I heard a great story recently in a hand history discussion group. One of our members, Bren, posted a hand where he raised preflop in early position with pocket 5s, got a 7-4-5 flop with two of a suit, and bet out. A late-position player min-raised him, and he called, setting a trap for the turn. The turn was an off-suit deuce. He checked, the villain bet 2/3 pot, and Bren check/shoved for 4x the bet with his set.
The villain called with pocket 8s. Bren wondered (in more words), “What was he thinking?”
Benton, the moderator and coach at the forum, said some technical things about the hand, but his key point was, “They put you on a hand they can beat, and call.”
They put you on a hand they can beat, and call.
Never were truer words spoken about most poker games. Listen to the table chatter at live poker games. Listen to the poker vloggers on YouTube discuss their rationale for being involved in hands. Sometimes there is deep analysis of why the call makes sense. Sometimes it’s just, “Folding is not fun.” The latter explanation is more realistic.
You see, as “thinking” poker players, we’re supposed to have reasons and explanations for why we do the things we do. The fun-loving part of our brains (let’s whimsically call it the funnibellum) must find clever ways of talking our rational side into doing the fun thing.
Early in the evolution of “thinking” poker players, the funnibellum had a brilliant idea—“I’ll pick a hand we beat, find a perfectly rational explanation for why the villain can have that hand, then pass that narrative to the boring rational, fold-happy side of the brain. It’ll never know what hit it.”
Classic example—you raise preflop with AQ, get one caller. Flop comes Q-9-4. You bet three streets and get called all three times. When you turn over the top-pair-top-kicker (TPTK), your opponent shows you T9 for the second pair. What do they say? “I put you on AK.”
Of course they did; because if they put you on AQ or KQ or KK then they have to fold at some point. Now, this sets aside the point that they shouldn’t be putting you on one specific hand anyway. But the funnibellum got them mono-focused on the one obvious hand they could beat. So they called.
And somewhere the funnibellum was giggling (it cares little about your chip stack going up or down, as long as it keeps changing).
USING THIS INFORMATION
Now we know our opponents are likely to think of a hand they can beat, then call, what should we do?
- Bluff less
- Make more thin-value bets
If the villain’s funnibellum is going to find excuses to call, bluff rarely. Don’t try to bet three streets with an unpaired ace-king; they’re going to put you on exactly that hand. An unpaired ace-king is the favorite target of every bluff-catching funnibellum in the human race.
This is difficult advice to follow because, well, you have a funnibellum too. And it’s saying to your rational poker brain, “There’s no way he can call that third barrel, and then we’ll get a huge rush from winning a big pot with ace high.” Do not listen to your funnibellum—no—not when it becomes clear that the villain is calling you down, give up at some point. It’s not as much fun, but it will keep many more chips in your stack.
When you are against opponents with active funnibellums (i.e. most of them), don’t try tricky bluffs. They dropped a 4x check-raise on the turn, which should have screamed massive value to their opponent. The other guy sniffed at that and called with his pocket 8’s. No doubt he put Bren on a flush draw or ace-king. Because he could beat a flush draw and ace-king.
THIN-VALUE BET MORE
This is the good news because the right strategy and “fun” align here. If your opponent is going to put you on a hand that they beat and call, then give them more chances to call with worse hands.
Suppose you bet your TPTK on the flop and turn, and get called by one opponent. The river is a total brick and your opponent checks. Your conservative, value-oriented, danger-aware brain says, “What worse hand can possibly call on the river? If we bet and get called, we’re never winning. And OMG what if we get check-raised?! Please check it down.” This is where you should listen to your funnibellum, because it’s actually right this time. Betting is more fun than checking. Betting and watching your opponent freeze and go into the tank is even more fun.
The truth is your opponent’s rational brain might not call with a worse hand. But fortunately (for you) your opponent’s funnibellum is whispering that you probably have AK, which is the nut-no-pair. “Our pocket eights are good here plenty often enough,” it whispers. Finally, your opponent tosses in the call, and sure enough, you have the best hand.
The point is, just because your rational brain wouldn’t call with a specific hand, doesn’t mean your opponent won’t call with that hand. Give them the chance to make a mistake you wouldn’t make. If they fold, no harm done, except now the villain’s funnibellum is shouting to them, “If you’d called, we could’ve seen what they had!” Setting up a call for next time. If they check/raise—meh, you fold. It rarely happens, and when it does, you’re beaten always. But there’s a huge range of hands between “Too awful to even consider calling” and “Easy check/raise for value,” where they struggle internally, and ultimately the funnibellum wins; they put you on a hand they can beat, and call.
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. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.