To play winning poker, you must execute sequences of plays rather than make each decision independently. A lot of intermediate players focus too narrowly on their immediate decision while failing to consider the rest of the hand. In disciplines like poker, chess and billiards, it’s important to stay conscious of how the rest of the hand/game/rack might unfold. We often refer to this critical yet misunderstood concept as “playing lines”.
The benefits of playing lines
Although it is impossible to play every single hand in “lines” (for instance, you can’t play lines when folding or when in shove or fold mode), the benefits of doing so as much as possible are huge.
Here is a short list of benefits you will reap from thinking in “lines” at the poker table:
Seeing that you must consider your opponent’s next move(s) in order to formulate lines, you will rarely be caught off guard. Playing lines will promote your anticipation skills and will vastly reduce the number of times you will be caught by surprise by your opposition’s actions.
Have you ever caught yourself playing poker in “cruise control mode”? The tendency to mindlessly go through the motions of playing poker without focus is pretty common. Long sessions induce fatigue, bad beats cause tilt and creative players apply constant pressure. These factors rob players of their concentration.
Playing lines forces you to actively think about the key aspects of the current hand. It keeps you focused on your opponents, their tendencies, stack sizes and other factors that you must constantly monitor. Focusing on lines will keep you focused and sharp at the table.
Lines are repeatable
Playing lines not only helps us exploit our current opponents, it also teaches us how to handle similar situations in the future. For instance; you might decide to 3-Bet/fold to a frequent preflop raiser while planning to play aggressively on the flop (especially if he tends to give up on flops that miss him). While formulating this line, you have figured out a strategically sound tactic in a very common scenario. When formulating lines for the current hand, you are solving poker problems that will occur frequently in your future sessions.
Formulating optimal lines
The first step to formulating winning lines is to determine your goal(s) for the hand. Your goal(s) will guide your actions and point you towards the type of lines to seek. The list of possible goals for a hand is plentiful and you can have multiple goals for a hand. Following is a short list of common goals for a poker hand and a brief summary of lines you might consider for each.
When you hit a huge hand in the early streets you will seek to win a big pot. It is easier to commit to this goal against aggressive players (they are more likely to pay you off) and when the effective stacks are shorter. Bet/Raise type lines are obviously valuable when looking to chip up, but at times you will want to consider more deceptive Check/Raise type lines in order to induce bluffs and to exploit overaggressive opponents.
When your hand is a bit too strong to turn into a bluff, yet it’s strong enough to withstand one or two streets of betting, your goal will often be to get to showdown cheaply. Here, an obvious choice is to play Check/Call type lines, but sometimes early aggression will slow your opponent down and give you some free cards in the later streets.
When the stack sizes are deep enough and you are playing against nitty players, you will often find yourself looking to win the pot with the worse hand. Often this calls for bet/fold, bet/fold , bet/fold type lines (commonly referred as double or triple barrelling). In other spots you might want to call an early street bet in order to take the pot away later with a lot of aggressions (often referred to as floating). Check/raising aggressive opponents is also a strong line when you are trying to “steal” a pot.
You are on the button in a low limit cash game and have 100 Big Blinds. Everyone folds to you and the small blind has vacated his seat and surrendered his small blind (not a common scenario but works well for this discussion). You raise 2.5 times the amount of the big blind with 10H 6H. The small blind is folded and the big blind, who has 100 BB as well, defends your raise with a call.
Before the raise, you’re already anticipating your opponent’s next move and thinking of ways of countering . In this example, your opponent has two options that you must consider.
- He might 3-bet
- He might call
When he 3-Bets
Let’s assume that your opponent very rarely 3-bets in this spot and has an extremely strong range when doing so. You decide you will fold to a 3-bet, but you are not very concerned about it because his 3-Betting range is so thin and you will rarely need to fold. So when our opponent 3-Bets we are playing a line of:
When he calls your preflop raise
We also need to decide how we will play the flop if our opponent calls. In this case we figure we want to avoid playing fit or fold in raised pots, so we decide to C-bet most flops that are checked to us, with most flops meaning:
- Uncoordinated flops
- Flops that don’t hit our opponent’s range too hard
- Flops that hit our range of hands
So our line is:
Preflop Raise/Fold (Flop) CBet/Call most flops
In the rare occasion that our opponent “donk bets” the flop, we will raise just about 100 percent of the time as we feel that donk bets are generally weak holdings. If we get 3-Bet we can safely fold our hand. Our line has now turned into:
(Preflop) Raise/Fold (Flop) Raise/fold to a donk bet
Continuing with the instance where your opponent checked the flop, let’s look at some post flop lines. In our example our 10h 6h hit a small piece of the flop:
9c – 2c – 6s
As you can see, this flop isn’t all that coordinated, it doesn’t hit our opponent’s range all that hard and we did catch a small piece of it by hitting 2nd pair with our 10-6 of hearts. As planned, we lead out after our opponent checks, with the plan of folding if he check raises (let’s assume he is not very creative and we see his check/raising range as being extremely strong). Our line becomes:
(Preflop) Raise/Fold (Flop) Bet/Fold
Possible lines for the turn and river
Continuing with our example, we only have the instance where our opponent calls our C-Bet to consider (one of us folds in the other scenarios). Let’s say that we like our showdown equity in this hand and our goal is to get to showdown cheaply. Our most straightforward line for the turn and river could be:
(Turn) Check behind or Call (River) Check behind or Call
Another possibility for this spot is to show aggression on the turn with a raise when our opponent bets and a bet when he checks. This aggression often slows down our opponent and gives us a free card on the river:
(Turn) Raise when he leads or Bet when he checks (River) Call or Check behind
As we previously stated, you must have an underlying goal for your hand and you need to consider variables like your opponent’s tendencies in order to formulate winning lines. Once you get into the habit of playing in lines, not only will your immediate results improve, but your game will progress at a much faster clip because you will be working on your strategy while playing the current hand optimally.