Maximizing Value and the Myth of “Protecting a Hand”

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One of the most important things in No Limit Holdem is to get maximum value on your hands. One common misconception limits the value a player can get, and that is the idea of “protecting a hand.” Getting as close to maximum value as possible on hands often determines whether a player late in a tournament has an average to below average stack or a big stack.

The concept of protecting hands is that when a player has a good but vulnerable hand, he should make a large bet to force out draws and take the pot down. This is done to limit the chance of being drawn out on. The reason the myth was likely originally created was to help beginners understand that they should bet their hands, and that they should bet enough so that they don’t give good odds to other players to draw out.

This is also done to help beginners understand that doing silly things like limping behind 3 players with AA to trap postflop or checking on the button in a 4 way pot with 98 on a As9s8x board is a bad idea. Once a player understands the basics of not giving players good odds to draw out and not attempting to trap in situations where getting outdrawn is likely (and probably more importantly, situations where you’d likely be able to build a bigger pot by betting), the concept of protecting a hand should be dumped and fully replaced by doing your best to maximize the value you can get.

While you should never attempt to give a player proper odds to call you, your goal with the best hand should be to bet the most that you can while still getting called. Big hands don’t come along all that often in no limit holdem, so it’s vital to do your best to get good value when you do make a hand. If you have AQ on a board like Qs7s2x and a player has a flush draw, you should really be wanting them to call. Assuming they have Ax suited or two suited cards lower than a K without a pair, they only roughly have a 36% chance of making the best hand, so if they are willing to call a 2/3 to pot sized bet on the flop and a 2/3 of the pot sized bet on the turn, you’ll be winning a very sizable pot the vast majority of the time, and hopefully you’ll be able to limit your losses as much as possible when they do make the best hand (such as checking behind on the turn when the flush draw hits).

In the above example, let’s say the blinds are 100/200, you have a stack of 5500, and your opponent has a stack of 12000. You raise to 600 preflop from UTG+2, and the BB calls. Again, you have AQ and the flop comes Qs7s2x. 1300 is in the pot on the flop, you bet 900, and the BB calls. The turn comes a red 4, and there is now 3100 in the pot, with you having 4000 left in your stack. By far the most likely hands the BB has here are a flush draw, a lower Q, or a 7 (something like T7-75). Using a rough estimate of your opponents chances to win with this range of holdings of 12%, even with the implied odds of getting your stack at the river if he does hit, he is only getting the right price if you bet less than 1452. A player using the concept of protecting your hand and minimizing risk would likely just go all in on the turn, which would likely chase out every worse hand besides perhaps a lower Q. However, if the player instead bets around 2000, he’s much more likely to get a bad call from the BB (or even better, be put all in), and will not only win more in the long run–it’s also possible that he’ll get paid off again on the river if the BB has or makes a pair, due to the large pot odds that he’d then be facing (2500 into a pot of 12100).

Another way this myth can be harmful is in situations where checking is the best (and perhaps only) way of getting action on a big hand. This is often where you either have the deck crippled (such as AK on an AAK flop), or, more interestingly, when the stack sizes dictate that a player is likely to move in with nothing if you show weakness.

Here’s an example of the latter from a recent play of mine: The blinds are 400/800, I have a stack of just over 19,000, and the BB has a stack of 7,000. I have KK one before the cutoff, I raise to 2400, and the BB calls. The flop comes AT8 rainbow, and the BB checks to me. Given the size of the stacks compared to the blinds, the differences in our stack sizes, the pot odds, and the likelihood that the BB would’ve reraised all in preflop with an ace in his hand, there’s no way I’m going to fold this after the flop. So my options are to either put the opponent all in or to look to check and call. If I put the opponent in, he’d surely call with an A or a T, but he’d likely fold if he doesn’t have a pair or a draw. However, if I check, there’s a good chance that he’ll move all in with any holding on the turn, hoping that I don’t have anything and fold. I checked, and he moved all in on the turn. I called, of course, and he was drawing dead.

A couple weeks ago, I also had a similar hand where I raised with AA and the BB called, with the BB having a big stack and me only having roughly 10xBB after the preflop action. The flop came 442, he checked to me, and I checked as well. The turn was a 7, and he checked to me again. I couldn’t see how he’d have any piece of this flop or any draw, meaning that it would be impossible to get any action by betting. My only hope was that my second check would look very weak, and that he’d either bluff on the river or catch a pair there. The river was a blank, and the BB put me all in with Q high. A player playing with the concept of trying to protect their hand without thinking about the specific situation they’re in would likely never check twice with pocket aces, and they would thereby lose out on the added value here of possibly getting action on a later street when the opponent is likely drawing dead.