In my videos lately I’ve been presenting some basic rules that should help you to beat $1-$2 consistently. One of the biggest—and most important—rules is that you shouldn’t pay people off. If someone makes a big bet on the turn and river, and you can’t beat any of the hands they represent with their bet, you should fold. The logic is simple. Players at this level don’t make big bluffs at a high enough frequency, and if they won’t bluff, then you shouldn’t try to catch bluffs.

One of the toughest things for $1-$2 level players to master is that strong-looking hands frequently become only bluff-catchers if your opponent bets big enough.

But with any rule this big, there will always be exceptions. And the exceptions to this particular rule are very important. So here are a few of the most important exceptions:

Newbie Opponents

The principle behind folding to the big bet is that players don’t bluff often enough, at least not for big bets. This principle holds for newbies as well, since they usually don’t feel comfortable enough yet at the table to try to get one over on opponents. But against newbies, you still should often pay off big bets anyway when you have a fairly strong-looking hand.

Newbies typically don’t understand the action and hand ranges on even the most basic level. An experienced player, for example, would typically understand that if you bet flop and turn, you’re likely to have at least top pair. A raise from this player implies that he can beat top pair.

Newbies don’t understand this dynamic at all. They might call a flop with K-7 offsuit, no pair, and then decide to raise the turn when they catch a seven.

Raising Middle Pair

The way you beat newbies is simply to play the raw card odds and treat many of their plays as if they were randomly selected.

So say you raise preflop in a $1-$2 game with $200 stacks holding K-Q.  A couple players including an obvious newbie call. The flop comes Q-T-4 rainbow. You bet the flop, and only the newbie calls.

You’re not folding this hand, no matter what. It’s hard to make a hand better than top pair, and you can’t count on your opponent’s actions to give you meaningful information. So you just rely on the fact that it’s hard to beat top pair, and you bet turn and river. If you get raised, you shove all-in.

If you’ve read your opponent’s experience level correctly, you’ll find yourself all-in against hands like T-5 and 7-4 and A-2. Sure, every once in a while your opponent will luck into a hand that beats you, but you’ll have the clear edge over the long-term.

Wild Opponents

These players are one step removed from newbies. They may sit at the table comfortably and handle their chips well, implying that they have some experience. But their plays are all over the map. They don’t have a clear concept of how to put actions together to build a sensible strategy.

If you have trouble figuring out who these players are, look for big pots and showdowns. A typical small stakes no-limit hold’em game played mostly among normal regulars will be cautious. There will be a fair bit of checking, especially on the turn and river. When someone bets the turn, often that ends the action. It’s not so common to see two players get stacks in against one another, and when it does happen, usually once you see the hands it’s obvious why it happened.

“…A typical small stakes no-limit hold’em game played

mostly among normal regulars will be cautious…”

Wild players blast this dynamic out of the water. Wild players might make frequent, ridiculously oversized raises preflop—like making it $50 in a $1-$2 game every other hand. Wild players typically like to shove all-in over normal flop and turn action. You’ll see the same player make three or four shoves in a short period of time. If this accompanies a very loose or aggressive preflop strategy (look for oversized raises, constant cold-calling, straddling, and so forth), there’s a good chance the player is wild.

As with the newbies, don’t fold top pair against these guys. Just hang on for dear life.

Here’s an example from a World Series Of Poker Main Event. It was Day 1, and I had a great table. One player, in particular, was playing strangely. Every half hour or so, he would just start making massive overbets at the pot. If called, he would bet even bigger on the next street. For hours he did this and won every one of these pots.

Finally we played a hand together. It was 75-150 blinds, and we both had about 50,000 in chips. I opened for 400 with A♣ Q♠ from middle position. He reraised me on the button to 2,000. I called. Based on my observations, I thought this reraise could be an extremely wide range of hands, and I was happy to call with A-Q.

The flop came A♦ Q♦ 6♠. I checked, and he bet 8,000 into the 4,225 pot. I called.

The turn was the T♣. I checked, and he bet 22,000 into the 20,225 pot. I shoved for the remaining 18,000. He folded.

Obviously flopping top two against this player made the decision easy, but I would have played for stacks with just top pair as well—even though we entered the hand more than 300 big blinds deep.

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I’m not even sure shoving the turn was the right play. At the time, I figured with so little stack depth (relatively speaking) behind after my turn call, he was unlikely to continue a bluff on the river. With draws out there, I reflexively didn’t want to give him a free shot to beat me if it would just go check-check on most rivers.

But this player was obviously a little nuts, and I made a mistake of ascribing to him rational river behavior when he hadn’t earned it with his play. There was a good chance he was drawing dead going into the river, and I probably should have given him the rope to make a final crazy bluff. Oh well.

Short Stacked Opponents

When your opponents begin a hand short-stacked, don’t fold easily to their all-in bets. Say you’re playing $1-$2, and your opponent has $65 to start the hand. A player limps, you raise to $10, and your short-stacked opponent calls.

If you flop top pair, you’re not folding to the short-stacked player, no matter what. Once players’ stacks dwindle below a certain threshold in cash games, they begin to play with desperation. They shove all-in any time they make a hand that looks halfway reasonable (and often it won’t clear even that bar). Don’t fold real hands in these situations. If you aren’t sure why this is, watch this quick video about SPR:

Final Thoughts

The rule not to pay people off on the turn or river is extremely powerful, and it will save you a whole lot of money over the long-term. But the rule relies on a few assumptions. First, it requires that your opponent have at least a basic understanding of hand values. You need to know that your opponent understands that if you keep betting or calling in a pot, at some point you’re marked with at least top pair. If your opponent is oblivious to this, you can’t rely on the information in his betting.

Second, it requires that your opponent behave rationally with respect to the hand values. Some players just like making big bets even though they clearly understand that they aren’t playing strategically. Don’t fold to these guys just because they make yet another whopper of a bet for no apparent reason.

Finally, players flip a switch when their stack gets short enough. They begin to look for a spot—almost any spot will do—to shove all-in. If you’ve got a hand against one of these players, just put your money in with them.

As long as you pay heed to the major exceptions, following the rule will make you a much stronger player.