Thursday, December 01, 2011

Playing a tournament with high-roller novices

A friend wrote me for advice on playing an unusual poker tournament. He has apparently managed to get himself invited to a game set for the casino's high rollers, who mostly play table games and slots, not poker. What's the best way to approach such a tournament, he wondered.

It's a good question. I've never been in a situation quite like that before, so I can't speak from experience, but I think I can guess what the general contours of the game plan should be. Here's what I told him:

If I were playing a tournament against a bunch of people who didn't know much about poker, my expectation would be that they will play way too many hands, stick with them way too long, and be way too passive. I would expect them to check-call over and over and over again. Playing too many hands, and calling when either folding or raising would be better, are the primary sins of novice players. I would also expect them to have no concept of how their stack size should dictate how tight/loose they play, when they should shove, etc. Finally, if they're all on a freeroll, being given tournament entry as a gift or reward from the casino, I would expect them to place no mental or emotional value in getting anything out of it monetarily. That is, they're not going to be trying to maximize value by playing aggressively to try to take the top prize, nor are they going to nurse a short stack hoping to just survive to the money. Put another way, I would expect them to play without regard for what stage of the tournament they're in.

So how to adjust for such players? Well, the obvious thing is to pretty much abandon bluffing. They are going to be playing based on what they perceive the strength of their own hand to be, not based on an assessment of what you have, because they have no idea how to figure out your range. They probably don't even have a mental concept of what an opponent's "range" means. As a result, they can't follow the story you're trying to tell with a cleverly executed bluff.

I wrote about the fun and dangers of playing against novices here:

I would not expect most bets to induce folds. I would assume folds were going to have very low fold equity. That means that you should not bother making a bet or raise if the situation is one in which the usual goal of a bet would be more to induce a fold than to build a pot that you expect to win. That means that you'll be making fewer bets and raises than usual, but that's OK. If you're playing tighter than your average opponent, then you will usually have the better hand. Since you're going to have to win at showdown a higher fraction of the time than usual (because you're not going to get them to fold), that is just what you want.

There are also implications for your short-stack game. Usually you'll shove with any semi-decent hand if action is folded to you and you have 10 or 12 big blinds or less. I would be much more cautious about that with this group. They look down at a pair of deuces or a J-10 offsuit or a suited 4-5 and figure it's pretty, I might as well call. Again, the idea is that you can't expect to have the same amount of fold equity that such a shove usually carries. When you have to shove, it should be with the expectation that you'll get called and have to win a showdown, not that you'll be happy to just fold the field and pick up the blinds and antes. That obviously means shoving with a narrower range than would be your usual approach. It may well mean letting your stack drift down lower than you would usually allow before you find a hand that's strong enough to expect to win a showdown against the loose range with which you'll likely get called.

I think I would also mentally prepare in advance for bad beats. Rehearse how you're going to be cheerful and friendly and join your opponents in applauding their wins when their stupid play gets rewarded with the perfect river card. Mike Caro always plays with the attitude that he's rooting for the opponent to win. If that doesn't happen, he gets the pot as a consolation prize. That way, he's never disappointed either way it turns out. It's a hard mindset to get into, but one that is a harmonious environment for avoiding tilt.

One final piece of advice: I can no longer remember who wrote it (I think Steve Zolotow, but I can't be sure), but there was a column a few years ago in Card Player magazine about playing in a juicy home game. He stressed the point that one's most important goal for the first game is NOT winning any money, but getting invited back for a second and third and fourth game. You do that by being a good sport, by being likeable, by giving lots of action, chipping in generously for the food and drinks, and being a good loser. I get the impression that this tournament is one to which you are being invited at the discretion of its organizers. If so, I would make it my first priority to catch their attention as somebody that should be invited back every time because you help make the experience more enjoyable for the high rollers they're trying to woo. Laugh, learn people's names, makes friends, be the guy that nobody much minds losing to. Imagine yourself as part of the casino hospitality staff, there to help the other players have a good time so that they want to keep patronizing the establishment. In other words, take the long view, not the short view. You're trying to set the stage for being able to sheer these sheep many times, not just kill them this once.

None of this is mathematically precise poker theory, but I hope it's a useful set of broad strokes on how to approach the game.


Michael said...

Good stuff, I was going to chime in after reading the first part and say that I would expect the high rollers to be more aggressive with their hands, but as I read it, I realized that it's not necessarily aggression, just inability to distinguish or let go as you pointed out.

I think you put down some solid strategy for a game like this.

Four Hands said...

I play in some bar leagues for fun occasionally which I think approximate very similar situations. Grumps advice is good. Here's some thoughts from my experience.

1) You can over-bet hugely on the river and expect to get called, i.e. all-in for value! Don't go for small value, if they'll call a small bet, they'll call a huge one. One caveat is that All-in can be more intimidating that just a huge bet. There's times when betting 90% of your stack or leaving yourself one chip just to avoid saying all in is worth it.

2) See a lot of flops in position. Post flop play is more important than pre I find, and you want to tighten your range early and loosen it late. Position is key. You can often get it in after the flop as a monster favorite and they'll also be much more likely to fold post-flop than pre. You can also add more suited, multi-way hands to your early range and limp with them.

3) Smallish raises in late position with excellent drawing hands are great to build pots. Don't limp with JTs if there's several limpers in front, raise 2/2.5 times to build a huge pot. You of course need to be reasonably deep to do this, but its worth it even with as little at 16-20bb when you get called by 6-8 people.

4) Suited hands and suited connectors (and to a lesser extent middle connectors) go up in value while unsuited big cards go down.

5) Sklansky's small-stakes hold'em, while focused on limit cash, provides a lot of great advice for these tourneys.

6) Play almost all pairs for set value. To some extent that even includes AA! The exception being when you're last or second last to act and there's no one or only one person in the pot ahead of you. Which is a very, very rare situation in these games. When that's the case you can hugely overbet your big pairs pre-flop and often get a caller from the blinds or a limper who will be a huge under-dog.

7) in the 8-12 BB range where you're normally in shove or fold mode its often still worth limping, particularly in late position. Less than that and you still need to shove or fold.

8) They'll never fold top pair. (see #1)

9) Always remember that TPTK isn't all that great a hand when 6-8 people see a flop.

10) It can be good to get caught bluffing once early. You can get paid hugely later on for it.

11) Getting it in on the turn is often much better than the flop when its wet. Wait for safe cards. They're almost as likely to call with a flush draw on the turn as they are on the flop and you're a much bigger favorite then.

Wine Guy said...

Most excellent article. I am sending this to a friend of mine who tries to play with people you describe, yet always gets busted. He has only 1 speed and it is full speed ahead. Well done (again!).

BuzzedSaw said...

It may not be safe to assume that these high rollers are completely inexperienced at poker. If this event is the upcoming MGM Grand Executive Invitational, it's definitely not a safe assumption. I've had the opportunity to play in several of these events, as they (used to) fill empty seats with regulars that had the top number of hours. I know that Scotty Nquyen has played in and won one of these events. This time, all winners of $350+ events from MGM's most recent tournament series were awarded invitations, so the quality of play may be much higher than in the past. Also, if the arrangement is the same as in past event, winnings are paid in promotional chips, which must be put back into play in table games, not poker. Just something to be aware of...