Essential No Limit Holdem Strategy: The Straight Draw
Welcome to Poker Copilot’s Essential Strategy series, where we take a look at tactics, techniques, and concepts you’ll need to understand if you want to become a winning poker player.
Today’s post is about one of the trickiest situations novice players can get themselves into – the straight draw.
A player is said to be “drawing” when they are waiting for a specific card (or cards) to complete a particular hand. When you are “on a straight draw”, it means that you are one card away from making a straight.
There’s something about a possible straight that touches the heart of a poker player. Seeing that partially complete sequence, and knowing the implications of completing, it creates emotions that speak to the very reason we started playing this game.
Unfortunately, too often a player will find that his decisions are determined by these emotions rather than more objective concepts like expected value (EV) and pot odds and how they apply to draws.
Being able able to calculate pot odds and that calculation to determine whether a decision has positive or negative EV is the cornerstone of playing a drawing hand correctly. Knowing whether or not a call is a mathematically sound decision should be the only consideration a player makes when faced with this spot.
Of course, being faced with a tricky call isn’t the only scenario that a player who is drawing will find himself in. What do you do when you’re first to act, and you have a juicy drawing hand?
In this post, we’ll discuss all the two most likely spots that you could find yourself in when you’re on a straight draw.
A Word on Pre-flop Play
When it comes to drawing hands in a pre-flop context, suited connectors will dominate the discussion. However, in this piece we’re going to limit our discussion on that topic to saying that suited connectors should be played under one or more of the following conditions:
- You have position
- There are multiple players in the pot
- Your opponent isn’t short-stacked
- You can see the flop cheaply
The point of playing suited connectors is that you want to win a big pot against a player who made a decent hand. But, you also don’t want to be in a situation where you have to pay too much to see the turn or the river, should your straight draw not be completed on the flop.
Playing a straight draw is all about knowing what to do in post-flop situations. In many cases, you’ll be on the straight draw after the flop, having entered the hand with connected cards like 87s or high-value one-gap cards like AQ, since these are typically the hands a good player will see the flop with if there was pre-flop action.
Here are the three most common spots that you will find yourself in when you’re drawing on the flop.
You’re Faced With a Bet
Often, when you have position on your opponents and if there was pre-flop action, you’re going to be faced with aggression from the player who is first to act after the flop. This could either be because they are making a “light” continuation-bet as a bluff or semi-bluff, or because they have hit the flop and are betting for value.
Either way, since you are only drawing, your consideration here is never going to be whether you are ahead or not. While there is always value in putting your opponent on a hand range, when you’re on a straight draw, this will be less of a concern.
In this spot, it becomes essential to understand whether the call has a positive or negative expected value (EV). In almost every situation, this is the only way to play a straight draw when faced with a bet.
Calculating the EV is a method of determining whether making a call to see the next card is a mathematically sound option. This is done by comparing the chances of seeing the card you need to the amount of money that you need to put in the pot in order to see it.
Determining a Draw’s Expected Value
Step 1: Determine your number of outs.
An “out” is a card that you need to complete the hand that you’re attempting to make. When you’re holding JhQh and the board shows TsKh3c, you need a 9 or an A to complete your straight. Since there are four of each of those cards, you have eight outs.
If you have that same hand, but the flop comes TsKh3h, you’re on a straight/flush combo draw, giving you a mammoth 15 outs.
With the same hand and a flop of 9sKc3h, you’re on a gut-shot straight draw, meaning only a T will complete your hand, giving you four outs.
Step 2: Convert the outs to a percentage.
The next step is to understand what your percentage chances are of seeing one of your outs if you make the call. We’re going to take a relatively simplified look at this calculation, by discussing the “rule of two and four.”
Essentially, this rule says that when you are on the flop, you multiply your number of outs by four, in order to determine your percentage chance of completing your hand.
- Four outs = 16% (4 x 4)
- Eight outs = 32% (8 x 4)
- Fifteen outs = 60% (15 x 4)
On the turn, your chances are halved since there is only the river to come. In this situation, you multiply your number of outs by two.
- Four outs = 8% (4 x 2)
- Eight outs = 16% (8 x 2)
- Fifteen outs = 30% (15 x 2)
NOTE: This calculation is not 100% accurate; the actual percentage chance of hitting your outs differs slightly from these values. However, when you are faced with this scenario at a table, this approach is accurate enough to base your decisions on.
