Thinking on the Flop in Limit Holdem

by Tony Bee (a.k.a. ‘Tony’ on the Low Limit Poker Forum).

We’ve all seen them.  The “guaranteed” WINNING poker systems available on EBay, and which appear whenever you Google for poker-related articles.  And they’re always so inexpensive aren’t they?

No doubt a number of you reading this article have fallen for the hype and purchased one of these systems.  I’m embarrassed to say I did so myself when I first started playing the game.  In fact, more than one.  Needless to say, none of them delivered what they promised.

Most of these systems advise a style of play that is extremely ‘risk averse’ and provide a single piece of advice for each situation.  Typical are the following:

“Never play unimproved overcards after the flop.”
“Only draw with 8 outs or more.”
“Don’t draw to a straight with a flush draw on board.”
“Don’t draw to a flush with a pair on board.”
“Fold top pair if you get raised on the turn.”
“Always raise top pair or an overpair on the flop.”
“Never draw to an inside straight.”
“Always fold a lower pair”.

And so on.  In fact there are a number of books also on the market which offer similarly ‘cut and dried’ advice.  Poker players often refer to this style of play as “weak/tight”.

If you are new to the game and are considering following this kind of advice, let me save you some money and give you some advice for free.  Limit Hold’em just isn’t that kind of a game.

The structure of the game is such that you HAVE to play aggressively and take some (carefully considered) ‘risks’ if you want to be a winner.  You just don’t have a choice.  In many cases, and particularly if you play against reasonable opposition, your edge as a good player is relatively small.  Unless you maximise your expected value at each decision you’ll be lucky to break even.

Just a note before I continue.  If you play a ‘weak/tight’ style against VERY weak opposition it’s true that you may be able to make a marginal profit.  Also if you are happy to play at the very low limits and chase one of the many deposit bonuses available online these days, you may be able to ‘make’ more money by multi-tabling than you would by playing a single table ‘properly’.  However, I believe there are a number of drawbacks to this approach which are often overlooked, and I hope to address this in a later article.

The Flop is All Important

Many players take the view that they can play very loosely on the flop since it’s often relatively cheap to see the next card before the bet size doubles.  “What the hell, it’s only a small bet” is the depth of their analysis.  This kind of thinking can prove expensive.

To see why, consider this example.  You are playing a $1/$2 game and you’ve limped in with a small pair in late position in a multiway pot.  The flop is a rainbow with an ace and two rags.  An early position player bets and two players call.  You know you’re almost certainly behind to at least an ace here, giving you two outs.

For the sake of this example, let’s assume that the pot size is such that to call profitably you need 8 outs.  If you call with your two outer in this case, how big a mistake are you making?  In other words, how much does it cost you?

Well, you needed 8 outs and you called with 6 outs too few, and it cost you a dollar to do so.  So on average each time you make this mistake it will cost you 6/8 x $1 = $0.75.

This may not sound like very much, but over the course of many, many hands these mistakes really add up.  Of course this is an obvious example and I’m sure many readers will know not to draw to a two-outer unless the pot is very large and the conditions very favourable.  What many players fail to realise however, is that folding when you should call is often just as bad.

For example, you’re dealt AK suited and end up capping before the flop in a big pot.  The flop comes QJx rainbow and it’s checked to you in late position.  You decide to bet as a semibluff and get a single caller.  A blank comes on the turn and you bet again, hoping to win this large pot there and then.  However, your opponent raises.

You have four outs to the nut straight.  Your overcards may also be good, but if he has a hand like AQ then only your king is good, and if he has QJ they’re almost worthless.  However, you might reasonably assume you have 3 overcard outs on average plus the 4 for your gutshot, making about 7 in total.

Let’s assume the pot is large enough to call a turn bet profitably with only 5 outs.  However, you’re following the new “Super Duper System” you recently purchased on EBay which instructs you to ALWAYS fold if you’re raised on the turn and you have top pair or less, so you fold.  How much does this cost you?

On average this mistake costs you two-fifths of a big bet, which in this example is worth 80 cents.  So folding when you should call is often just as bad as calling when you should fold.  This is one of the reasons that playing a ‘safety first’ game is a losing style of play in the long run.

There’s no getting away from it.  To be a winner at limit Hold’em you have to take each situation as it arises and consider all the factors at your disposal.  Playing like a robot just doesn’t cut it.  You HAVE to THINK. 

Once you’ve decided to play a hand, the first opportunity to do so comes on the flop.  So…

What Should I be Thinking About on the Flop?

Question 1: Do I have the best hand?

Most players know that when you have the best hand on the flop you should usually bet or raise to protect it.  However, this question is not as straightforward as many players believe.  The fact is, what constitutes the ‘best’ hand can change depending on a number of factors, and the fact that we may hold the current best hand is not really the point.  What we really want to know is will our hand be best by end of the hand. In other words, is it likely we have the most equity in the pot on the flop?

Note that under this definition the ‘best’ hand needn’t be a made hand.  Under certain conditions the best hand may in fact be the strongest draw.

