The object of poker is to win money, rather than to make a big hand. Often a beginning player will ask me “What is a good hand?” and I’ll say, “It depends.” A royal flush can’t lose, but if everyone folds when you bet it, and you only win the blinds or antes, it certainly isn’t your best hand of the night. Four Kings sounds like a terrific hand, but if someone else has four Aces, four Kings would be a nightmarish holding.
Nonetheless, once you’re in the middle of a hand, it is possible to know whether or not four Kings is the winner, and indeed to know whatever the best possible hand might be at the moment.
The best possible hand is usually called “the nuts” in poker. Please stick to this precise expression. I heard a tale about one woman who’d just learned the expression and shortly thereafter happily exclaimed “I’ve got the balls!” Not quite the same thing.
When you hold “the nuts,” usually you should keep raising forever, unless one of two situations exists:
This might sound like an obvious lesson-when you have the best possible hand, put in as many raises as possible-but I have seen many players cost themselves money by NOT doing this, in situations where they are giving their opponent too much respect. By that I mean, they are assuming that their opponent would only continue to re-raise with the “pure nuts,” the absolute best hand, and so they stop betting because they figure it is a waste of time: the pot will be split.
For example, yesterday I was playing 6-12 Hold ’em, a smaller stake than I usually play, but I wanted to do a bit of research on a principle that Card Player publisher Barry Shulman had offered in his column. (By the way, if you’re serious about becoming a good poker player, you should certainly read Card Player. If you’re lucky enough to live near one of the legal cardrooms where it’s distributed for free, get a copy twice a month, and if you don’t, subscribe! You can find them at http://www.cardplayer.com.)
In this game, the flop had come 2-4-J, the Turn card was a seven, and the river brought a three, leaving the board 2-4-J-7-3.
A player to my right (we’ll call him Respecter) bet, and the player to my left (we’ll call him Oversight) raised. The pot was two-handed at this point, so Respecter re-raised. Oversight re-raised. Respecter said “sounds like we’re chopping” (“chopping” a pot is splitting it-in other words, Respecter was saying “sounds like we have the same hand”), but he re-raised. Oversight re-raised again, and Respecter just called, turning his 5-6 over and saying “chop it.”
When Oversight was slow to move, I was positive he had A-5, and I was right. Oversight had been so happy at hitting his miracle straight card that he had missed the fact that someone holding 5-6 would make a bigger straight. Respecter cost himself money by assuming his opponent was smart enough not to keep raising forever with anything less than the pure nuts.
True, most of the time-the vast majority of the time-when you’re in Respecter’s situation, after about seven re-raises you are going to be splitting the pot. All you’re doing by putting in the additional raises is wasting time. And if you’re playing against someone you know to be an excellent player, probably it’s OK to decide not to waste time and just go ahead and call.
But when you’re playing against someone you don’t know, someone possibly capable of making a mistake, I suggest you go right ahead and waste as much time as you like with additional re-raises. Your opponent might have mis-read what “the nuts” are, as Oversight did on this hand, or your opponent might be on tilt.
I have seen players on tilt make incredibly bad decisions. For example, once I was playing 20-40 Hold ’em, a big enough game that you’d think players would know a little something, and the flop came A-8-9 rainbow (meaning all different suits, so no flush was possible at the moment).
The two players involved in the hand raised and re-raised each other 19 times, until one player was out of chips. For the first few raises, I assumed we had a set of Aces going up against a set of Nines. After raise #6, I couldn’t figure out what on earth was happening, because it was NOT possible that the two players held the same hand, at least not if they were both sane.
It turned out that the player who ran out of chips not only did not have a set of nines, he had A-8! He had re-raised 19 times with not the second-best hand, but the fifth-best hand (behind A-A, 9-9, 8-8, and A-9)! The other player, of course, had A-A, leaving IncredibleTiltedOptimist, as I’ll call him, “drawing dead” to the other two eights arriving on both the Turn and River, and no such miracle occurred.
Once I failed to put in as many raises as possible in this situation and it wound up saving me money, but it was still a mistake. Here was the situation: 20-40 game at Hollywood Park Card Casino, in Los Angeles. After the Turn card, the board showed K-10-7-9 rainbow. The pure nuts in this situation is J-Q, which makes a King-high straight. Better still, J-Q remains the nut straight if an Ace comes on the River.
I stared happily at my J-Q and re-raised my opponent eight times before finally calling with an inaudible sigh, “knowing” that we had the same hand and that the nuts were going to earn me only half the pot. On the river, a Ten hit, leaving the board showing K-10-7-9-10. My opponent bet, and looking at him with a “why bother?” shrug, I called. There was no point in raising because if we’d had the same hand, J-Q, we still had the same hand, and with a pair on the board, if he’d been betting something like trip Kings, I was suddenly in trouble.
He turned over K-10. He had re-raised me eight times not only without the nuts, but with a mere two pair. His hand would have been an underdog not only to J-Q, but also to J-8, 8-6, K-K, 10-10, 9-9, and 7-7! He wound up making a miraculous full house on the River and won, but clearly I had overestimated this player. Not knowing him, and with no flush or bigger straight to fear, I should have kept re-raising until I ran out of chips.
I took a deeeeeeeeep breath, said “nice hand,” and hoped that this fellow would be sticking around for a long time, because playing like that, he was certainly going to give all his chips back. At least with trip-something, he could have won if any pair showed up on the board: still a bad play, but he would have had ten “outs” (cards that would win for him; with trip Kings, for example, he could win with the lone remaining King, or with the three remaining Tens, Sevens, or Nines). With K-10, he was dead to four outs-the two remaining Kings and the two remaining Tens.
I know what you’re thinking: had I been cheated? Although I have to admit that while in the instant of this incredibly bad beat, it crossed my mind, the odds against something like that happening in a public cardroom are extremely small.
In a private game, where a player held the deck in his own hands, this would be a more realistic concern, but in a public cardroom, where the dealers switch tables several times an hour, the odds were infinitely more likely that I’d just run into IncredibleTiltedOptimist’s first cousin, and he just “sucked out” on me (no, I’m not swearing, that’s poker slang for drawing out on someone when you’re a big underdog).
You can’t play poker and “worry,” in a situation like me with my J-Q, that someone else has a weaker hand like K-10 (or even K-K) and might get lucky. If you get a chance to put all your chips in when your opponent has only four outs, or even ten outs, you put all your chips in. There are four cards you can see on the board, and four more tied up in your hand and your opponent’s hand. That leaves 44 unseen cards: even with ten outs, your opponent is in bad shape.
It’s hard to get the nuts when you play poker. If you do get them, have the balls to bet ’em all the way.