The Killer Poker Hold’em Handbook: Excerpt

The Killer Poker Hold’em Handbook: A Workbook for Winners
by John Vorhaus


killer poker holdem handbook

LPOP stands for “little pairs out of position.” Let’s take a look at them and see how the play of them can be a seductive loser, a leak in our games that we can stand to plug. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll define little pairs as anything below pocket eights, and out of position as anywhere from under the gun to middle position.

When you play LPOP, you’re hoping for an outcome parlay; that is, you need a number of related outcomes to occur. Here’s everything you’re hoping for:

  1. You get sufficient callers.
  2. You face no raises.
  3. You flop a set.
  4. Your hand holds up.

Let’s examine each of these parlay parts in turn.

You’re under the gun with 4-4. Since you’re looking to hit a set on the flop, your 7.5-1 shot certainly needs a bunch of customers to justify the call. In a perfect world, you’ll limp in and have a full field limp in behind you. But realistically, in what kind of hold’em game do you consistently see seven smooth callers and no raisers? So you look beyond the initial odds to implied odds. You figure that on subsequent rounds you’ll make enough money to justify your initial call. Oh, really? Suppose everyone drops but the small and big blinds. Now you’re getting a 2-1 ROI on a 7.5-1 shot. That won’t change. If you hit your set, you’ll collect more bets on later streets, but you’ll only accrue them at the same 2-1 rate — or less if one of your opponents folds. And you must make this calculation based on hitting your set on the flop only, not on the turn or river, since if you miss the flop and face any heat at all, you’re going to have to let the hand go.

So here’s the first danger of LPOP. You need a lot of callers, and you have to make your own commitment before you know whether you’re going to get them or not. If you have a solid read on the players downstream — if you know them to be loose and passive — you may be able to predict the outcome you need. That is, you may know them to be prepared to call, and not raise, with unpaired wheelhouse cards. But what if they’re holding better than that? Don’t forget, in a full game an average of two hands will have a pair or an ace. Which brings us to the second point in our parlay: They might raise.

Suppose you limp with your 4-4 and someone raises behind you. In the best of circumstances, the raiser is frisky and out of line, and all the callers are loose and clueless. For example, someone raises with A-2 offsuit and a lot of people call two bets cold with hands like Q-2 suited and T-8 offsuit. Get that kind of outcome and you can probably justify throwing in another bet of your own. But how can you count on that kind of outcome? Raises don’t mean nothing, and cold-calls don’t mean nothing. Downstream action of this sort is self-selecting: It defines your opponents’ hands as the type that might very well dominate your own. Granted, against A-K, you’re about even money, but against any bigger pocket pair, you’ll lose more than 80% of the time.

A typical single-raise situation would likely look like this: You flat-call in early position with 4?-4?. Someone raises behind you with T?-T?. A J?-Q? calls, as does an A?-9?. The small blind folds, but the big blind calls with 8?-7?. How do you like your pocket fours now? Against this exact field, you’ll win a whopping 15% of the time — and that’s only if you hit a four on the flop, because, again, if you miss on the flop you probably can’t go further into the hand.

The seductive menace here is how attractive the pot looks when you’re called upon to call a single raise. Suppose the person to your left raises and there are four callers (including both blinds) by the time it gets back to you. You’d be putting a single small bet into a pot containing 11 small bets. Who doesn’t like 11-1 odds, right? That’s an overlay to your 7.5-1 odds against hitting your set on the flop. You should be in business, right?

Wrong. Your total preflop contribution to this pot is two small bets, for a 5-1 ROI against a 7.5-1 shot. You wouldn’t be faced with this “favorable” call if you hadn’t made a mistake in the first place. There’s a technical phrase for this circumstance. It’s called throwing good money after bad. By promiscuously playing LPOP, you’ve maneuvered yourself into a situation where calling the raise seems like a good investment, but viewed in the context of the hand as a whole, it is not.

In short, if there’s a reasonable chance of a real hand making a real raise behind you, your little pairs out of position become an untenable proposition.

