by Barbara Connors
Everybody wants to be the hero, even in poker. And in this game, the only thing more heroic and attention-grabbing than successfully getting away with a bluff is successfully foiling one. This is what’s known as the hero call. It’s an extraordinary call made on the river, facing a large bet and holding a weak hand—maybe nothing more than ace-high—when math and common sense are telling you to fold but you go ahead and make the call anyway. And win.
Hero calls aren’t about equity or pot odds. It’s a feel play, not a math play. Some might say a hero call is about playing your hunch, listening to the gut feeling that tells you, “He doesn’t have it.” But more than anything, to be the hero you must know your villain. A winning hero call is about having a strong and very specific read on your opponent. That means taking into account all the information you possibly can about this particular player in this particular situation.
Starting with the basics—what type of player is he? Presumably, if you think your opponent is capable of bluffing then he should be at least somewhat aggressive. But what range of hands does your villain raise with preflop? Continuation-bet with? What does it say about the villain’s hand when he overbets the pot by shoving on the river? What story is he telling with his bets, and is that story consistent? If you want to make a good hero call—as opposed using the term “hero call” as just another excuse to call off your chips on a hunch—you must know your opponent’s betting patterns. The kind of knowledge that only comes with watching him play over a period of time.
It doesn’t stop there. How does your opponent see you? Have you been playing tight? Has he seen you make a big laydown recently? Obviously the nittier he’s seen you play and the more tough folds he’s seen you make, the more liable he is to be betting at you with air. A good hero call is an advanced play, so to execute it well you need to think at an advanced level. What does he think I have? What does he think I think he has? The higher the stakes, the more important it becomes to get inside your opponent’s head. Then there are the usual factors you should always take into consideration. Position, if there are any other players in the hand, the texture of the board, the texture of the game, and you can never get away from pot odds. The larger and more lucrative the pot, the more you should be willing to consider that hero call.
But, on balance, attempts to hero-call are more likely to end with a loss. Everybody wants to be Superman, and sooner or later all poker players have a turn at thinking they’re Superman, but only a few elite players can fly. Too often, an attempted hero call is really just a poor excuse to donk off chips in frustration, to keep playing loose, or to “make sure.” Nothing heroic about that. No matter how many great examples you’ve heard about awe-inspiring hero calls, keep in mind that nobody brags about the hero calls that lost. And there are plenty of those.
If you’re going to hero-call, do it because you have a specific read that tells you this opponent doesn’t have what he’s representing. If this player never fails to bet on the flop when he has something, but this time he checked the flop, and you figure the turn and river cards didn’t help him, that’s a reason for a hero call. If his river bet seems to come out of nowhere and doesn’t match how he was playing the hand before, that’s a reason for a hero call. But if you don’t have a clear reason to make that call, the real heroic play is to fold.
Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.