Hold'em Pre-Flop Play Part 2: The Final Bet

Joe Sebok
You got to know when to hold 'em.

In the first part of this article, we looked at how to play your hand when it's your chance to open the pot (make the initial call or raise).

This article focuses on how to act in a pot that's been opened ahead of you.

Playing Behind a Raiser

This is one of the most important and difficult strategies to master in pre-flop play, and it's where the gap concept comes into play.

The gap concept is simple: it takes a much stronger hand to call a raise than it would to make a raise.

Poker can get a little counterintuitive when there are pre-flop raises. Unless you have reason to believe otherwise, when someone raises, you have to assume they have a premium hand.

This means that calling with marginal hands containing high cards can be a very big mistake. For a beginner, it can be less disastrous to call a raise with a rag hand than to call with a high marginal hand.

Calling with a Marginal Hand : The Whys and Wherefores

If we assume the original raiser has a premium hand, then you would make a call against them strictly to try and "crack" the hand they have. It's better to call the raise with 8-9 suited than A-Q suited or offsuit.

A-Q is completely dominated by A-K, AA and QQ. Three of the five most probable hands the raiser holds have you absolutely dominated. If you're against KK you're in better shape than against any of the last three hands, but you're still a major dog.

The only hand you have a chance with is JJ. Even against that you are approximately 45% to win.

Now, on paper 8-9 suited against all five of the premium hands is a serious dog. The difference is it's cheap.

If you call with A Q, on the flop A 2 3, you're going to lose significant money against AA and A-K. If you flop Q 2 3, you lose your stack to AA, KK.

Doyle Brunson
Perhaps the greatest pre-flop player of all time.

The difference is if you make the call with 8-9 suited, and you flop 9 2 3, you're only ahead of one of the five hands your opponent might have.

It's an easy fold; you lose nothing. But if you flop 8 9 3, you double up.

On paper, you win more hands with A-Q than with 8-9 suited. The difference is that you win smaller pots with A-Q, and lose your entire stack when it goes bad. With 8-9 suited, you win very large pots, or lose almost nothing.

At a full-table cash game with a tight table image, in the long run you can make more money with the 8-9 suited hands than with A-Q. Now you see why pre-flop raises can make for some counterintuitive poker advice.

Get Rich or Go Broke: the Premium Hand

What if you have a premium hand? This is where serious money is lost and won at poker tables. It is possible, but it's very difficult to fold KK pre-flop. When KK runs into AA, one person usually ends up very upset.

The calls or folds you make in these situations are what separate a good poker player from a great one. There is nothing I can teach you about these situations. It's different every time; every hand is up for debate. This is not the last time I'll promulgate this decree:

It's better to let yourself get bluffed and lose one bet than to make a bad call and lose your entire stack.

I would rather put my money into a pot when I'm sure that I have the edge than get married to a big hand, and cross my fingers. I don't like to gamble if I can help it.

With KK behind a raise, most of the time you will come over the top. The rationale for doing so is the same as that for making the original raise: to increase the pot size (because you're assuming you have the best hand at this point), and to isolate.

You don't want any players behind you to call. If you're the last player to act pre-flop, and you're already isolated, it's not a bad idea to smooth-call and hide the strength of your hand.

The disadvantage to this play is that you get no more information from the opponent. If he holds AA, you are in a world of pain. If he has QQ, you're one happy sunnuvagun.

By re-raising the original raiser pre-flop you will learn a lot about his hand. Against weaker players, AA will push all-in, or immediately call.

Anything else will fold, or have to take a long think before they make any play. (Note: Every hand, table and player is unique. These are guidelines, not rules).


The gap concept applies even more strongly to overcalling then to calling an original raiser.

Once there is a raise and a re-raise, as a tight-aggressive player, it becomes very difficult to do anything but fold. All poker professionals say the same thing:

Phil Hellmuth
Phil Hellmuth would tell you to fold QQ in this spot... if he wasn't busy biting his nails.

Under a raise and a re-raise, you must fold QQ pre-flop.

Calling a raise and a re-raise pre-flop with a hand such as 8-9 suited is also usually a mistake. A raise and a re-raise usually mean you'd be cold-calling six big bets. It also means that the betting has been reopened.

The original raiser is going to call, fold or push all-in. Unless it was a strict bluff, the original raiser will almost never fold in this situation.

If you call, the odds he is being given makes it an easy call with almost any decent hand.

If he does have AA, he will most likely move all-in. I've seen people make that move with all five of the premium hands, as well as with some marginal ones.

This means you're running a very large risk that you are throwing away the call. (If the original raiser moves all-in, you're forced to muck your hand, losing the chips invested in the original call.)

Tournament Play: Forget Everything I Told You

The story is very different if you're playing in a tourney as opposed to in a cash game. All of the previous advice becomes completely obsolete in certain tourney situations.

Tournament poker is more dynamic than cash games. Cash games stay rather constant; in a tournament, the pressure of mounting blinds adds different elements to the game that are not present in a cash game.

A significant amount of the bluffs and high-level moves made in cash games are very subtle. When you are perpetually deep-stacked, you can play a constant long-ball game.

The shrinking stack sizes due to climbing blinds mean that the majority of tourney play remains exclusively small-ball.

The Limp Re-raise

Another powerful move you can make pre-flop is the limp re-raise.

Having a premium hand in early position, it can pay well to limp with the intention of coming over the top of anyone who makes a raise.

This works best at a very active and aggressive table. If there have been no raises on the table for the last hour, such a move is simply reckless.

Limp re-raising does one of three things:

  1. The original raiser will fold and you make a quick three-bet.
  2. The player calls or raises, putting you into a very large pot with (hopefully) the most equity.
  3. It helps to neutralize your lack of position. A limp re-raise shows significant strength. It's rarely done with a hand other than the five premiums. Out of those, it's most common for it to be AA or KK.

Adam Levy
All strong players pay attention to the hands they're not in.

For this reason alone, it's almost always a mistake to play into or against a limp re-raise by a weak to average player.

The disadvantage to this maneuver comes when no one raises. In this scenario you will find yourself in a multi-way pot, out of position.

If you're playing AA and don't hit a set on the flop, then you have to remember that all you have is one pair. Anyone willing to call any large bets at this point has a decent chance at having a random two pair or made hand.

If you play the hand hard and fast, you will lose a big pot against anything other than an overplayed top pair.

After You Fold

When you fold a hand, pre- or post-flop, it does not mean you're finished playing the hand.

Every hand that plays out at the table is laden with valuable information. It's usually easier to pick up information on how a person is playing when you're not in the hand.

You don't have to worry about how to play your hand; this in turn allows you to concentrate on how they're playing theirs.

The more information you can gather on someone the further in advance of having to face a difficult situation against them, the more likely you are to make the right decision.


Making strong decisions pre-flop will make your choices on the subsequent streets easier, greatly improving your chance of taking down the pot.

Remember: every action you make at a poker table should be done for a specific reason.

Every hand you play should have its own game plan. Using what you read in these two articles will provide you with the tools you need to create and execute strong, winning game plans.

More strategy articles from Sean Lind:

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