Playing Marginal Hands

Cards and chips

Anyone can play a junk hand well in NLHE or at least it is a lot easier to play well. You simply either fold and move onto the next hand or look to win a small to medium small pot by bluffing. We can all play strong hands fairly well and you either bet or raise with them with the exception being to call if you feel that your opponents range is weak. However it is the hands that fall in between the two extremes that cause problems and especially smack bang in the middle of the two extremes.

It is easy to know to value bet on the turn if your hand is the Kd-10d and the board is Ks-Qc-4c-10h. That is an easy value bet because many weaker hands can call you and you are likely to be ahead. However what if we make it more marginal than that? It is folded around to you on the button and you make it 3.5bb to go with the Ad-9d. The big blind makes it 12bb to go after the small blind folds.

Both players have 150bb stacks and you feel that since your opponent has been somewhat aggressive since you sat down on this table then it would be too tight to fold but 3/betting is too aggressive. So you call and see a flop with the pot now around 24bb. The flop comes As-Jh-8c and your opponent immediately fires out a c-bet of 16bb. You have flopped top pair with a mediocre kicker and so you need to be mindful of domination.

However you cannot fold yet and you call to see what your opponent does on the turn. The call swells the pot to 56bb and the turn card is the 5d but instead of checking, your opponent bets 38bb on the turn. Suddenly your hand is very marginal and your opponent is actually representing far greater strength. Because of this then you are technically only beating a bluff at this stage and so calling down becomes very marginal.

These are expressly the types of pots that I was referring to. If you fold here then you could be folding the best hand and if you call then you could be calling down with the worst hand. Unless you know your opponent then there is simply no right or wrong answer. Against a weak-tight playing rock who never escalates the pot without the goods then you have a clear fold.

However against a loose-aggressive maniac that is always barrelling then you have a clear call against their polarised range. It is how you play in these key marginal situations that will ultimately define your success or failure in NLHE. This is not too dissimilar to how election strategy is fought; the easy strongholds are not where the two main parties fight the main part of the battle but in the key marginal areas. Poker is exactly the same way and it will be your results in the “marginal” situations that will make or break you.