NLHE 6-max: The Flop (1)

Now that we have obeyed rule no. 1 of shorthanded play, "No limping!", and have raised pre-flop, we must now be clear on a handful of very important factors that have considerable influence on the post-flop game:

1. The strength of our own hand:

  • Top pair (top kicker, weak kicker, no kicker)
  • Strong draw (straight + flush draw, pair + draw, plain draw)
  • Strong made hand (top two pair, set, straight, flush, full house)
The main question here is:

is our hand strong enough for us to play a big pot on this kind of flop? Or should we rather keep the pot small because the board is too dangerous for our hand?

2. The structure of the board should provide us with answers to the following questions

  • Do we have to protect a made hand from draws?  
  • Do we have a (good) draw and can we play it aggressively as a semi-bluff?
  • Does the board contain good cards that would make a bluff credible?
3. As always, position also plays a very important role:
  • Should we use our position for good semi-bluffs or even for pure bluffs?  
  • Should we use our position to get as much money as possible into the pot to get paid off on our good hands?
4. Depending on the type of opponent we must ask ourselves the following:
  • Is the opponent passive, and does he call rather than bet? And does he raise only when he has a strong hand?
  • Or is he an aggressive player who takes the initiative himself, who (semi-)bluffs and who sometimes raises even though his hand is not particularly strong?
5. Bet sizing:
  • Do we want to bet the flop at all?
  • How much are we going to bet?
  • Are we going to raise an opponent's bet?
  • And if so, how much should we raise?
6. Reaction to a raise:
  • How are we going to react to a check-raise or a raise behind us?
  • Are we going to call a raise?
  • Are we going to re-raise?

Before we go into detail and give some concrete thought to the above-mentioned issues, we must differentiate between two types of pots: raised pots and unraised pots. This part of the article deals with raised pots, which are again sub-divided into two types, heads-up pots and multiway pots. Let's look at these in sequence.

Playing raised pots

We're the aggressor and raised pre-flop. How do we now continue, on various boards against various opponents and in various positions?

Let's start with a standard concept in no-limit hold'em that gains in importance particularly in shorthanded games.

The continuation bet

With unpaired hole cards we hit the flop only once in every three hands. It makes no difference at this point whether it is top, middle or bottom pair. But the same applies to our opponents, who also hit the flop only every third time. And what we have to do is use that to our advantage. So, we've raised pre-flop and as the pre-flop aggressor, we will almost always have to continue our aggression if we want to win a lot of small pots. On the one hand we make an immediate profit in the long run by simply taking those small pots down where nobody hits.On the other hand, the continuation bet helps to maintain our aggressive image and disguises our strong hands. If we hit the flop or we even have a strong made hand on the flop, it becomes very profitable when our opponents misjudge us due to of our aggressive play. They will often reach the point where they attempt to force us to fold a hand because they think that our flop bet was a continuation bet, when in this case it actually was a value bet.
In shorthanded games we play the majority of pots heads-up, since we raised pre-flop. A continuation bet thus pays off in most cases, either immediately or in later situations. However, we shouldn't always make a continuation bet.

  • In position                                                                                                               We should make a continuation bet in 90% of cases. The exceptions here are extremely draw-heavy boards where we didn't hit anything or where we have no chance of improving, or where we have to bet against an opponent who calls a bet, sometimes  even more than one, with all kinds of hands. In principle we always take full advantage of position, because it's difficult enough for our opponents to play a hand out of position. If he doesn't hit he'll have to bluff if he wants to take the pot away from us.
  • Example 1

We're on the button and raise, the small blind calls, and the flop brings us a Q, a good card to bluff since our opponent will certainly find it credible that we have a queen in our hand after the pre-flop raise. In addition there is a possible flush draw and only a few possible straight draws. The flop doesn't hit a very wide range of hands; in particular, cards in the playing zone (K, A, J, T, except of course Q) and small to medium pairs 22, 55-99 don't connect very well with this board. So we bet ¾ pot in order to take this pot down immediately with a pure bluff. Our bet doesn't look weak and is more likely to motivate mainly small pairs or a very weak Q to fold than a smaller bet would.

The reasons for a continuation bet in this case are as follows:

    1. We're in position.
    2. We raised pre-flop.
    3. There are only few draws possible on this board and it doesn't connect with many hands from the playing zone.
    4. The board contains one high card from the playing zone which we could credibly represent due to of our pre-flop raise.
  • Out of position

    Here it gets a little trickier and we should give some serious thought to point 2 above. The problem will be that our opponents will recognize the continuation bet concept and use their better positions to full advantage in order to take the pot away from us. They can call or even raise the continuation bet. Our opponent doesn't even need a good hand to do this, because if we don't continue with our (semi-)bluff on the turn, for example, it will be easy for him to buy the pot. Here we should simply use the structure of the board as our criterion for deciding in favour of or against a continuation bet if we haven't hit:

    A-high, K-high and Q-high boards with few or no draws are always suitable for a credible continuation bet because of our pre-flop raise and because our opponents believe that we have a hand in this range anyway. Even players with middle or pocket pairs often tend to fold against a bet when the flop contains a Q, K or A.

