When to Fold in Texas Holdem
The majority of Texas holdem strategy you find in books and on popular web sites focuses on the offensive side of play. The offensive and aggressive side of the game is important, but it's also important to learn when you need to fold.
Every bet you can save is a bet you can use to win more money in the future. Of course you don't want to fold when you have a good chance to win, or when you're receiving the correct pot odds to call, so it's important to find the line in every hand between folding and continuing with the hand.
Like every other area of your Texas holdem play, you need to base all of your decisions about folding on the play that makes the most money in the long run, or the play that loses the least amount of money.
The two places where you make the most important folding decisions are your starting hands and on the river. These two areas are covered first, and then the flop, and finally the turn, is covered. We finish the page with a section about folding decisions in tournament play because it's different than cash game play.
Bad Starting Hands
Some Texas holdem starting hands should be folded all of the time, some should never be folded, and many should be folded some of the time. One thing that's hard to find is exact advice on which hands to play and which ones shouldn't be played.
In this section we list a group of starting hands that should be folded all of the time. Then we look at most of the hands that should be folded sometimes and can be played sometimes. You may or may not agree with all of our suggestions, and that's fine. If you play in a game where one of the hands we list as unplayable can be played for a profit, feel free to play it.
But if you're a beginning player and / or aren't turning a regular profit at the Texas holdem tables you can safely fold all of the hands in the first section without worrying about it costing you any money in the long run. These hands should even be folded in the blinds. If you see the flop for free with one of these hands and don't flop a solid hand you need to check and fold as soon as an opponent bets.
Always fold these hands:
- Any hand with a two except a pair of twos and an ace two suited.
- Any hand with a three except a pair of threes and an ace three suited.
- Any hand with a four except a pair of fours and an ace four suited.
- Any hand with a five except a pair of fives and an ace five suited.
- Any hand with a six except a pair of sixes and an ace six suited.
- Any hand with a seven except a pair of sevens, an ace seven suited, and a seven eight suited.
- Any hand with an eight except a pair of eights, an ace eight suited, a seven eight suited, an eight nine suited, and an eight 10 suited.
- Any hand with a nine except a pair of nines, an ace nine suited, an eight nine suited, a nine 10 suited, a nine jack suited, a nine queen suited, and a nine king suited.
As you can see there's quite a large list of hands that you can fold every time you see them. By folding these hands you'll make more money in the long run because they all lose money on average by entering the pot with them.
Even many of the hands you can play should be folded most of the time. Low pocket pairs can be dangerous in many situations and aces with suited cards below face cards can be trap hands that cost you a great deal of money as well. The suited connectors with a seven, eight, or nine are bad in many situations too.
In other words, just because you can play it sometimes doesn't mean you can play it for a profit often.
Most of the hands you should be playing are high pairs, high suited cards, and high unsuited cards. These hands give you the best chance to win by completing high pairs, flushes, and high straights.
Position has a great deal to do with what hands should be folded. In early position and in the blinds the only hands you don't fold are the absolute best ones. Pocket aces, kings, queens, ace king suited, and possibly ace queen suited are the only ones that can usually be played from early position.
You can add a few more pocket pairs and a few more suited high card hands in middle position but you need to continue folding most hands. As you move into late position you can play the other hands that aren't listed on the fold list above, but only in some situations. The smaller pairs and lower suited connectors need to be folded in raised pots most of the time and are dangerous in most cases so you end up folding most of them after the flop when you can play them.
One of the most surprising revelations most players come to understand on the way to profitable play is if you've made the correct plays to get to the river, it's rarely correct to fold on the river. Of course if you completely miss your draw and don't have any chance to win you should fold when facing a bet, but if you have even a small chance to win it's rarely the correct play to fold.
Here's a simple example that helps illustrate why a call is usually correct.
You've been calling with a flush and straight draw, have missed both draws, but paired your top card on the river, giving you the second highest possible pair. Your opponent is aggressive and could have been betting a draw or semi bluffing throughout the hand.
The pot has $200 in it and your opponent bets $20.
Before we continue analyzing the hand recognize how small this bet is in comparison to the size of the pot. This either screams weakness or a monster. If your opponent has a monster she may be betting small hoping to get a little extra out of you, but most of the time it's a feeble stab at the pot trying to get you to fold for as little as possible. This is clearly a calling situation.
You have to call $20 for a chance to win $220. This is a situation where you're being offered 11 to 1 pot odds. You only have to win the hand roughly 9% of the time to break even. Is there any chance you don't win the hand over 9% of the time?
You'll find that most situations that come up on the river that don't involve all in bets offer odds that are favorable if you can win 25% of the time or less. You'll find that even many all in situations offer favorable odds if you can win a third of the time.
Once you start factoring in the chances of an opponent bluffing and of your hand being best you rarely find a situation on the river where it's best to fold.
