By: Ken Warren
Sometimes, you just cannot know for sure what a bet from the first player really means. One thing you do know for sure is that, even though the bettor could have anything, the first player to call him has to have something. If you are the next player after that first caller, then you have some analytical thinking to do:
First, you have to think about what kind of poker hand the original bettor might have. Secondly, you have to think about what kind of hand the first caller thinks the bettor might have. Since he called first, knowing that you are behind him and you could possibly raise, you usually have to give him credit for a reasonably good hand.
What you have to do is figure out why the first player called. Does he have a lousy hand, which can beat only a bluff, and is he hoping you won't call? Does he have a hand that is not great, but he’s calling because the pot is very large? Or does he have the nuts, and is he just calling in hope that you will also call; or possibly raise?
It also helps if you know the players in question. Here are four easy questions that you can quickly ask yourself:
1. Is the bettor an extremely loose player, and has the caller called because he is also a loose player? If so, then either one of them could have anything, and if you are truly undecided, you should lean toward calling.
2. Is the bettor a loose player, and is the caller a tight player? If so, you can be sure that the caller has a good read on the bettor and the caller doesn't think he is throwing away his money. This makes it easier for you to fold if you are undecided.
3. Is the bettor a tight player and the caller a loose player? A tight player who is first to act is capable of bluffing in this situation. The loose player is capable of calling with anything. You should consider calling more often here, unless you know for sure that the first player just doesn't bluff in this position, or you know that he has a habit of checking his good hands.
4. Are the bettor and caller both tight players? If so, then you will usually need a much better hand than usual to overcall.
It sounds obvious, but the real question is: "Are these players good players?" The better they both are, the more credit you should give the first caller. The first caller is the key player in this equation. If you know he’s a good, solid, experienced player who makes superior quality decisions, you can take advantage of that information.
There's an easy mental exercise you can perform next time you play that will help you make better decisions when considering an overcall.
The next time you play in your usual game, you should keep track of the times that you make an overcall on the river. You need to remember how many big bets you win and lose when in these situations. If you overcall and lose the hand, count that as a one-bet loss. If you overcall and win the hand, count the number of big bets in the pot, minus your calling bet. All you have to do is keep a running, cumulative count of bets won and lost. Your goal is to always have a positive running count. If you have a negative count, then you are not giving the first caller enough credit and you're overcalling too much.
Correctly overcalling is important because you have a chance to do the wrong thing so many times during the course of the game. When you have an opportunity to put a lot of big bets per hour into action, you can see that an incorrect strategy can have an immediate, big negative impact on your hourly rate. This is one aspect of the game that you can easily work on and is well worth your time and effort. Good luck!
Ken Warren is the author of "Winner's Guide to Texas Hold'em," "Winner's Guide to Omaha Poker," "Ken Warren Teaches Texas Hold'em," "The Big Book of Poker," and the soon-to-be-released "Ken Warren Teaches 7-Card Stud." His non-poker background is as an air traffic controller, teacher and historian. He lives in Ocean Springs, Mississippi with his wife Olga.
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