Sunday, October 23, 2011

"See a lot of cheap flops"

My friend Josie posted about a big tournament she recently played at Foxwoods, here. She says, "My modus operandi was to try to see alot of flops on the cheap and early. My guideline for these cheap flops was that I had to hit better than one pair to keep going otherwise muck after the flop."

What follows is the comment I left on her blog. But after submitting it, I decided that I might as well post it here, too, since I spent some time writing it, and perhaps readers will find it useful.

You didn't ask for my advice, but I think that is a lousy plan.

One of the best gems of poker wisdom I've ever come across is this, from John Vorhaus: "There's nothing more expensive than a cheap flop." (

The first problem is that if somebody raises behind you, you are faced with choosing between (A) abandoning the chips you already put in, or (B) playing a weak hand against a raiser from out of position. Not a very attractive pair of options, is it?

The second problem is that you are relying on hitting a hand in order to win. So is everybody else limping in. You have no better chance of flopping a monster than anybody else. Playing this way levels the playing field and eliminates whatever edge in skill you might have. You're turning a poker tournament into a game of bingo.

The third problem is that the great majority of the time you will not flop a monster, and you'll have to fold. This is a big leak of chips. Ever seen a water bill when you had a leaky faucet you didn't know about? Drip, drip, drip, one big blind at a time, your stack leaks down the drain. It is mathematically demonstrable that over the long run you will not win enough when you hit to make up for all the small losses you take along the way.

As a general rule, calling (preflop or postflop) should be your LAST option. There are definitely situations where it is the best route, but you should always first try to find a reason for an aggressive action (bet or raise), secondly consider folding, and only if it's clear that neither of those is optimal consider a call. You are turning that basic, sound, universal strategy on its head by making a call your first choice.

I defy you to find any well-regarded tournament strategy book or successful tournament player who advocates the approach you're describing. I'd bet you $100 you can't find one. There's a reason for that: IT'S A TERRIBLE STRATEGY THAT ONLY WEAK, LOSER PLAYERS EMPLOY!

Don't be one of them.
Now that I'm in my own forum, I can add a couple more thoughts.

Yet another disadvantage of this plan is how transparent it makes your hand when you do finally catch a flop. Opponents know that you're limping a lot, but you're presumably still raising with your best starting hands. Ipso facto, they know even before the flop that you don't have a big pair, A-K, A-Q, etc. They also know that when you limp, this is followed by a fold on most flops, which sets you up to be bluffed the 98% of the time that you don't flop two pair or better. If you do bet or play back at their flop bet, they'll know you have a real hand, and they can give up with only a small loss--which means only a small win for you.

Josie's post gave a concrete example of how this knowledge can be used, though in this case to her advantage. She had 10-6 on the button, with a flop of A-A-6. She called down a bluffer, confident that he didn't have an ace because he didn't raise pre-flop. Fine. But others can use exactly the same logic against you. You can't credibly represent having the ace the same way you could if you had raised on your button in that spot.

A far, far better strategy is frequent, small raises. Make the same size raises with, say, 20% of your starting hands, consisting of a mix of big pairs, unpaired Broadway cards, small pairs, suited connectors, and a few random fliers, and your opponents will never be able to know whether you're betting the flop for value, as a bluff, or on a draw. When they are reduced to pure guessing about your hand, they will make a lot of mistakes, which translates to chips going your way.

An alternative to making exactly the same size raise every time (say, 2.5 big blinds) is to vary it according to your position and the number of players who limped in ahead of you. That is, you generally want to play bigger pots when you have better position, smaller pots when out of position, all else being equal. You can also sensibly raise more after a bunch of limpers than when everybody has folded to you, because the pot has already grown, and you want to make the pot odds less attractive for the bottom-feeders. But the size of your raise should never be dependent on the strength of your down cards. Bet sizing tells are among the easiest for opponents to spot patterns in.

Limping begets limping. You may be excited when your 6-5 offsuit hits a 9-6-5 flop, but the guy who you let in cheap with 9-6 likes it even better, and may take your whole stack. He would have folded if you had raised with your little connectors.

Limping makes exactly nobody afraid of you. Limping never forces your opponents to make a difficult decision.

Finally, consider this: You never win the pot pre-flop by limping. You can never steal the blinds with a limp. You never induce a better hand to fold by limping.

I certainly understand the appeal of the "see a lot of cheap flops" approach. It's low-risk, loses chips only slowly, and once in a while scores you a big pot. It also is relatively simple to execute, requiring few hard decisions. But it simply cannot succeed over the long run. When it works, it's by sheer dumb luck going your way. That's no way for a skilled player to take on the game.

