Poker strategy: If you think you’re beat, call!

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Something I like to talk to students about is listening to the betting story. Betting is the language of poker and it’s how we communicate during any given hand. Each hand is a conversation and we use the dialogue to form opinions about players (and what they’re trying to tell us) just as we do in life. Once we understand the tone and what certain words (bets, checks, raises) mean, we can interpret this information and decide how to respond (call, raise, fold).

So, most of the time, I tell my fellow poker players and students that when the betting story tells you you’re beat, you have to fold. You just have to let it go and look for a better spot. Your hand just simply can’t be good based on the action in this hand and what your opponent is “telling” you, so release that losing hand straight into the muck and move on to the next conversation that might be more pleasing to your ears. But, what if you’re wrong? What if you’re misinterpreting the story? How do you really know you’re beat? You may not always know for sure, but the best way that I know how to develop this skill is pretty simple. If you think you’re beat … CALL!

Why on Earth would I be telling you to call if you think you’re beat? Because unless you’re playing with someone who’s going to show their cards every time you fold, you’re never going to hone the skills and confidence to make the right calls and laydowns in critical situations.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you call for all of your chips with just one pair at the final table of the World Series of Poker when the betting story is telling you your pair shouldn’t be good (sound familiar?). But when you’re playing in a small buy-in tournament and the situation allows you to not risk too many chips to find out if your read is correct, then by all means make the call. It’s worth the information.

Here’s an example from a recent tournament I played in Atlantic City. Blinds were 100-200 and I was in late position in a five-way limped pot with {5-Hearts}{5-Spades}. The big blind (who checked his option) led out for 200 on a {9-Clubs}{3-Diamonds}{4-Diamonds} board. The other players folded and the action was on me. I just couldn’t put the player on a 9 only betting 20 percent of the pot. To be honest, I was confused and really thought there was a chance I was good and it was just a weak player with a 3 or 4. The turn was the {8-Clubs} and he bet 200 again. Hmmm. Did he flop a set? Does he have 8-9? Well, that doesn’t make much sense either since he bet so small yet again with the two diamonds out there – 200 into a 1,400 pot. I’m just too curious and want information on this player – plus my fives might be good anyway.

So, the river brought the {8-Hearts} and my opponent led out for 500. What in the world can I beat now? Not much, except a big-blind special 3-4 that I just bested with a better two pair. But, his betting line was too strange for me. I really wanted the information about what hand this player was playing so strangely. I’m pretty sure I have to be beat, unless he’s completely insane, so I made the obvious choice (to me) and called. He tabled 10-10 and I happily mucked, getting a wealth of information from this player in the process. I was surely beat there, but with plenty of chips behind, the information I gained about his lack of experience and huge betting-pattern tell of betting small when he wanted a call was definitely worth the cost. I could use that information when we got deeper in the tournament.

Sometimes when I’m playing online, especially in a warmup period before playing small live buy-in tournaments, I will intentionally make calls that may even risk my tournament life just so I can test my reads. By doing this, and by making calls during a tournament when I can get valuable information without risking too many chips, I really feel I can increase my confidence in my reads and make a crucial laydown or call when the stakes are high.

How many times have you seen Daniel Negreanu put a player on an exact hand – a hand that beats him – and still make the call? Why does he do that? Well, I think it’s for the same reason. You’ll also see him make incredible laydowns a lot of people can’t make because he has invested the time and chips throughout his career to put together the betting story and make the investment to ensure he’s right, even though he thinks he’s beat.

There are only so many mannerisms, words and actions an opponent can throw at you during the “conversations” that take place at the table. The more time you spend ensuring you know what people are truly saying, the better you’ll understand each story you encounter. Making an investment at lower stakes or when your chip stack is healthy will improve your overall recall abilities and help you gain the confidence to make the right laydowns or calls when the time is right.

Decide to Win!

— Lee Childs is founder and lead instructor of Acumen Poker. He also is an instructor with the WPT Boot Camp. Check out his site at www.acumenpoker.net.