What is the flop?
The “flop” refers to the three cards dealt face up, after the first round when each player makes their play. These are the first community cards dealt in the round—cards which all the players can use to make their best hand. During the pre-flop stage of each round, players are weighing up the relative strength of their hands and positions in the order against those of their opponents.
Position in playing order
Unlike in the first round, it is the player in the small blind position who acts first after the flop and the player in the dealer position (also known as the player with the “button”) who acts last. Therefore, it is the small blind that is in the weakest position in the playing order and the dealer that is in the strongest position.
Remember the rule of relative strength in position – the earlier in the order you are, the stronger your hand ought to be, in order to merit calling or raising.
If you’re later in the order, you may (though it’s by no means certain) have gained more confidence that a typically mediocre hand is worth investing in for that particular round.
But how do you know whether it is worth investing in a hand for that particular round? This is an essential (if not the essential question) of poker. To answer it, you need to read the flop.
Reading the flop
The first question you will ask yourself after seeing the flop is, “Does it help me?” In other words, do any of the community cards improve your hand? For the purposes of the below example, let’s assume that you are on the button (therefore playing last), there was no pre-flop raise and all the other players checked to you on this round.
Let’s imagine that you called the flop with Queen King and the flop came out King Nine Seven. Now, your two Kings would give you top pair with a reasonably strong kicker. This flop would appear to help you.
However, the next question you need to ask yourself is, “Has the flop helped my opponents?” For instance, one of your opponents may have checked pocket Sevens or pocket Nines before the flop, in which case they’d now have a triple, beating your pair of Kings.
Let’s also imagine your Queen King were both hearts and the flop came out all diamonds. While you still have top pair, the chances that someone is on a flush draw are high (more so the greater the number of players in the hand). If your opponent makes their flush, they will also beat your pair of Kings. So what do you do?
Acting after the flop
You’re in a tough position. You have a reasonably strong hand given your playing position, but you still need to consider very carefully before making your next move. What you do next could determine whether you win or lose the hand.
The lack of a pre-flop raise suggests that no one had Ace King or pocket Kings in their hole cards. This is obviously just an assumption based on orthodox playing behavior, but unless you know a particular player’s playing style incredibly well, that’s really all you have to base your actions on.
Now, there’s also the chance that someone has triple Sevens or Nines and you’re also concerned about someone on a Diamond flush draw. So how do you work out whether it makes sense to check or raise the pot?
Recall the plays up to now
First, remember that no one raised to you on this round. If a player had triple Sevens or Nines with a Diamond flush draw clearly on the cards, they should (although they might not) play to scare off any opponents chasing the flush. It’s therefore probably reasonable to assume that there isn’t a triple out there. In that case, you’re really just worried about the Diamond flush draw or even the chance that an opponent has made the flush and is slow playing, hoping you’ll play into it.
You could check and get a free card. Who knows, you might get a King giving you a triple and giving you a very good chance of having the strongest hand. But of course, so will your opponent. While the chances of you hitting another King are pretty low, your opponent has got a pretty high chance of making their Diamond flush.
An approximate but easy way to think of it is that a quarter of the deck is Diamonds, so with two cards left to come, there’s a fairly high chance that a diamond will come out. If they were to hit their flush, you would have given them a free chance to beat your pair of Kings.
On the other hand, if you raise, there’s a chance that you might be raising against an existing flush. The fact is you don’t know and the only way to gain any information about your opponents’ hand is to test it by raising. If one or more opponents called, you could infer that they either have the flush or are on a draw.
If you decide to raise, think carefully about how much you raise. It needs to be enough that it might scare off someone on a flush draw. In other words, that would be too expensive for them to risk seeing the next card. But you don’t want to stake so much that you’re pot committed – i.e. it needs to be a play you can walk away from if you’re re-raised or raised on the next card.
Reading your opponents
Keep in mind any knowledge you have about your opponents’ playing style. For instance, if your opponent is known to be reckless, don’t expect them to play an orthodox hand now. It may not be worth raising into a player whose play you can’t predict with such a marginal hand.
Importantly, expect better, more-experienced players to play more conventionally. Newer players tend to play less logically and it can sometimes lead to their holding unexpected hands right when you least want them to!
Remember, there’s no shame in playing it safe as long as you make the most of the profitable opportunities when they arise!