    Paired boards are also suitable, because here it is even less likely that our opponent has hit. He'll have to be a keen bluffer or be holding a pair himself to get us to fold this hand.

    But if the flop comes J high and/or with a lot of possible draws, we should be prepared to check against most types of opponents, even if it does mean running the risk that they will take the pot away from us with a bet, maybe even as a (semi-)bluff. The moment we bet we have to be prepared to bet again on the turn as a bluff if we think that our opponent is on a draw and it doesn't arrive. We simply have a lot of difficult decisions to make on boards like this.
  • Example 2

We're in the small blind and raise. Even though we're starting the hand with a great disadvantage, as we are out of position. But the flop brings us good reasons to make a continuation bet:

    1. The board contains the second-most credible high face card from the playing zone, after the ace. We can credibly represent it due to our pre-flop raise.
    2. The flop is uncoordinated.
    3. If we're called here it will almost always be by a king, and even with ace high we're most likely often holding the best hand. A lot of players with small pairs usually fold against a solid bet on a board like this.
Size of a continuation bet

In general  the size of our continuation bets should always be the same, irrespective of whether or not we have hit. The reasons are given in the following section. We differentiate again, this time between heads-up and multiway pots.

  • Heads-up pots
On principle, the continuation bet here should be between 2/3 and 3/4 the size of the current pot. We want to make a bet that:
  1. credibly represents a hand and can buy us the pot when we haven't hit the flop.
  2. is big enough to scare off opponents from counter-bluffing if we haven't hit.
  3. gives opponents, who are on a draw unfavourable pot odds to see another card. With a bet of 2/3 of the pot we are offering our opponent pot odds of nearly 2.5:1, which isn't profitable for most plain draws such as flush and OESD.
  4. doesn't reveal the strength of our hand, so that we remain unpredictable in the long run.
  5. doesn't commit us to the pot if we haven't hit.
  • Multiway pots
If we haven't hit, our willingness to make a continuation bet should depend completely on the structure of the board. A continuation bet here is usually reasonable only when we're in position, if at all. Boards that are suitable to bluff in  a multiway pot are usually paired and there are only few draws possible..
  • Example 3

We make a standard raise with and get two callers. We're sitting exactly between the two of them, but the flop only makes a flush draw, a couple of gutshot draws, and trips possible. Despite this we bet, but in most cases we will have to give up the hand if we do in fact get another call. By betting 2/3 of the pot bet on this board we were already able to reckon that we had a good chance of  buying the pot because we showed strength despite having two opponents. This will often also motivate players with e.g. small pocket pairs to fold, although they may have called if they had been heads-up against us. But because we showed strength against two opponents on this very dry board, we will very often be able to end the hand right here.

Varying our game

Because we're still playing no-limit hold'em, the fundamental rules and principles explained above are, of course, not universally valid. Moreover, we shouldn't allow our game to become monotonous and as per plan. This is often a very profitable playing style at the lower microlimits and we can expect it to produce a constant win rate. However, the higher we climb the limit ladder, the more attentive and aggressive the opponents become. If we constantly play ABC poker we become more transparent, easier to read, and usable. Of course, in principle we retain our bet size, raising and betting standards, but we can also play a more varied game against certain types of opponent in order to maximize our profits or minimize our losses.

When we're playing against a bad, passive player whom we have already seen calling lots of big bets, with different draws, then it makes sense to occasionally bet more than pot size on a draw-heavy board. This player will often pay nevertheless and chase his draw. The same applies to players from whom we took chips in earlier hands. They could be extremely annoyed by us and the way we play, so that we could make an overbet every once in a while, i.e. a bet that is bigger than the current pot. In this case we hope that we get called by weaker hands or that they decide to make a move against us so that we can even win some extra money from these provoked bluffs. In the same way, it can be extremely profitable for us to always bet weakly against certain, aggressive types of opponents, because they love being able to use what appears to them to be weakness they have spotted for a bluff.
The other way around, when we're playing against passive calling stations it can't do any harm if we avoid making a continuation bet on various boards where we would normally have bet. As these opponents will call every time they make a pair, and we're not willing to bluff again on the turn if our hand doesn't improve.

Part two deals with situations in which we are the pre-flop aggressor and are confronted with a flop bet or raise, as well as with playing unraised pots.