We are led to believe by TV commentators that knowing when to fold because their opponent is holding the nuts is some innate ability that only a few people possess. There are also superstitious players out there that think others can “read souls.” This is all a bunch of hogwash.
Knowing when to fold in poker is about understanding expected value (EV). Over the long term, if calling or raising loses more money than folding does, then the correct play is to muck your hand.
As you study and learn more and more about ranges you will know that making correct folds does not take clairvoyance. All it takes is observation and a good perception of how your opponent’s ranges and actions tell a story. Once you factor in the table dynamic, you can think more accurately decide if folding is the best action. While learning these advanced concepts, you can follow a few rules and avoid a few common pitfalls where people commonly make -EV decisions.
Here are 6 common scenarios to look out for.
1. Your Preflop Hand Is Trash
This may seem obvious to poker players with a lot of experience. However, I feel it is worth including in this list since I still see people showing up with junk hands that are glaringly unprofitable to play.
Stick to a Solid Opening Range
A good rule of thumb is that if you are not in late position (seated on the Cutoff or later) then you should probably be sticking to a fairly tight opening range. In fact, most players would see a significant uptick in their win-rate if they stuck to the following range or even slightly tighter when seated in early or middle position:
By sticking to hands that are weighted heavily on the high card and suited end of the spectrum, post-flop decisions will become a lot more straightforward. It’s when you start adding in trash like KTo to a non-stealing range that you get in big trouble way too often.
Stop Calling 3-Bets with Junk
You should have a very selective range for calling an opponent’s 3-bet. In fact, the less post-flop skill you have the tighter you should be. Your 3-bet flatting range might look something like this:
This range includes hands that can flop monster hands and draws and avoid a lot of reverse implied odds situations. In other words, you will find yourself being dominated a lot less by calling with a disciplined range like this. Once you gain experience and start mixing in some 4-bet bluffs, you will become a pain in the butt to 3-bet against.
Stop Flat-Calling Rubbish in the Blinds
Calling in the blinds violates all three of my poker fundamentals. Once the flop comes down you will be out of position without initiative and unable to easily apply pressure to your opponent.
It takes a ton of skill to be able to profit from flat-calling in the blinds with a wide range. You need to understand your opponent and have some sort of post-flop plan before you click that call button. For most players, you are much better off sticking to a 3-bet or fold mentality when seated in the blinds. This is especially true in the small blind.
2. You Are Priced out of Your Draw
Sorry, I know this one seems obvious. But I still see this constantly happening on my tables even today.
The issue isn’t that people don’t know about the direct odds of a draw. It’s that they are overly optimistic when it comes to implied odds. As a result, they consistently fall victim to reverse implied odds.
Considering Reverse Implied Odds
Reverse implied odds means that you make a call attempting to hit one of your “outs” but when you do, it either makes your opponent an even better hand at the same time or he or she may have already had a better hand to begin with. Think paired boards.
Here are a few examples of holdings that are susceptible to reverse implied odds:
- Dummy end straights
- Low flush draws
- Flush or straight draws on paired boards
- Straight draws on two-tone boards
Before deciding whether to call a raise with your draw, you need to check to see if any of your outs are dirty. In other words, how many of the potential out cards might make your opponent a better hand.
For example, you hold an open-ended straight draw on a two-tone flop. Normally, you would have 8 outs. However, in this case, 2 of the outs will complete a flush and potentially complete a better draw for your opponents. Therefore, you only have 6 “clean” outs.
Another thing that can drastically reduce your odds is your position.
Holding a Draw When You Don’t Close the Action
Even if you have a good price and hold a hand with a lot of “non-dirty” implied odds, if you face a raise or reraise and are not closing the action, the profitability of making a call with a drawing hand goes way down in value. This is because the player or players behind you can put in another raise and force you to fold away your investment in the pot.
A good rule of thumb is to consider at your opponent who has yet to act behind you. If they are passive or a bad player, then you should tend to make the implied odds call. If they are a reg (especially an aggressive one) then just err on the side of folding without an enormously good price.
The main theme here is that when figuring out your odds and implied odds make sure you are not overplaying your equity. Often, you may find that your situation is not as good as it appears to be at first glance and maybe you should just fold.
3. You Hold Less Than the Nuts and Your Opponent Is Ultra-Tight
If your opponent’s range is unbalanced toward value and you hold a marginal hand, the vast majority of the time you should probably just pitch it and move on.
Just keep in mind that your implied odds will also generally be through the roof versus these players so you can fudge your requirements with draws against them. This is especially true with draws that would be really well-disguised were you to complete it.
Moral of the story: Made hands go down in value while draws go up in value in situations where you are up against a strong range.
For example, take a T32 rainbow board. Let’s say you c-bet and get raised by a tight nitty player in the blinds with a fold to c-bet of 80% and a raise flop c-bet of 3%. Let’s consider which parts of your range you should continue with and which you should fold.
