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The Rags Trade – How Good Players Win With “Bad” Cards

By Marc Weinberg

Poker is a betting game first and a card game second. Most mediocre players do not understand this, which is why they are fixated upon the cards they are dealt. When they lose, which is often, they blame those cards alone. Either they were unlucky because their good hands were cracked, or they were unlucky because they never got good cards in the first place so couldn’t win. They see no holes in the logical reasoning here. Winning with bad cards is a trick that only the lucky can master. It never occurs to these players that the way they bet their hands is crucial, and that’s why these players ultimately lose. Good and bad cards are dealt out to all of us in the same proportion over time. Luck evens out, and winners tend to make their own luck anyway.

If you are ever fortunate enough to watch or play against a great poker player you will see that poker is all about betting. I can think of three players who currently exemplify this, and it is no coincidence that they are three of the highest-rated players in the world. Gus Hansen, Daniel Negreanu, and Gavin Smith regularly tear up the tournament poker circuit. How do they do it? It’s quite simple, really. They apply constant pressure on the rest of the table by controlling the betting action. Because they quickly establish the reputation of betting with any two cards it then becomes very difficult to put them on a hand.

When top players have position, or sense weakness from the rest of the table, they open the betting. They may open the betting regardless, especially early on in a tournament when the blinds are low, just to be seen as extremely loose and aggressive. But please note how they open the betting: They make it twice the big blind or maybe three times the big blind. They do not commit a large percentage of their stack pre-flop. They do this to establish a pattern, but also to protect themselves from someone waking up with a huge hand behind them. Now that they have established themselves as the pre-flop raisers they become masters of their own destiny for the remainder of the hand.

If they miss the flop it isn’t necessarily a bad result because their opponent probably missed it as well, which means that a continuation bet after the flop of half to two-thirds of the pot will often end matters right then in their favor. If they are check-raised, which is the most common response from an opponent who needs to show strength, they can lay down their hand right then as well without it costing too much. But look at the potential rewards in these two handy scenarios:

  • Scenario A – The good player raises on the button holding 5-8 unsuited. The small blind calls with T-J. The flop comes 5-8-T. The small blind checks, the good player bets, the small blind now raises, and the good player has put himself in position to break the small blind. If the good player now moves all-in it would take an exceptionally weak player in the small blind to call that all-in. When the small blind folds the good player can flip over his 5-8 and advertise what a maniac / fool he is for raising with rags.
  • Scenario B – The good player raises on the button holding A-K. The problem for the small blind is that the amount raised is the same as last time. Is the button a raving lunatic trying to pull another move with rags? Or is it a case of the button picking on him directly, does he regard the small blind as an inconsequential weakling? Now the small blind is enraged and confused. He looks down and sees K-J. He calls. The flop comes 2-4-K. The small blind is now at a point where his tournament life is in serious jeopardy.

The value of position and controlling the betting with that position cannot be underestimated. If I changed the flop in either scenario so that it missed both players the winner of the hand would still be the good player at least 90% of the time. If you hold T-J and call a raise out of position you are highly unlikely to come out firing at a flop that missed your hand completely. Instead you’re going to lay it down and the guy who raised you with rags will win a small pot.

The fact that good players take down a lot of small pots in the course of any session is important for several reasons, and the chips they accumulate in the process isn’t really one of them. They develop a high profile at the table. Opponents start to fear / hate / notice them. They dictate the betting structure of future hands, and if they change gears by limping in or throwing in a huge raise it is far more likely to work for them than for other players trying the same tactic. But the biggest reason is that their unpredictable approach is so hard to read. It essentially means that opponents are forced into reacting instead of acting. When good players lay down hands they always seem to do it on their own terms.

The cliché in hold’em is that any two cards can win, but the great misunderstanding is that this is an argument as to why there is so much luck in the game. Nothing could be further from the truth. But whatever you do, please don’t tell that to the bad players bemoaning their cold streak of cards. They need to stay exactly the way they are.

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