The most common action you’ll take at the poker table is never glamorous and seldom memorable, but it is poker’s basic bread and butter play. It’s a play we make more often than anything else. We fold.
Good players fold most of the time. That’s a major reason why they are good. The most common mistake made by most poker players is that they call when they should fold. Too many players get involved in pots with weak, unplayable starting hands. They are willing and sometimes eager, to see the flop with any ace in their hand, regardless of their position in the betting order, the number of opponents in the pot, or the amount of betting and raising that has taken place before it is their turn to act.
Many players fall so deeply in love with their hands that they will cold-call a raise, voluntarily investing two bets in a hand they should have folded. When you think about it, a much stronger hand is needed to call a raise than to do the raising yourself. You shouldn’t call a raise unless you have a hand that figures to be better than the one held by the guy doing the raising.
I’ve held many a hand that I was preparing to raise with, only to have an opponent snatch the rug right out from under my feet by raising before the action got around to me. Sometimes that hand I was planning to raise with is not even a calling hand any longer and winds up in the muck. Hands such as A-J, A-T, K-J, K-T, Q-J, and J-T all fall into this category. So do those ace-anything hands you’d raise with from the button or even next to it, if no one had voluntarily entered the pot when it was your turn to act.
When their initiative is filched from right under their noses, many players become irritated, agitated, and their stubborn behavior can be costly because of their refusal to get away from a hand even when all the signs loudly shout that their opponent’s hand is better. You see it all the time, an angry slam-down of a hand like A-T because a player raised before they could act.
Players who do this are wearing their emotions inside out. Instead of being upset, they ought to be thankful. Their opponent’s raise just saved them money, and they should be relieved instead of angry. After all, money saved spends just as well as money won, and I’m a happy camper anytime I can get a free pass out of a pot because I’ve learned that my hand is too big a longshot to play.
When you are faced with a raise, the hand you’re holding quickly changes categories: Most likely it becomes a folding hand, although with a very big hand you should reraise. But it’s seldom a calling hand. If I’m in the cut-off seat (the seat to the immediate right of the button) or on the button and someone raises in front of me, I’m going to throw away many hands that I would have raised with if no one had entered the pot before the action reached me.
On the other hand, if I’m holding a big pair I’m going to make it three-bets in hopes of playing heads-up against the initial raiser. When that happens I feel like I have a big advantage going into the flop. Not only did I get the last raise in, I’ll have position on my opponent throughout the entire hand.
That doesn’t mean I’m going to play that hand down to the river - if, for example, I made it three bets with J-J and the flop contained an ace and a king, I’d be a fool to keep playing if there was any appreciable action. But if no overcards fall, I’m a favorite over anyone with raising requirements that typically range from a pair of nines through a pair of aces, as well as A-K, A-Q, A-J, and K-Q.
The lessons of a bet saved equaling a bet won and raising more than you call while folding more than you raise both come into play here. Like so much of poker, strategic ideas are often interrelated in a comprehensive approach toward winning poker.
While most of your folds will be relatively simple decisions that are made before investing in the flop, sometimes you’ll see the flop, or even the turn and river before confronting a decision about folding or continuing to play. The longer you’re involved in a hand, the more difficult folding becomes. Often the size of the pot is big enough to make drawing correct, even when your chances of winning seem pretty slim. The opposite can be true too. If you’ve flopped a straight draw against only one opponent in a hold’em game, chances are you will not be getting the right odds to keep calling.
Sometimes you’ll find out via the betting and raising that you are not the favorite even when you hold what is usually a good hand. You might have been the aggressor before the flop with A-K, been fortunate enough to see an ace hit the board, yet watch with shocked indignation when there’s a bet, a call, and a raise before it’s your turn to act.
Top pair, even with the best possible kicker, is probably no longer any good, particularly if the board contains three cards of the same suit or an obvious straight draw. Even when no flush is possible, one of your opponents might have made a set and is a big favorite. You can keep calling - your opponents will love you for it if you do - or you can do the smart thing and save your money for a better situation.
Sometimes it’s easy to fold, but other decisions are strictly judgment calls based on how well you read your opponents and your analysis of the betting and raising that’s transpired before the action gets around to you. Experience helps. So does your willingness to see things as they really are and not play poker with a denial mindset that allows you to talk yourself into calling with top pair because some part of your brain wants to believe that your opponent really did not make a flush, and that your hand - top pair with top kicker - is still good despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary.
The fact that the odds are always shifting about in poker, and that you don’t have to play a hand to its conclusion just because you might already have called a bet or two, is what enables good players to win. You don’t have this option in most casino games. You make a bet at a table game and for the most part that bet is still working until the particular confrontation you wagered on has ended. And even when a “surrender” option is available, the house will have the better of the deal.
Poker is different. You always have the ability to opt in and opt out. And it’s often the ability and willingness to fold your tent and steal away into the night - saved money clutched tightly in your hot little hands - that provides the resources allowing you to play another hand when you really do have the best of it.
I know you came to play. And getting involved in a hand and slugging it out with the guys and gals at the table is a lot more fun than sitting on the sidelines. But folding is what you have to do most of the time in order to be a winning player.
Watch the good players. They play far fewer hands than you do. If you don’t believe me, just look and see for yourself. It only seems like they’re always in there slugging because they play very aggressively whenever they do enter a pot, and that’s what you remember. But the one play they make above all others is the simplest and most boring in poker. They fold: before the flop and after it too.
Lou Krieger is the author of eleven poker books including Secrets the Pros Won't Tell You About Winning Hold'em Poker.
This article orginally appeared in Woman Poker Player Magazine print edition