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How to Play Better Post-Flop Poker: An In-Depth Guide
In my reading of the poker literature I've noticed that most discussions of beginner poker strategy focus on pre-flop action.
In my reading of the poker literature I've noticed that most discussions of beginner poker strategy focus on pre-flop action.
This is understandable and sensible. Solid pre-flop strategy avoids problems and limits the number of difficult decisions you will need to make.
There's no doubt someone with a sensible, measured pre-flop game can be a long-term winner - or at least not much of a loser. It's amazing how few regulars in the trenches understand this.
But the best analyses of poker strategy turn to the nuances of post-flop play. In fact, a trend is emerging at the upper levels. The top players specifically recommend violating many of the "basic" principles of pre-flop play.
The point is simple but deep:
- If you become a solid post-flop player you want to play as many hands as possible
Why? You'll end up in post-flop situations where your opponents will be out of their element and you won't be. Experts at post-flop play can simply see more flops profitably.
So, let's begin with a run-through of some fundamental elements to post-flop play.
Note: Some basic strategies are more relevant to cash games than tournaments and vice versa. I've not distinguished between them, except when the differences are compelling. For the most part solid post-flop play taps similar elements in both.
The Fundamentals of Good Post-Flop Poker
Position is king, queen ... prince, princess and court jester all rolled into one.
Everything that follows has an implied footnote: adjustments must be made for position. The later you act the more everything loosens and the range of actions you can take expands. It is not possible to over-emphasize this point.
Standard advice is that position is more important before the flop than post-flop. This isn't wrong but you need to be thinking about the post-flop positional consequences of pre-flop decisions.
Having to act first after the flop is awkward and rife with problems -- mainly because of the number of actions that will be taken by opponents after you've made your decision.
The later you act the more the range of issues you will need to deal with is restricted ... and if there is one thing we know in psychology, any time you can reduce the domain of alternatives you must take into account, the lower your error rate becomes.
Post-Flop Play is Not All About Aggression
It's a myth that the best post-flop players are wildly aggressive, constantly taking hands away from their opponents. This is, at best, an oversimplification; timing, reads, board texture and the like are keys.
Mike Caro's great line ("aggression is rarely wrong in poker and when it is, it isn't wrong by much") still holds and players with a strong aggressive game will have an edge, but the aggression must be tempered by position, by the nature of the table, by the individual players in the hand with you and, of course, by your position.
The wildly aggressive players leave themselves open to traps set by observant opponents. Be aggressive, but be selective.
Aggression, for what it's worth, has a gender bias to it (don't flame me now, I'm just the messenger). The data show that men are more aggressive than women in most competitive endeavors, including poker.
Women who counter this gender effect have an edge for all the obvious reasons.
There's No Shame in Folding Post-Flop
If you're seeing a lot of flops there will be many hands where you either miss or, worse, hit a minor piece of the board. You need to know when to get out and cut your losses.
Chips not lost = chips won. From a psychological point of view, I find it fascinating how many veterans of the game fail to grasp this point.
Again, there is a gender factor. Folding is seen as wimpy or not masculine in many circles. If you dump a bunch of hands to middling bets, folks start thinking you're a wuss.
Don't sweat it. If they believe this erroneously you gain (think Dan Harrington).
There is also no shame folding to the same opponent several times in a row. There is a tendency to get wrapped up in the play of a single adversary. Someone has pushed you off of two or three hands. Your ego gets bruised. You start to steam a little and vow to "get" this guy
This is almost invariably a mistake and leads to several unhappy outcomes: you enter pots with your "nemesis" out of position or with the worst hand, you call bets and raises you shouldn't and, worst of all, you fail to pay adequate attention to others at the table.
It's okay to try to isolate someone who plays weakly post-flop but keep your ego out of any such efforts.
Avoid Coin Flips Post-Flop!
You don't want to risk a lot of chips on chancy events, particularly if you're a better tactician than your opponents.
Yeah, I know. Coin flips have a slightly positive EV (you're 50-50 on the draw and you're theoretically chopping the dead money) but the long-term expectation is pretty small and may even be negative because sometimes it's not a coin flip; sometimes you're dominated.
Lose one of these pots and it'll take a bunch of those baby +EV hands to make up for it.
