It's nice to win by getting luckier than the other guy. It's even nicer to win by outplaying the other guy. But I think the nicest of all ways to win is when you pay enough attention to figure out an opponent's specific weaknesses, bide your time waiting for a spot in which to exploit them, pull the trigger when the time comes, and have it pay off. I got one of those tonight.
I was at Planet Hollywood. One player was particularly easy to start getting a read on, because he had the horrible habit of showing his cards after most hands were over. He also egged other players to show, clearly feeling that this was part of good poker sportsmanship. Within an hour, I had a crystal-clear picture of how this guy played. He had four notable characteristics:
1) He played almost every hand, for whatever price anybody made it.
2) He played as if top pair/any kicker was the nuts. He would always raise the pre-flop raiser when he caught top pair on the flop, either raising in position or check-raising if he was first to act. He had obviously learned--whether through books, TV, or perhaps his own experience--that most of the time the pre-flop raiser will not have a hand as good as top pair on the flop, so this tactic will, in fact, work more often than not. But it's also obviously (A) expensive when you're wrong, and (B) easily exploitable when it is carried out so predictably. And he was remarkably predictable about it. He seemed not to care one bit whether the texture of the flop was draw-heavy or dry, nor how many other people were still in the hand. If his flop raise got reraised, he'd go all in. Top pair? He's going with it! I never saw him with a shown two-pair or better hand, so it wasn't clear to me whether he would act the same way with even stronger hands. He apparently didn't try to take any heat with hands worse than top pair.
3) His bets and raises were prohibitively large, both pre-flop and on the flop. When he raised, he wanted the pot right then and there, no monkeying around. The concept of sizing his bets so as to tempt an opponent to draw with incorrect odds would have sounded to him like the ravings of a madman.
4) He was terribly uncomfortable making decisions later in the hand than the flop. This tendency was so pronounced that if there was still somebody in the hand with him after the flop betting (either because he called, or the opponent called, or it went check-check), he would routinely offer to just check it down the rest of the way. The natural inference from this is that he knew that he was not very good at the more complex decisions that are required on the later betting rounds. That, obviously, is where more costly mistakes can be made, and he wanted to steer clear of them as much as possible.
With this picture of his play in mind, I kept looking for opportunities to take advantage of it.
I was in the big blind with A-J offsuit. Young woman second to act raised to $12 after an under-the-gun limp. Early in my time at the table she had been playing tight, but lately had been raising more often than was plausible for genuinely big hands. Apparently before I arrived she had been on a heater of premium starting hands, and had convinced the table that they should respect her opening raises. It seems that finding out that she could get away with that was going to her head a little. I thought she was starting to push it beyond the point of credibility. Apparently others concurred in this judgment, because rather than triggering a cascade of folds, this time three of us called. I wasn't thrilled about playing A-J from out of position against multiple opponents, but I prepared myself to just toss it if I didn't connect solidly.
Flop was J-7-2 with two diamonds. I checked. UTG checked. Young woman bet $15--not very convincing of real strength when the pot sits at about $45. My target player quickly raised to $65. Raising the pre-flop raiser with an overbet? That's his "I have top pair" theme song playing loud and clear. And if he has top pair, it is much more likely to be with a worse kicker (especially a king, queen, or ten) than it is to be on equal footing with my ace kicker. Ding! We seem to have us a situation!
My usual reaction here would be either to fold or just call, the latter being a way to be sure that there wasn't going to be either a check-raise from UTG or an all-in reraise from the young woman before getting myself pot-committed. But this was not the usual situation. This was the kind of spot I had been deliberately trying to get to develop--one where this exact player was doing this exact thing, and I had a hand that could beat (or, at worst, tie) his top pair. If he stayed true to form, he would be willing to commit his stack here with what was likely to be far the worst of it. Because the young woman's flop bet was so small--not the way I had seen her play her big-pair hands--I was reasonably confident she had something like A-K or A-Q that was good enough to open with from early position pre-flop, but she had not improved and would likely not want to put a lot more money in. There was always some small chance that the UTG guy had flopped a set and was ready to spring his trap, but that was a risk I would just have to take in order to exploit the opportunity to win much more from my target than most players would be willing to lose in his situation.
I also had this consideration: If I just called and got heads-up with him, he might not be willing to put more chips into the pot on the turn and river, given how gun-shy he was about those later-street decisions. He might decide that I had slow-played a set or had caught a lucky second pair, and fold on that basis. Also, a call might suggest "flush draw" to him, and if a third diamond came, he would suddenly have an easy fold. In other words, the fish might manage to slip off the hook if he had to make decisions out of his comfort zone. Worse, he might actually catch his lucky second pair and I'd be stuck putting in a lot of money drawing nearly dead.
With those thoughts rattling in my head, I decided that I had to, as the old Schlitz Beer commercials put it, go for the gusto. I announced "all in." I had some relief of anxiety when both UTG and the original raiser quickly folded. I had even more relief when, action back on him, the target slumped his shoulders, looked unhappy, and asked for a count. It was about $110 more back to him. He took maybe ten seconds to think, but then he announced a call, with obvious reluctance and resignation in his voice. Since he had been eager in the past to get it all in with top pair, I was a little puzzled by his hesitation here. Perhaps he recognized that my play was generally solid, and he might be in more trouble against me than against other, looser players.
I showed my A-J, and he shook his head as if I had just confirmed his worst fear. Sure enough, he turned over K-J for top pair/second kicker, a hand that must have seemed to him like the stone-cold nuts just a minute earlier.
The turn and river changed nothing, and I scored my double-up. He was very sporting about it, despite clearly feeling dejected. He kept saying, "Nice hand." I thanked him, and assured him that I had just gotten lucky on him--it was a cold deck, and he couldn't have gotten away from his hand. That was a pretty flagrant lie, but I wanted him to keep playing exactly the same way, as far as it was in my power to convince him do so.
Back in May, 2008, I composed what might still be the best single piece I've ever written for this blog, here. (And, as Henry Kissinger might say, it has the added advantage of being true.) Long story short: I did something stupid, got lucky, thought about what table image the stupid move had given me, looked for a situation in which it would look like I was doing the same thing but wasn't, and it worked to perfection. I still like the concluding paragraph I put on that story, and it seems applicable here:
I think the one thing that more than any other makes me occasionally feel like a honest-to-goodness professional at this game is the rare occasion when I'm able to figure out what an opponent's thoughts and/or weaknesses are, to get inside his head, then either design or exploit a situation in a way that takes maximal advantage of what I have concluded about him. This was one of those moments. They don't happen every day--not by a long shot.