The concept of a playing zone is one that’s frequently alluded to by poker players, theorists, pundits, and writers, because it facilitates decision-making during a hand by focusing in on how likely some cards are to help opponents, while understanding that others might not help them at all.
Here’s an example. Suppose you’re playing in the hold’em orbit of a HORSE game and have been dealt A-Q in the big blind. Someone raises and you call, along with a few other players. The flop is Q-J-T, and for this example we’ll assume the possibilities of a flush are non-existent.
With your cards and this flop, how do you like your hand? While you’ve flopped top pair with top kicker, there’s a dark cloud gathering too. Those three cards that flopped are all in the playing zone — that area where many other active players are likely to have holdings.
With a sequenced flop of high cards coming on the heels of a raise, your top-pair, top-kicker combination might already be a big underdog. Even if you’re not losing the race right now, there are rafts of turn cards that can kill you.
You’d love to see a king jump out of the deck on the turn, since it’s the only perfectly safe card you can catch. But it has a downside too. Anyone with as little as a naked ace would chop the pot with you.
An ace on the turn gives you two pair, but kills you if any of your opponents were in the hand with a pair of kings or a hand like K-10. Even a queen would be a mixed blessing, because the trip queens you’d make might already be bested if any of your adversaries flopped a straight or a set. You’re in trouble, dude. It’s about as bad as things could be considering that you flopped the usually joy-provoking top pair, top kicker.
In fact, if this were a no-limit game instead of fixed-limit hold’em, any bet ought to terrify you, and your top-pair, top-kicker hand — a holding that you can never be certain of unless you turn a Broadway straight — is probably not a winning hand. Even if you’re ahead right now, there are too many ways you can be beaten, too many opportunities to be behind right now, and it’s far too likely that this kind of second-best hand can cost you a bundle when you lose, but win you only a small pot if you have the best hand now and survive to the river.
Even with the fixed-limit betting in a HORSE game, this situation is not really a good one. And it’s worse in a tournament, where you run the risk of burning off a truckload of irreplaceable chips on a very dicey hand.
Now take a look at a somewhat different set of circumstances. All the players are the same and you’re still holding A-Q, but this time the flop is Q-7-2. Now top pair with top kicker looks a lot sweeter. While you’re still running behind the preflop raiser if he has a pair of aces or kings, you are not at all in jeopardy to much else. Anyone who called the raise before the flop with a smaller pair than queens, or with connectors like A-K, K-Q, Q-J, J-10, or other generally playable hands, is an underdog and likely to throw his hand away, leaving you and the guy who raised to duke it out heads up.
Sure, you could be skewered if someone was playing Q-7, Q-2, or even 7-2, but most sane players are going to avoid those hands the majority of the time. Your only real danger is if one of your opponents flopped a set of sevens or deuces, because by the time you arrive at the conclusion that he might have three-of-a-kind, it will have cost you some chips and there’s really not much that can be done about it. Still, this scenario is a lot safer for you than the previous one because the board was not coordinated, and two of the three cards that flopped were far outside of the playing zone.
But poker is never as simple as it first appears. Suppose you were in a loose, passive, low-limit hold’em round of a HORSE game — where seven or eight players routinely see the flop. In a game like this, the playing zone is very different. In fact, in a game that’s loose enough, the playing zone often embraces the entire deck. Players are liable to turn up with any kind of hand, and losing to an opponent who runs down your A-Q with a hand like Q-2 because he was fortunate enough to catch one of three remaining deuces on the river might be exasperating, but it’s not all that uncommon.
We’ll continue with more about the playing zone next time.
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Lou Krieger is the editor of Poker Player Newspaper. He’s the author of more than 400 articles on poker strategy and 11 books on poker. He can also be heard on the internet radio show, “Keep Flopping Aces” which airs Thursday night at 9 p.m. Eastern Time (6 p.m. Pacific) on www.roundersradio.com.