To make a decision we must consider a number of factors, including:

The more vulnerable your hand is (due to the number of opponents and texture of the flop) and the larger the pot, the more you should be inclined to protect your hand if possible.  This may mean betting out, raising or checkraising, depending on your position relative to a preflop raiser.

Similarly, if you have a viable draw with vulnerable outs such as weak overcards (for example a queen-high flush draw) you may wish to protect these by raising.  This may cause someone with a weak ace (say) to fold which may promote your hand to a winner if you miss your draw but a queen comes on the turn or river.

If the pot is small and your hand is possibly best and unlikely to be outdrawn if it is (for example, a split pair of aces with no kicker) then it may be best to simply call. In this case you want to encourage callers with worse hands to build the pot, whilst at the same time not committing too much money in case you’re outkicked.

If the flop is very coordinated and you hold a good but not great made hand with little hope of improving (such as a low overpair) against several opponents, it may be better to just call a flop bet and see what comes on the turn.  This is because in these circumstances your hand is particularly likely to be outdrawn (if you’re not behind already) and you may well not have the most equity in the pot, even though you likely have the currently strongest poker hand.  If you raise and a strong draw jams the pot in this case, you actually LOSE money on each additional bet you contribute to the pot. If a blank comes on the turn you can then consider protecting your hand when you can charge the draws the maximum to do so.

Sometimes it isn’t possible to protect your hand, even though you’d like to.  This may occur if a number of opponents have already paid a single bet to see the flop and you are acting last.  In this case a raise is almost certain to be called, since most people will call a single raise after paying one bet to see the flop.  This doesn’t mean you necessarily shouldn’t raise, just that it won’t protect your hand if you do.  (Your raise may buy you a free card on the turn, for example.)

Also, if the pot is extremely large so that even very weak 2 or 3 out draws can call profitably, a raise may not protect your hand.  If it’s not possible to protect your hand then you should simply raise your very strong, robust hands and call, check or fold your weak or vulnerable hands.  Notice that this is the exact opposite strategy to that when your hand is probably best but vulnerable.

If after careful consideration you think your hand is particularly vulnerable and the pot is small, you should often just fold and be done with it, even if there is some chance that your hand may be best at the moment.  If you’re going to play, you want to be the one with either a strong made hand that is unlikely to be outdrawn, or the best draw.  Most new players (and a fair number of experienced ones) call too often on the flop.

Note that these examples are not intended to be exhaustive.  The point I’m trying to make is that thinking on the flop is not as simple as “I have top pair, therefore I raise”, or “I have a flush draw, therefore I call”.  To make money playing this game you have to think on a deeper level than this.

Notice the importance of the size of the pot in any decision you make.  This factor alone can change completely the way you choose to play a hand.

Question 2: If I don’t think I have the best hand, do I have the odds to chase?

I’ve discussed in an earlier article the factors that must be considered when deciding whether or not to draw.  We count our outs, discounting where necessary and compare our implied pot odds with the odds against improving to the best hand.

It’s important to remember when drawing that it’s your IMPLIED odds you need to consider, not just the immediate pot odds.  Also, don’t go overboard when discounting your outs.  In particular it’s rare to discount a strong draw by more than a couple of outs, even if the board is paired or otherwise scary and you’re facing many opponents.

As a rule of thumb it’s almost always correct to draw on the flop with 7 outs or more, even if you have to pay two bets to do so.  With strong draws you can even bet for value if you can guarantee callers.

With 4 to 6 outs the pot usually has to be fairly large to continue, and with fewer outs this is obviously even truer.  Don’t forget to count outs for your backdoor draws, although these alone are rarely enough to continue.

Question 3: If I can draw, would it be better to raise?

If you have an easy call to chase, it’s always worth considering a raise.  If your raise causes a better hand that would have beaten you to fold this is a major coup, particularly if the pot is large.

Question 4: Am I likely to be raised behind?

As I discussed in my earlier article on playing draws, if you have a close decision and you think it’s likely you’ll be raised behind you should consider folding.  This is because a raise will lower the pot odds you thought you were receiving on a call.


If you are new to the game, the thinking process outlined in this article may seem somewhat daunting.  All I can say is that the more you play and the more you read and discuss the hands you play, the easier this thinking process becomes.  Don’t forget, you can register for free and post hand histories from your games on the Low Limit Poker Forum to receive constructive criticism on your play from experienced players.

It’s important to note that in tighter games against tough players the thinking process becomes even more complex, since most pots are contested shorthanded and more players will bluff or semibluff.  At this level knowing your opponent is especially important.  However, at the lower and middle limits where the games tend to be looser, you’re still going to have to showdown the best hand to win most of the time.  The thinking process outlined above is a good start.

If you take nothing else from this article, I hope I’ve convinced you that playing on ‘autopilot’ is not a winning strategy.  If you play like this against reasonable opponents you’ll leave a lot of money on the table.  Also, who the hell wants to play like a robot?  Where’s the fun or the challenge in that?  Leave the ‘systems’ to the losers and the fools, and start to really THINK about the game.  You’ll be glad you did.