Playing When Strongly Committed

No Limit Texas Holdem

January 4, 2009

We’ve previously defined the types of commitment and talked about how to play when weakly and moderately committed.  All that’s left is strong commitment.

Strong “commitment” most closely matches the basic English definition of the word – you are attached to this hand until the end.  That leads to my first strategy pronouncement:

Once you become strongly committed to a hand, you never fold.  Your sole goal is to get your opponent(s) to put as much money in the pot as possible.

This seems like pretty basic advice, but in my experience it’s not something most players handle particularly well. I’m not entirely sure why, but I have a guess: I think there’s a weird mental trap that comes into play when you’re strongly committed.  Specifically, players who are strongly committed tend not to take their play very seriously.  I believe this stems from the fact that, barring a horrendous beat, they’re going to win the hand.  It’s easy to forget that in poker your goal is NOT to win hands.  It’s to win money.  Furthermore, failing to win your opponent’s stack when you could have is just as big a mistake as losing your own stack  is.  This is a classic case of players underestimating the size of an opportunity cost.  My point here is simply that when you find yourself strongly committed, you are NOT home free – you still have a lot of work to do, and there’s still a lot of costly mistakes you can make.

With that out of the way, there are four steps to correct play when strongly committed:

1) identify the nature of your opponents likely holding and their distribution

2) determine how many bets are required to get all the money in

3) identify any trends in you and your opponent’s postflop play that impact the situation

4) make a plan that gets the most possible money out of your opponents on average

Identifying Likely Holdings

Your ability to get money out of your opponent is going to be heavily dependent on their willingness to go along with the process, and that in turn is dependent on what kind of hand they hold.  I find it best to split my opponent’s likely holdings up into 5 groups for the purposes of analysis:

  • Category 1: strong hands where your opponent will likely try to get all the money in himself
  • Category 2: medium strength made hands where your opponent is likely to exercise pot control
  • Category 3: weak made hand where your opponent will clearly fold to big action but may call or make a small bet
  • Category 4: dead draws (if your opponent might have a good live draw, you’re likely only moderately committed)
  • Category 5: air (i.e. nothing)

Now depending on how the hand has played up to this point, we may or may not have much information about which category our opponent’s hand falls in.  But usually we know at least something.  The goal is not necessarily to assign our opponent’s hand to a category, but rather to mental weight the probabilities it falls in each category.  The reason weighing these probabilities matters is that the best course of action to get your opponent to put money in the pot depends on the category of hand he holds.  An example will help to illustrate how this works:

The game is full ring NL holdem.  Your stack is about 120 big blinds deep, and everyone else has you covered.  You’re 3 off the button this hand, and everyone folds to you.  Your hand is 9h9d.  You raise to 4 time the big blind.  The cutoff (one off the button) calls – he’s a pretty conservative player who normally has decent hand strength when he decides to play.  Everyone else folds.  The flop is Ac 9s 4h and action is on you.

You’re pretty clearly strongly committed here.  You have the second nut hand, and given previous action it’s somewhat unlikely villain has the nut hand.  There is no flush or straight draw, so it’s hard to see how future cards could make the situation worse.  This is a textbook case of strong commitment.

Now, where does your opponent likely stand?  Which of the five categories does his hand likely fall into?  For category 1, he could easily have 44, and it’s possible though unlikely that he has AA.  If he holds either of those hands, the money is going in.  An A9 (which would likely have to be suited for him to play it) also falls in category 1.  As far as moderate category 2 hands like top pair, top kicker it’s possible he holds AK although that would be a little odd given the fact that he passed on the option to raise preflop in position.  AQ is a possibility, especially if suited.  Ditto AJ and AT.  These are the hands he will try to implement pot control with.  Category 3 contains the weak hands he will probably fold to serious action but that he might put in one bet with – things like a pocket pair in the KK-TT range, a suited connector that paired the 9 etc.  Category 4 is basically empty in this case – there are no draws.  The “air” category (5) has a few things in it – big suited connectors that didn’t pair, possibly smaller suited connectors, and maybe some big unpaired card combinations like KQo.  While I don’t believe it’s correct to call a raise with some of these hands in deepstack play, you have to remember that your opponents don’t always have the same standards you do.

