If everyone’s only goal playing poker were to make money, you would expect deviations from optimal strategy to be random, sporadic, and unpredictable. This isn’t the case. Rather, certain kinds of mistakes are extremely common and widespread. I think this is because very few people are naturally wired for poker. The most profitable ways to play are usually not obvious or intuitive. Rather than trying to maximize their expected value, most people (consciously or not) make plays for other reasons: for fun, to prove they’re smart, out of fear, and so on. With that in mind I’ve decided to start a series on the most common mistakes I see and how to correct them.
There seems to be an unwritten rule of live poker that when you have the nuts, you must check. This is known as slow-playing. If you have very little experience playing poker, this probably seems strange. Why not bet when you know you have the best hand? In this case, your first reaction would be more sensible than the approach of many experienced players.
I think the reason that people are so attracted to slow-playing is that they see poker as a game of deception. When they are weak, they want to appear strong, and when they are strong, they want to appear weak. But thinking for a moment longer raises some obvious questions. In a world where everyone slow-plays the nuts, wouldn’t it me more deceptive, in fact, to fast-play the nuts? An “opposite” strategy of betting weak and checking strong is no more deceptive than a straightforward strategy, it’s just flipped around. To be genuinely deceptive you have to be capable of playing weak and strong hands the same way. For whatever reason, most of these thoughts never occur to many players. They get stuck on what could be described as level one deception.
I wonder to what extent the obsession with slow-playing is directly attributable to the movie Rounders. In the climactic scene, Matt Damon flops the nuts and slow-plays it all the way, causing John Malkovich to shriek in an insane Russian accent, “THIS SON OF BITCH ALL NIGHT HE CHECK, CHECK, CHECK. HE TRICKED ME!!!” Needless to say no slow-play in the history of actual poker has worked to such satisfying effect.
To take the 1000-foot view, when you have the nuts, you want to get as much money in the pot as possible. In general, betting is a better way to get money in the pot than checking. The hope with checking is that you trick your opponent into thinking that you’re weak, causing them to put more bets in later. This is sort of like a double-reverse in football: it looks cool when it works, but there are a lot of ways it can go wrong and it’s not a good idea to try it very often.
Because bets are usually considered in terms of fraction of the pot, it becomes much more difficult to play a big pot if you miss a street of betting. If there is $100 in the pot on the flop, you bet $75, and your opponent calls, there will be $250 in on the turn. You can then quite reasonably bet $200, less than the size of the pot, and still represent a wide range of hands. If you check the flop, then try to put the whole $275 in on the turn, you’re betting nearly three times the pot. Your opponent will rightly be suspicious that you have a very strong hand. If you want to play a big pot, you usually need to start building the pot early.
If you find yourself strongly attracted to slow-playing, you may need to re-think your approach to the game on a fundamental level. For reference, with two unpaired hole cards, you flop a pair or better about one in three times; two pair or better about one in 50; and a full house less than one in 1000. In other words, nutted hands don’t come along very often. This is why playing aggressively and fighting for pots is a good strategy: it’s rare that someone has a hand they’re really happy putting in a lot of money with. By applying pressure you can win many pots without showdown.
Let’s look at a situation where many people feel slow-playing is not only advisable, but nearly mandatory: when you flop a full house. As we know, flopping a full-house is incredibly unlikely. In fact, flopping anything on a paired board is pretty unlikely. When the flop comes out paired, there are only five cards left in the deck that make a pair with the cards on the board. When you’re betting on a paired board, your opponent should suspect you have nothing. Accordingly, if he has nothing, he should try to re-bluff you sometimes. Playing paired boards is like having a standing date for a banana fight, but once a year, you get to roll up with a gun. You don’t call the fight off on that day. (In case this comparison isn’t crystal clear, the gun is when you actually have a full house.) If you’re in the mindset of fighting for pots, it doesn’t make much sense to stop betting on the rare times when you actually have a monster hand.
That’s the theoretical case against slow-playing. In practice, it’s even worse, because most live line-ups are very poorly suited to slow-playing. The most common type of opponent in low- to mid-stakes live poker is loose-passive. This player type calls too much and doesn’t fold, bet, or raise enough. If you bet your big hands, they will call with hands they’re supposed to fold; but if you check them, they won’t bet, even when they’re supposed to.
So does that mean you should never slow-play? No, it’s an important part of your overall strategy, especially against aggressive players. When you check you don’t want your opponents to know for sure that you can’t have a strong hand, so you should be capable of slow-playing big hands every now and then. Like many things in poker, it comes down to frequencies. Many players slow-play their monsters usually; you ought to slow-play them occasionally.