Let’s say you are in the Cutoff and this was your opening range:
Now, let’s say this was your continuation bet range:
Which hands should you continue with against an ultra-tight opponent? Of course, you will want to not fold your very strongest hands like 22, 33, and TT. But let’s see what your equity is in this spot with all of your top pair and overpair hands that bet.
Oops. It looks like you are crushed with just about every hand in your range. In fact, only AA is profitable to continue with in this spot.
Of course, I was generous in the range I gave our opponent and included QQ+ in his range that he may have slowplayed pre-flop. And, there’s no guarantee of that. It is likely that a really tight player will always 3-bet at least KK and AA.
Now, let’s give our opponent the same range and look at how the gutshot straight draws in your range fair.
In this case, having nothing but an inside straight draw actually gives you more equity than your non-nut made hands versus a tight player. Of course, 22% equity isn’t something to write home about.
However, if you actually make your hand on the turn or river it will be very disguised. You are almost certain to get the rest of your opponent’s stack. Therefore, due to implied odds, you should always call a normal-sized raise with this part of your range.
Moral of the story: If you have less than 2-pair on the flop or hold a high implied odds hand, you should just fold versus the raise of an ultra-tight player.
Now that we know about when to fold against a tight player, what if you have the same type of image? Does this affect your folding strategy? Let’s take a look.
4. You Have a Tight Image
This is getting a little next level. But imagine you have sat down at a table and played a few revolutions. The poker gods have not been kind and you have been dealt absolute rubbish for 3 hours. Your VPIP is more than half what it normally is and you quickly realize that you look like a complete rock.
Let’s say a similar setup occurs that we faced versus the tight player in #4. You open and then get check-raised by an opponent you have no long-term history with. Except for this time, he is far from tight.
This opponent is obviously a competent loose-aggressive player who folds to c-bet 40% and check-raises 20% of the time. It seems obvious that we should be tightening up our c-bet range and then folding almost no made hands in this spot, right?
Remember, all this player knows about you is that this is one of the only hands you have open-raised this session. Therefore, you can expect him to adjust versus your “tightness” and probably play very differently versus you than his stats might indicate.
On the other hand, he is still a loose player and isn’t likely to be as tight as the other guy. Therefore, you should not fold as much of your range as versus the proven tight player but you should also not just slam dunk get it in with your top pairs. A much better strategy is to go into “bluff-catch mode” with your strongest hands: sets, overpairs, top pair top kicker, and your high implied odds hands. Then, just call down with them.
However, go ahead and fold your weak top pairs. While it might be painful versus this type of opponent, it is still the correct play based on your image.
5. You Have a Strong Hand but Worse Is Unlikely to Raise
Getting involved with these seemingly strong hands that are actually very marginal or losers is a much more common scenario and thus the source consistent bleeding.
Let’s say you hold a really strong hand but not the nuts. Your opponent is tight and you get reraised. These can be some of the most agonizing situations. However, if you just look at your opponent’s perceived range it becomes a lot easier.
Pre-Flop Versus a 3-bet
You open QQ in early position and then get 3-bet by a guy who has only 3-bet someone once in his last 100 opportunities. You suspect that he is only 3-betting with QQ+, and you are not even sure he would with QQ. As crazy as this sounds, you should never 4-bet in this spot and only set mine if you have a good price to do so.
Generally, a 4-bet is almost always the same type of situation as our 3-betting example. Let’s look at a hand history.
No-Limit Hold’em, $0.50 BB (6 handed)
CO ($66.42) Opens 20% from cutoff
Button ($51.37 3% 3-bet
SB ($92.59) 4% 3-betting TAG regular
Hero (BB) ($12.12)
Preflop: Hero is BB with Q♥, Q♠
2 folds, CO bets $1.34, Button raises to $4.18, SB raises to $92.59 (All-In), 3 folds
Wow, look at that action. The 4-bettors range here is QQ+ and AK (At worst). We have 40% equity against that range. Not good enough since we only have a big blind involved. This should be a snap fold, even for a short stack. Crazy, no?
This is an extreme example, but you will face many tough decisions with hands such as 99, TT, AQ, and even AK sometimes. Being able to spot a marginal all-in decision is not so much a talent as simply having a knowledge of ranges. With that in mind, let’s look at a common post-flop scenario.
It’s a River Raise and You Don’t Hold the Nuts
Turn raises are usually the nuts, river raises are almost always the nuts. This is something I heard from Blackrain many many years ago. Even today, it still is generally true in the vast majority of poker games.
Understanding when strong hands are 2nd best is an ability born from a study of ranges and relative hand strengths. As Kenny Rogers said, you gotta “know when to hold’em and know when to fold’em.” But even if you figure out that you are beating absolutely nothing on the river when facing aggression, and you know that your opponent’s betting pattern screams monster, it is sometimes still very difficult to find the fold button.
Think about all of the times you have called with one pair after getting raised on the river. How many times did you actually win? Be honest here. Depending on your experience, you can probably count the number of times on one hand.
