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The Worst Play in Poker

By Chris Ferguson, August 21, 2004

Dear Reader,

I need your help. There's a play I see again and again.

chris-fergusonBad players make it. Good players sometimes make it. People with WSOP bracelets even make it occasionally. And each time I see it, I just scratch my head. Maybe you make this play and can help me understand it.

I'm talking about betting a medium-weak hand on the river.

Maybe you're thinking, "Wait, I do that sometimes! What's wrong with that?" Here's what's wrong with it: the bet has no upside.

There are only two reasons to bet the river. The first is to bet for value - a bet you make when you expect to win even when you get called. The second is to bluff, when you're hoping your opponent will fold a winner. Your strongest hands work as value bets, and your weakest hands work as bluffs. The problem with these medium-weak hands is that the hands your opponent will lay down here are losers anyway, and the hands you get called by almost certainly beat yours.

With a hand that has neither value betting nor bluffing power, why not just check?

I'm playing Texas hold'em and an opponent and I get down to the last card. The board is Jc 9d 2s 9s 8c and I've got A-K. My opponent bets. I obviously can't beat any legitimate value-bet hands, but I decide to call as a defensive measure, not wanting anyone to think they can run over me. I'm thinking this or maybe A-Q is the absolute minimum I'd have to be holding to justify the call, and there are certainly worse hands I could have gotten to the river with that I'd have to fold here. I'm pleasantly surprised when my opponent turns over A-Q.

So what is he thinking? He can't possibly think I'd call with enough hands like K-Q to make this a value bet. But I'm not going to fold any of my pairs, so this surely isn't a bluff either.

Clearly, my opponent isn't thinking. That brings me to an important point. Before you make any play, you should always ask yourself, "What am I trying to accomplish?" In the case of betting on the river, you are hoping for your opponent to call with a worse hand or fold with a Better one. In the instance of the A-Q hand above, there was no chance the bet would accomplish either of these goals.

So what *should* you do with medium-weak hands? Obviously, if you're last to act, you should just check and hope your hand is good enough to rake in the chips. If you're acting first, and we ignore the check-raise possibility, you have two options: check and if your opponent bets call, or check and fold. Let's compare these two plays against betting.

Checking and calling is clearly a better play than betting. It gives you the opportunity to induce a bluff and win more money against worse hands. You also lose less against superior hands. This is obviously a win-win over betting. Checking and folding might be better still, but it's risky. You risk the whole pot for a single bet. In any case check-calling is clearly a superior play to betting but you may be able to do even better still.

As far as I can tell, there are two possible reasons people mistakenly bet these hands. First, they might get lost in the hand and not understand the strength of their own holdings, and think they are bluffing. The other possibility is fear. After all, if you check, I might bet and force a very tough decision on you. No one likes to face the hard choices, and it's often a good idea to avoid them when possible, but this particular pre-emptive strike gives too much away. Throwing away money isn't a rational response to the fear of decision-making.

Let's talk more about the bluff for a moment. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, you should only bluff with your absolute worst hands. Beginning players watch these bluffs on TV and view them as horribly reckless or dangerous. But your worst hands have just as much bluffing power as your medium-weak hands. The difference is that the medium-weak hands also have value as checking hands that the worst ones don't. This makes a better case for bluffing on the river with the 2-3 since it's the *only* value that hand has. After all, how else will you possibly take down the pot with absolute garbage, if not by bluffing with it? This is why you see Gus Hanson or Phil Ivey turn over the most wretched cards when they get caught stealing, or even occasionally when they get away with it. Also, you're much less likely to rattle your opponent when you turn over an A-Q no-pair when your opponent laid down his K-Q (we call this, "bluffing with the best hand") as you do with your 6-3. It can be disconcerting even to good players to get bluffed out of a big pot.

One last anecdote from the WSOP No Limit 2-7 Lowball Draw event some years back. Our hero raises before the draw and the big blind calls. His opponent draws one, and our hero stands pat. After the draw, the big blind bets out and our hero makes a huge raise. The big blind goes into the tank for a long time before finally calling with an audible sigh. Big blind turns over an 8 low and our hero mucks, but the rail wants to know what he lost with. Our hero turns over his hand and shows a full house K-K-K-Q-Q. (For those not familiar with lowball, the name says it all. The best *low* hand wins.) The railbirds, so impressed with such an audacious bluff, burst into spontaneous applause despite the play's failure.

Was the audience right to be impressed? Hardly. It's true, our hero bluffed with one of the worst hands imaginable, just as this article implores you to do. But first of all, he bluffed with this hand before the draw when he had a bunch of hands he was going to fold anyway. This article only applies to betting on the final round. Secondly, you want to bluff with hands that give you the best chance of success. Our hero was holding five picture cards which decreases the likelihood that his opponent would have a folding hand before the draw, and lessen his likelihood of "bricking" on the draw. This makes the bluff much more likely to be doomed. The classic "correct" hand for trying this play looks more like 2-2-2-3-3. But that's a story for another article.

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