Planning ahead in poker is an incredibly important thing that many players seem to neglect completely. Instead they use a reactionary style where they wait for their opponents to make a play. Then they think about how they should react to that play and they make their decision.
Playing this way will cause big problems. For one thing it can lead to tilt and frustration if you’re constantly surprised when an opponent raises you. But more importantly, it will stop you from getting the maximum value in many hands.
Although you should plan ahead on every street, the flop is by far the most important point to think about the rest of the hand. With 5 cards exposed (3 on the flop and 2 in your hand) you usually have enough information to make a plan for the turn and river.
Here are 3 ways in which you can plan ahead to how you will react to different turn and river cards:
Planning For Different Cards To Hit
The most obvious example are cards that complete obvious draws like an open-ender or a flush draw. Say you have top pair on a wet flop and you’re C-betting. Just take a moment and think about what you will do when the draw completes on the turn or river. Whether you will bet again or check will largely depend on your opponent, so make sure you have a good idea of his playing style and likely range of hands on the flop.
But cards that complete draws aren’t the only ones you should think about. You should also think about whether you will bet again if a high or low card hits.
A great example is when you’re planning to C-bet the flop. Against many opponents a simple C-bet on the flop won’t be enough to take down the pot. They know you’re betting a wide range and that you’ll be bluffing a lot, so they will float your C-bet and see how you act on the turn. That’s why you should already plan ahead and think about turn cards on which you will bet again. Great cards to C-bet the turn are usually over-cards or cards that are just one lower than the top card on the flop.
Here’s an example: You open AJ from middle position and get called by the button. The flop comes Q62. You C-bet and your opponent calls in position.
You know he’s a smart regular and will call here with a wide range that includes any 2, 6, Q as well as pairs 33 – JJ and maybe even some worse hands.
If you think ahead, you can often get him to fold most of his range on good turn cards. He might float on the flop with 55 or A6 but if you bet again on the turn he will fold a high percentage of the time.
I would probably bet again if the turn is an A, K, J, T, 9, 8 or 7. For all of these cards he will usually fold most of his range and the bet is very likely to be profitable.
Planning Reactions to Opponents’ Actions
Most importantly, how will you react if you get raised? Every time you make a bet in poker, you should be prepared for a raise from your opponent. This will help you stay calm when it happens, and also allow you to make much better bets, whether you’re bluffing or value betting.
In order to be prepared for a raise you have to be aware of your opponent’s tendencies and hand range before even making the bet. If he’s an aggressive player, you might expect him to raise a wide range. If he’s a tight player, you might know that he has better than a one-pair hand when he’s raising.
When you think about how an opponent might react to your bet with the range of hands he is likely to have, you will often find that betting isn’t your best option. For example you might have a vulnerable hand like top pair that you don’t want to play a big pot with. Why bet it if you expect your aggro opponent to raise a high percentage of the time? You can often just check and keep the pot small. Then you can call his bets which will often be bluffs. Bluff catching with mediocre hands works a lot better if you’re facing small bets.
Being prepared for different scenarios will save you from a lot of emotional turmoil. Things simply go a lot smoother if you’re ready for them, and that alone is a very good reason for planning ahead.
Planning Your Value Bets
This is probably the most important aspect of planning ahead. When you have a hand that is likely to be the best hand on the flop, think about how many streets you can value-bet and expect to get called by worse.
You have AK and raise from early position. You get called by the cut-off and the flop comes AT6. Against most opponents you can usually bet all 3 streets for value unless you get raised.
You have A5s and raise from the cut-off. You get called by the BB. The flop comes A8J and your opponent checks. In this hand you should not try to go for 3 streets of value unless you improve. The only hands that will call 3 bets on this board will likely have you beat. You should pot control on at least one street and check behind if your opponent checks to you.
When you have a hand that you think is worth two streets of value it brings up another interesting question: Which streets should you bet?
A simple rule I use is this: If the flop has a lot of draws, I will bet the flop and turn and then check the river. This will allow me to get value from the draws as well as lower pairs. Betting this way is even more effective if you’re out of position because a river check will allow your opponent to bluff his missed draws, which will often get you some extra value.
If the flop is dry I will usually pot control on the flop or turn to avoid letting the pot get too big early in the hand. Then if it is checked to me I can safely bet the river for value.
Deciding how many streets of value your hand is worth depends a lot on how well your opponents are playing. Against good players you have to tone down your value betting because they won’t call you enough with worse hands. Also good players are often aggressive so they might bluff-raise you, which you definitely want to avoid with one-pair type hands. Against fish you can value bet a lot more liberally because you can expect them to call with many worse hands.
One of the biggest mistakes many players make is simply playing too fast and not thinking enough about hands. Taking your time on the flop and thinking about your opponents and the cards that might come on the turn or river will often have a huge impact on your game.
I know it’s not easy to think about all of those things in real time, especially when you’re playing multiple tables. The trick to developing the skill of planning ahead (and many other skills) is practicing it away from the table. When you’re playing, mark any hand that you think is interesting so you can review it later. Then you can take your time and analyze everything and think about the best course of action. If you do this regularly you will find that it becomes a lot easier when you’re playing because many scenarios will be familiar to you already.