Friday, November 11, 2011

It's so nice when a plan comes together

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.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Checking with a chip

It's not often these days that I learn about what is to me an entirely new strategic tool to keep in the poker toolbox, but Dusty Schmidt's column in the latest issue of Card Player magazine (November 2, 2011, Vol. 24, #22, page 36) qualifies as such an occasion. He calls the move "checking with a chip":

In no-limit when the pot is medium or relatively big, you're out of position, and checking would normally be the play, sometimes it's advantageous to bet a small amount (usually the minimum bet) rather than the obvious check. As long as the pot is reasonably large relative to the size of the bet, the additional risk is minimal. Even still, you'll benefit in a few ways.
He goes on to list the good things that can happen. In brief:
  • Both of you are on a busted draw. He might fold his better no-pair hand. This doesn't have to happen very often for it to be an incredibly profitable play.
  • If your hand is likely the loser yet strong enough that you would have to call at least a medium-sized bet after checking to your opponent, one chip can act as the cheapest possible blocking bet. If he raises, you can have more confidence that he has you, and fold with minimal loss, but if he just calls, you get to showdown more cheaply than if it had gone check-bet-call.
  • Many opponents can't resist the temptation to read such a small bet as weakness and bluff-raise. In situations where bluffs are a large part of his raising range, so that you have an easy call, checking with a chip may induce a bluff more reliably than a check would.
It is the last of these scenarios that he spends the most time discussing. I recommend reading the column (either in print now or in a couple of weeks when it is posted at for a fuller explanation of how to tell that you are in the right kind of situation for this to be applicable.

I'm going to be looking for opportunities to try this and see how it works.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Difficult decision, conclusion

This is the end of the story. If you haven't already read the set-up to the situation, and want to do that first, see here.

It's $102 more to call. Including my flop bet and his all-in, there's $216 in the pot. It will cost me $102 to win $216, which means that I break even on a call if I can win the hand about 47% of the time. [EDIT: Should be 32%. See comments.] More than that and it's profitable to call, less than that and it's not.

After the hand was over, I texted Donna that I had had A-Q. She responded, "What range did you put him on?" That, of course, is exactly the right question.

The problem was that he would likely consider his pre-flop playable range to be quite broad, since he had the button, the raise was not large, and there were several limpers, all of which means that he was getting attractive pot odds to play some oddball hands. I might ordinarily discount two-pair hands here (Q-8, Q-4, and 8-4), because people tend to fold those to early-position raises. But if he had them suited, he might well have deemed it worth seeing a flop, given the small raise, callers before him, and position. Of course he could have pocket 4s or 8s for a set and push rather than slow-play because he didn't want anybody hitting a flush. In my best-case scenario, he would have a queen with a worse kicker (Q-K or Q-J, especially), or a lower pocket pair (9-9 or 10-10, say), and just not believe that my continuation bet meant any real strength (especially if he had noticed and remembered that this was my third c-bet in a fairly short span of time). He might have A-Q for a likely chopped pot. He might have just a flush draw, and, if so, it could easily be the nut flush draw with suited ace-baby, in which case he would think (wrongly) that he also had ace outs in addition to club outs, even if he put me on a queen. Finally, he could have some combination--pair and a flush draw, or flush draw plus a gutshot straight draw. Big pairs (A-A, K-K, and Q-Q) seemed unlikely, as I think he would have reraised pre-flop in order to thin the field. Maybe he wouldn't have done so with Q-Q, but that was statistically very improbable since I had one in my hand and there was another on the flop.

In short, it was a vast array of possibilities. I felt confident that he wasn't on a pure bluff, but that was about all that I could definitely rule out.

As far as physical reads, my impression was that his hesitation was a fake, an attempt to look weaker and more indecisive than he really was. But I didn't put much confidence in that, since I had seen him play so few hands.

I thought about it for a minute or so. My sense was that the number of hands he could have in which he was already ahead, plus the decent equity he had with his drawing hands put my chances of winning below 50%. On that basis, I finally folded. But it was a close decision. If it would have cost me, say, just $60 or $70 more, instead of $102, I think I would have gone the other way on it and called him.

I had two other general considerations. First, I think it is usually wrong to play a big pot with just one pair, even if it is TPTK, especially when calling rather than being the aggressor.

Second, whenever I open-raise from early position, I am deliberately raising smaller than I would in late position because I don't want to play big pots from bad position. When doing so, I always remind myself of exactly that, and get it set in my mind that I will need to be more inclined to fold than I would be with the same cards in more favorable circumstances. (I discussed my pre-flop raising strategy and formula in some detail here.)

In fact, there's a decent argument to be made that A-Qo is not strong enough to play for a raise from such early position, and limping with it isn't great, either, so it's best to just throw it away and avoid the difficult decisions and costly blunders into which it can lead you. As Tommy Angelo memorably phrased it in Elements of Poker (page 179), "To me, the early positions look like a desert wasteland. It's a place where people die from overexposure. Which cards do I play from positional hell? The ones that can take the heat." A-Q can't take much heat.

