It’s before the flop; you’re little blind and have AKo in hand. The Under the Gun has been incredibly passive all game — but suddenly he opens 4x. The Middle Player, also a tight one, decides to 3-bet. Now the Cutoff 4-bets, and the BTN jams all-in.
What do you do?
One of the hardest things to learn for new poker players is the concept of laying down a strong hand. It can seem counterintuitive and counterproductive. This is what gambling is, right? Trusting in the strength of a good hand and folding or bluffing only on the weak ones?
The truth is, anyone who can’t lay down a strong hand can’t play.
There are two key concepts at play here:
1) Absolute hand strength and relative hand strength can be very different things.
2) Not wasting your money is just as good to your bottom line as winning money.
To avoid wasting our money, we must understand the concept of absolute and relative hand strength.
Absolute Vs Relative Hand Strength
“Absolute hand strength” refers to how strong a given hand is without any other consideration. It amounts to looking at a reference sheet of which hand is stronger and saying “Well, this hand is high up, so it’s good.”
In our above example, AKo is a strong opening hand.
But let’s look at relative strength. That’s when we start to take into account what’s actually on the board, and what other combinations are possible.
Before the flop, there are no cards on the table — but others could still have a pair of aces, or AKs. Your hand is strong, but relatively weak compared to them. You obviously can’t see these hands, but knowing how the others have played the rest of the game can give you a clue.
Or, to make the example clearer, you’ve got your AKo in your hand; the turn has just happened, and now you’re looking at AK109. You’ve now got two pair, and it’s a strong two pair.
But now someone else could fill in a flush and beat you. Relative to the options presented by the board, two pair could turn out to be quite weak.
Knowing When to Lay Down a Strong Hand
Still, the temptation is high to keep the strong hand. This is a game of chance; there’s also the possibility that nobody has the cards needed to make the flush and beat you. Calling down lets us get away with never having to fold the best hand.
We can also quickly get sent to the poorhouse following this logic. Suffice to say, we can’t rely on this way of thinking.
So, how do we identify the ideal time to say goodbye to that monster hand we’ve been nursing for a while now?
Let’s go back to our initial example. You have AKo. Under the Gun, Middle Player, Cutoff and Button have all been very nitty this game. They aren’t known for making strong bets. But now suddenly CO and BTN are betting big — going all in, even.
It’s entirely possible that UTG was bluffing, but it’s very likely that the CO and BTN have premium hands ready to play. The fact they’ve played so conservatively, but are now making large bets, speaks volumes.
It could still be a whole table of bluffing, but ask yourself — with the possible combinations available, and the betting history of the players around you, what’s more likely?
Lay down the AKo and sit this one out.
Let’s look at another example.
You 3-bet AK in position, and get a top pair on a K 7 2 rainbow flop. We have a passive villain who checks to us; we c-bet; he raises. Passive players won’t ever be bluffing here and we can expect to see a set or even two pair. Even if we go ahead and call this check raise, if villain shoves on the turn then it’s an easy fold. Many players will never fold top pair top kicker or better in a 3-bet pot – don’t be one of them.
Pro Tip: Look For Reasons to Fold
Defeatist, counter-intuitive, counterproductive — whatever you think of the sentiment to look for reasons to fold, there’s no denying it’s a top skill to develop. Learn how to get away from hands you would have otherwise always continued with in the past. Learn how to lay down the monster and improve your bottom line simply by not wasting money.
The key is to pay attention to the other players and how they play different hand types. A notoriously nitty player suddenly betting big and raising is a massive clue. Keep mental notes about how players respond to different draws.
Ultimately, the ability to lay down a good hand means that when a decision is close, you’ll have the self-restraint to save valuable chips that make amazing win rates possible.