Being able to bluff raise a river is a skill that very very very few players possess. And since very few people fold big hands to river raises, in most games it is a skill that you really need not acquire. Here is a classic example of beating nothing on the river but calling with a seemingly strong hand anyway.
Example #1: Trips no good
No-Limit Hold’em, $0.50 BB (5 handed)
Hero (BB) ($16.75)
Preflop: Hero is BB with Q♠, 7♦
3 folds, SB calls $0.25, Hero checks
Small blind is a passive calling station. There was no point in raising pre-flop since he is never folding, and shoving seems silly since he will probably limp-call a fairly wide range.
Flop: ($1) Q♦, 3♠, 9♦(2 players)
SB bets $1, Hero calls $1
We flop the nuts against the station and plan to go for three streets of value.
Turn: ($3) Q♥(2 players)
SB checks, Hero bets $2, SB calls $2
A good river card in the sense that he will be more likely to stick around with a 3 or 9 in his hand and it makes it less likely that he has a queen. Also, there are plenty draws which make value betting here is a must.
River: ($7) K♣(2 players)
SB checks, Hero bets $3.50, SB raises to $17.50, Hero calls $9.75 (All-In)
We try to get value from the weaker pairs in his range and boom, we get check-raised all-in. The only hands that he would raise for value are full houses, trip queens, and a straight. Since it is unlikely he has a queen, then 33, 99, and JT are most obvious. And since calling stations are passive players by nature, a bluff raise seems out of the question. So taking all factors into account and the fact that we are, at best, only tying if he has a queen, this is an obvious fold. But like most players, I was married to my hand and called the raise.
Total pot: $33.50 | Rake: $1.65
SB had 10♦, J♦ (straight, King high).
Hero had Q♠, 7♦ (three of a kind, Queens).
Outcome: SB won $31.85
Our opponent flopped an open-ended straight flush draw and did not raise the flop, thus confirming our read that he is a passive player. It’s hard to think of trips as a bluff catcher with no flush possible, but in this case, that’s all it was.
The only time you should ever call in this type of spot is if you can legitimately count at least 2-3 hands that might raise that you beat, you probably should call. Give your opponent a range and narrow it based on your read and his action, and stick to it.
Ultimately, bad river calls may seem like a huge leak since you lose a lot of money at once when it happens. But making the 2nd best nut hand and getting raised on the river is not something that happens very often. So while it’s a leak, it’s not really going to destroy your long term bottom line. It’s just one piece of the overall puzzle. If you’re getting this wrong, you’re probably leaking in a lot of other areas as well.
6. You Have a Tell on Your Opponent
This is actually the least reliable thing to go, but it can help in on the fence decisions.
In live games here are several tells you can use to tell if your opponent is strong. Here are 3 tells that indicate strength:
- Your opponent is making an obvious effort to feign weakness- It’s probably best to get rid of the 2nd or third nuts.
- He is trying to act relaxed or appears genuinely relaxed- He might order a drink or engage in conversation with another player. It is highly unlikely someone doing this is bluffing.
- Shaking Hands- While this might seem to be more of a sign of weakness, it usually actually means they are really excited about their hand.
You might think there is no such thing as an online tell. Think again. Through experience, I have found a few common moves to be reliable indicators of an opponent’s strength.
- Tanking before raising- This one almost always indicates the nuts. I actually learned this from watching over my dad’s shoulder. Anytime he would hold a really strong hand he would say something like, “Now, I’ll take a long time here to make him think I’m weak…” Then he would spring a raise on his opponent. So, when you see someone use up nearly all of their timebank and then reraise, you can be fairly certain they are trying to pretend to be indecisive. Nice try buddy.
- The massive river overbet- If someone is bluffing on the river, more often than not they will try to bet the minimum that they think will be successful. Usually, when you see a big overbet it’s not an attempt to “blow you off your hand.” In my experience, this is usually what I call a “make up bet.” In other words, they are mad that the pot is not any bigger than it already is and they are trying to make up for that fact by artificially bloating the pot on the turn or river.
If you think your call is marginal and your opponent gives away any of these common tells, you will likely want to fold your hand with a quickness.
It can be difficult to know for sure whether a fold is the best course of action or not. However, if you just follow these few “rules” that I have laid out, you really can’t go wrong.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that part of the art of being a skilled poker player is setting yourself up for straightforward decisions while at the same time creating difficult spots for your opponents. The easier your decisions are, the more likely it is that you are going to make good decisions. And this all starts with pre-flop planning.
To help improve how well you plan your hands, check out this article that I wrote a while back. I hope it puts you on a path to even more profit at the tables.
Jim is the author of the best-selling book called Automatic Poker. He has been playing professionally for over 15 years and has helped countless people become winning poker players. Using a no-nonsense mathematical and logical approach to beating the games, Jim has helped demystify what it takes to win money in No-Limit Hold’em.