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Good starting cards may not always be that golden opportunity

By Jack Clayton


We all have favorites. Maybe you grew up in New York and root for the Yankees and Knicks. What Chicago native wouldn’t have a soft spot in their hearts for the lovable Cubs? Even gamblers have favorites, such as preferring Texas hold ‘em to five-card stud, or falling in love with certain cards to open a game. But serious gamblers who are in it to win it prefer cashing tickets and chips to simply wagering on their favorite game or team for fun.

It’s a psychological step up in the way a gambler must approach the ultimate goal of winning – being able to turn off the soft spot and instead be cold and calculating. Survival of the fittest, if you want.

In poker that will mean at times dumping your favorite hand. Many card players have favorite hands, such as being dealt an 8 and 10 in poker. Your eyes might light up. “Ah-ha! A lucky 7 or 9 and I’m in the running for a pot-busting straight.” But let’s temper the enthusiasm, because an 8 and 10 isn’t that great an opening hand unless you’re playing from the late position.

Overall, it’s mediocre at best. It’s true that the “possibilities” are enticing, but the odds are better that any one of your opponents has better cards to work with. So, don’t get cold feet and hang on to cards that are better off folded.

If you do have a favorite hand, it’s okay at times to hang with it and give it a shot. However, don’t feel obligated to hang on and find yourself making bad plays. Understand when to fold ‘em, as winning poker is about mathematical calculations and logic, not, “This is my favorite hand and I’ve got a hunch…”

Let’s take this a step further: folding a pair. For instance, a pair of kings are the second strongest hand to start a game of Texas Hold‘Em. While it’s a great start, don’t forget that pocket kings are just as vulnerable as any other pair except aces. There is roughly a 20% chance than an ace will fall on any flop, so just like that someone may have a pair of aces that makes your pocket kings runner-up – and finishing second gets you zero percent of the pot and a loss to your bankroll.

So, moving forward, go ahead and bet or raise if you have a pair of kings pre-flop, but don’t convince yourself that you have an enormous head start as the race to the pot-of-gold starts. Play smartly, which means betting within your limits and understanding that you can lose this hand as easily as win it. Bet an amount that will help you size up your opponent’s hands.

The bottom line: You must determine whether anyone could be holding an ace when they call so that you can make judgments and adjustments when the flop comes. This means raising enough to filter out the weaker hands while seeing if someone calls, which suggests they might be holding one of those aces.

Mathematically you can break the next step of the pocket kings you’re holding into two subgroups: a flop with an ace, or a flop without an ace. A flop without an ace puts you better in the driver’s seat. You don’t have to sandbag or play cautiously as you have a strong hand. You can play it as if you had a pair of aces, betting and raising with confidence, though understanding that you’re not near the finish line yet. You don’t build a big pot on one hand by playing cautiously. If your opponents all fold, then you cash right away. And don’t get frustrated, because that pot likely wouldn’t have gotten bigger if you were trying to trap your opponents. You played it right and collected the chips.

If an ace is in the flop then you play it differently, because if any opponent as a single ace they’re already ahead of you. Now your thinking is on trying to determine if any opponent has an ace. You can make a continuation wager to see if anyone calls or raises. What opponents do will at least give you a little insight into what they might be holding.

The point is, holding a pair of kings may seem like a golden opportunity to cash a big pot. But simply plowing ahead thinking you’re very likely to win the round is not the way to approach it. Rather, proceed with confidence but still do everything you can to try and identify what your opponents have. Because if an ace is in the flop, you may make the mistake of putting too many chips along the way to suffering too big a loss.

Just imagine this very real scenario: You’re holding a high pair and at the turn a normally tight player goes all-in. If you’re paying attention to other player’s tendencies (and you should), that’s a sign… and not a good one for you!

So, yes, there are times when folding with a pair is the right move. Average players simply play their cards. Elite poker players do so much more: study their opponents, change their patterns, calculate the odds at all times, know when to raise and know when to fold ‘em. The goal is to maximize winning opportunities with sound strategy and money management, while always trying to get insight into what your opponents might have.

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