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Playing Fair-to-Good Hands in First Position as a Favorite

In first position, with fair-to-good hands that are not strong enough to try a check-raise, you have three options to bet, to check and call when your opponent bets, and to check and foold when your opponent bets.

Which play you try in any given situation depends not so much upon the strength of your hand but upon your mathematical expectation for each play.

And your expectation depends upon your ability to assess your opponent’s style of play and what he is likely to do in a given situation.

Some players bet with more hands than they call with; others call with more hands than they bets with and still other, very tight players bet only when they are sure they have you beat.

Thus, how you act in first position depends upon your knowledge of your obbonent.

Here are the general rules for each play. If your hand is worth a call or almost worth a call had you checked and your opponent bet, you should bet when your opponent is one who will call with more hands than he will bet, a habit which is typical of the majority of players.(*See pages 213-214 for an exception to the rule. Which of the plays has the greatest positive expectation or the least negative expectation.)

If your hand is worth a call, you should check and call when your opponent is one who will be with more hands than he will call. As we shall see, this player is usually the type who may try to poker bluffing after you have checked in first position.

You should check and fold when you are not the favorite if called and when your opponent is one who will almost always bet only with a hand that beats yours.

This player may call with a few hands worse than yours. However, since this type will only bet with a hand that clearly beats you, the bets you save by folding after he bets are greater than the few bets you might pick up by betting and getting called by his worse hands.

Let’s say that on a scale of 0 to 100 you have 80, a good hand but not a great hand. Your opponent could have anything from 0 to 100, with each hand equally likely. That would seem to make you a 4-to-1 favorite if you bet, but that’s not at all the case.

The question is, which hands will your opponent call with? If he will call only with hands 75 and upward, you are clearly an underdog if you bet specifically a 4-to-1 underdog since you will lose to 20 of your opponent’s hands and beat only five.

We’ll assume you know your reading opponent hands will call with hands 57 and upward. (We are, of course, being very hypothetical here since no player could know his opponent so precisely.)

If your opponent will call with hand 57 and upward, that means that if you bet, you will win23 times – when your opponent has hands 57-79 and lose 20 times when he has hands 81-100. Thus you are a 23-to-20 favorite when you bet.

However, that does not mean the correct play is to bet. You still do not have enough information. You must also know what hands your opponent will bet if you check.

Suppose your opponent will bet hands 62 and up if you check (which means you blow a bet if he has hands 57-61), but he will also bet with hands 0-10. That is, there are eleven hands your opponent will bluff with.

Once again there are 20 hands you will lose to (hands 81-100), but now, instead of 23, there are 29 hands you will beat - hands 0-10 and hands 62-79.

Thus, if you check and call when your opponent bets, you are a 29-to-20 favorite to show down the best hand. Clearly it is better to play the last round of betting as a 29-to-20 favorite than as a 23-to-20 favorite, and so the correct play here is to check and call.

This is the point of the rule: Check and call when your opponent will bet with more hands than he will call.  By checking against such an opponent, you increase your chances of winning one last bet.

Suppose you are still a small favorite if you bet. Once again you have hand 80, and your new opponent will call with hands 57 and up.

But this opponent is much more timid than the other, and you know he will bet only with hands 81 and upward. How should you play? It might at first seem correct to check and fold if your opponent bets, since any time he bets behind you he has you beat.

However, when you check, you give up an even money bet as a 23-to-20 favorite, which cannot be correct. That’s more than the vigorish that keeps bookmakers in business. After making that bet 43 times, you will be ahead 3 units on average.

Under no circumstances, then, can it be correct to check and fold if you are favored to win when your opponent calls you. As a 23-to 20 favorite, the correct play here is to bet.

The only time it might be correct to check is when you’re not sure whether you’re the favorite and when you’re also worried about a raise that you will have to call.

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