot c-bet, as is quite popular in today’s games, we only need to be winning the pot 20% of the time to break even on a call. This is because we are risking just one unit to win the pot (three units) plus Villain’s bet (one unit). We are getting 4:1 or 80:20 on our money. It follows from this that the requirements for calling a flop c-bet are very low. When Villain bets one third of the pot in position on J♠ 8♠ 4♦ and we hold 9♥ 7♥, our prospects are poor, but for us to fold, they would have to be terrible. We should call here and expect to be entitled to one fifth of the resulting pot due to a few factors.
First off, we have a draw to a very strong hand and might make more money if we get there. Secondly, Villain will give up sometimes on the turn, allowing us to bet and win on the river. Thirdly, we might just hit one pair and that might turn out to be good enough. Yes, we are usually going to lose here. Yes, you don’t need to feel happy about it. But no, you certainly don’t want to fold quite yet.
The other combative option is to check-raise when your opponent c-bets, suddenly seizing the initiative by representing the stronger range. The most normal way to use the raise button in these cases is to use a polarised strategy, meaning that you will attack the in-position player’s c-bets with a mix of very powerful made hands and some of the more attractive semi-bluffs. For example, on a flop of J♣ J♦ 2♣, we might raise 4x the c-bet with a mixture of 22, strong Jx, some flush draws, and a few backdoor diamond draw hands such as Q♦ 10♦. This applies a lot of pressure to our opponent and puts many hands in a difficult spot. At the same time, we avoid the trap of raising mediocre hands that are only likely to get action when they are beat and will almost always get action if they are second best.
- Initiative is simply another way of talking about attack and defence based on one range being stronger than the other.
- Procedural checking is normally correct due to the BB’s range disadvantage and need to balance his stronger hands with his weaker ones.
- Donk-Betting can become an exploitative option vs passive opponents on low, wetter boards.
- Floating can be good even with poor hands if the price is right. It helps to know how much of the pot we need to be entitled to.
- Raising is a good way of grabbing the initiative but try to do it with a polarised range.