After looking it over through the retrospectoscope, I think it's a very close decision, and it would not be too much of a mathematical mistake to go with either a call or a fold.

I'll confess to one other factor that made me lean towards a fold: It was getting late, I was tired, and I knew I'd be leaving soon. The night before, when entering results into my spreadsheet, I had happened to notice that I had scored six consecutive winning sessions, all of them between $100 and $300. If I folded my A-Q, I'd still leave with a profit of over $100 on the night, and that would extend the streak to seven, which would feel nice. If I called and lost, I might not be able to get back across that $100 threshold before leaving--or, worse, I might keep playing after my A-game had slipped away in a silly attempt to continue the streak, and really blow it. I fully acknowledge that that is an utterly absurd and irrational consideration, a factor that should never enter into the decision. But sometimes it just does, despite my efforts to whip into submission my remnants of irrationality.

I'm comfortable with my decision to let it go, but I'll never know whether it was correct in Sklansky bucks, because my opponent didn't show his cards before passing them back to the dealer. Sorry to disappoint you with no definitive ending to the story, but that's how poker usually is--it leaves you hanging, wondering whether you did the right thing.


Pius Heinz just won the 2011 WSOP. But I'm writing in commendation of Martin Staszko. I really liked how he played. He made a crucial mistake near the end calling an all-in with just a flush draw, which is probably what cost him the match in the end. But before that, he had been in the lead for most of the heads-up battle. He looked completely unflappable, whereas Heinz showed obvious signs of the stress and frustration. He said hardly a single word. He tamed the wild Heinz by using the call as his primary tool--just as Mike Caro advises for dealing with a maniac. He supplemented that with some impressively well-timed bluffs, deadly traps, and perfectly sized value bets. His style of play is not flashy or sexy, in the way that Heinz's daring high-wire act of unrelenting aggression is, but it is highly effective. It's the classic tortoise and hare story. I've always been partial to tortoises.

I think I was with most observers in seriously underestimating him coming into tonight. I mostly thought of him as having luckboxed his way to the final table, and then coasting on his chip lead to the final three. He always struck me as looking confused, like he didn't really know what was going on. But we learned from a Kara Scott interview late in the evening that, to everyone's surprise, most of Staszko's online play is heads-up, so he came to the end-game not nearly at the experience disadvantage that most of us assumed. And it showed--he never seemed the least bit intimidated by Heinz's aggression, and actually managed to force Heinz to dial it down, frustrating him by calling light, and usually correctly.

I'd like to think that I would have played about the way he did, in both decision-making and composure.

Good game, sir.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Difficult decision

We are here once again with one of our occasional "you decide" series. I'll describe the situation the best that I can, let you figure out what you'd do and submit a comment committing yourself to it if you'd like, then in about 24 hours I'll post the end of the story.

My friend Donna (@Cure_MTM on Twitter, Utah State Director for the Poker Players Alliance) was in town for today's induction of Linda Johnson into the Poker Hall of Fame and a Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza tournament tomorrow, and she was at the Venetian, so that's what I chose as the poker venue du jour in order to catch up with her.

Under-the-gun guy limped. I was next and raised to $8 with A-Q offsuit. I picked up a total of five callers, which was not unusual at this loose-passive table. Pot $45 after rake. Flop was Q-8-4 with two club, of which I had none. First guy checked. I had been prepared to give up on the hand if I missed the flop, because it's just not profitable to play into that many opponents from out of position without having connected. But with top pair/top kicker and not really any draws to worry about except for the clubs, I felt comfortable taking a solid whack at it. In fact, in two previous almost identical situations over the previous 30 minutes or so I had done the same with no opposition--once with an overpair, and once with A-K on a king-high flop, both from first or second position.

Of course, that history cuts both ways. On the one hand, it has proven that these people won't try to fight back very often. On the other hand, if they're paying attention, they might think that I'm continuation-betting every time whether I hit or not--which happens not to be true, but they can't know that, since I didn't show the other times that I took it down.

It is folded to the button. He's the oldest player at the table, relatively tight, but not a classic rock. He has been verbal about how card-dead he has been, and even changed seats once just to try to get dealt better hands. He hesitates a bit, then rather suddenly picks up all his chips and plops them down in the pot. The others fold back to me.

So the question is, simply, call or fold?


Sorry, I left out the critical information of his stack sizes. His all-in would be another $102 to me on top of my $35 bet. I have $350 or so in front of me.

Addendum 2

Wow, I must be having a stroke or something--I left out my bet size, too. I bet $35 on the flop. Apologies, all. I'm usually better at describing things than this. (There is actually an explanation, though a lame one. I started this as an all-in-one story, and only later decided to make it a question-and-answer style. I moved the numbers stuff to the second part, forgetting that that data is crucial to readers making a cogent decision.)

