Saturday, March 13, 2010

"There is a figure, an exact figure"

A poker hand that I played the other night at Planet Hollywood got me thinking about a great episode of the great sitcom "Taxi." It took me a while, but with the wonders of the web, I was able to track down the episode from some key words in the plot, and actually found it online. It's season 4, episode 22 (the 88th episode of the series), first aired on April 8, 1982.

Jim (Christopher Lloyd, who is funny every second he is on screen) accidentally burns up Louie's (Danny DeVito) apartment and everything in it. But Jim's millionaire father is willing to make good on the damages, writing Louie a blank check, with the instruction to fill it out for whatever amount he feels is fair compensation. The greedy Louie is tormented by the problem of what dollar amount to write on the check, which he wants to be as big as will be accepted, dismissing the laughable (to him) suggestion that he make it merely for the actual amount of his losses. "If I fill this check out for a million bucks, his dad would never cover it. But there is a figure, an exact figure, one big enough so that he'll go, 'brrrrrrr' [shudders], but not so big that he won't say, 'ehhhhhh' [shrugging dismissively]." (Sorry for the vagueness. It's all conveyed with voice tone and body language.) After much hand-wringing, Louie finally settles on $29,542. Jim calls his father, who OKs the amount. Louie is at first ecstatic at his windfall, but then nearly has a heart attack when Jim relays the news that his father had been expecting--and prepared to pay--a figure of about $200,000.

(You can watch the "Taxi" episode in three parts on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. )

I think of this conundrum every time I'm faced with the situation of a river bet when I have a hand I'm sure is a winner and an opponent who shows willingness to call. The problem is trying to guess the figure, the exact figure, that is the maximum that he will decide to call. Make it too big and he folds, leaving you with no further profit on the hand. Make it too small, and you leave money in his stack that should be in yours.

Thursday night I had been playing at Planet Hollywood for about five hours, without much to show for it. I had started with the maximum buy-in of $300, and had only increased it to about $400. I was thinking that this was going to be kind of a disappointment of a night and maybe I should pack it in. But about that time, I found the two red jacks in the small blind. Now, a lot of people hate jacks, but I have found them to play very profitably, for the most part.

One of the few decent players at the table--very solid, classic tight-aggressive style--raised to $15 from the cutoff seat. I happily called, even though I knew he could easily have a bigger pair. It was just us to the flop, which was a lovely Q-J-x with two spades. I checked. He bet $20. I called. The turn was the 7c. I checked again. He bet $30. This was significant, because he had previously shown a tendency to fire only once if he missed the flop, so his bet told me that his minimum hand here was an top pair (e.g., A-Q), and more likely he had an overpair to the board. Of course, there was a chance that he had me in a horrible set-over-set situation, but you just have to accept that possible fate once in a while and not let it hamper you. I check-raised to $90. He called with almost no hesitation, again suggesting that he genuinely liked his hand.

The river was maybe the best card I could have asked for: the 7s. It gave me a full house. If perchance he had something like the As-Ks, he would have made his nut flush. More realistically, though, if he had an overpair, he would have improved to two pair, and thus think that perhaps I had hit the flop with Q-J and had now been counterfeited by his better two pair. My check-raise on the turn would not be consistent with how he would expect me to play a flush draw, so I didn't think he would put me on that and be scared by a third spade.

So now I had the dilemma of how much to bet. There was about $245 in the pot. I had about $275 left, and he was roughly equally deep. How much would he call with just an overpair, which I had concluded was his most likely holding? I took a little more time than usual on this, both because I was sincerely pondering how much I could charge him, but also because I was hoping that the Hollywooding would make him think that I was falsely representing the flush with just top pair (e.g., A-Q in the hole), or that I had been playing Q-J, realized the dilemma that the paired board gave me, and was trying to decide whether to give up or go for it. I have no idea if my hesitation actually got him thinking that way, but that was the goal. Anyway, I finally landed on $140 as my amount. To give it a finishing touch, I did some little mannerisms that were different from the way I had bet every previous time (like announce the amount verbally before putting it in), because he was one of the few who might have been paying attention; I hadn't been caught bluffing all night, so he might notice changes and think they indicated something was different this time. Again, I can't know whether that bit of trickery really did anything, but it couldn't hurt.

He took nearly two minutes to think. He counted out the amount, separated it from the rest of his chips, looked at what he would have left, appeared to be trying to estimate the pot, rechecked the board and his down cards a couple of times, etc. He finally pushed it forward. I showed my boat. He nodded grimly, knocked the table, and quietly said, "Nice hand" before tossing his cards away unseen. (I'm left with the conviction that he had either A-A or K-K for the overpair, or, less likely, Q-J for top two pair.)

