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Playing Draws, part 1

11/10/2018 by Steve Blay
Hand Analysis

I’m going to be presenting an entire series on playing draws correctly, because as a poker coach, it’s the #1 aspect of post-flop play that I see botched time and time again. By the end of this series, you should feel confident playing your draws in a multitude of situations.

Before I get into specific draws, and the different techniques for playing them from in and out of position, I want to talk about draws in general, and our overall goals when we play our draws aggressively. Because that’s usually the crux of the matter. When we flop the nut flush draw, we’re usually not folding. So the only question becomes, are we going to play passively (calling or check/calling and hope to make our draw) or aggressively (raising or check-raising).

In future installments of this series, I’m going to cover in detail which draws, in my opinion, should be played passively, and which should be played aggressively. But before we can do that, we need to understand what our goals are if we’re going to play a draw aggressively in the first place.

It’s important to understand that the goal of playing a draw aggressively is always to win the pot right then. With very few exceptions. Advanced players will sometimes be thinking ahead to future streets, and need some draws in their range on the turn to keep their range balanced. Balancing a betting range over multiple streets is beyond the scope of this document. Putting that aside, I’m sticking with this principle: draws are always happiest when the hand ends right then.

You might still object to this statement. “But what if I have a straight-flush draw? I’m usually a favorite to win, why would I want to end the hand?”

Let me reply to that by asking you a question back. Suppose your straight-flush draw is a 60% favorite to win against your opponent’s hand. Would you rather win the pot 60% of the time, or 100% of the time? You’re always better off when your opponent folds.

If you’re still not convinced, let’s take an example. You hold T7 in a tournament, and the flop is 982, giving you a straight-flush draw and an overcard. Your opponent is holding A9, for top pair and a backdoor flush draw. Using the Advanced Poker Training Odds Tool, we can see that with 18 outs to beat him, you’re a 60% favorite to win.

Now, suppose there are 10,000 chips in the pot. You also have 10,000 left in your stack and you bet it all. Do you want your opponent to call or fold? Remember, you’re a 60% favorite.

The answer is, you’d rather he fold. When he folds, you win the entire 10,000 in the pot, unopposed. When he calls, the pot will be 30,000 chips, and you’ll win 60% of the time. That yields you 18,000 in the long run, but you spent 10,000 to get it – so you only net 8,000 chips, as opposed to 10,000 when he folded.

So, with only a few rare exceptions, you want your opponent to fold when you’re semi-bluffing. That leads to the following maxim: When you’re semi-bluffing, choose the betting line that will maximize your fold equity.

To put it another way: When you’re semi-bluffing, take the course of action that will allow YOU to make the all-in bet. This is especially important in tournaments, when stacks are often shallower, and it’s not unusual for stacks to go in on the flop.

I cover this subject in some detail starting on page 54 of my book with Qui Nguyen, From Vietnam To Vegas: How I Won the WSOP Main Event. This is the best book you’ll ever read on aggressive tournament play.

I’ll take one example right out of the book. Suppose it’s the WSOP Main Event and you’re Qui Nguyen. There is $5,000,000 in the pot and you have $25,000,000 left in your stack. Your opponent has you covered. You are on a monster draw, and you are out of position against the pre-flop raiser. How do you play it? Here are 3 possibilities:

  1. Strategy #1 (wrong): You bet $5,000,000. Your opponent raises to $15,000,000. You go all-in for $25,000,000. Unfortunately, your all-in is not big enough, and your opponent is compelled to call with almost all of his hands, due to the pot odds being offered.
  2. Strategy #2 (wrong): You decide to go for a check-raise. Your opponent bets $4,000,000. You check raise to $12,000,000. Now your opponent may call or re-raise all-in. Neither result is ideal for you.
  3. Strategy #3 (right): You bet $2,500,000, half the pot. You opponent raises to $7,500,000. You go all-in for $25,000,000. Now your opponent has a difficult decision facing such a large bet, and will fold all but his strongest hands.

All other things being equal, Strategy #3, the one that maximizes your fold equity, is going to be the most profitable play.

But again, keep in mind that this is assuming you want to play this draw aggressively in the first place! Some draws are meant to be played that way. Some are meant to be played more passively. In the next installment of this series, we’ll talk in detail about how you can tell them apart. Stay tuned!