When you're playing a high stakes ring game, there's nothing more satisfying than managing to intimidate your opponent into folding their hand rather than seeing yours. And it's even got to the point where the ability to get your opponent to fold rather than see you is considered the major area of skill in poker.
This emphasis is borne out by the recently released results of a three year study of online poker, drawing on the hand data of over 2,000 players. Among other things, the researchers found that around 70% of the time, a hand of poker was decided by one party folding out. This implies that skill is a greater factor in the outcome of a game than what cards a player was dealt – their ability to make the other player fold was the critical factor.
But as much as it might sting, you shouldn't think of folding as in any way “losing” a hand. Folding can be strategically important too, and in fact, knowing when to raise and when to fold is one of the most vital poker skills that there is. I'd almost go so far as to say, when in doubt, fold.
I'm not kidding. Look, let me give you a scenario to explain what I mean. Suppose that you're playing a single table tournament of nine players, paying out the top three. Your job, therefore, is to outlast.
You receive a pair of black eights in the hole. Feeling ballsy, you raise up pre-flop, and a lot of people fold out. The flop comes down Kh, 10h, 8d – oh sweet, you just flopped a set.
Someone ahead of you makes a big raise. However, you know you're holding dynamite, so you uhm and ahh, and make it look like a painful decision, but eventually you call. At this point there's just three players left in the hand, including you.
Turn card brings 2h, a card too small to be useful to anyone. Everyone checks.
The river card, however, is the Queen of hearts. Two royals on the table. Same person that made the big flop raise goes all in – the other folds out. It's down to you two.
What's it going to be? I'll give you the quick version: FOLD. GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN. Folding out of this situation is the smartest thing that you can do, even if it means leaving a stack of your chips on the table.
Why? Because there's four hearts on the table. Even a small heart in your opponent's hand gives them a flush, which beats your silly little trips. Moreover, how'd you like to call and discover they're holding Ah-Jh? They had to be holding something pretty solid to raise up big on that flop. Do you want to calculate the odds here?
All indications are that you're cooked in this scenario. Folding, however much it burns, is the wise call because it keeps you playing. The longer you stay in, the more chance you have of making it to the paying orders, which is what tournament poker is all about.
There's another folding strategy you should consider, which is: fold your hole cards, and often. Only go in when you're holding the nuts.
This approach has two obvious benefits. The first is, that by the time you hit the flop, you're already holding something strong, so chances are you can safely make big raises and scare off the chickens without risking too much.
The second and by far better benefit, is that astute opponents will notice after a few rounds what you're doing. They will realise that you only call pre-flop if you're holding the big guns. Those who realise this will start to fold when they see you coming.
This means that, after a while, you can start throwing a pre-flop raise in every so often, even if you're holding complete rubbish. Everyone will assume you've got pocket aces, and get the heck out of your way, leaving the field clear for you to swoop in and steal the blinds.
This is a particularly lucrative strategy later on in a game when the blinds have become scary numbers.