If you're playing better post-flop than your opponents you don't want to be in chancy situations. You want to be in ones where your grasp of the game gives you the edge.
It's simple psychologically ... and even simpler game-theoretically.
How to Control Pot Size Post-Flop
This one is tricky; almost certainly trickier than you think. Controlling the pot size has two obvious elements:
- Keeping it small
- Making it grow
When you're on a draw you usually want to keep the pot small (adjusted, of course, for fold equity).
There are some straightforward gambits here, particularly when first to act such as blocking bets (initial bets that are likely to be less than your opponent would bet) or "timely" checks (made after "thinking" for some time) which can induce a check from an opponent.
You also will often want to keep the pot small when you've got top pair, even with a decent kicker. No, don't howl. I'm serious.
More money is lost with TPTK than any other holding (with the possible exception of bottom two). If the pot gets too big you're going to find yourself committed with the second best hand ... one of these thumpings a session and you're a losing player.
If you've flopped a big hand you want, of course, to grow the pot and you need to carefully judge what your opponent is likely to call. Generally something around 2/3 or 3/4 of the pot on the flop and turn works well to get an overwhelmed opponent pot-committed.
There is a tendency to get greedy and overbet the pot. Sometimes this will work but it is a finely tuned decision based on your read of the situation and your opponent.
Unless you can get him to think you're on a bluff you're unlikely to get a call. If your opponent folds the worst hand because you bet too much, you've made a significant mistake.
Pay Attention to Stack Sizes
I often sit there and watch the others at my table. I'm surprised at how often people make bets without taking into account what their opponents have in front of them.
There are some pretty simple principles operating here.
1. Don't try to bluff a small stack. If your opponent is down to some 10 or fewer BBs and has called to see the flop, he's unlikely to dump his hand to an all-in - unless he missed everything and then he'll dump it to a lesser bet anyway.
2. Similarly, be restrained with big stacks. They're feeling pretty good about life and will look you up with less than they might under other circumstances.
Some hands gain in value when facing a big stack such as small pairs and gutshot draws. When you hit one of these your hand is usually well disguised. Conversely, these hands lose value when facing small stacks.
Stack-size issues are important in tournament play where their role can get magnified at critical times like the money bubble and the final-table bubble.
Put Opponents on a Range of Hands
This is so obvious it shouldn't need to be discussed, but it does. Look around the table next time and notice how often someone will say something like "well, I put him a flush draw" or "he had to have 7s or at best 8s."
Sometimes this kind of close read is legit, but most of the time it's an error. Sometimes the error is caused by unimaginative thinking about your opponent but, alas, sometimes it is the result of watching too much TV.
An awful lot of players have been struck by some seemingly occult hand reading on the part of top players like Daniel Negreanu.
And it is very impressive when Daniel looks across the table and says, "okay, okay so you hit the 9 to go with your A; nice. I fold." --- And the pocket cam indeed shows us A-9.
Before you get sucked into trying to match these feats, here are some things to think about:
- These guys are good and they have had a lot of experience
- Their opponents are often either people they know well or amateurs whose games are fairly transparent.
- These miracle reads are on TV and the show you're watching is edited
In the real world not only is it very difficult to put someone on a hand it's usually the wrong thing to try to do.
Start with a range of hands that make sense given the action and then adjust your read as new information comes in. And, importantly, if you've started out best or flopped a made hand, each new card that hits the board will diminish its value.
Made hands can only lose value; drawing hands can't. Make sure you adjust your read with each successive board card.
This piece of post-flop subterfuge has gotten a good bit of attention lately; so much so that you probably want to be careful using it.
The play is designed to take advantage of a pre-flop raiser who likely missed the flop.
Suppose there's an early raise, 4xBB pre-flop. You call on the button with modest junk. The flop is a raggedy 9-3-5 rainbow.
The raiser makes a continuation bet, assuming (probably) that you didn't hit the flop either. You call, implying that either you did hit it or you called the initial raise with a pair.
If the raiser was playing a big ace, he's likely to check the turn. You make a bet of about 2/3 the pot. You will have a pretty high probability of taking down the pot. Your cards are irrelevant.
However, this play has become so routine that often the initial raiser will counter it by check-raising you.
