by Lou Krieger
Poker is a zero sum game. If there wasn’t any rake, the money won by players at the table would always equal what others lost. Because of that, poker doesn’t seem like a place where you’d expect to find many win-win opportunities.
Nevertheless, poker is full of situations where two adversaries can each make the right decision, even while realizing that one of them will win the hand while the other will lose. It sounds contradictory, but it’s not, and each player will achieve the best possible long-term results by making the right decision, regardless of who wins that particular hand.
Suppose we’re heads-up in a $10-$20 game, and I raise before the flop with A-K off suit. You call with Qh-Jh. Both blinds fold, and there’s $55 in the pot, including dead money from the two players who were in the blind. The flop is Ah-6h-3c. I’ve got top pair and you have a flush draw.
Since I’m first to act, and your most likely hands are a smaller pair, an ace with a weaker side card, or a flush draw, I’ll bet. I have to make you pay to see if the next card improves your hand. After all, if I check, you’ve just received the gift of infinite odds, along with an invitation to draw out on me. Since I have the best hand, and you have to improve in order to beat me—unless you bluff and I fold, and that’s not going to happen because the flop fit my hand so well— I have to make it as costly as possible for you to draw out on me.
In a fixed-limit hold’em game, I cannot bet enough to make it too costly for you to draw to your hand. I can only bet the current limit, which, in this case, is ten dollars. That’s not much of a disincentive, all things considered, but it beats giving you a free shot at drawing out on me. If I bet ten dollars into a $55 dollar pot, it will cost you ten dollars to call. When you add my ten dollar bet to the money already in the pot, you are getting $65-to-$10 or 6.5-to-1 on your money. The odds against completing a flush draw from the flop to the river are only 1.86-to-1 against you.
The pot’s 6.5-to-1 offering far exceeds the odds of 1.86- to-1 against making your hand. If you could repeat this situation thousands of times, it would pay for you to draw because of that favorable relationship.
If I checked, and gave you a free chance to draw out on me, you’d always keep playing, because you’d have absolutely nothing to lose, and the entire pot to win.
On the other hand, if we were playing no-limit hold’em, I could bet something like $200 into that $55 dollar pot. Now it would cost you $200 to win the $255 in the pot and you’d be getting only 1.275-to-1 on your money. Although the odds against making your hand are still 1.86- to-1 against you, the odds against making your hand now exceed the payoff offered by the pot, and it’s a long-term money loser to draw to this flush.
Poker can be a funny game; one where both players can make the right decision. It’s not about winning or losing pots that matters. What matters most is creating situations where the money offered by the pot more than offsets the odds against making your hand. If you can do that, you’ll win in the long run.
When you think about poker in terms of those oft-quoted dueling aphorisms, in poker, it’s usually much more a case of “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” than, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”
Visit Lou Krieger online at www.loukrieger.com, where you can read his blog, and check out all of his books. Write directly to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.