An “Above The Rail” Hand & Online Play

No Limit Texas Holdem, Strategy

August 13, 2007

Full Tilt Poker has a commercial where their sponsored players declare “We play above the rail. We play the man, not just the cards.” It’s an admirable sentiment – there’s no question that poker played at the highest levels is a game of people rather than a game of cards. However, I think there’s something wrong with the idea when applied to online play, and I think an example hand will illustrate the point.

A hand I played in Vegas this past trip is a classic example of above the rail play. I think this is far and away the best hand I played all trip, although some may disagree. The raw sequence of events is as follows.

The game is NL Texas holdem, 2/5 blinds, full 10 handed ring. My stack is about $480. Other stacks range from $200 to $500.
I’m dealt 7h6h in middle position.

Under the gun raises to $20, 2 players call, I call, 1 behind me calls, and the big blind calls. Pot is $118 after rake.

Flop is Tc9d2c

4 players check to me. I bet $100. Player behind folds. Big blind calls after some thought, with an additional $250 behind. The other 4 fold. Pot is $318. Big blind declares a check dark.

Turn is 2d

I check.

River is 5h

Big blind check, I bet $100, big blind folds.

Now, I suspect that some of my readers at this point are strongly criticizing how I played this hand on several different streets. And they would be right to do so, because I’ve left out a number of elements that caused me to adopt the line in question – the elements that made it an above the rail hand. Let’s add those elements back in street by street:


Calling here is pretty much a mandatory 5/10 rule play. The bet is only 4% of my stack, I’ve got at least acceptable position (and a hand that doesn’t necessarily need it too much), and the prospect of multiway play with a hand well suited to it removes any possible doubt that I’m playing. The only question is whether to call or raise, and with the stacks not particularly deep calling is the obvious choice. I did have one additional piece of information because 2 players behind me telegraphed a fold, but I wouldn’t have changed my decision if I thought they would play too, so nothing “above the rail” happened preflop.

The Flop

Here the action was checked to me, and I had to decide if I should semi-bluff or not. Under normal circumstances, this is a bad spot because the six way pot greatly devalues the bluff leg, and my draw leg wasn’t that good. I could easily be dead even if I made one of my 4 outs. However, it was obvious from physical tells that the original raiser did not like the board at all and neither did the two guys behind him. Likewise, one guy to my left telegraphed a check. With that additional information, it was really more like a heads-up pot, and became a great place to semi-bluff. So I bet $100. Something like $80 or $90 might have been more correct, but psychologically round numbers work better for bluffs, and 100 is very round. I was disappointed when the big blind (the only player that hadn’t physically indicated weakness) called, but there was useful information in the way she called – specifically she was obviously unhappy about doing so, which suggested a draw. When she checked dark for the turn, that confirmed she was on a draw.

The Turn

Here’s where things get interesting. I had two general facts about villain’s play: she played almost exclusively high card hands, and she called too loosely on later streets. Given the first fact, I knew essentially what her hand was: 2 high clubs or possibly QJ.

The 2d was an excellent card for me. Probably better than even a non-club 8. I was essentially certain that her hand didn’t improve. Now at this point, a lot of players would move in. However, this is the wrong instinct when bluffing against a draw with an opponent like this. Her known bias is to call when she shouldn’t and it’s almost certain she has the best hand. If I push and she calls, I’m probably at least an 4:1 dog. Pushing would be giving her an opportunity to make a “mistake” that would in fact be the correct play. One of the keys to playing against bad players is avoiding situations where they can have two wrongs make a right like that. On the other hand, if I check behind, it’s almost 4:1 that her draw will miss and that I’ll be able to easily win the pot with a bluff on the river. So if she calls even somewhat frequently, I’m actually better off checking and seeing what the river card is. Since I know she calls a lot, I check.

The River

The river card is perfect. I know she’s missed, and her body language confirms it as she checks. A $100 bet takes down the pot after she does a bit of bad acting to pretend she had some kind of made hand.

The Point

The reason I shared this example hand is that it clearly shows why “above the rail” play is essentially impossible online. Had this been an online hand, I would have had to check the turn and fold to any bet because I would not see any meaningful signs of weakness from any of my opponents. My expectation would have been -$20 for the whole hand, whereas it was about +$40 once I made the key semi-bluff on the flop (assuming that with overcards it’s 1:1 whether villain hits her draw).

So while Gus Hansen and Phil Ivey certainly engage in above the rail play, they don’t do it on Full Tilt.

This article is part of Project Cash Game No Limit Holdem - You can find more great strategy articles there.
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