His reaction makes me think that my river bet probably got very close to that elusive "exact figure" that is the most that he would be willing to put out as a crying call without being so excruciatingly painful that he decides to fold. That's rare. Usually in those situations I'm left with the feeling that I blew it one direction or the other.

But still, could I have gotten more? Ed Miller recently wrote a Card Player magazine column on how no-limit players tend to bet too small with their strong hands, missing opportunities to take an opponent's whole stack. (See here.) Similarly, the book he co-wrote with David Sklansky, No Limit Hold'em: Theory and Practice, emphasizes the need to plan bet sizing so as to capture entire stacks. So even though I think I extracted the maximum on the river, I'm left wondering if I could have done better on earlier streets. Would I have gotten more by betting out on the flop and hoping for a raise? Would a check-raise on the flop have set up a bigger pot by the end of the hand? I suppose there is no way to know. I will just have to be satisfied with the roughly $260 I made from him, and continue to wonder if it could have been more, or if a different line would have scared him off before he became married to his hand.

What do you think?


THETA Poker said...

You passed on your best opportunity to stack him with your postflop check, but at that point you still didn't know that he had a good hand (some players like a min-raise there instead of a call). You definitely sized the river bet perfectly. Any bet that makes an opponent think before making the right decision is a pretty good one, but a bet that makes an opponent think before making the wrong decision is a great one.

Shrike said...

I have found--as a general rule--that leading out into the preflop raiser with a monster hand will often lead them to stack off with an overpair. Ed Miller's book does have a very good chapter on planning bets and bet-sizing to put an opponent's whole stack at risk. In the hand as you've described it above, you just didn't inflate the pot enough before the river to get all his money. (It does seem like a river shove would have generated a fold in this case.)

Of course, it all depends ... your victim here might be good enough not to stack off with an overpair against you.

genomeboy said...

Nice post, love the Taxi reference. I under appreciated it when it was originally on, and now wish it was in syndication in my area..

To the hand: I'm surprised you didn't lead out on the flop, as others mentioned. That would have 1) priced out the flush draw and given him the incorrect price to continue (again, a fundamental Sklansky concept) and 2) would have built the pot as you would have preferred.

I'm surprised you let him continue so cheaply....

Greylocks said...

I'm with the others in that I would like to believe I would not have slowplayed the flop.

As for sizing value bets on the river, I've always felt the key is to be consistent. I try to be consistently vague, which is typically around half the pot whether I'm bluffing or have the goods. I will make exceptions for calling stations.

Rakewell said...

I often will lead out into the raiser with a set, though not always. There's only a few seconds to make the decision, since I was first to act, but what flashed through my mind was a combination of: (1) If he missed with, especially, AK, he might fold to a bet, and I should give him the chance to either bluff or take a free card and maybe hit his overcard, and, (2) The board has both flush and straight draws, so if he has overpair, he might bet big in an attempt to price out the draws, which I can use to get him pot-committed. That second thought was especially prominent after the blank turn, as my check-call would have looked like a draw. However, he didn't end up betting as much as I thought he would if that were his intention.

It is certainly possible, though, that it would have been better to lead out, then call if he raised (as a draw would), then check-raise the turn. If we didn't get all-in then, might well have happened on the river. Otoh, it's possible that nothing I could have done would have gotten him to lose more than he did with an overpair (assuming that's what he had). It might be against his religion to go broke with one pair.

It's not clear to me what would have been best--hence the question.

Rakewell said...

One more summary thought: I'm aware that, as a general rule, if you want to play a big pot (which I did), the most reliable and straightforward way of making that happen is to bet and raise at every opportunity. That is my usual and default approach. I don't routinely slow-play and trap with big flops. But sometimes circumstances suggest to me that being deceptive by being deceptive, as opposed to being deceptive by being straightforward (if you see what I mean) is the better plan. In the few seconds I had to decide, this seemed like one of them. But I could be wrong.

SuicideKing said...

It's an odd thing, but I've found that the faster I make a river bet with something close to the nuts, the more likely I am to be paid off. Especially if you can control the tempo to where it increases from preflop to flop to turn to river. If there is a pattern, people will tend to follow it and be swept up into the flow without really thinking about it. That's where an all-in river bet comes into play. It doesn't let the person think about the actual number of the bet, and most of the time, if they were willing to call a smaller amount, they will call the all-in.

Ernest said...

Great post.
Before I read your decision, I came up with exactly $140 too. It's a number he has to call with a hand (almost certainly A-Q it sounds like, maybe K-K). Since he separated his chips and thought it over, he probably wouldn't have called an all-in. You said he was a good player, and he probably knew he was beat, but had to see for $140.