Not only does this make you look like a weak player, it actually turns you into a weak player. I don't think there is a single thing to recommend it.

My thinking on this subject was changed forever by reading a great column by Ed Miller, back in December of 2008. It's available online here, and I highly recommend it. He's talking about cash games, but the same principles apply to tournaments. Choice excerpts:
So, your [limping] strategy must rely mostly on making a hand and getting value for it. Unfortunately, that's the same strategy that your opponents will have. And that's the fundamental problem with overlimping; it creates situations in which you and your opponents are all playing roughly the same way. When everyone is playing the same way, no one has an edge....

The bottom line is that when you overlimp, you're mostly hoping to make a hand and win a big pot, and yet it's hard to stack someone or otherwise win a big pot when the hand starts out limped seven ways. And to top it off, your opponents are also hoping to make a hand and win a big pot, and they're almost as good at doing it as you are. So, you just don't have a whole lot of edge....

When seven people see the flop in a limped pot, everyone is playing "make-a-hand" poker, and you don't have it much better than anyone else. But when you raise preflop and only one or two people call, often your opponents will be playing make-a-hand poker while you will be playing "I win if you don't make a hand." This scenario can offer you a much more significant edge over your opponents....

Overlimping is not at all universally bad. It keeps you in the hand and gives you some chance to win a big pot. And in very aggressive games where people are raising and reraising like crazy, overlimping can often be your best play.

But when the game is passive and many pots are being played five-, six-, or seven-handed for the price of the big blind, overlimping often handicaps you. It forces you to play primarily make-a-hand poker, and therefore it deprives you of many of your potential edges. Try raising instead. Doing so can tilt many pots to your advantage and enable you to exploit much larger edges. The bigger your edges, the more money you'll make.
When I first read this, the phrase "make-a-hand poker" instantly struck a chord with me. It's one of those little nuggets that lodged deeply inside my brain. I will occasionally now catch myself playing this way (especially if I've stayed at the table for too long and I'm feeling fatigued), and that phrase will leap to the front of my mind as a self-scolding: "You're playing make-a-hand poker again, aren't you?" It will usually cause me to either return to my tight-aggressive baseline game, or decide that my A-game is gone and it's time to go home, both of which are much better choices than to stay in the loose-passive rut.

So, Josie, if you find this way of thinking about the "see a lot of cheap flops" game plan enlightening, divide your thanks between Ed and me.


Josie said...

Never, ever again.

Crash said...

I don't think it can earn your $100, but Daniel Negreanu, in his "Hold'em Wisdom For All Players, 2007, comes close to this philosophy. Play many hands to the flop. However, he seems to advocate raise rather than call.
Also, I lost almost every session I tried this. So, I agree with you. I am just trying for the $100!

Rakewell said...

Crash: Yeah, he's advocating a lot of small raises, not a lot of limping. (Further amplified in his next book, "Power Hold'em Strategy.") It's a whole 'nuther thing entirely.

VegasDWP said...

Good stuff. This is why I enjoy reading your blog!

Paul said...

Hi Grump - love your blog, Josie's too!

I have learned a lot from you, as many have, I am sure.

Excellent hand write-ups, strategy, etc....

Well done and thanks for taking the time to do it all!


Mike Heffner said...

To throw out a contrary opinion, I think you can play this way in certain spots - for instance, when in position, with decently deep stacks, against fairly straightforward players. But, you're not playing to flop a big hand, you're playing position with flopping huge as a bonus.

When you flat in position, you've basically widened your range. Villain really doesn't know what you're doing - are you tarping with a big pair, set mining, or just screwing around with rags? You don't have to hit anything to scoop up chips - you just have to make sure they don't hit hard, represent a reasonably strong line, and hope they are 'smart' enough to fold to your superior situation... You can't overdo this, but if you're balancing your play well enough, it usually works more often than not.

One of the things that gives all of us trouble is when we raise and get flatted by someone in position, especially if it happens multiple times.

Being that guy, the one who doesn't go away, against the right players can work very well. But in these case, it really doesn't matter what cards you're holding in the first place.

GrrrlZilla said...

Tangentially.....what is one to do when against a table o people who seem to want to play this way?

Rakewell said...

Good question. And by handy coincidence, Matt Lessinger recently devoted a very nice two-part Card Player magazine column to exactly that subject.

I was going to point you to the source, but I just discovered a major change in the C.P. web site, about which I think I'll have to write a whole new post.