Monday, November 07, 2011

Poker gems, #443

Ed Miller, in Card Player magazine column, November 2, 2011 (vol. 24, #12), page 34.

The great thing about the turn is that nearly every drawing hand is an underdog to a decent made hand....

Therefore, whenever you bet the turn, you usually want draws to call. My guess is that statement strikes many of you as wrong. "I bet to get the draws out!" you exclaim. "I sure as heck don't want them calling and drawing out on me!"

Nope. You want them calling. Or at least you should. Because if you're betting so much on the turn that the draws fold, then you're also pricing out many of the weaker made hands. With no draws and no weaker made hands to call, you're getting action only from better hands. which means you're making losing bets. If trying to get draws out is how you think about the turn, then you have it all wrong.

Soft-playing is cheating

I once again feel compelled to write a post in response to something Very Josie has written. In describing a recent trip with Waffles to Foxwoods, she mentioned that she and Waffles had an agreement that if either of them had a big hand, they would bet big so that the other would know to get out. She was upset that Waffles violated this agreement by, among other things, bluffing her. She also said that having some sort of agreement like this was routine for her when she played in cash games with friends. It might take different forms (like agreeing not to get into big pots with each other), but there is usually something put in place in advance.

I wish I could quote directly from the post so that you don't have to take my word for it, but unfortunately Josie has redacted the post to remove that section. (I read it several hours ago, and assumed it would still be there intact when I got around to writing this response.) I'm guessing that this was in response to the criticism she received in the comments.

At the risk of piling on, I think it cannot be repeated too often or too emphatically that such conduct is, to be blunt, cheating. We have an obligation to the long-term good and integrity of the game to denounce it as such whenever we are made aware that it is going on.

Mike Caro writes about this frequently. Here are just two of the columns he has published specifically addressing the problem of friends soft-playing each other:

Here's an extended excerpt from the latter piece:
When someone robs a convenience store, you know who the bad person is. He’s the guy with the gun. As wrong as that is, in my mind it’s not as sinister as a poker partnership. The robber and the convenience store haven’t exchanged solemn promises. With poker partnerships, the thieves usually go unnoticed and nobody knows anything was stolen. Lives can be ruined when unethical players break their promises and directly target the honesty of others who are being fair to them. What’s worse than that? That’s why I have long-ago stated that poker cheaters should be boiled and eaten. If you think I’m not serious, you boil; I’ll eat.

Soft-play friends.

Strangely, many players think they should give friends a break. But when you soft play friends at the table others get hurt in the crossfire.Aggressive opponents, who are playing honestly, especially suffer. That’s because they mistake what’s happening through secret alliances as tactical traits exhibited by the group of friends.This causes those honest players to make poor decisions for the wrong reasons on future hands.Much worse, soft playing often means that honest players get less value when they hold strong hands because some opponents have decided not to participate in order to make it easy on their buddies. Also, honest players may call trying to catch a bluff, not realizing that the opponent would never have bet a weak hand due to a secret understanding with a participating friend.Soft playing friends is cheating. If you want to be generous, win the money through honest play first.Then you can give it away to your friends later.

Best hand.

Some players consider that playing best-hand poker (where partners signal each other and only the strongest hand is played) is a gray area of ethics that isn’t quite cheating. They’re wrong. Playing best hands is a simple and serious form of cheating and the method will usually destroy ethical players. You should never consider joining such partnerships and if asked to participate I believe you should report the players immediately. Tattling may seem uncool, but you have an obligation to other players to keep the game honest. As uncomfortable as it may seem to do this, poker can’t be protected without your help.

Obligation of pros and other players.

Look, we’ve made great advances. Poker has crawled out of the dank corners of taverns and dimly lit two-table card rooms. We’ve survived the era when scammers roamed and ruled. Now poker is in the spotlight, but it won’t stay there unless professionals and other honest players protect our game. It’s no longer enough to look the other way and just refuse to participate.We need to let unethical players know, in blunt terms, that we don’t tolerate any form of cheating, including partnerships big or small. It’s our game and we will defend it. The consequences of tolerating unethical poker are too great; the stakes are too high. Tell them that exactly. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to start boiling the water.
I've written about this, too, though less eloquently. When I saw a published interview in which Chad Brown and Vanessa Rousso admitted to soft-playing each other, and apparently thought there was nothing wrong with it, I wrote a long post explaining exactly why it was a form of cheating and how it hurt the other players:

I stand by that.

Josie, when we play at the same table, whether cash game or tournament, I expect you to do everything in your power to take all of my chips, and I will be doing the same. Whatever happens happens, with no hard feelings. However the chips and cards fall, we leave the table just as much friends as when we sat down.

That is the only kind of agreement friends should have with each other before playing poker together.