In his book The Theory Of Poker, David Sklansky posits that you make money when your opponents play differently than they would if they could see your cards. This “fundamental theorem of poker” means that if you bluff and your opponent folds their better hand, you win. If you can get your opponent to give you more money when they’ve got improper odds, you win. It seems fairly obvious, but it’s still a challenge to properly maximize your money when you’re holding a big hand in limit hold ’em.
Traditional poker wisdom says it fairly plainly: raise your big hands before the flop. However, this frequently leads more skittish players to fold and thus ends up with you holding just the blinds or maybe one or two smaller bets that ended up in the pot before you made your play. You should instead consider checking or limping in before the flop to get other players to commit.
By checking, you immediately create deception in regards to the cards that you’re holding and that increases the likelihood of getting paid off by second best hands. This also keeps the pot smaller and makes it possible to lull other players into calling with improper odds. These two factors are closely related, since it’s obvious that players who call your bets with the second best hand are making a mistake, but the second reason is directly concerned with pot odds. Are these hands getting the correct odds to call and see the next card? If so, then you haven’t actually induced a mistake, which is what you want to do.
Let’s break down a hand so you can understand how you can best benefit and unveil Sklansky’s theorem in full force. You’re in the big blind with pocket rockets and a middle position player limps in. The guy after him also limps in and is followed by the button and the small blind. If you raised and all three players called with a flop like 9h4hTd, you might think you are still in the lead but this allows the middle position player to build two pair between the flop and the turn.
This might look like another suck-out, but the middle position player had odds that allowed him to chase. When you lead going into the flop, the pot had 11 small bets; hence the middle position player getting 11 to 1 pot odds to chase two pair or trip 9s. He’s got five possible cards to improve and that’s going to happen 10.64% of the time on the turn. The middle position player is actually correct to call your initial bet and certainly the button’s raise. On the turn, the pot has nine big bets and the middle position player gets 9 to 1 pot odds to call your lead bet. He knows that he’s going to improve 10.87% of the time on the river. This means his odds to improve are 8.2 to 1, giving the correct pot odds to chase on the turn. Raising preflop, as traditional wisdom suggests, led to a situation in which that middle position player gets correct odds to chase with only second pair and a bad kicker.
According to Sklansky’s fundamental theorem of poker, you make money when opponents make mistakes; hence you make money by keeping the pot small initially and then leading him into a situation where he only has 6 to 1 odds with an 8.4 to 1 chance to make the hand he needs to win. Yes, you make money when the pot is large, but you don’t need to tip your hand immediately.