When Less is More: Escaping Domination
While big hands are pretty to look at, there are some occasions when less is actually more. One instance is when you’d rather be out from under the domination of another player’s hand. Let’s assume that one player calls the blind from middle position and you raise from the button with two big cards. Both blinds fold, and your opponent calls. The two of you see the flop, which is 8-4-3 of mixed suits. That flop isn’t threatening, especially when it’s heads-up, so you bet when your opponent checks, only to find yourself check-raised by a player whose game and raises you respect.
What do you suppose she might have? And how is she analyzing your actions thus far in the hand? Although she might have a big pocket pair, it’s more likely that she called your raise with a hand like A-8 because she probably would have raised with a big pair. When you begin thinking about how your opponent is assessing the hands you might be holding, you realize this: She knows you were more likely to raise with two big cards than a big pair. That’s because big cards are more probable than big pairs.
There are only six ways to combine two of the four aces in the deck to form a pair, while there are 16 ways to form a hand like A-K from four aces and four kings. If you are prone to raise with any pair of tens or higher, as well as with A-K, A-Q, A-J and K-Q, that means that 30 of your possible raising hands are big pairs, while 64 possibilities are big-card combos. Because your opponent knows that, it’s easy for her to discern that it’s more than twice as likely that you raised with big cards than with a pair of tens or higher.
She’s got a good line on your hand and is now intent on punishing you by checkraising with what she believes is the best hand. If you have a big pair, she’s in trouble, but if all you have are big cards that didn’t fit the flop, she’s in the lead and that figures to be the case more often than not.
If you had your choice of big cards to play at this point and chose A-K, you’d be shortchanging yourself because there’s a much greater chance that your hand would be dominated. If that’s the case, you’ll have fewer live outs than you would have if you picked two smaller cards, as long as the two cards you selected were bigger than the cards on the board.
It’s not very likely that your opponent has a hand like J-T, which means you have six live cards to give you a bigger pair than your opponent. On the other hand, if you had A-K and she has A-8, any ace that fell would give you the illusion that you were in the lead, but it would only be an illusion, and a costly one at that.
In reality your opponent would have two pair and put you in a world of hurt. Only the king is a safe card, but there are just three left in the deck and your chances are looking grim. But a pair of jacks or a pair of tens will beat a pair of eights just as surely as a pair of aces does, and those lower ranks are free from potential domination by your opponent’s hand.
A dominated hand, by definition, has three outs. Except for miraculous straights and flushes and a few oddball split pots, there are only three cards that enable a dominated hand to win the pot; the dominator owns the rest of the deck! Sometimes it’s even worse that that. If the dominating hand is fortunate enough to make two pair, then you’re drawing dead for all intents and purposes. Imagine that. You pair your kicker on the turn or river and bet, thinking yours is the best hand. But all that’s likely to accomplish is to rid your wallet of its money a bit faster than it otherwise might.
Dominated hands are trouble. And when you’ve got trouble it’s time to ask yourself, “What can I do about it?” and “How can I avoid getting in situations like this in the first place?”
When you’re holding a trouble hand, you’re seldom sure whether you’re in the lead or not. Because you have to consider that your hand might be dominated, you’re apt to play passively by checking and calling instead of betting and raising. Even when you win these confrontations, caution minimizes your wins, while your opponent who seized the initiative with aggressive play will maximize his or her wins. File that thought away and don’t lose touch with it. It’s another example of why selective and aggressive play is a major factor underlying winning poker.
One way to deal with the unenviable consequence of finding your hand dominated by an opponent who also has the advantage of acting last is to avoid diving headlong into this kettle of fish in the first place. You can avoid that kettle by reducing the hands you play from early position. While face cards are pretty, they’re not equally desirable, and a hand like Q-J in early position or even in middle position in an aggressive game flings the door to domination wide open.
If you don’t play hands that can get you in trouble, you won’t find yourself staring up at three-outers and improbable odds. Remember, the first decision in a poker hand is usually the decision that’s most important, because all subsequent options are driven by that initial choice. Although you cannot avoid holding a dominated hand with 100 percent certainty unless you refrain from playing all hands save a pair of aces it’s your first decision that matters most. If you are nimble enough to avoid getting yourself in this kind of trap in the first place, and deft enough to extricate yourself from its clutches at the earliest hint of trouble, you’ll find yourself doing just about all you can to minimize the adverse impact of finding yourself dominated when holding a troublesome hand.
Sometimes hold’em can be a very counterintuitive game, and it’s the interplay of the communal cards that’s behind these seemingly illogical situations.