Way Ahead or Way Behind: When to Turn down Aggression

“It seems to me that people have vast potential. Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence or take the risks. Yet most people don’t. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever.”
–Philip Adams
Ok, so it’s been 3 weeks and there are only 2 parts to the short story. Apologies for the lack of diligence, but the 9 to 5 has been grinding me down and fiction writing takes a lot out of me. And with 4 day trip to Vegas on the horizon, I’m going to conserve my energy and get back to my bread and butter– Poker Theory. Although the number of poker bloggers in Vegas this weekend won’t be anywhere near the number who show up for the bash organized by Pauly, I look forward to playing many hands with The Blogfather and The Glyph of Studio. Hopefully I can get my act together and make it out for the December bash as well, but things are pretty hectic in HDouble land at the moment.
Way ahead or way behind
The players in the middle limit games are like low-limit players on steroids. These players have figured out that aggression pays off, and have subsequently turned their aggression knob all the way to the right, forcing you to make tough decisions on every street. There is also a lot of robbery going on in these games– the “battle for the blinds” begins with aggressive players in middle to late position raising in order to isolate or steal the big blind.
As a result, I’ve found myself in many situations where I’m either way ahead or way behind. This concept has been touched on in some of the forums (see this 2+2 thread), but I’ve yet to see an in-depth analysis of the optimal play in this type of way-ahead-or-way-behind situation.
Let’s start with some definitions:
WAY AHEAD: You are way ahead in the hand when your hand is currently far superior to your opponent’s hand, and the turn or river card is unlikely to give your opponent the winning hand. More specifically, we’ll say that you are way ahead if your opponent has 3 outs or less (note that we’re only talking about heads-up situations).
–Dominating hands like AJ vs. A9 on a board of A 2 3 (3 outs) or J 9 2 (2 outs)
–Top pair vs. an underpair like QT vs. JJ on a board of Q 7 2 (2 outs)
WAY BEHIND: You are way behind in the hand when your hand is currently far inferior to your opponent’s hand, and the turn or river card is unlikely to give you the winning hand. The converse of being way ahead, we are way behind when we have 3 or fewer outs against our opponent.
Now that we have the definitions out of the way, the concept is pretty simple. Suppose an aggressive player in late position opens with a raise, and all fold to us in the big blind. We look down at A6s, and happily call. The flop comes Ad Kh 4s rainbow, and it’s time for action.
Let’s examine our options:
1. Bet out: leading out signals to our opponent (in big flashing letters) that we have the ace. However, the standard play here is to check raise the aggressive player, since we are confident he will bet. Thus, sometimes the raiser will suspect a bluff, and either reraise or pay us all the way to the showdown depending on what type of player he is.
2. Check with the intention of raising: this is the expected play, and probably the one that’s most commonly employed in these situations.
3. Check with the intention of calling: a more cautious play, this course of action keeps the raiser in the dark about the strength of our hand.
4. Check with the intention of folding: this play should not be considered unless you have a great read on the player and are absolutely sure you are way behind. The only time that this play is a good idea is if the raiser is so weak-tight that you can be sure his bet means that he has you outkicked.
The question is, which of these options maximizes our expectation?
Obviously we want to minimize our losses when we our outkicked, and maximize our winnings in all other situations. It’s just too wimpy to fold here, so we have to figure out if we are going to check-call or check-raise on the flop. If we check-raise, we show a lot of strength, encouraging to fold when we have him beat. If he’s got us beat (has a better kicker), we’re throwing away our money.
Johnny Boom Boom, 2+2 Pooh-Bah, elaborates nicely:
“I have top pair, no kicker (for this spot, no kicker)
This guy likely has a bigger ace or KK, QQ, JJ maybe TT or whatever.
If he has those big pairs (not aces), he will bet the first two streets to try and force me out. By the river, he will be resigned to the fact I may have an ace and check behind, so I bet. (Sometimes he’ll check the turn, and when that happens you of course, bet the river. If he checks behind the flop, you start betting the turn.)
This bet confuses the opponent and he usually calls. He’ll even call some hands that beat me, fearing some kind of two pair or other. You’ll really only get raised with AA, and that rarely happens, so don’t fear it.”

I like to carve up this dilemma into 3 slices, based on the type of player we are facing:
1. Good, aggressive player: I’ll always check-call against this guy, because a good player will continue to bet heads-up until his opponent shows strength, and may lay down his hand to a check-raise. Further, he may have us outkicked.
2. Loose Raiser: you can mix up your play by check-raising on the flop against the loose raiser if you think he’ll call you down the whole way. Most of the time I prefer to check-call for fear of being dominated, but if you’re pretty sure you’re ahead you can vary your play by throwing in a raise on the flop.
3. Super aggressive players: if you’re not risk averse, you can go for a check-raise on the flop and hang on for the ride. If the maniac has KK he may cap it on the flop or turn, and you’ve got to grit your teeth and hope you’re not outkicked.
That’s pretty much it. It’s a simple concept, but it’s helped my postflop play from the blinds immensely. Note that you can apply the way-ahead-or-way-behind concept to many situations, but the key is that it only makes sense when the turn and river cards are unlikely to help your opponent. For example, if we defend our blind with JTh against a late raise, and the flop comes Js 9s 8c, our opponent most likely has at least 6 outs (he’s got overcards plus some sort of backdoor flush or straight draw). In this situation, we don’t have much of a clue how far ahead or behind we are, and I usually prefer to play it hard and see what kind of strength our opponent shows. The way-ahead-or-way-behind concept really only applies to situations where there’s domination or we flopped a pair of Aces or Kings.
Although useful when it applies, this type of situation doesn’t occur all that often. Overdosing on this idea will turn you a calling station, a worse fate than raising into the nuts. However, there are rare occasions that checking and calling will get you more money than pounding away at your opponent.
Almost Vegas time. Oh the humanity. Trip report next week.

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