Saturday, January 21, 2012

Good read, good call, good courage

My friend Poker Lawyer (PL) is in town. She came with her friend, Texas Cardslinger (Terry). Yesterday all three of us were playing at the same table at Imperial Palace, when an interesting hand came up.

Terry raised preflop to $12. PL called. I folded. Seat 1 was a middle-aged Asian gentleman, extremely quiet, pretty tight. He reraised to $35 on the button--the first three-bet we had seen from him in a couple of hours of play. Both Terry and PL called.

The flop was uncoordinated, 10-high and rainbow. All three players checked. Seat 1 hesitated a while before checking, whereas he usually acted quickly. I thought he was having trouble deciding whether to bet.

Fourth street was the jack of spades, the second spade on the board. Terry led out betting--I'm thinking it was small, like $20, but I don't remember for sure. PL folded. Seat 1 rechecked his hole cards (about which more later), thought about it a while, then called.

Let's pause here a minute and see if we can figure out what Seat 1 has. His very rare three-bet, even with position, drastically narrowed his range: A-K, or pocket jacks or better. Maybe 10s, but that was less likely. The check behind on the flop was a complete surprise. It seemed to me inconceivable that he would check there with any overpair, giving two opponents a free card, when there was already over $100 in the pot that he presumably would like to move to his stack. The only possibilities, really, were A-K that had missed, or, much less likely, pocket 10s slow-playing top set. His call on the turn strongly suggested a draw--either A-K with the gutshot or a flush draw, possibly both.

Fifth street brought a blank--3 of diamonds, or something equally inconsequential. Terry again bet, and this time I'm sure it was $20. Seat 1 again pondered, then raised another $80 to $100.

Huh? That move surprised me even more than his check on the flop had. I was pretty thoroughly convinced that he had A-K and would fold if he failed to hit an ace, king, or spade. What in the world is he doing? And what is he doing it with? And why so much? His bets and raises had usually been on the conservative side--2-3x (though not always--once he had shoved about $55 into a $15 pot). I don't think we had seem him bluff even once, but because I could not come up with any hand with which he would plausibly take this bizarro line, I ended up concluding that my previous assessment was probably still correct, and he was bluffing a busted draw. The sealer on it was a raise size that was screaming "Go away!" rather than "Please call."

I hoped that Terry would call, both because I thought it would be correct with even weakish made hands, but also so that I would get to see whether my read of the situation was correct. I was afraid that she wouldn't, though; what I had seen of her play had been fairly timid unless she had a very strong hand. But after a little thought, she quietly told the dealer, "OK, I call."

Seat 1 said, "Good call," and flipped up his As-Ks. Terry's A-J won the pot.

A little quiet exchange between the three of us (all on one end of the table) confirmed that Terry was not just blindly looking at top pair/top kicker and deciding that was a hand she had to call with. She had followed essentially the same reasoning process I'm describing here. The inconsistency in Seat 1's pattern of betting had definitely caught her attention.

I may be making it sound like an easy call, but I don't think it was. When a player as tight as Seat 1 three-bets for the first time in hours, you naturally assume he has either aces or kings, even if he subsequently plays the hand in a way that would not be expected for those holdings. Also, the flopped top set remained a viable candidate. (10s are, along with jacks, in that range that people hate to have to play post-flop with the nearly inevitable overcards, so some players will three-bet with them in an effort to end the hand early.) A one-pair hand, even if it is TP/TK, is at best a medium-strength hand, and it would take screwing up some courage to call a big river raise. I was genuinely impressed with and proud of Terry's call.

What lessons can we learn from this hand? At least three.

1. A bluff has to tell a consistent story. His river raise was pure desperation, when he realized he had missed his draws and had only one way to win the pot--steal it. He did not stop to consider how his line would look to an opponent. Before you bluff on the river, you have to ask yourself what it is, exactly, that you want your opponent to believe. Once you've settled on that, then you have to review how the hand has been played and see if the hand you want to represent having would have been played this way. Finally, you have to assess whether your opponent is savvy enough to read the (false) clues you are giving to reach the conclusion you wish to suggest. If the story you're telling is not consistent from beginning to end, thinking players will call you from confusion, curiosity, or both. People don't like to fold, especially after they have put a lot of money into a pot. They have to be pretty thoroughly convinced that putting more chips in is throwing good money after bad. An inconsistent story will not accomplish that persuasion.

2. Consider the power of the continuation bet. Had he simply pushed out a stack of, say, $50 when both opponents checked to him on the flop, he would have seen two folds followed by the dealer pushing the pot his way. I would have concluded that he had aces or kings, and I suspect that both PL and Terry would have done the same.

