In hold’em, when you suspect an opponent might be bluffing, what’s the lowest hand with which you can call? In the big blind against a suspected blind steal, it may not be as much as you think.
In a $20-$40 hold’em game in Las Vegas recently, I was in the big blind. An extremely aggressive player sat two seats to my right. Everyone around the table folded to the aggressive player on the button, who made the expected raise to $40. The small blind folded. The next decision was up to me.
Much has been written about what it takes to call (or raise with) in this spot. When facing a suspected blind steal, it’s sometimes necessary to defend your blind, albeit selectively — or you’ll be identified as an easy target and get run over by aggressive players. Something told me the player raising my big blind didn’t really have much of a hand. In fact, the way that he thrust his chips forcefully into the pot convinced me that I wouldn’t need much of a hand to outplay him after the flop. I called.
The flop came rags, 8c 5h 3d. Although I didn’t have a pair, I considered tokyoslot88 betting-out and going for a steal. But I still wasn’t convinced that my opponent didn’t have a real hand. Before I could rap the table signaling my intent to check, the aggressive player reached quickly for his chips. From the way that he seemed to be so eager to bet, I was becoming increasingly more confident in what my first instinct had told me — that he was bluffing.
Then and there, I made a decision based purely on instinct. Barring unforeseen developments, I was going to play my hand all the way to the river. It appeared my opponent was aggressive enough to blast away at the pot all the way to the end in a desperate attempt to recover what he already had invested. If my assessment was correct, I didn’t want him going anywhere. Indeed, I wanted him to continue bluffing, with me hemming and hawing, playing the role of the hayseed tourist as though I was contemplating seriously whether or not to call his bet.
The turn paired the board. This presented some wonderful options for me. In standard game situations, when the board pairs, a bet or check-raise can be a very powerful play (even without three of a kind). However, I suspected my opponent was simply going to continue shoveling his money into the pot, which I would gratuitously accept — if my presumptions proved to be correct. He bet and I called.
The river was a blank.
I checked again, and sat completely still. I didn’t want to give my opponent any indication that I was fully prepared to call. Again, I wanted him to bet. Many players in this spot who are head-up against an opponent who is smooth-calling all the way to the river simply will check behind and reveal a hand. A bet, especially a forceful one coming from a very aggressive player, just screams, “I’m bluffing!” It’s the final act of desperation. The player bet and I called.
“I missed,” the player sadly announced as he turned up Q-10.
Suddenly, I felt like a proud peacock, swelling with pride. “King high,” I said, revealing K-9, which seemed to be a stunningly weak hand with which to be calling in a muscle game like $20-$40 hold’em. The other players at the table were in disbelief. The modest-sized pot was pushed to me. More important than the money won was the table image that I had established for the remainder of the session. The success of my bizarre play accomplished two things: First, the aggressive player on my right now would be neutralized and no longer would threaten to steal my blinds. Second, I had telegraphed mixed messages to the other players — that I was either a complete baffling idiot or a very solid player who shouldn’t be messed with, which — although contradictory — isn’t a bad image to have at any poker table.
Of course, my instincts just as easily could have been incorrect. Critics may even suggest that I was lucky. My decision to call down a pure bluff with K-9 would have been atrocious had I guessed wrong and the player shown me a real hand. Worse, he could have shown me a weak hand (such as a small pair or ace high), and I would have been forced to concede the pot and face embarrassment.
My blind defense raised interesting questions. Afterwards, I was eager to discover the long-term value (if any) of calling suspected steal attempts with relatively weak hands, based purely on mathematical principles. In other words, with how LOW a hand could I have called with in the previous scenario to ensure positive expectation? Could I have called my opponent down with any king high? What about a hand such as Q-J? Or, Q-2? What about J-10? As you are about to discover, hands that are playable in this spot (under the previous assumption, that the opponent is bluffing) may be surprising.
The following examples assume two things: (1) You are playing against a very aggressive opponent, and (2) The player must be capable of raising initially and running a bluff with any two cards. Otherwise, none of this applies. These conclusions do not apply when facing typical players, so-called “tourists,” or tight players. The recommendations apply only when playing against semi-sophisticated players and maniacs who are aggressive enough to consistently blast away at the pot. Since a fair number of middle-limit hold’em games around the country are comprised of players fitting this description precisely, the following recommendations are hardly inconsequential. In fact, calling down a suspected blind steal may be quite profitable if certain guidelines are examined carefully and selectively applied.
I consulted with J.P. Massar, who made the final table at the 1999 Tournament of Champions and has won and placed high in a number major events. Massar has as solid math credentials as any poker player I know. Massar noted that the calling requirements on the turn are stricter than those on the river (which is no surprise, since you will have to call two big bets to get a showdown). Therefore, Massar had to construct his examples in terms of calling on the turn, assuming a call on the river, instead of just in terms of a call on the river. Given the anecdote above, Massar reached some interesting conclusions:
The effective odds of calling a bet on the turn (assuming that my opponent will bet and I will call on the river 100 percent of the time) are $80 to win what’s in the pot now — which is $170, plus my opponent’s bet on the river of $40, or $210 total. The math says that one needs to win at least 28 percent of the time at the showdown to make a profit.
Suppose that the board on the turn is 8-5-3-5 (rainbow). Computer analysis shows that J-9 is enough of a hand to win at least 28 percent of the time!
Instead, suppose that the board on the turn is Q-8-7-3 (rainbow). Now, analysis shows that K-2 (that is, any king high) is good enough.
Suppose that my opponent is not a total maniac and will raise only initially with the best 70 percent of his hands instead of every single one. How does this affect the quality of hand that you need to make the call? In the 8-5-3-5 example, one needs a Q-7 (as opposed to J-9) to call him down. In the later Q-8-7-3 example, a K-9 (as opposed to any K) is good enough.
Note once again that these results are valid only when using the assumptions listed above. Furthermore, any particular board may present flush possibilities; the examples above use boards with no flushes possible on the river. If flushes are possible and you cannot make a flush, the quality of hand with which you need to call down will go up. Also, there are hands such as low straight draws with which it would be correct to call the turn but not the river if you miss.
Finally, I don’t claim that calling down with hands at least as good as the threshold hands given above is always the most profitable play, only that it is “profitable.” Betting or check-raising the turn or the river with some of the hands might turn out to be a better play than simply check-calling.
When it comes to giving or taking poker advice, every situation is unique. There is certainly no such thing as a situation in which it is 100 percent correct to make a “blind defense.” In most cases, when the bet is raised before the flop, it’s proper to give up the blind and wait for a better opportunity later, since you are placing money at risk and will be out of position throughout the hand.
But as you can see from my K-9 story, and probably from your own playing experience, you should be able to recognize the signs of a blind steal. It’s easy to run a bluff. It takes quite a bit more sophistication to call down a bluff and make the correct decision, based on good instincts combined with sound mathematical principles.