Don't Limit Yourself Part 4: The Right Play

Erick Lindgren

Knowing every play in the book means nothing if you're unable to choose the right play for the situation you're in.

The first step in choosing the right play is knowing what you want to accomplish. In the preceding articles, we've looked at the idea of causality in poker.

The simplest illustration of causality in poker comes via an example of a mistake commonly made in tournaments around the world:

You're in the late-middle stages of a large multi-table tournament. The average chip stack is just over $60,000. You're sitting near the top of the leaderboard with a healthy stack of $225,000. You have the button; the blinds are $500/$1,000.

You're dealt:


Your opponent in middle position, playing on an above-average stack at $90,000, raises it to $3,500. You decide to flat-call and see a flop. After the blinds fold, the two of you go to the flop heads-up.

The pot: $8,500

The flop:


Your opponent c-bets the flop for $5,000; you have a gut-shot, overcards and the nut-flush draw. You decide that you have a sick amount of outs, and choose to see another card. You call.

The pot: $18,500

The Turn:


After the turn comes a blank, your opponent bets out again, this time $12,000. You're definitely behind, needing to catch one of your outs to win the pot. You decide to call and see if you hit the river.

The pot: $42,500

The River:


The river falls a blank and your opponent makes a bet of $35,000. You're clearly behind, but are almost sure that your opponent is holding a pocket pair lower than the queen. The only way you can win the pot is by bluffing.

You move all-in; your opponent calls with J J, and wins the pot.

Cause and Effect

The plays you make have an adverse affect on the plays available to you on later streets. Here's a look at the numbers from the previous example:

Street Opponent's Stack Size Pot Size
Pre-flop $90,000 $0
Flop $86,500 $8,500
Turn $81,500 $18,500
River $69,500 $42,500
After River Bet $34,500 $112,000
Shawn Buchanan
Shawn Buchanan, Southern Poker Championships.

When your opponent bet $12,000 on the turn, you chose to just call him, allowing the pot to rise to $42,500. The larger the pot, the larger a meaningful bet has to be.

Your opponent bets the river for $35,000. This is when you make your bluff, moving all-in. Your opponent is now faced with the decision of calling your all-in bet for $34,500 into a pot of $112,000.

Getting 3.2-1 on his money, and faced with the reality of being half of an average stack if folded, your opponent simply cannot fold, and looks you up.

The problem here is that the plays you chose to make eliminated your ability to bluff on the river. Once the choices you made assisted your opponent in completely committing himself to the pot, you were only left with folding, calling or getting it all-in on the river. Bluffing was no longer an option.

If you had chosen to make your move on the turn, the numbers would look slightly different:

Street Opponent's Stack Size Pot Size
Pre-flop $90,000 $0
Flop $86,500 $8,500
Turn $81,500 $18,500
After turn bet $69,500 $100,000

If you make your all-in on the turn, your opponent is faced with a similar decision on the turn as he would have on the river, but this time the odds are only 1.4-1 on his money. On top of the poor odds, he would be left with a stack still above tournament average by folding.

Take the situation back to the flop, and imagine what would have happened if you had raised your opponent's bet on the flop.

Your raise on the flop would completely change the dynamic of the hand, opening the door for you to make any play you like on the turn, even a multistreet play, setting up a bluff to make on the river.

The thing to note is that in the first example, the bluff on the river didn't fail because of the timing; it failed partially because of the betting story, and mostly from the odds.

If you manipulate the odds and betting story in earlier streets, it can keep the door open for possible options on the later streets.

When choosing an action or a play, you have to take into consideration more than just your thoughts in that moment, and concentrate on more than just the hands in play.

The hands you and your opponents hold are only a small part of the whole dynamic of the hand. You need to construct plays that allow you to manipulate and modulate the pot, either forcing your opponent to commit his stack, or preventing him from doing so.

with more intensity
Poker is always better when played in the Caribbean.

A chess master thinks many moves ahead of the move he's making at the moment. A professional poker player must do the same.

You need to understand the goal of the action you are making, what you hope for it to accomplish, and how that will affect the actions you plan to make on later streets.

If you want to get it all-in, you need to build a pot large enough to warrant your opponent feeling justified in committing his whole stack by the river. Each action you make has to contribute to building a large pot, without forcing your opponent off his hand.

The best way to construct a play is to reverse-engineer it. You want to think of your end goal, and choose a series of actions that have the greatest probability of leading up to the goal in mind.

How deceptive and counterintuitive these actions must be is dependent on how your specific opponent will interpret your actions in the specific situations.

If you don't have any idea how your opponent will react, and are unable to get any sort of usable read, your best bet is to play the hand in a straightforward fashion. If you want to build a big pot, bet.

The textbook ABC "correct" play is never going to be a serious mistake; it may just not be your most profitable option.

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