First Position Play in Practice

Let us now see how first-position play heads-up on the end works in practice.

Suppose in draw poker you draw three cards in first position and make aces up. Your opponent draws one card. He may have two pair, or he may be drawing to a straight or a flush. You feel that this type of player will call with two pair if you bet but will bet them for value if you check. How should you play?

There's no mystery here. Clearly you should check and call. By checking and calling, you may save a bet in one situation and gain a bet in another. With two pair, your opponent will call if you bet and bet if you check. So you win either way. If your opponent was drawing to a flush or a straight and makes it, he will of course bet if you check, but he will call, or probably raise, if you bet - which will cost you an extra bet if you call the raise. With a busted hand, your opponent will not call if you bet, so you gain nothing by betting. However, your opponent might bet on a bluff if you check. In this single instance you win an extra bet by checking and calling. So checking and calling has greater expectation than betting. And to repeat: The object of poker is not to win pots but to win money; it is with these extra bets won or saved that you win money.

Here is another draw poker situation. You draw one card to two small pair, and your opponent draws three. You don't improve. You know your opponent suspects you were drawing to a flush or a straight, and you also know this player's a pay station, the type who will call "to keep you honest." How should you play?

You should bet. Assuming your opponent was drawing three to a big pair, you're about a 71 percent favorite to have the best hand. Any time you're even a small favorite against someone you know is going to call virtually every time, you should bet. In this case you're wagering even money as a 71 percent or 5-to-2 favorite. Clearly that's a wager with positive expectation even though you expect to lose 29 percent of the time.
Suppose in hold 'em you have

and the board at the end is

(Notice that there is no flush possibility.) You are first to act. How should you play?

You should probably come out betting. If you are up against something like A,10 or K,10 or J,10, you lose either way. If you check, your opponent will surely bet, and you will call. If your opponent has Q,10, you may lose a double bet by betting out since your opponent will raise. On the other hand, if your opponent has hands like 10,8 or 10,7 or 10,6, you win either way; if you check, your opponent will most likely bet. However, two very possible hands your opponent might have are A,Q and K,Q which he may very well not bet if you check but with which he will probably call if you bet. Since you are likely to gain a bet more frequently than you lose one (when your opponent raises), betting has greater expectation than checking and calling. Put in terms of the rules given earlier, in this situation your opponent will call with more hands than he will bet.

A final set of examples from draw lowball should demonstrate how your play on the end in first position varies directly in terms of your opponent. Both players in the pot draw one card, and you are first to act:

You are up against a player who doesn't bluff but is always afraid everyone else does. How should you act?

You should bet. Your opponent will probably call with a queen-low or better, while only a seven-low or better will beat you. Therefore your opponent will call with many hands that you will beat and a relative few that will beat you. On the other hand, if you checked, your opponent would not bet most of those losing hands. Thus, you stand to win more often by betting than by checking.

Suppose you have the same hand in draw lowball against an aggressive, tough player, and you're first. How should you play? In this case, you should check and call because your opponent is likely to bet more hands than he calls with. Besides beating your opponent's rough 8s, you also snap off his bluffs, which you could not do if you came out betting. Ordinarily, if you bet, your opponent would give up the idea of bluffing. In general, a player who bets with more hands than he calls with is the type of player who not only bets for value but also bluffs perhaps more often than is correct. Thus, when you check, your opponent's bluffing hands are added to those he bets for value.
Now suppose instead of a perfect eight-low, you have the following hand:

Once again you're up against that player who never bluffs but worries that everyone else does. You're first. How should you play?

Here you should check and fold if your opponent bets. Since your hand beats only queen-, jack-, and ten-lows (the losing hands with which your opponent would call), it is no longer worth a bet for value, because you get beat with his nine-lows and better. And since this opponent never bets on a bluff, you should fold in the face of a bet. The odds that you are beat are overwhelming.

Against the aggressive player, you would also check, but you would call a bet since there are many hands this opponent might be betting that you can beat. In other words, a call against this type of player would have positive expectation.

Getting Lucky

A surprising number of people say they would fold in this situation, wanting to wait for a chance to get their money in when they have a bigger edge or to "give their skill a chance to work," whatever it is this means.

You should definitely call in this situation, no matter how much more "skillful" you think you are. A 60/40 edge is huge. You can get a bigger edge than that preflop if you want to wait for pocket Aces before you commit your stack. But the tournament will probably be over before this happens, and even if you get the Aces you can't be sure someone will call an allin bet. Can you sometimes get a bigger edge than that after the flop? Well, yes, but you can't often be sure of the edge you're getting after the flop.

A certain advantage is much more valuable than a probable one. An edge that you're sure of is a huge edge.
One way in which tournaments are different from regular games is that when you're eliminated in a tournament its all over. There's more to figuring your odds than just looking at the odds you're getting from the chips in the pot: you have to also always be aware of the chances of going busted. Losing all your chips is a disaster.