Playing junk against calling stations

valuetownOne of my students recently played this hand that illustrates a key concept that you must master if you want to succeed at no-limit hold’em. With blinds at 50/100 with 20,000 effective stacks early in a $500 buy-in tournament, a player who is known to be a loose, splashy calling station raised to 300. My student called on the button with 7s-6s. The blinds folded.

I think this call is excellent. You should look to call with a wide range of suited connectors, suited Aces, and big pairs before the flop when deep stacked, especially against someone who will be unable to fold any sort of marginal made hand after the flop. While you will usually lose your 300 chips when you miss, when you flop a premium hand, you stand to win a lot of money.

The flop came Ad-Ts-9d. The initial raiser checked and my student checked behind.

When the initial raiser checks, it is unlikely that he has a premium hand because most players bet with their best hands. This “caps” the initial raiser’s range at top pair with a bad kicker. Knowing this, should my student make a bet, hoping to make the calling station fold an unpaired hand like K-Q or a weak pair like 5-5? I don’t think so. It is too likely that the calling station will call with any hand that he deems to have the least bit of potential. If you think your opponent will call your flop bet with hands like 5-5, you must be willing to continue betting on the turn and the river to make him fold those hands, but that is also not a great idea, given the opponent could easily have a hand like A-2 that will never fold to any amount of aggression. If the initial raiser was a more standard opponent, I think the flop bet would be perfectly acceptable, especially given my student has a gutshot straight draw and a backdoor flush draw, as many players can be made to fold their hands as strong as top pair by the river.

The turn was the (Ad-Ts-9d)-Jc. Again both players checked.

Especially when a Jack (or King or Queen) comes on the turn, my student should be content to concede the pot. It is way too likely that the calling station now has some sort of marginal made hand that he will not fold to a turn and river bet.

The river was the (Ad-Ts-9d-Jc)-2c. The calling station checked and my student checked behind. The calling station turned his As-8d up and won a paltry 750 pot.

Sticking with the plan, giving up is the only play that makes sense when facing a calling station. When you have a hand with no showdown value on the river, you should only bet when you expect to make your opponent fold a decent portion of his range. In this spot, the only hands that a calling station will fold are unpaired hands such as K-3 (which may not even get played before the flop) and 5-4 (which 7-6 beats). Against more competent players, betting the river could make sense, but against a calling station, giving up is the right play.

pc-imageNotice this time that the calling station had a hand he never planned to fold to any bet. By simply giving up, my student only lost 3 big blinds, which is a tiny portion of his 20,000 stack. While it is far from exciting to simply check down and give up when you have nothing, that is often the best play against someone who will rarely fold to your bets.

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9 Comments

  • Dean says:

    Is this tournament live or online? It’s a good post, but in my humble opinion what makes this especially true is the stage in the tournament. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way plenty of times and bluffed off a big chunk of my stack in the early stages. People tend to fold at less at the earlier stages.

    • The stage of the tournament is essentially irrelevant. What matters is how your specific opponent reacts to the stage of the tournament. Some don’t care if they bust early while others don’t care if they bust late. The same goes for live versus online. The main difference is your edge will be smaller online because people generally play much better.

  • Jon M says:

    Nice, thks JL, will try this tactic out in a 50 head $25 tourny tonite. Jon M.

  • Joe says:

    Great post. I think this is one of the spots where I am going wrong. When villain checks here I would probably bet and represent the A thinking that he hadn’t it.
    Only a few nights ago I was playing a live low stakes tournament where I raised pre flop in the big blind with 76s over five limpers. I got one caller who is a calling station. The flop comes 9 5 2 rainbow. I bet and villain calls. The turn is 10. I check and villain checks behind. The river is an A and I bet 3/4 pot. Villain calls me and wins with Q 10.
    So thank you for this post which highlights a play that I am continually making but didn’t realize is a serious leak in my game.

  • Steve Heslip says:

    Hi Jonathon, I recently signed up with my email address in order to read your article on the five key concepts every poker player should know. This was a great, insightful article, especial the hand ranges you should call, raise or fold with. I wanted to go back and read it again but for some I can’t seem to access it. I absolutely loved this article and would greatly appreciate it if would help me find this article again.

  • Larry K says:

    jonathan…… why do you think people play better online than they do ‘live’ ?? i dont have any results to prove it either way, but intuitively, i would guess that it would be the opposite, because online they can ‘hide’ their bad play behind the computer ‘screen’, whereas in person they would have to experience the embarrassment and ridicule of bad play ‘in person’…..

    thanks,
    Larry K

    • It should be clear that when discussing this concept that you have to compare games of equal stakes. I am sure that across the board online players play worse, assuming you are counting every $.01/$.02 NL player.
      In general, you will find that online games are significantly tougher. For example, $5/$10 NL live is incredibly soft whereas $5/$10 online is nearly unbeatable. One reason is that the best players in the world get to play many more hands per hour against the weak players online compared to live. This results in the weak players quickly going broke and disappearing. If someone is awful at $5/$10, he can realistically dust off about $3,000 per hour live whereas online he can lose much more, perhaps $5,000 per hour. Also, the player pool online contains all consistent winners as well as consistent losers who can continue playing. This results in there being a large portion of winners playing at all times and relatively few losers, especially as you move up in stakes. Additionally, the best players online have played many more hands than the best players live, which usually results in them having a skill advantage, which hurts the weak players even more.

      What is all amounts to is “number of hands per hour”. Live, you play 30. This means amateurs go broke slower and good players get better slower.

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