Knowing when you're either way ahead or way behind in a hand is absolutely crucial to achieving positive long-term poker results.
The concept is nothing new, but as far as critical poker concepts go it's among the least understood.
Many players play the game stuck in the "old school" or bullheaded style of betting out with hands of value. They don't give any thought to their other options or to the return on such a bet.
Way Ahead or Way Behind?
In the simplest sense, a way ahead/way behind hand is any hand in which your opponent will either have a hand too weak to call any of your bets or a hand so strong that your own chances of winning the pot are almost nil.
If you make a bet while you're way ahead, your opponent folds. If you make a bet while you're way behind, you lose money. Here's a straightforward example:
Your Hand: 9 9 9 9
The Flop: 9 9 K K 3 3
You've flopped middle set on a board with no legitimate draws. Your opponent's hand can only fall into either the way ahead or way behind column.
- If he holds pocket kings, you're drawing to one out to win the pot and you're way behind
- If he holds absolutely anything else, including the third nuts, he's way behind
This situation seems depressing in that when it comes to betting, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. You almost always lose money against better hands and you almost never make money against worse hands.
Unfortunately, a very large number of the hands you will play in poker will have you in a variation of this very situation. The idea is to play every hand in this situation with pot control in mind.
How to Control the Pot in Poker
Controlling the size of the pot in your favor is crucial to your success as a poker player.
The theory is simple:
- Reduce your losses to a minimum and increase your winnings to a maximum
When you have hands on the extreme ends of the scale, putting this theory into practice is fairly easy.
If you have the nuts, you pump the pot; if you have rags, you fold.
Once you get into the world of middle hands which, depending on your personal style of play, may make up the vast majority of hands you will play, the theory becomes more difficult to put into action.
Here's an example of a common way ahead/way behind situation you'll find yourself in:
Your Hand: A A 6 6
The Flop: A A Q Q 3 3
This situation has you holding a weak top pair. Any pair lower than yours is way behind you while any ace with a higher kicker or a better hand is way ahead.
What do you do?
It's Worth Playing Way Ahead, Way Behind Hands
For beginners, this concept commonly brings up two questions:
1) Should you even play these middle hands?
The answer is a definite yes but we're not talking about the validity of playing hands such as A-6 pre-flop A yes here means once you find yourself on the flop with a way ahead/way behind hand such as this, it's absolutely worth playing.
The reason for this is your hand does hold a lot of value. The vast majority of hands your opponents will have been dealt will be in the "way behind" category against you with your pair of aces.
According to the theory of pot control you should be working to maximize your profit in this situation. Only a few of the possible starting hands will have your hand dominated here.
Although this is absolutely true it's not totally accurate once we get to the flop. The majority of the pre-flop hands dealt that are beat by your ace-six will be folded pre-flop.
2) OK; so, how do you know if and when to build a pot?
The true number of possible hands heading to the flop depends on the players and playing styles at your table.
The idea is to play the hands in a style that will (let's hope) allow you to maximize your winnings and limit your losses without having full knowledge of what your opponent is holding.
Are You Way Ahead or Way Behind?
The simplest way to explain playing a way ahead or way behind hand is to try some scenarios and figure out how to make the best of them.
In this example of a way ahead/way behind hand we'll evaluate the two betting extremes - moving all-in on the flop and folding on the flop. This example is purely meant to give you an idea of the return you can generally expect on making these moves with such a hand.
- Your hand: 9 9 9 9
- The Flop: K K 9 9 4 4
Should You Move All In?
If you move all in on the flop the only hands that will reasonably call you will be pocket kings or pocket fours. We can safely assume that the amount of money won from fours will be exactly equal to the amount of money lost to kings over the long run.
The remainder of possible hands to this flop will fold to your bet. This means you will make a small profit from the times you pick up the pot of pre-flop money. This is a very small long-term win with a large amount of short-term variance.
Should You Fold?
