Poker Strategy: When NOT to Raise

Poker Strategy: When NOT to Raise 0001

As a beginner to poker, one of the fundamentals of the game you learn is this : if you have a big hand and feel you probably have the best of it, raise. It is a crucial principle to play by, but as you develop as a player, you will realise there are a number of spots in which it best to go against this advice. Our example by which we will illustrate this principle will be of interest; if you agree with the reasoning, you will see that even the highest rollers can make a costly mistake.

In any example you see, you should inspect whether or not at least three of the following four conditions is in place. If they are, it may well be best to slow down the play with a flat-call.

1) You have a big hand, but feel that a raise will signal this to your opponent. Thus, he will throw away the majority of the hands that you have beat.
2) There is some chance, given the board and the strength of the betting, that your very strong hand is beat. By raising, you could trap yourself with the losing hand for all your chips.
3) The chips stacks of you and your opponent are both deep. A typical scenario may be that a raise will commit 15-20% of your remaining stack. Thus, your opponent will be able to escape if he is beat, but you will probably be committed for all your chips if your opponent does have one of the hands to beat you.
4) The biggest danger in deciding not to raise is of course giving a free card. Thus, there must be little risk that a flat-call could let your opponent draw to a better hand. Ideally, you will feel strongly that your opponent has a made hand rather than a drawing hand, and your flat-call will balance out the slight chance that he has you beat.

Factors 1) and 2) combine to represent the main factor you should measure any time you are debating a raise- how many hands are there that you can beat and will call you, compared to the number of hands that have you beat (and will automatically call you!). If these danger hands outweigh the losing hands that your opponent will continue with, you should take the conservative approach of a call.

The disguise of a flat-call

There are of course other factors that favour a flat-call. By calling rather than raising, you convey a much wider range of hands to your opponent. This may entice him to bet a marginal hand for value on the river, or even better to continue a bluff. This is of course an opportunity you deny him by raising on the turn. This style of trapping, however, should be a weapon in your armoury rather than the whole battle-plan; in general, an aggressive game avoids free cards and gains you value, and so is the winning style.


The example that illustrates our principles actually comes from the ever-enjoyable High Stakes Poker TV programme. I found myself agreeing strongly with the passing comment of the commentator that Guy Laliberte's raise in this big hand was dangerous.

Laliberte held {10-Clubs}{9-Spades}, and along with Sammy Farha, called a bet on a flop of {q-Diamonds}{9-Spades}{8-Hearts} from Barry Greenstein, who had the lead with {a-Hearts}{q-Hearts}. His reward came as a {9-Clubs} on the turn gave him three of a kind, and he found the action on him after another bet from Greenstein had been followed by a big raise from Farha.(Farha was in fact bluffing with J7 for a gutshot straight draw, and representing the kind of hand that Laliberte himself held).

The chip stacks were at their most dangerous; with $80,000 in the middle now and stacks all of over $400,000, a raise from Laliberte would probably cost him all his chips if he was unlucky enough to find himself in the cooler hand that Farha was claiming with this raise. Thus, we can start by ticking off condition number 3) from above.

Why not to raise?

The turn had been a great one for Laliberte- he had most likely just come from behind to take the lead with a real cinch card . So why not raise?

Laliberte's hand had just entered the range of really strong hands. Crucially, however, it was right at the bottom of this range; any player holding the case nine probably had the kicker to have him beat, and there were of course straight and full-house possiblites on the board

If we look at conditions 1) and 2), we see they are perfectly satisfied. There are enough possible bigger hands to make Laliberte worry, but his raise would allow any hand not in the really strong range to escape. Morevover, a raise had no disguise value at all. To raise a check-raiser in a three way pot is super-strong, and would give both players an easy warning to not give Laliberte any value with inferior hands. In these circumstances, what it did was to allow Farha to discontinue his ill-timed bluff.

Could he be giving a free card?

It is never possible to completely eliminate the worry of a free card, but Laliberte's situation was as safe as it comes. On a rainbow turn, there is no danger of three of a kind being overtaken by a flush.

The 'safe three of a kind'

Laliberte actually held a type of hand well worth looking out for, one that we will call the safe three of a kind. It comes on this type of connected board, where either of the two straight cards- here a jack or a ten- would be safe for Laliberte. A jack would actually make him the straight, and a ten would be even better news. In fact, he denied himself the slim chance of the river bringing a true cinch card- a ten would make Laliberte a full house, whilst filling Farha's inside straight draw.

You will see the safe three of a kind with hands like 76 on a board of 8664, or KJ on a JJ109 board. The flexibility normally only offered by an Omaha hand means that you should encourage further action with a flat call.

Condition no 4) is therefore almost entirely satisfied. The one risk Laliberte's raise averted was that Greenstein would stay in the pot and catch a rivered queen. However, the danger of two outs is nowhere near strong enough to not want Greenstein in the pot. It was the value of his possible call, as well as a possible river bluff from Farha that Laliberte cost himself in this situation.

His mistake, however, could have been far more costly. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you hold the safe three of a kind but could be behind, slow down the action with a flat-call.

What do you think?

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