Determining How Many Bets Are Required To Get The Money In

You need to figure out how many reasonable bets are required to get all the money in.  If it’s fewer bets than you have streets left, you can afford to be somewhat tricky in an attempt to get an extra bet out of weak hands.  If it’s the same number of bets as the number of streets remaining, you generally need to play in a straightforward manner to get the most out of the hands that are trying to control the pot size.  If more bets are required than you have streets remaining, you should probably assume you won’t get a full stack in against category 2 hands and simply try to get in a bet in on every street.

We can see how this works with our example hand.  In the example the pot is 9.5BB (round up to 10BB for convenience) and the stacks contain an additional 116BB.   If we assume pot sized bets, the flop bet would be 10BB.  The turn bet would be 30BB and the river bet would be 90BB, except we don’t have quite that much money.  So three bets slightly less than pot size will get the money in.  Consulting my advice above, in this situation we’re probably not going to play particularly tricky and rather just lead out about 2/3 to 3/4 pot.

Player Trends

You need to consider how both you and your opponent typically play after the flop.  This may influence which type of holding it’s most valuable to assume your opponent has.  Imagine we changed your opponent in the example above to someone who almost always fired 2nd and even 3rd barrel bluffs with no hand if checked to.  In that case you would be much more interested in getting money out of the category 5 “air” hands since the payoff there is now much bigger than it would usually be.  You therefore might check your set on the flop, knowing that this may cost you a third bet against a category 2 made hand, to get lots of extra second bets in when he bluffs.  Whether or not that kind of tradeoff makes sense depends on how you think your opponent’s hands are distributed & what you know about his tendencies.  However, as a general principle, unless your opponents plays very strangely you should generally target the category 2 hands as that’s where your big payoff will come from.

You also need to consider your own typical betting patterns, especially the way you handle continuation bets on the flop.  If you typically use an undersized flop bet (say, 1/2 pot) you need to take this into consideration when planning how to play a strongly committed hand.  If you usually bet 1/2 pot on continuation bets, but suddenly bet the full pot when you’re trying to get all the money in because you flopped a set, that gives your opponents a very easy means of finding and avoiding your strong hands.  It might work at games where your opponents don’t know you, but should be avoided against competent regular opponents.

Making A Plan

Now that you’ve got all the required information, you need to plan a course of action.  This is generally a bit of a give-and-take, especially if you’re out of position. It should be noted that you don’t really need to plan around your opponents holding a category 1 hand – if they have one, the money will go in and you won’t have to do anything special to make it happen.  So the real issue you should worry about is how to extract money out of categories 2-5.

This isn’t an easy task.  Betting lines that will get all the money in against moderate strength made hands will likely fold out weaker holdings and lines that will get an extra bet out of weaker holdings will often enable your opponent to control the size of the pot and prevent a third bet if they hold a moderate strength hand.  Sometimes there’s a compromise solution that works against a wide range of holdings.  This usually occurs when the number of bets needed is less than the number of remaining streets.  For example, you might check the flop to induce a bluff, and if that doesn’t work bet the turn and river.

But if you need all the available streets, you’re going to be put to a tough decision – play the hand strongly and get maximum money out of stronger opponent holdings, or feign weakness and get more out of weaker holdings.  Generally, the right solution is to bet the hand strongly.  There are two reasons for this.  First, the extra amount you stand to win from a strong hand if you bet the whole way(a third bet of roughly 1/2 pot) is often much bigger than what you stand to win from a weak hand (a single bet that’s often 1/10th or less of the stack size).  Second, playing your near-nut hands strongly is essential cover for situations when you want to bluff.  However, under certain circumstances you might decide to feign weakness and trap.  This generally works well if your opponent is over-aggressive, or if it’s very unlikely he holds a strong hand due to information from previous play.  You simply have to weigh the factors and make a judgment call.  But your bias should be towards leading the betting and playing your hand strongly.  Otherwise you run the risk of playing backwards poker.

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