Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fingering Those Four-Flushers

So you’re in an online game of limit hold ’em (6-max, $0.50/$1.00). Table’s on the loose side -- no surprise there. You’re UTG and get dealt big slick, AsKd. You raise and the button and both blinds call. There’s $4.00 in the pot when the flop comes 4hAc9h. You bet out and everyone calls. Now there’s $6.00 in the pot. The turn is the 6s, an apparent blank. You bet the $1.00, the button calls, and the blinds fold. The pot is now a handsome $8.00. Then comes the river . . . 2h. What do you do?

This scenario comes up very frequently in these games. If your opponent is sitting over there with two hearts, all of his postflop calls have been mathematically correct. On the flop he had 9-to-1 to call -- potentially 11-to-1 if the blinds also called, which they did. Even if one of the blinds check-raised here, he’d still be priced in to continue the chase. Then on the turn he had 7-to-1 to call, and although again there was a slight risk with two to act behind him, it would have been wrong to fold his draw here as well.

So how do you play it with your top pair, top kicker? In this situation, I’m often check-calling. I’m not folding, but I don’t want to give my opponent an extra big bet here on the river. Sometimes I’ll see his flush and kiss my $3.50 for the hand goodbye. Sometimes I’ll see he’s got Ad2d and has backed into aces up or some other hand that beats me. Rarely he’ll show something wacky like 3s5d and beat me with a runner-runner straight.

Then there are times when he shows down a middle or low pair, an ace-rag hand that didn’t spike a second pair, or a busted backdoor straight or some other garbage and I win the pot. In that case, I probably have won about all I can on the hand, although some suckers with middle pairs will go for the check-raise. Being out of position, though, I’m pretty comfortable with check-calling -- I might lose a bet or two on the end, but I’m saving more by not paying off the flushes.

Now switch the positions -- say you’re on the button and the one player who’s followed you all of the way to the river is UTG. The 2h comes and he checks. Now what? This is where I’m less confident about my play. When I bet out and he check-raises, I have to call (there’s $11.00 in the pot). When I check behind him and he shows that middle pair or ace-rag, I know that while I’ve taken down the pot I’ve likely lost a big bet. Having position -- which should be an advantage -- has hurt me, overall, because of the way I’ve been handling this common situation. (I haven’t checked through my Poker Tracker stats to prove this is the case, but my overwhelming impression is that I have not done as well in this situation as I could have.) The real question here is this: How does one tell whether or not one’s opponent is chasing a flush or not?

That term “four-flusher” comes up quite a bit in old noir films of the forties and fifties. (Click here to listen to an example.) It is one of many instances of the language of poker spilling over into that of “hard-boiled” narratives. The term refers to a faker or sham artist, someone who deceives. It derives from draw poker, where a player with four of a suit claims at hand’s end to have made his flush, quickly reveals his hand with the fifth, non-suited card obscured, and tries to scoop the pot. (Michael Wiesenberg actually discusses this term and a few others a bit in his latest CardPlayer column.)

One might reappropriate the term for online play to refer to the guy who represents a flush on the end even though he doesn’t have it -- the guy with the middle pair or ace-rag in my hypothetical who bets out after I’ve checked the river to him, or who has checked to me in that case where I have position. (In fact, sometimes the guttersnipe really does have four to a flush at the end.) How can I finger these “four-flushers” and extract the maximum from them on the end?

I have a few ideas about how to identify a real flush draw from a pretend one. One is to pay attention to how many saw the flop. If (as in my example) four players see a flop with two hearts, the chances are good the one guy with two more hearts in his hand is going to be sticking around to the end. If, on the other hand, there are only two to the flop, odds are he’s a “four-flusher” and doesn’t have the goods come showdown. Another is to note whether your opponent has appeared to have been doing a lot of chasing previously (calling down and then folding on the river, or showing a few made straights or flushes that only came in at the end).

Still, I feel like I could certainly stand to improve in this particular department. Losing to the suck-out is going to happen and can’t be helped, but missing bets on the end with the best hand is a different story. Gotta figure how to squeeze those second-best stooges for all their worth.

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