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Home / Texas Hold em / Heads I win, Tails you lose: The “Coin Flip” in Texas Hold ‘Em

Heads I win, Tails you lose: The “Coin Flip” in Texas Hold ‘Em

A “coin flip” in Texas Hold ‘Em poker refers to the situation in which each of two players has approximately equal chances of winning the pot.  While an actual coin-flip has precisely a 50-50 chance of each of the two possible outcomes (heads or tails), the term is used frequently used more loosely in poker. For example, during heads-up play in Hold'em, a pocket pair like 2-2 has a slight percentage advantage against two overcards, such as A-K. Of course, how much advantage exactly depends on whether the overcards are suited and whether the cards used in the pocket pair are in the range that they might otherwise have helped the overcards complete a straight. Despite these variations, this situation is considered a coin flip.

To Flip or Not? Consider Your Odds

In poker, you generally want to avoid taking on a negative expected-value proposition. That means that you can comfortably fold that A-K when you're certain your opponent is holding a high pocket pair like Jacks or Queens, since the pair has the advantage. Some players make the mistake of seeking coin flips early on in tournaments in order to build up a chip stack, but this is a losing decision when the odds are slightly against you.

After you’ve committed chips to the pot, however, the situation is slightly different. If the pot has 2,000 in it and you have to put your last 1,000 chips in to make the call, you're getting 2-1 on your money – great odds even if you only have a 48% chance of winning.

Of course, you need to read your opponent. With A-K, you don’t want to be running into Aces or Kings, but with Jacks you shouldn’t avoid flipping against A-K, only to discover that your opponent has pocket 9s.

Multi-Way Pots: Not Really a Coin Flip

In multi-way hands, the math can get complicated and turn against you. For example, let’s say you have that 2-2 in a three-way pot and one of you opponents holds an A-K. Is this the same heads-up coin flip situation where you should have the best of it? Actually not. Take a look at the percentages:

A-K off-suit vs. 2-2 = 47.4% to 52.6% (with 2-2 being the favorite) 

2-2 vs. J-T suited = 46.2 to 53.8 (with J-T being the favorite)

A-K off-suit vs. J-T suited = 59.5% to 40.5% (A-K being a fairly clear favorite)

Now look what happens when we put them all together:

A-K off-suit vs. J-T suited vs. 2-2 = 36.3% to 34.9% to 28.8%

Note that in this case the A-K now has a clear edge over the 2-2 - even though in a heads-up situation the 2-2 would be ahead in a coin flip. The J-T suited is very close to the A-K now, and the J-T suited benefited the most from having it three-way - since in a heads-up situation, it would have been a clear dog to the A-K.

The Coin Flip: A way to even things up

Any time your opponent has an advantage over you – be it a large chip stack or better skills – you ought to seek a coin flip against him in order to even up your chances.

If you think your opponents are better players than you and are certain that you'll be outplayed after the flop, taking a coin flip can help even the playing field.

Flip that logic on its head and you will realize that better players ought to avoid coin flips that erode their advantage and wait until he gets the chance to try and outplay you after the flop. Hence, you should be willing to press a coin flip situation every chance you get against a player who thinks he's better than you. 

Furthermore, when you're in a situation where you have a significantly larger chip stack than your opponent, you don’t want to take a coin flip. Avoid that situation by not committing too many chips to the pot and waiting until after the flop to outplay the competition.

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