3. The third lesson is about a very specific but useful tell. Note that I said he rechecked his hole cards after the second spade hit. What I didn't tell you was that on two previous occasions I had seen him do the same thing.

The first was soon after I joined the table. I bought the button, paid a little more to call a small raise, and was pleased to see a flop of K-8-8 (with two hearts), which nicely fit my 8-9 in the hole. I bet, original raiser folded, Seat 1 called. He clearly had either a king, an 8, or a flush draw. The turn was another heart. Before I acted, I noticed that he rechecked his hole cards. Aha! That strongly suggested that he had not had a flush draw that had just come in.

Here's why. Most recreational players don't memorize the suits of their cards. They retain a visual memory that they have either two red cards, two black cards, or one red and one black, but they don't know the suits with any confidence. If he had had two red cards, he would have rechecked them on the flop to see if he had a flush draw before deciding whether to call. But he didn't. He only rechecked them on the turn, suggesting that he had one red card and one black card, and wanted to see if he now had a backdoor flush draw that he might make on the river.

I had been planning to check if a heart hit, thinking that the draw was his most likely hand, but when I saw him check his cards again, that changed my mind. I bet and he folded. I think he probably had a king and nothing else.

A while later, PL had been in a hand with him in which she similarly had to decipher whether he had a flush, but again he didn't check his cards until the third spade came, implying that he did not have a made flush at that point. I don't remember enough details of that hand to recount it, and we didn't see his cards, but his subsequent fold again proved that he did not have a flush.

In the hand that is the subject of this post, his check of his hole cards on the turn implied that he had two black cards, though if a third spade had hit the river, it would have been difficult to know whether he had seen two spades or a spade and a club.

This tell is very common among recreational players, but it is by no means universal, so you have to act on it with some care. Some players do memorize their suits, but when their flush comes in they want to reassure themselves that they didn't misread their cards, so will recheck before committing a lot more money to the pot. Others, of course, are aware of this common tell and are smart enough to use it deceptively against you. Such players will check their hole cards when a third suited card hits the board in order to make you think they only now have a draw, when their flush is actually made. Or, conversely, they will check their cards when the flop has two of a suit in order to make you think they have the flush draw, so that they can bluff when the third suited card comes. But both of these species of player are much rarer than people like Seat 1 in low-stakes games.


grrouchie said...

feel free to delete this after the fact.....

but you wrote this after posting the river....

Huh? That move surprised me even more than his check on the turn had

Did you mean "check on the flop" had.....
because on the turn, your friend led out and then he looked at his cards before calling.

Rakewell said...

Yes, thanks--fixed.

Gary said...

Insightful analysis.

Klaatu said...

Nice Post. I like your hand analysis.

Anonymous said...

Was a good river call, but calling a 3-bet with A-J is turrrrible!!

Jordan said...

Grump, I was wondering about your thoughts re: the preflop call with AJ facing a tight player with a 3-bet. Ignoring results, there was another lesson to be learned from the hand: when the tight guy three-bets for the first time and you have AJ, you are probably beat (by AK, or AA-JJ, as you so astutely point out). Kudos to Terry for the rest of the hand, but that preflop call was a poor play. The only saving grace is that Terry clearly has the ability to play well post-flop.

Terry said...

I guess calling his 3-bet with A-J was pretty bad, but he had lost several hands in the previous couple of hours, had re-bought, and through conversation had told me he was really tired from a trade show he had worked that week. He was clearly frustrated over losing hands, and was on tilt. Before this hand had ever started, I was waiting for a chance to exploit his frustration.

After I checked the flop, he acted like he wanted to bet, hesitated and sighed, and then checked. At that point I felt I had all the information I needed to continue on in the hand...

Thanks for the analysis Grump !


Anonymous said...

Button makes not one but three huge mistakes:

1. No continuation bet on the flop. The only hands you could possible be behind that do not raise pre-flop are pocket pairs that *may* have made a set on the flop. You can absolutely exclude AA, KK, and likely QQ. Make a standard continuation bet and win 90% of the time on this type of board based on the pre-flop action.

2. Did not raise on Turn. Again, you are easily representing AQ+, and to your opponents, a raise on the turn now looks like you have AA or KK, QQ, or now JJ. Does Terry call a raise on the turn with only top pair? I doubt it. Plus, you have 7 outs to the nuts, another 2 that are likely good (the two spades that pair the board), and possible 6 more in the way of an A or K. That's 15 outs- a semi-bluff raise on the turn must be profitable long term.

3. Weak raise on the River that screams call me. At this point, you have butchered the hand so much, you might as well give up.

JP in Philly