But what if you hit parts one and two of your parlay? Suppose you’ve gotten a lot of callers and no raisers. Though you’re seeing the flop under the most favorable possible circumstances, you still need to hit to win. Ideally, you’ll hit a flop like A-K-4 and get paid off by all those naked aces and kings. Or maybe the flop will come 4-9-T. This flop gives you plenty of room to move. You can check, hoping that someone behind you will bet with middle pair, good kicker, or even bluff into your stealthy set. Then you can check-raise, either here or on the turn or river, and maximize your advantage of flopping a set.

More often — much more often — you’ll find yourself staring at a four-free flop like A-J-6 or 7-8-8. Now you have no wiggle room. All you can do is check, fold if they bet, and minimize your loss on the hand. And that’s the choice you’ll face almost 90% of the time. But you still have two outs, right? You could hit a four on the turn or the river, and in many circumstances that would be a winning hand.

Once again, a rough calculation of the odds can be a siren’s song to further involvement. Driven by the desire to see this thing through, we add our pot odds and our implied odds, plus our frequent flier miles and rebate coupons and time off for good behavior and, lo and behold, we almost have a call. Assuming we need a four to win, and assuming that a four will win, we have two outs two times, roughly 8%, and if we’ve gotten six preflop and six post-flop callers to put 13 small bets into the pot, why, that’s all the pot odds we need.

In what kind of fantasyland do we get six preflop and six post-flop callers — without any of them (or many of them) slow-playing made hands or else drawing fat? We’re working so hard to finesse the numbers to the point where we don’t lose money on the hand — a circumstance we’d have had for sure if we just hadn’t called in the first place. And that’s really the point here: More often than not, LPOP digs us into a hole we can avoid by just laying down that hand at the start.

But, hey, dreams do come true, right? So let’s say we got lots of calls and no raises preflop, and then flopped a delightful 4-8-Q rainbow. We don’t put anyone on pocket queens because we’d have heard about that before the flop. And when we bet and no one raises, we figure that pocket eights aren’t out against us either. Now all we have to do is survive the turn and the river, and we can bring this bad boy home.

We sure hope no one is in there with J-T, drawing to an inside straight, because if a 9 hits we’ll have to pay it off.

But J-T is exactly the sort of hand we hoped would call preflop.

We sure hope no one is in there with Q-8, because then a queen or an eight would murder us with a bigger full house.

But Q-8 is exactly the sort of hand we hope will stick around.

We sure hope no one is in there with a pair of fives, seducing themselves into drawing to two outs.

But 5-5 is exactly the sort of hand we hope will continue to call to the river.

Yes, our set of fours is a big favorite against any of these holdings. It’s even a slight favorite against all three taken together. But look how many excellent outcomes we need in order to reach this advantageous spot: loose, weak play preflop; a perfect flop; and now many opponents making many mistakes between here and the river. Oh, and not sucking out. If everything breaks our way, our four-part parlay comes through and we win the pot.

What an uphill climb.

If you never call with LPOP, then this discussion doesn’t apply to you. But if you do call, if you ever have called, ask yourself why. It’s not a favorable situation, and you probably knew it wasn’t a favorable situation before this labored deconstruction. Could it be that you just wanted the action? Could it be that you picked up a little pair and thought about how good you’d feel if your hand hit? It’s been that way for me — more times than I can count. Moral of the story: Even the most conscious and conscientious players let their feelings guide their choices from time to time. It’s human nature. It’s why we play cards in the first place.

And it’s why I take such pains to analyze the play of LPOP. So that the next time I pick up a small pair under the gun, I’ll have a weapon to use against that desire to just feel good. I’ll have a painful scenario to remind me that the best thing I can do, most of the time, is just slide that pair in the muck.

Look, I’m not a fan of hard and fast rules. We all know that the words “it depends” inform any hold’em analysis. But how much trouble could you get into if you never played little pairs out of position? Do you honestly think your win rate would go down? At least try this: For your whole next session, throw away every LPOP you see, and see how that makes you feel.

It might make you feel all the good you need.

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