You hear and see it all the time: poker players jumping into pots with bad—sometimes awful—hands, “because I’m getting such a good price.” It’s a 2/5 no-limit hold’em game, and somebody in early position makes it 15. They get three callers, and now the big blind says, “Well for this price, I’d call with a Costco membership card and a Wendy’s gift card.” And toss their 10 chips in with 7-5-offsuit, or ten-four-suited, or some equivalent trashy hand.
Now, I’ve been advising against that for as long as I can remember. “But Lee, it’s just a lottery ticket. Most of the time I whiff the flop, and fold. But sometimes I smash the flop, crack a big hand, and get paid big.” Sadly, this is unclear thinking. Lottery tickets work as follows: they don’t hit, unless they do. If they don’t hit, you toss ‘em in the trash. If they do hit, you take them down to the corner store and collect your money. It’s a binary outcome.
That’s not how poker works. Sure, if you completely whiff the flop, then you fold, and your preflop investment is the extent of your losses. But what if you flop middle pair? Do you bet? Do you call a bet? If you call a bet, and then fold on the next street, you’ve wasted more money. But even this is not the worst-case scenario.
The worst-case scenario is when you smash the flop, or think you have.
Let’s consider the scenario above where there’s a raise in early position, three callers, and you call in the big blind with 6d3d. Let’s further suppose the stacks are all about 200 BBs—1000 chips. Somehow you flop a flush draw, there’s a small bet, you and two others call. The turn is a glorious diamond giving you a flush. But, to be clear, a six-high flush. If a whole lot of chips—perhaps stacks—go in the middle, how do you think your six-high flush is doing? I mean, if you were going to fold here, why did you call in the first place? As we say in the Blue Ridge Mountains, “You gotta dance with the girl what brung ya.” You brought 63s to this dance, now you gotta dance with her.
But you know what, you don’t need to take my word for it. Take it from a guy who makes his living playing in big poker games in Las Vegas. His name is Benton, and he runs the hand history group in which I hang out.
See, I had been watching a vlog from a game at the Bellagio. They were playing 10/20/40, with a 20 ante from the big blind. So, there was 90 dead in the pot before cards were dealt. That’s the same amount of dead money as a 30/60 game, so I thought the opening raises should be in the 180 range (3x the big blind), maybe a bit bigger. But what I saw on the vlog was people opening to 120 or 140. I asked about it in the hand history group.
Benton replied: “I play this game and opens range from 100 to 140. I mostly use 140, some people use 120. Realistically it should be 180 but the reason we don’t go that large is we want prices to be a little more attractive to the weaker players. They will make big mistakes later in the hand by making this ‘small’ mistake preflop.”
Go back and re-read what Benton wrote. I sure read it more than once. And then I posted, “But isn't this living proof of my argument that seeing ‘cheap’ flops with bad hands is playing right into the hands of the good players?"
Benton’s reply: “Bingo. Also note the tiny down-bets on the flop. Keeps their trash in because they think they are getting a good price.”
If you’re not familiar with the term “down-bet,” it’s relatively new vocabulary in the poker world. In the “older” days of no-limit hold’em—let’s say 5-10 years ago—it was common for cash game players to bet a significant percentage of the pot on the flop. 60–75% of the pot was a common sizing.
These days, you frequently see much smaller bets—30-40% of the pot. This sizing has come to be known as a “down-bet” because it’s so much smaller than what was common.
There are theoretical reasons for down-bets, but what Benton is describing is purely exploitive. Just like the weak players paid relatively little to see a flop with a bad hand, they’re now paying a small price to continue with it. Compounding the mistake they already made, and setting themselves up for bigger, more expensive, mistakes on later streets.
One other thing: if there are no raises in front preflop, and you complete the small blind with a piece of trash hand—well, you’re committing the same sin, but with no encouragement from Benton and his fellow crushers. That said, they’ll be happy to take your money as your mistakes pile up later in the hand.
Or, you could just refuse to play bad hands, even when they’re cheap. If anybody asks at the table, just smile and refuse to answer (lessons at the table are always next Tuesday). If your poker buddies ask over a beer, tell them you can’t afford to see cheap flops with bad hands—they’re too expensive.
Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. Has never been a professional poker player. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.