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Making the First Call

By Chris Ferguson, August 21, 2004

Why I never call as the first to enter a pot.

chris-fergusonIn tough Hold'em and Omaha games, one of the simplest, most important rules to follow is to never call if it is folded around to you before the flop. The reasoning is that since you have no money involved in the pot, if you fold you lose absolutely nothing. Therefore, to even call you must have a hand that expects to earn money, and if your hand is a favorite, why not raise? I have never understood why people routinely call in this situation. Many books suggest calling with hands they believe play well against a large field. Their idea is to induce others to call therefore creating a multi-way pot. The problem with this thinking is two-fold. First of all, the future callers will also have hands that do well multi-way, but they have position giving then the best of it. Furthermore, against astute opponents, the original callers are giving away valuable, exploitable information about their hands. It is far better to simply either raise or fold in these situations. This gives the minimum information possible because it doesn't split playable hands into two categories, calling hands and raising hands. To sum up, any hand worth calling in this situation is worth a raise. It is an odd fact that a few hands not worth a call are actually worth a raise. Probably the best way to think about this rule is that if a hand is not strong enough to raise with, it is not strong enough to call. If you don't believe me, just watch the final table at any major poker tournament. It is not uncommon for the entire final table to be played without ever seeing a player call as the first to enter a pot.

So why do so many players routinely call before the flop? Are they all wrong? There are two types of players who routinely call as the first one in. There are weaker players who don't know any better, and there are players attempting to exploit their weaker opponents. Even though I virtually never call as the first one in, I will reluctantly defer to those who recommend calling with some hands before the flop, but only as an exploitive measure in very weak games where the following three things apply. First, you are unlikely to steal the blinds with a raise. Second, you expect to be called by even weaker hands behind you. And third, your opponents play very poorly after the flop. In particular, it may be right to call if others are giving way too much action on later streets. The bigger the pot the less of a mistake it is to call on the turn and river. Thus, by calling and keeping the pot small before the flop, you are magnifying your opponents? mistakes of calling too frequently after the flop.

What if there is a single raise in front of you before the flop? Is it all right to occasionally call now? In tough limit hold?em games the answer is NO! The same logic applies. Obviously you should only play hands that are a money favorite in this situation, but since you have no money invested in the pot, any hand worth calling must be a favorite, so why not raise? Again, never calling has the added advantage of giving away as little information as possible regarding your hole cards.

Doesn't this argument apply to pot-limit and no-limit hold'em? Yes, the argument applies, but I still occasionally cold call behind a raiser in no-limit because there are two other considerations. First of all, when I am the first one in to raise the big blind, I am not re-opening the betting, which is to say if I call, the big blind can raise me anyway. Such is not the case for an original raiser. If I call the original raiser and no one re-raises we will see the flop without a chance for him to raise yet again.

The other difference is that position is more valuable in pot-limit and no-limit, and when the original raiser shuts me out with a re-re-raise, particularly an all-in move, I lose that advantage. In limit, the prospects of being four-bet don't scare me since the pot will already have at least 7-bets in it, so there is very little down side to raising. In fact it would be wrong for the original raiser to make it four bets. He would almost certainly be better off calling and check-raising on the flop, but that's a story for another article.

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