The lesson to learn here is to be careful and get a sense of how tricky you think the initial raiser is before you try 'floating' him.
The Naked Raise and More
This ploy is a variation on the float play in that it takes advantage of an aggressive player who has likely missed the flop.
The principle behind it is the same one that motivates the float: most flops miss most hands. However, instead of flat-calling the pre-flop raiser's continuation bet, you raise.
The move will be either a bluff or a semi-bluff, depending on whether you caught a piece of the flop yourself.
The success of this gambit depends largely on the texture of the flop and your sense of the range of hands your opponent might have raised with pre-flop. Since the move is essentially a steal it's more likely to succeed on raggedy boards.
Interestingly, it won't matter all that much what your table image is here. If you're seen as loosey-goosey, your opponent is going to wonder about a possible two-pair on a flop like T♣ 8♦ 5♠
If you've established a tight, conservative image, flops like this invite thoughts about flopped sets.
There are also other boards that invite this move, including what you may think as unlikely ones like three suited cards or three mid-sized connectors. They work because your opponent has to worry about you having hit the flop hard.
How much to raise will be an issue and there are no unmessy ways to determine this. Factors such as your image, your opponent's tendencies, your positions, stack sizes and the like will come into play.
Generally, you want to use the smallest raise that looks like it will work since if you get called or re-popped you're almost certainly going to have to let the hand go.
The naked raise isn't a move for every hand. In fact, it should be employed judiciously.
- 10 Essential Hold'em Moves: The Semi-Bluff
- How to Make Pure Bluffs in Poker: Probes, Blocking and Floating
Pay Attention to Players on Your Left
They will often have tells about planned action. Numerous columns have been written about this yet, surprisingly, many players fail to use it after the flop - especially one that has been seen by several players.
The most costly outcome of this failure is to make a modest bet, say half the pot, and then look left and see that your opponent has already picked up a stack and is moving in for the kill.
Having to dump a half-pot bet into the ether once or twice a night can be expensive.
Value of Made Hand Diminishes with Each New Card
I know, this is obvious, but you'd be surprised how easy it is to forget it under pressure. I have no hard data on this but as we noted earlier I suspect that more money is lost in NLH with flops that give you either top-pair top-kicker or bottom-two than any other holdings.
They are highly vulnerable hands just because they're unlikely to improve whereas there are myriad holdings that can run them down - and when they do, it can hurt.
The problem is it's so easy to get emotionally attached to strong hands ("get married" is the tag line often heard). The solution is to remember that their strength diminishes with each new card that hits the board.
Make sure you think through each situation. Try to calculate the likelihood that your hand is still best or whether flop texture, betting, position and your opponent's likely hand range shout out warnings.
Learn How to Counter C-Bets, Traps and Floats
Most winning players know the standard ploys and use them advantageously. However, many have not dug sufficiently into the ways to counter them.
There are no algorithms here but some tricks that work are known. For example, you're reasonably sure your opponent's call on the flop is the first move in a float play. Instead of checking the turn, fire a second bullet or, even more aggressively, check-raise.
The "naked raise" move discussed above can also be used to neutralize the continuation bet. When you raise a c-bet from a typical player you are accomplishing several things.
First, you're shaping your image as a focused and aggressive player. You're telling the table that they're not always going to get away with a simple c-bet.
Second, you're introducing an element that will play an important part of the meta-game. It can get you a free card that a less-aggressive player won't.
It can also provide you with the opportunity to take control of a hand by removing the initiative.
The Sunk-Cost Fallacy and Post-Flop Play
Here are two "don't" situations you should be wary of post-flop - ie. don't cause yourself unneeded trouble.
1) Avoid Problem Situations, Problem Hands
Position and previous action are keys. If you want to make your life a living hell limp into pots early with hands like KJ and A9. And don't tell me they were suited!
These are problematical hands. They "look good" and have the potential for making big hands.
The problem lies in the disjunction between the probability of the big hand and that of catching a minor piece of the flop. The former doesn't occur often and, when it does, it typically won't win enough to cover the losses when you catch second best.
Here's an example we've all seen (or done!):
Mid-position limps with A♠ 9♠, gets raised 2.5x by the BB and (reluctantly) calls.