Step 3: Calculate the pot odds as a percentage.
Let’s express this as an example. The pot size is $14 after the flop. Your opponent bets $9, taking the pot to a total of $23. You need to call $9 to potentially win a pot of $23. What percentage is 9 of 23?
9 / 23 * 100 = 39%
Let’s look at another example. The pot size is $51. The bet you’re facing is $44, taking the pot size to $95. What is the pot odds percentage?
44 / 95 * 100 = 46%
The ability to perform this calculation mentally is something that will come with time. While learning this skill, we highly recommend cutting down on the number of tables you’re playing to give yourself sufficient time. Do the math and then use a calculator to determine how accurate you were. Once you can comfortably get within a percentage point or two, you’re doing well enough to consider multitabling again.
Step 4: Determine the expected value
This is the simplest part of the process. Compare the percentage chance you have of completing your hand to the pot odds to see which one is bigger.
- If the chance of completing your hand is bigger than the pot odds, the call is +EV and you should make it.
- If the chance of completing your hand is smaller than the pot odds, the call is -EV and you should fold.
It’s tempting to say “it’s as simple as that” at this point, but many novice players may think this approach is anything but simple. Don’t let its complexity put you off; it is one of the most critical skills to learn in poker. All winning players know how to objectively calculate whether a call is +EV or -EV. There is no way out of learning and applying this if you intend to become profitable at the tables.
You’re First to Act
This is the second scenario we’ll discuss when you’re on a straight draw. In this case, there is no need to perform the EV calculation we discussed above since you’re not faced with a bet. It is, however, worth knowing what your number of outs is since it does factor into the assessment of your hand’s strength.
If you were the first to bet pre-flop, it’s worth considering a semi-bluff continuation bet. Read Poker Copilot’s recent Essential Strategy Guide to C-Betting for more information on this strategy.
If your pre-flop play was passive, faking strength here won’t have the same effect as if you had open-raised or three-bet pre-flop.
In most cases controlling the pot is going to be the right play. Checking to put the ball in your opponent’s court may seem conservative, but in many cases you’ll get to see the next street for free, making it a decent play.
Let’s look at scenarios where you might consider making a bet even if you didn’t show aggression pre-flop:
- A large portion of your opponent’s hand range has missed the flop.
- The read you have on your opponent suggests that a fold is likely.
- The board contains scare-cards that don’t benefit your opponent’s estimated range.
Here are the advantages of playing a straight draw aggressively:
The main benefit you get from betting when drawing is that you’re effectively giving yourself two chances of winning the hand, not only by making the hand, but also by getting your opponent to fold.
The second benefit of this play is that you’re disguising your draw. Should the turn or river bring a low card like a 7 that completes your draw, your opponent is unlikely to put you on a straight and think that you are bluffing when you are sitting with a monster.
Another reason to consider this play is if you have a very strong drawing hand with several outs. A straight/flush combo draw is going to give you 15 outs. That’s a 60% chance of making your hand. In this case, a bet could be a value play, since you have such a big chance of winning the hand.
Deciding to be passive or aggressive when your opponent has position is a skill that you will learn with time. What is important to know as you consider this relatively advanced play, is that you make it on what you perceive to be solid information, rather than intuition.
Playing Against Straight Draws
Having learned about calculating pot odds and determining whether a play has positive or negative EV, one of the most obvious strategies when you’re faced with a draw-friendly board is to bet amounts that don’t give your opponent good calling odds.
If you see a flop of TcJcQh and you have QsAs, you do not want you opponent to see the turn. In this case, bet the full pot amount or very close to it. Not only does this make your opponent’s call -EV should they be holding KcTs, it also doubles as a value bet should they decide to call and the turn does not help them.
There is quite a bit of math involved in playing straight draws. You will regularly find yourself in situations where you need to calculate whether or not a call is a profitable one to make in the long term.
It is imperative that you hone the skill of determining whether a call is mathematically sound or not. It is a strategy that no serious poker player can do without.
Be patient while learning it. Commit yourself to it. Don’t stretch yourself too thin across too many tables initially and keep a calculator on hand to verify your math.
This is an exciting skill to learn. Good luck and see you at the tables!