If you automatically fold every single time you're in this situation, you'll lose every pot obviously.
The amount you lose will only be equal to that of your pre-flop contributions.
This is a small loss, but a guaranteed one nonetheless. Any constant loss is a leak in your game; too many leaks and you'll cease to float.
The Lesson Lies in the Middle
What we learned from the two extremes is that we're either losing money or winning an insignificant amount of money from picking up pre-flop pots.
Middle set is an extremely strong hand. A hand as strong as this should yield an expected return much greater than what the extremes offer.
This means the proper way to play the hand has to lie somewhere in the middle
How to Play a Way Ahead, Way Behind Hand
Before you can decide how to play the hand you have to figure out which opposing hands are good for it and which hands are bad for it.
Next, you have to figure out how likely it is for your opponents to have what hands. In this scenario the only hand bad for yours is a set of kings. That, and the hand best for you (a set of fours), are both very unlikely.
Hands That Are Good For You
There are a large number of hands that are good for you but are not very strong in comparison to your hand. These include:
All of these hands are either strong preflop hands or have connected with the flop.
All players (other than extremely bad ones) will fold these hands to a sign of extreme strength (such as moving all-in), but they have enough equity that most players will be willing to see some more cards.
Because all of these hands are worth calling marginal bets with it makes sense to be making these bets with this hand. You're betting for value and building a pot.
Give Players Attractive Odds
The idea is you want to give people with hands such as these attractive odds. If they're getting 3-1 on their money it can be easy to build a nice pot slowly.
The other hands that have completely missed the board will fold to any bet so they are no longer a concern. Your idea with a hand as big as middle set is to build a very large pot in such a way that smaller hands can feel comfortable getting involved.
How to Play Top Pair, Weak Kicker
The most common way ahead/way behind situation is holding top pair, weak kicker:
Your Hand: A A 6 6
The Flop: A A Q Q 3 3
In this situation, there are a lot of hands that beat you but also a lot of hands that you're ahead of.
You're behind: A3, A7-AK, AA, QQ, 33, Q3
You're ahead of: A2, A4, A5, KK, K-Q, Q-J, Q-T
As you can see, there are only a few more hands you're behind than hands you're ahead of. This puts you almost right in the middle.
Every other hand is either way ahead of you - you're lucky if you have three outs - or way behind you (they have a maximum of five outs).
If you were to play a perfectly middle game you would lose money because the majority of hands have you beat. But your hand holds enough equity to be worth playing.
Depending on the player, most if not all of the hands you beat will be willing to call or make small- to medium-sized bets. The players with a hand better than yours will want to extract maximum value from their hands as well.
Keep it Small By Betting and Checking
Oftentimes, unless you can discern a very good reason to do otherwise, you want to control the pot and keep it small by betting and checking. Players are less inclined to bluff at a small pot, which helps to eliminate the risk of the worse hands stealing the pot away from you.
It also allows you to make bluffs and moves for less risk. The smaller the pot is, the less money it takes to make a bluff at it.
Your Goal: Extract as Much As Possible
Your goal is to extract as much, if not more, value from the hands you beat as you give to the hands that beat you. The times you successfully bluff a stronger hand into folding should be enough to make your hand profitable.
The most important thing to remember with a way ahead/way behind hand is that the only players willing to call a large bet will be players who have you beat.
For this reason you want to avoid large bets and large pots. Control the action, control the pot and wait for your spots to punish your opponents.
Find the Right Situation for a Big Move
This advice applies more generally, too. For every action hand you see the pros play on TV they've played 30 or more small, low-key pots such as this.
The goal in poker is not to turn every hand into a large win but to keep turning a small profit until you're in the perfect situation to make the big move.
For the most part, poker is not an adrenaline-crazed action game. It's a patience game. The players who can control the pots are the ones who still have chips left when the perfect situation arises.
Play strong, play smart and when that perfect hand is dealt, milk it for all it's worth.