Facing a bet with a marginal hand is one of the most uncomfortable feelings in poker. If you’ve ever felt lost in spots like this, you aren’t alone. Making correct “hero calls” with “bluff-catchers” is not easy.
Rather than arbitrarily deciding whether or not your opponent “has it”, you should aim to take the logical approach of making the best decision possible based on all the information available to you.
This article will help you make better decisions in these spots by focusing on four of the most important factors that go into bluff-catching:
- Bet size
- Your opponent’s likely betting range
- Backup equity
To start, we’ll look at a hand example that was played by cash game crusher and Upswing coach Jason McConnon at $2/$5 Zoom on PokerStars.
We’ll then break down the hand by considering the factors that make up Jason’s difficult decision on the river.
The K♦ Q♠ Hero Call
This hand was played 5 minutes and 44 seconds into one of Jason’s recent sessions, which he recorded for members of the Upswing Lab training course to study.
6-Handed Zoom. $2/$5 Online Zoom. Effective Stack $530.71.
Jason is dealt K♦ Q♠ on the button.
Jason raises to $12.00, big blind raises to $51.75, Jason calls.
Flop ($103.00): 8♣ 5♠ A♦
Big blind bets $27.99, Jason calls.
Turn ($158.98): 3♥
Big blind checks, Jason checks.
River ($158.98): 4♠
Big blind bets $61.77, Jason calls.
Let’s start with the most important factor to consider versus a bet (in any spot — not just when mulling a hero call).
The bet size dictates how often you can call
Poker players talk a lot about pot odds, and for good reason. Your odds to call should almost always be the first thing to consider every time we face a bet.
When you face a smaller bet, you can call with a much wider portion of your range than when your opponent bets big. This is one of the most fundamental aspects of poker strategy.
Pot odds are not relevant on the turn as both players elect to check, but the concept is once again important to consider on the river as he faces a $61.77 bet into a pot of $158.98. That bet size means Jason needs to win the pot 21.9% of the time in order to call profitably.
Because his opponent decided to use small bet sizes on both the flop and the turn, Jason’s only needs to win the pot around a fifth of the time for his call to be a winning play.
To take an extreme example on the opposite end, suppose Jason’s opponent had chosen to bet very large on the river — say, $200 into $158.98. Jason would be very unlikely to hero call with K♦ Q♠ versus that bet size because his pot odds would be so terrible, needing to win more than 36% of the time to profit.
What is your opponent’s approximate betting range?
The next factor that you have to consider when hero calling is what your opponent’s betting range looks like. Using Jason’s hand as an example, let’s take a look at what the big blind’s 3-bet range might look like after facing a button open:
In this chart, the red hands are what the big blind will always raise, the orange hands are what the big blind will raise at some frequency, and the green hands will be called.
With a flop of 8♣ 5♠ A♦, the main value bets that the opponent will have on the flop are AA (at some frequency), 88, A8s, A5s, AJs+, and AJo+. With weaker aces and other pairs, the opponent will likely play a mixed strategy — sometimes betting, sometimes checking — in order to protect his checking range (assuming he’s a savvy player).
His bluffing range will consist mainly of straight draws, like 76s, and hands with multiple backdoor draws, like JTs or T9s. There is also a chance that our opponent’s 3-bet range contains more suited gappers than the chart above, so he also could be semi-bluffing hands like 64s and 97s, especially the ones with a backdoor flush draw.
The opponent should continue betting with his strongest hands (top pair good kicker or better) on the turn to build the pot, so it’s unlikely he has those once he checks. However, we will leave some combinations of those hands in his range just in case he’s getting tricky.
We should also expect the opponent to continue barreling with his draws, like 76s or 97s. Very few players would check a draw like that after 3-betting preflop and c-betting on the flop, so we can completely eliminate those hands from his range.
That brings us to the river, where we can estimate the opponent’s range is:
- 25% of the possible AA, 88, A8s, A5s, AK, AQ, and AJ combinations for value.
- A2s, ATs, A9s, A7s, A6s, A4s, A3s, for value.
- JTs, J9s, and T9s for bluffs.
Against this estimated range, Jason’s hand of K♦ Q♠ has around 29% equity (pictured below), which is more than the 21.9% needed to profitably call.
When blockers matter more than hand strength
When you have a pure bluff-catcher, meaning your hand doesn’t beat any of your opponent’s value range, the absolute strength of your hand is not a particularly important consideration.
The card removal effects of your hand are what really matters. The best bluff-catching hands will block your opponent’s value betting range while unblocking his bluffs.
When constructing a calling range in these spots, you first need to consider your opponent’s likely betting range. In Jason’s K♦ Q♠ hand, for example, we estimated the opponent’s range to be A9+ for value and JTs/J9s/T9s for bluffs.
Notice that Jason’s hand does a decent job blocking the opponent’s value range (AK, AQ) without blocking the most likely bluffs (JTs, J9s, T9s).
K♦ Q♠ is actually a better hand with which to hero call than some middling pairs, like 98s or T8s. Holding an T or a 9 makes it less likely that the opponent is bluffing, which lessens the number of bluff combinations in his range, making his range more weighted towards value.
Again, you want to call with hands that block your opponent’s value range and unblock your opponent’s bluffing range.
Backup equity is your escape hatch on the flop and turn
Sometimes you’re going to run into the top of your opponent’s range, even when you have the perfect bluff-catching hand. This is why it’s helpful, though not totally necessary, for your hand to have some backup equity.
By backup equity, I simply mean a chance to improve to the best hand IF you’re behind. This is, of course, only relevant on the flop and turn.
While backup equity isn’t a factor in Jason’s KQ hand, it is a factor in this live streamed hand played between Ryan LaPlante and Andrew Neeme:
Playing $5/$5 with a $10 straddle and a $20 double straddle, Ryan ($580 stack) raises to $75 in the cutoff with A♥ 4♥. Andrew ($4,080 stack) calls on the button with K♦ J♦.
The flop falls Q♦ 3♠ 2♦. Ryan c-bets $60 and Andrew calls. With $315 in the pot, the 9♥ comes on the turn and Ryan slows down with a check. Andrew puts Ryan all-in for his last $500 (a roughly 1.6x overbet). After a short think, Ryan decides to make an impressive hero call with his ace-high and gutshot straight draw.
Now, suppose Ryan had a different ace-high — one without a straight draw, like A♥ 8♥. With a hand like that, he almost certainly would have folded. However, his backup equity allowed him to make a sick call that turned out to be correct.
Unfortunately for Ryan, the J♥ fell on the river and Andrew scooped the pot.
The Results of the K♦ Q♠ Hero Call
Let’s conclude by looking at the results of Jason’s hand.
River ($158.98): (8♣ 5♠ A♦ 3♥) 4♠
Big blind bets $61.77, Jason calls.
Big blind shows J♥ T♥
Hero shows K♦ Q♠
Jason wins $282.52
Jason’s correct hero call shows the value of considering all of the information available to you when analyzing tough spots. While at first glance K♦ Q♠ may seem like a fold as you have no pair, it actually makes a decent call hand when you consider all of the factors at play in this spot.
Want to learn winning tactics and professional thought processes from expert coaches? Take your poker game to the next level with the training videos and resources in the Upswing Lab. Click here to learn more.