H.O.R.S.E. Poker Strategy: In the Mix -- Lines in Limit Hold'em
I've written about it before, but it's worth reiterating: if you want to succeed in games like H.O.R.S.E., you need to be able to adjust to the fixed-limit form of hold'em. There is a big enough difference from its no-limit counterpart that you can't just automatically expect the skills to translate well. They don't.
I happen to play more than my share of limit hold'em, but being on the road half of the year means that it can be difficult for me to get time in at live tables against live opponents. I was back in Las Vegas this week after not playing for several weeks and made my way to the Bellagio. I admit that the Bellagio isn't my favorite place to play poker in Las Vegas, but if you want limit hold'em action that's anything bigger than $4/8, there are very, very few other places to play — and the games at those other places don't always go. Bellagio can at least be relied upon to always have a bunch of LHE tables in action at stakes that are actually relevant for something other than buying a burger and a beer with your winnings.
I had been in the game about twenty minutes when I was dealt in middle position and opened the action with a raise. Everyone passed to the big blind, an older gentleman who had joined the table after I did. He looked down at his cards and then called my raise, bringing the two of us to a flop of . Naturally I was quite happy with this flop, even more so when the big blind led into me. There are two lines that I could have taken from this point: (1) the very-standard "top-top" line of raise the flop to get money into the pot where I'm almost certain I'm ahead, or (2) the slightly fancier "slow play / call the flop" line in the hopes of raising the turn since there are very few cards on the turn that will scare me. Generally speaking, I don't often advocate slow-playing in limit hold'em, especially not a hand as weak as two pair. But I was a bit rusty after some long weeks at the Aussie Millions and the Asian Poker Tour and I was feeling greedy. I opted for the latter line in the hopes of getting a raise in on the turn.
The turn was a total blank but my opponent, perhaps sensing that he was being set up, checked the action to me. This, of course, is the danger of taking the second line; you may miss a bet. Profit in any form of poker comes from maximizing your winnings and minimizing your losses. That's especially true in fixed-limit betting scenarios, where you can only get a finite amount of money into the pot at any one time. In any event, I dutifully fired a bet into the pot with a hand that still figured to be best.
You will imagine my surprise when the big blind check-raised me. It was completely unexpected. He couldn't possibly be check-raising with just a queen there, could he? Yet the probability of a four in his hand seemed so unlikely, especially given his line. It was one of those situations where I was confused enough that I decided to call down for information. I don't recommend taking this approach on a regular basis with every opponent that faces you across a poker table as it can become very costly. This, however, was one of those instances where I just *had* to know.
I wound up saving a bet when the river brought a third diamond that we both checked. My opponent turned over for what I thought was a well-played trip fours. (You can debate the merits all you want of his preflop call of a raise from middle position with an unsuited ace-four.)
Many times when players flop a hand like this — in both fixed-limit and no-limit hold'em — their primary instinct is to slow-play it. Especially in a heads-up pot, the danger of being outdrawn seems so remote and often the preflop aggressor will follow through on the flop with a bet, whether he's caught a piece of the board or not. That doesn't look at things from the opposite side, however. If I'm the guy with the trips, I might think to myself "If I bet here, it may disguise my hand even more than check-calling or check-raising." After all, so many players will slow-play trips in this spot!
Of course there's the danger that if you bet into your opponent with your trips, and he's completely missed the board, he'll fold. But if that's also true, you will probably only get one small bet out of him by check-calling or check-raising. On the other hand, when he has a piece of the board (or a pair in the hole), you will often get far more value out of this straightforward play of betting your hand. Notice that the check on the turn by my opponent was also a good play for a player out of position. It indicated weakness that many aggressive opponents will attempt to take advantage of with a bet on the turn.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to put my newfound and paid-for information on my opponent's play to much use. About a half hour after the end, a friend turned up who was in town for one night only. She was hungry and wanted some dessert, so I racked up my chips and cashed out. The Bellagio games, after all, will always be there.