If you've never thought about it, it may come as a surprise, but when you miss your draw the only way you can usually win on the river is by betting and hoping your opponent folds. So don't be surprised when an opponent bets on the river, even if you think they're weak. It might be the only way they can hope to win the hand so instead of giving up they bet.
The long answer involves some of the same thinking that we just covered about calling bets on the river.
If you miss your draw and find yourself in a situation where the only way you can win is if your opponent folds you need to determine how often they need to fold for a bet to be profitable.
You miss your draw and have a jack high hand with a board that has an ace, king, and queen. The pot has $200 in it and if you see the show down you have no chance of winning. How many times, or what percentage of the time, does your opponent need to fold if you bet $20 for the play to be profitable? What about if you bet $40 or $50 or $100?
This is fairly easy to determine with a few mathematical calculations. Practice figuring this out at home and you'll find that you can quickly make an accurate estimate at the table.
In the first example, you risk $20 to get back $220. If you do this 100 times your total cost is $2,000. Divide your total cost by the $220 you get back when you win and you find that if your opponent folds 9% of the time you break even. So out of 100 times you make the bet they only have to fold 9 times. This is such a small number that you have to bet in this situation unless you're 100% sure your opponent will call every time.
Here are the calculations for $40, $50, and $100.
- When you bet $40 you only have to win 16.67% of the time to break even.
- If you bet $50 you need to win 20% of the time to break even.
- Betting $100 makes the break-even point 33.33%
As you can see betting in this situation is almost always profitable. A $100 bet into a $200 pot on a missed draw may seem dangerous, but look at it from your opponent's point of view. They have to make a large commitment and if they aren't convinced their hand is best you stand a good chance of pressuring them into folding. It can easily look like you just hit a set instead of missed your draw when you make a strong bet like this.
And as you can see from the numbers above, you only need to make them fold a third of the time.
Our Advice: Unless you're clearly beat, you should rarely fold on the river. You should always try to determine if a call is a positive expectation play, but if you have a doubt you should usually call. And even when you're beat a bet may be the best play instead of a check and fold.
After you see the flop you've seen five out of the seven total cards that will make your hand and you should be able to make a good decision about where you stand at this point in the hand. While almost anything can happen before the flop, the lists of possible outcomes for the hand are greatly reduced after the flop.
At this time you need to decide if you're going to fight until the end or exit the hand. You see player after player chasing a hand, seeing one more card on the turn before folding. This habit ends up costing players enough to wipe out any possible profit.
Players call a bet on the flop so they can try for that inside straight or try for a higher pair, even when they're clearly behind in the hand.
You have to base all of your decisions on the long term profitability of your hand.
Don't ever take a card chasing a hand that doesn't offer the correct pot odds. Folding a losing long term hand here saves a bet. Any bet saved is extra ammunition you can use at another time to win more.
Texas holdem is never just about the current hand or situation. Everything you do is a combination of the game that has lead up to the current situation, the present hand, and everything in the future that's tied to the current hand.
Just because most strategy advice focuses on aggressive play and the offensive part of holdem doesn't mean folding can't be profitable. Here's a list of flop situations where folding is the most profitable long term play.
You see the flop with ace king and the flop is jack, ten, and three. A tight player fires a bet of $20, making the pot $120. Unless the board pairs you'll win the pot with a straight and you may or may not win if you pair your ace or king.
The problem with pairing your ace or king is it makes a possible straight for your opponent. So in this situation you can usually count half of the cards that pair one of your cards as outs. So you're looking at four outs for the straight and three more for pairing one of your cards for a total of seven outs. The problem is if you pair your ace and an opponent hits a straight how much will you lose before you get away from the hand?
While the pot odds make a call close, the negative implied odds make it a situation where you need to fold and wait for a better situation where you can invest your money.
You make a pre flop raise with a pair of jacks from late position and get called by an early position limper and a middle position limper. The flop has an ace and a king, the first player bets and the second raises. It's always good to be optimistic, but it's difficult to imagine two hands your opponents can possibly hold that doesn't have at least one of them dominating your jacks.
The truth is you're probably behind both hands at this point and instead of throwing good money away you need to fold. You were the aggressive player before the flop and not only has one player improved their hand enough to make a bet into you, the other raises. These are both clear indications of the strength of the other hands compared to yours.
A single bet may not be enough to make you fold, though in this case it might, but the bet and raise are just too much to call.
In a no limit Texas holdem game you call an early raise with a pair of eights. The flop is three, four, seven, and the pre flop bettor makes a continuation bet on the flop. Even though you have an over pair, when you play for a set against a raise you have to be able to fold when you don't hit your hand.
While it's possible you could have the best hand, the odds are against it. And if you're dominated by an over pair, which is likely, you'll end up losing a big pot. The best play is a fold.
