Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pre-flop thoughts

Over the years I have evolved a whole bunch of poker-related routines. Some of these I have shared with you, others not. Most of them are just unforgivably boring, such as why I like one particular style of shirt as my poker "uniform." (No, I'm not going to explain it--like I said, way too boring.) Others might be of interest to some readers. For no particular reason other than that it occurred to me just now, I'm going to try to relate what I think about between pre-flop betting and the flop's appearance.

First I recheck my hole cards, memorizing both ranks and suits. I never want to join the players who see two of a suit on the flop and then look at their hole cards again to see if they have a flush draw; rather, I want to be the one who already knows that, and watches the others to see who is looking.

Next I recheck my position relative to both the button and the others in the hand. Am I going to be first to act? Last? Somewhere in the middle? I count how many are in (dealers are supposed to announce this, but they get it wrong too frequently to rely on) and make a mental note that I'm third of four, or whatever. I also note who is first to act, because my habit is to glance at the flop, then move my eyes to whoever is up first.

Side note: There are lots of players who have learned from various sources that they shouldn't look at the flop as it is being put out, but instead should watch for opponents' reactions to the flop. I understand the reasoning behind that advice, but only partially incorporate it. Maybe I'm just too dull to pick it up, but my experience is that very few players give away overt reactions to the flop. The most prominent exception is the classic tell of how long a player gazes: Longer stares at the board often mean a complete whiff, with the player continuing to look, struggling to find something in the flop to like, such as a backdoor draw. It takes me not more than about a third of a second to take in the flop, at which point I shift to watching the first player--which is why I want to know in advance who that will be, and not have to go searching. This practice not only lets me get most of whatever he might give off, but the set pattern of eye movement helps prevent others from reading anything on me.

But back to pre-flop thoughts. The next thing I do is estimate the pot size. There's no need to be precise to the dollar. If there has been a raise to $10 with three subsequent callers, $40 will be my estimate, and I ignore any limpers who folded, what the contribution from the blinds might have been, what rake will get taken out, etc. Irrelevant details.

Based on that, I decide on an amount that I will bet. That doesn't mean that I will bet; the "whether to bet" decision depends on lots of factors, such as the flop texture, my relative position, whether I was the pre-flop raiser, what I know about other players' tendency to aggression, stack sizes, etc. But I want to have in mind what you might call my "default" bet size, what I will bet if I decide to bet and it's either checked to me or I'm first to act. It's usually in the range of 2/3 to 3/4 of the pot. I always reserve the option to change this if there is some compelling reason to do so. E.g., I might overbet the pot if it's highly coordinated and I want to make a draw more expensive than usual, or perhaps I have a big hand and a suspicious opponent, and I want to look like I'm trying to buy it with air. But the point is that having decided on a default bet size in advance removes one set of mental gymnastics that I would otherwise have to perform while everybody is waiting for me and watching me.

After I have rehearsed my hole cards and relative position, estimated the pot, and settled on a default bet size, if there is still time, I look around at opponents' stacks to remind myself about which players in the hand have the big stacks and can therefore either felt me or double me up, which ones have the short stacks and might shove light but can't hurt me much, etc. To the extent that I can, I also try to refresh what I know about my table image, and what mental state the players in this hand might be in: winning, losing, distracted, bored, on tilt, ready to go home, etc.

The goal of all of this mental scut work is to clear the runway, so to speak. I want all of the above information fresh in mind for instant access, so that I can direct my attention to two other things: (1) Analyzing how the flop lines up against my opponents' likely pre-flop ranges, and (2) watching the action transpire, along with interpretation of whatever I might happen to see. If the basic information required for these more demanding mental tasks--i.e., the things I just listed above--has been clarified and put front-and-center in my brain, then my limited cranial resources are freed up for figuring out the poker. Any mental processing effort that you have to devote to, e.g., checking your position or hole cards or stack size is brainpower that can't be used for performing crucial, more difficult tasks, such as running through lists of possible hands sitting under your opponents' card caps, or noticing and deciphering a player's initial move for chips followed by a check instead. Is that a monster hand and he made a last-second change of plan from a lead-out bet to a check-raise, or is it a phony attempt to dissuade you from betting so he can get a free card? You have to notice it first, then figure it out, and it will be harder to do either one if your attention is on rechecking whether your red cards were hearts or diamonds.

Every day--heck, every hand, practically--I see other players chatting, watching TV, and engaging in various other distractions during what I consider to be critical, precious few seconds of mental time between the close of pre-flop action and the flop hitting the table. I can then watch these same players as they try to catch up: whose turn is it? how much is in the pot? etc. You can see it on their faces as they look around, trying to put together the core information they need at the same time that they're struggling to make an analytical decision. You can see them go on overload and make mistakes. They also give off a ton of revealing information about how much they like their situation, because they're mentally so preoccupied figuring everything out all at once that they have no extra attention to keeping a poker face, and they leak tells. I like to think that I almost never do that.

I'm far from perfect at all of this, but I have had a lot of practice, and the set, prioritized list of things to be thinking about, I have found, is a great boon to keeping my thoughts on topic and disciplined. If you don't have such a pattern established for yourself, give it a try and see if you find that it helps you focus better on the hard poker decisions. If you do try it, I'd be interested to hear via the comments section whether you find it useful.

Oh, and one more thing: If you're ever at a poker table with me, and you try to talk to me during what might appear to be unimportant down time in a hand--after I've bet but before the flop hits--now you'll know why I'm likely to ignore you, or dismiss you with a curt "Wait a minute, please," or shoot you an annoyed look that is meant to convey, "Shut the hell up." Frankly, I'm pretty busy right about then, even if I don't look it.


Big-O said...

I'm curious how many hours you feel you can play this way...following your routine....effectively? I'm also curious if you ever get bored and find that you're not following your routine because of disinterest due to simply the length of time of your session?
Lastly let me again thank you for your blog. We've never met though I would enjoy doing so, but I very much enjoy reading what you have to say..........Big-O

NoLimitDoc said...

Great post! This information is well delivered and could easily be published in a strategy guide. I use a similar script I got from Phil Gordon's little green book. This is a very complementary piece.

Consistently using a well planned script is a high yield strategy. It works well in health care too. We use scripts to read labs, EKGs, xrays, etc...

Rakewell said...

I don't think this particular practice is the limiting factor in my endurance. And I don't know what is. But in contrast to most successful players that I've heard of, I don't do well in long sessions. My play had definite deterioration after 3-5 hours, so I rarely extend sessions beyond that. It's one of the reasons that I don't do many tournaments, and the ones that I play are fast structured.

astrobel said...

I think the Grump does all this by default so it does not require a great effort. I have followed a similar pattern for a long time without really calling it "my routine".