The flop is 9♣ 7♠ 2♣. BB bets half the pot. MP calls. Turn is 4♥. Another half-pot bet, call. River's a brick. Bet, crying call. BB shows JJ. Reload.
Let's dig into this situation a bit and see why it is creates such havoc.
The initial limp isn't awful. Sometimes we get away with it and see a cheap flop. The problem comes when we get raised pre-flop and call or when we hit a piece of the flop and end up calling several bets.
The Sunk-Cost Dilemma in Poker
Why do so many players make these calls? Well, one reason is that this situation invites what behavioral economists call the "sunk-cost effect" - that is, you get pulled into continuing with a line of action because you've already "sunk" costs into it.
It's analogous to the notion of being "pot committed." However, here we really aren't pot committed - certainly not pre-flop and usually not on the flop.
But the tug to go with a hand that has outs after we've already "sunk" valuables into it has a strong emotional pull, partly because we tend to overestimate the potential positive outcomes.
That is, once the slide into the sunk-cost dilemma starts, people caught up in it overestimate the potential gains.
Jackson and Dixon at USIC have looked specifically at how this effect plays itself out in Hold'em. And, for the curious, take a look at Dixon's research exploring the psychological links between choice, self-control and gambling.
These problems are ubiquitous in economic settings and finance and haven't been satisfactorily solved so don't be too surprised when you see poker players falling into them.
There are, alas, other difficulties with these hands. Action junkies get pulled in because when they hit, they produce large "reinforcements" (flop two pair with A-9 and you can do a lot of damage to A-K).
As we've discussed numerous times, large rewards have a significant impact on shaping our emotions and our approach to the game. But elementary game theory tells you that the play has negative EV.
Worse, these hands suffer from information poverty. You typically do not know where you are in them. Your opponent's range of hands is large, as it often is when you've limped into a pot.
In addition, you're acting first in these situations and this is never good. Save yourself a lot of heartache and cash and stay away from these hands.
Even the very best players have trouble with them. If you don't see a flop, you don't have to worry about post-flop play.
2) The Half-Bet from the Small Blind
This one has been hotly debated over the years. The standard argument for calling is that you're getting attractive odds, particularly if there are several limpers and a relatively passive player in the BB.
This isn't crazy but it needs to be filtered through some subtle screens. First:
- Appreciate that you don't really know your implied odds
If there are three callers and you're looking at T♠ 2♦, it's bloody unlikely you're getting the 9-1 you need (against random hands) to justify the call (assuming the BB doesn't pop it). Second:
- You'll be out of position all the way to the river
I don't know about you, but this rarely makes me comfortable. Third:
- Once you've made the call you're going to be caught up in the "sunk-cost" problem. And if you catch a piece of the flop it'll get even tougher to bail out of the hand
BTW, I chose the T♠ 2♦ example here for a reason. It is, of course, known as "Doyle's hand" or "the Brunson" since he won the WSOP Main Event with it twice and found himself psychologically committed to it (as noted, "reinforcement works").
If you saw a telecast of High Stakes Poker last year, it had a magic moment. Brunson picked up T-2, looked at it and dumped it in the muck while making the classic spitting sound people make to ward off evil.
Later he said that he can't begin to count the money he's lost playing that hand. Calling the half-bet with junk is a long-term risky play. Here's a simple rule:
- Don't call with any hand that you wouldn't play for a full bet in early position
Psychology is Everywhere in Post-Flop Play
In virtually every competitive enterprise aggression carries benefits. But there is more to it than just naked aggression. Virtually every social scientist can tell you that mindless attack ultimately succumbs to tactical counter thrusts.
Aggression gains its advantage not so much as a device for taking down individual pots but as part of the meta-game. If you become known as an aggressive player you will instil two emotive states in your opponents:
Every once in a while you'll have to fire not just one, not just two, but three bullets. Or play like you flopped a set when you've got air. Sometimes this will work, sometimes not.
Your variance will go up. If you can live with it, fine. Because when used appropriately your bottom line will improve.
Aggression is Situational
This is a corollary to the above. There are more than a few circumstances where your cards are essentially irrelevant. This may seem a bit extreme, but it often isn't.
A nit limps UTG and a weak, timid player calls from middle position. A raise is obligatory here. Your hand is irrelevant, only the size of the raise is important, and that decision will be based on your position and sense of the situation.