The turn is listed last because if you're playing the best Texas holdem as possible and folding on the flop when you should the turn generally plays itself.
If you're ahead on the flop you're generally still ahead on the turn and need to continue building the value of the pot. When you're behind on the flop but getting the correct pot odds to call if you haven't improved your hand on the turn you usually still have the correct odds to see the river.
Have you ever read the statement that if you do a good job selecting your starting hands and make the best decisions on the flop that the rest of the hand plays itself? This is a fairly accurate statement.
If you find yourself in a situation where you should have folded on the flop but wanted to see the turn, don't compound the mistake by chasing a bad draw to the river. Of course you should try to avoid this situation, but never make it worse just because of your prior mistake.
Here's a couple of situations where seeing the turn was correct but a fold becomes correct at this time.
You have second pair and a flush draw and make a semi bluff on the flop, but get called by two opponents. Your hand doesn't improve on the turn and you face an all in that creates a negative expected value when you determine the pot odds. A semi bluff is usually a profitable play, but learn to recognize when one doesn't work out and cut your losses.
You have top pair with top kicker against two opponents and the board pairs and puts the third suited card out on the turn. Both opponents seem to come alive and start a betting war. Even though you may have had the best hand entering the turn it's not likely that you still have the best hand. And if you're behind to either opponent at this time you're probably drawing dead.
Everything we've talked about so far deals with cash or ring game play. Tournament play requires a different thought process when it comes to folding. You often have to fold in a positive expectation situation to conserve your chips for situations where you're the favorite to win.
If that sounds like it is a rare situation, bear with us for a minute. We'll show you how you're often in a positive expectation situation where you aren't the favorite to win. When you see what we mean you'll realize you already knew this.
In a cash game a positive expectation situation is almost always one where you want to invest as much money as possible. In the long run you make money from these situations, even if you lose sometimes. The wins over time more than make up for the losses and show a profit. But this doesn't mean you're the favorite to win any single hand.
You have an open end straight draw and two over cards on the turn, the pot has $300 in it, and you have to call a $50 all in bet. You have 14 outs which mean you have over a 30% chance to win the hand. This is clearly a situation where you aren't the favorite to win the hand, but you still have a positive expected value. You only have to win 15% of the time to show a long term profit.
Let's compare this to a different situation.
You have two pair on the turn against a player with a flush draw. They have a 19.57% chance to win the hand, making you a favorite of over 80%.
In both situations you're going to make money in the long run, but in the second situation you're going to win the hand a much higher percentage of the time.
In a tournament you have a limited number of chips so you have to protect them while trying to make them grow. The only way to win more chips is to risk the ones you have, but you need to risk them in situations where you have the best chance to increase them.
It's fairly easy to see that even in a tournament the long term profitability of both examples described above is positive, but in the first example you're only going to win a hair over 30% of the time.
So if you're in a tournament situation where you can play for all of your chips in a positive expectation hand but only have a 25% chance of remaining in the tournament what are you going to do?
Three out of every four times you play the situation you get knocked out of the tournament but the one time out of four it sets you up nicely for a run that should help you finish in the money. Only you can decide which way you want to play, but an argument can easily be made for both sides.
On the other hand if you have an 80% chance to win a hand in a tournament you have to make the play. You rarely find a situation where you have a larger edge and you can't fold.
The only way you'd ever consider folding in the second situation is if you're on the bubble and are in danger of missing the money if you lose. And even in this situation you'll almost always need to call because of the large edge. With an 80% chance to win you'll win the hand four out of every five times you play.
Unless something tragic is going to happen, like being evicted, unless you finish in the money the best play is to call.
It can be a difficult balancing act for Texas holdem tournament players to choose between long term expectations in short term negative situations and waiting for more certain short term results. Everyone wants to only play hands where they have a large edge, but these situations don't come up often enough to make it feasible to always wait on them.
Of course even when you find situations where you're a big favorite often enough you can still end up losing a hand. You just hope that you've made enough of a cushion on the other hands to take the loss and remain alive in the tournament.
If you're an 80% favorite to win a hand it means you win four out of every five times you play it. In simple terms this means if you're in the situation five times in a tournament you're going to lose one of them. So if you're all in all five times you're out of the tournament.
Most Texas holdem players look for reasons to call instead of reasons to fold. Most Texas holdem players lose money in the long run.
Do you think these two things could be related?
We're not saying these two things are directly related, but they do appear to have some connection. Good players look for both reasons to call or raise and reasons to fold. Then they weigh the benefits and long term profitability of each action and make the correct decision more often than not.
If the only thing you do is look for reasons to call you need to start looking for reasons to fold as well. Only by looking at the current situation as realistically as possible and not through rose colored glasses will you be able to play the most profitable poker.