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Post-flop play – Part I

This is the first of a series of columns on post-flop strategy. While I usually focus on the psychological elements of the game, I’m going down this road in an effort to identify the psychological factors that underlie the complex strategic elements of post-flop play of no-limit hold ‘em.

In my reading of the poker literature, I’ve noticed that most of the discussions of strategy focus on pre-flop action. This is understandable and sensible. Solid pre-flop strategy avoids problems and limits the number of difficult decisions you will need to make. There is no doubt, someone with a sensible, measured pre-flop game can be a long-term winner, or at least not much of a loser. It is amazing how few regulars in the trenches understand this.

But the best analyses of strategy turn to the nuances of post-flop play. In fact, a trend is emerging at the upper levels. The top players specifically recommend violating many of the “basic” principles of pre-flop play. The point is simple but deep. If you’ve become a solid, post-flop player, you want to play as many hands as possible because you will end up in post-flop situations where your opponents will be out of their element but you won’t be. Experts at post-flop play can see more flops profitably.

So, let’s begin the run through some fundamental elements to post-flop play. We’ll touch on each only briefly, just enough to make some basic points. Each of these ploys requires much fuller discussion than we have room for but, hopefully, we’ll get you thinking.

Note: some basic strategies are more relevant to cash games than tournaments and vice versa. I’ve not distinguished between them, except when the differences are compelling. For the most part, solid post-flop play taps similar elements in either setting.

Position is king, queen … prince, princess and court jester all rolled into one. Everything that follows has an implied footnote: adjustments must be made for position. The later you act the more everything loosens and the range of actions you can take expands. It is not possible to over-emphasize this point.

Standard advice is that position is more important before the flop than post-flop. This isn’t wrong but you need to be thinking about the post-flop positional consequences of pre-flop decisions. Having to act first after the flop is awkward and rife with problems, mainly because of the number of actions that be taken by opponents after you’ve made your decision. The later you act the more the range of issues you will need to deal with is restricted —- and if there is one thing we know in psychology, any time you can reduce the domain of alternatives you must take into account, the lower your error rate becomes.

It’s not all about aggression. It is a myth that the best post-flop players are wildly aggressive, constantly taking hands away from their opponents. This is, at best, an oversimplification; timing, reads, board texture and the like are keys.

Mike Caro’s great line (“aggression is rarely wrong in poker and when it is, it isn’t wrong by much”) still holds and players with a strong aggressive game will have an edge, but the aggression must be tempered by position, by the nature of the table, by the individual players in the hand with you and, of course, by your position. The wildly aggressive players leave themselves open to traps set by observant opponents. Be aggressive, but be selective. Aggression, for what it’s worth, has a gender bias to it (don’t flame me now, I’m just the messenger). The data show that men are more aggressive than women in most competitive endeavors, including poker. Women who counter this gender effect have an edge for all the obvious reasons.

There’s no shame in folding. If you’re seeing a lot of flops there will be many hands where you either miss or, worse, hit a minor piece of the board. You need to know when to get out and cut your losses. Chips not lost = chips won. From a psychological point of view, I find it fascinating how many veterans of the game fail to grasp this point. Again, there is a gender factor. Folding is seen as wimpy or not masculine in many circles. If you dump a bunch of hands to middling bets, folks start thinking you’re a wuss. Don’t sweat it. If they believe this erroneously you gain (think Dan Harrington).

There is also no shame folding to the same opponent several times in a row. There is a tendency to get wrapped up in the play of a single adversary. Someone has pushed you off of two or three hands. Your ego gets bruised. You start to steam a little and vow to “get” this guy. This is almost invariably a mistake and leads to several unhappy outcomes: you enter pots with your “nemesis” out of position or with the worst hand, you call bets and raises you shouldn’t and, worst of all, you fail to pay adequate attention to others at the table.

It’s okay to try to isolate someone who plays weakly post-flop but keep your ego out of any such efforts.

Avoid coin flips. You don’t want to risk a lot of chips on chancy events, particularly if you’re a better tactician than your opponents. Yeah, I know. Coin flips have a slightly positive EV (you’re 50-50 on the draw and you’re theoretically chopping the dead money) but the long-term expectation is pretty small and may even be negative because sometimes it’s not a coin flip; sometimes you’re dominated. Lose one of these pots and it’ll take a bunch of those baby +EV hands to make up for it.

If you’re playing better post-flop than your opponents you don’t want to be in chancy situations. You want to be in ones where your grasp of the game gives you the edge. It’s simple psychologically —- and even simpler game-theoretically.

Next time we’ll revisit this topic and dig a little deeper.

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