In short: focus and control your aggression.
Mindless belligerence isn't effective at a poker table. Mindful and unpredictable aggression is best.
Attack Good Players Post-Flop
Yup, that's what I said. Attack solid players more often than weak ones.
Standard advice is go after the fish, abuse the fearful, trap the maniacal, intimidate the timid. There's nothing wrong with this advice but, for the most part, you do not need to attack the piscine opponents.
They will make their mistakes without you having to prime them. If you're in the mood for a little throw-down, most of the situations that will prove profitable will come from timely attacks on strong players, particularly if they don't know you and don't have a read on you.
A good player is far more likely to lay down a decent hand than a weak one. You have a much better shot at bluffing a top-flight pro than a rank amateur.
The fish will look you up 'cause they don't want to be bluffed and they often just "want to see" what you're raising with. The solid players are more interested in protecting their chips.
Aim For Level 3 Play
Level 1: My hand
Level 2: My read on my opponents' hands
Level 3: My read on what my opponents think I'm doing.
Solid players know they must do this. Alas, when the pressure is on the tendency is to fall back to Level 2 and we stop with "what range of hands can I put him on?"
Often (more often than you can imagine) the real question to ask is, "what does he think I have." This is what's driving his action.
How Emotions Effect Post-Flop Play
Emotional states have a far greater impact on the "bottom line" than most players realize. High levels of emotional arousal are, for most of us, not good.
Arousal is a stressor; stressors elevate blood pressure, cause hormonal and neurotransmitter imbalances, compromise decision making and make us feel, in a word, shitty.
When you first begin to use some of the ploys we've discussed you're likely to find them less than satisfactory. They aren't going to work every time (duh!) and when they don't they're going to cost you. Mistakes become expensive.
Trying to fight what you suspect is a c-bet with a check-raise is going to cost you a chunk of change if your opponent hit the flop.
If this possibility concerns you, the best approach is to avoid ploys that call for excessive aggression. This will help keep variance down and your emotions in check.
Begin with ones that reduce the post-flop difficulties rather than those that increase them and introduce the others only gradually.
This approach will help at first, but it has an acknowledged down side: opponents will suss you out and you won't get much action when you have a hand.
Over time you should find yourself getting better at handling the larger swings. If not, there's usually a limit table waiting for you.
A Bit About Bankroll
You have to be sufficiently 'rolled to play poker effectively. Even after you've dealt with the emotional elements you still have to deal with the financial.
Playing more hands and playing them more aggressively means you need a bigger base or you're liable to 'get broke.'
Bankroll issues have been discussed to death although, alas, not always very insightfully. As Kristin (one of the more insight folks in our poker discussion group) notes, there are "playing 'rolls" and there are "life 'rolls."
For a pro, these are the same --- like the asset base of the green grocer on the corner. If you lose it, you're out of business or trying to raise another stake.
But for most of us they are different. Our bankroll is a much squishier thing because our game is actually funded from outside.
For the typical, online recreational player it goes like this: You buy in for XX dollars. That's your playing 'roll. If you lose it, you click on the deposit button and --- viola, you have a new 'roll. Live play is similar but the button is on the ATM.
How much you buy in for, how much the new stake is, how much you can lose without hurting yourself, whether to move up if you start accumulating cash in your account, when to pull out the profits --- these and a host of other questions are not ones that I, or anyone else, can answer.
Only you can answer them and you can only do so for yourself.
My counsel? I fall back on that old, hackneyed line: "Know thyself." Know the level of risk you can deal with psychologically, understand what your comfort level is, filter these issues through basic parameters like your age, your other responsibilities, your non-poker income.
Bankroll management is tricky and it is personal. And I am rarely happy when I read the advice others offer.
A Final Word on Post-Flop Play
So, that's it from this end. I appreciate that a lot of the strategy covered was more relevant to cash games than tournaments. I also recognize that most of it dealt with live play rather than online.
It also focused primarily on Hold 'em. Space was limited and, I suspect, so is your patience.
Virtually every piece of advice here on post-flop play is based on one or another psychological principles involving intimidation, aggression, ego, self-awareness, anxiety, fear, confusion, decision-making.
The more psychology you know, the better your poker game will become.
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