Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Playing scared

Tony Bigcharles (TBC) recently posted this hand history on his blog:

the final hand i had aa and made it $12 in EP. 3 guys called, all of whom had a decent amount of chips, none had me covered. flop comes up JJ4 rainbow. well i figure im either behind or so far out in front im not worried about a free card, so i check for pot control. i did think the one young kid behind me with about $350 in chips liked the flop. we all checked. turn comes Q again we all checked, and this might be where i should bet, but probably too late to do any good. river comes Q, we all check to the guy in late position. i hate that river. he bets $50 and i pay him off, he has Q9, and i leave when the blind gets to me.
Here's the comment I left there with my first thoughts on it:
The AA hand was played really badly. It is admittedly scary to be out of position, and have to decide to lead out into three opponents. But a flop of JJ4 rainbow is about the most perfect kind of flop you can hope for in that situation. It cries out for a continuation bet. You will get called by only three kinds of hands: Exactly 44, any J, and some pocket pairs who are suspicious that you missed with AK or AQ. The last category will be much more frequent than the first two, and is, of course, exactly what you want calling you: players with only 2 outs to win. This is a 100% c-bet situation, and it was a bad mistake to check there. In fact, even with 3 opponents and out of position, there are very few flops that you should not c-bet with AA. Of course, once in a while you'll lose to somebody who called you with 44 or KJ, but the amount you win most of the time will more than compensate for those losses over the long run. At least it will if you actually win the pot when you're ahead.
After thinking about this some more today, I want to add some further observations.

I was trying to figure out what Tony meant by saying he checked "for pot control." That made no sense here. I finally decided that it doesn't mean anything in this specific context. It's just a phrase that Tony tosses out when he doesn't bet in order to justify his action by making it sound as if it was a purposeful tactical decision. But it wasn't in this case.

For those of you who don't follow Tony's adventures, one of his prime characteristics is that he can't stand quitting for the day when he's stuck. A losing day is an intolerable concept to him. That means that if he is way behind, he starts playing more recklessly, gambling it up in an effort to get lucky and get back to even. If that fails, he goes in search of a video blackjack machine and tries to recoup his losses that way. It's a terribly destructive behavioral pattern, and he well knows it, but he continues to do it anyway.

Conversely, if he is doing well, he will often go into lock-down mode, playing in a miserly fashion because he doesn't want to put his winnings at risk. I think this is the factor most at work in the hand posted here. Elsewhere in the post he notes that he was about $280 up for the day when this hand transpired, and I get the feeling that he was planning on wrapping it up soon.

The reason that the phrase "pot control" sounds so out of place in that spot is that it is not what a skilled player should be thinking about. It is a spot in which AA will be the best hand the great majority of the time, so the focus should be on building and winning the pot, not on preventing it from growing unmanageably large.

Similarly, Tony's argument that he was either way ahead or way behind so he didn't mind giving a free card--well, that's just plain odd. It's a non sequitur. There certainly are way-ahead/way-behind situations, but one does not resolve them by taking or giving a free card. That just gets you deeper into the hand with no additional information, like wandering farther into a wilderness without a map.

In truth, there is only one plausible explanation for Tony checking both the flop and turn into three opponents in a situation where he should know that most of the time he has the best hand on both streets, and it's one he didn't admit to in his post: He was afraid. Specifically, he was afraid of getting sucked deeply into the hand, being put to a decision for his stack, and losing all of the profit he had accumulated through the session. That fear paralyzed him into inaction. My guess is that if this hand had played out early in the session, he would have bet into the field, knowing that it was pretty unlikely that anybody had outflopped him, and hoping for a call from worse hands. That is unquestionably how the hand should be played.

The reason I'm posting his description and this comment here is because I think it serves as a beautiful illustration of what's wrong with playing scared: Fears become self-fulfilling prophecies. Tony was afraid of losing more money, so he played passively, and the result was that he lost more money! Had he played it aggressively, he would have avoided the outcome he feared. Ironic, isn't it?

Back in the early days of this blog, I posted these two paragraphs from Antonio Esfandiari's book, In the Money: Strategies for Winning Texas Hold'Em Cash Games, page 15. I think they bear repeating here:
What's the best way to play fearless? First and foremost, you have to divorce yourself from how you traditionally think of money. Money outside of the poker room is different. That is money to be spent wisely or invested discriminately. The money you bring into the poker room is your means to winning. Do not think of this as money. Think of it as the tools of your trade. You should no more think about the dollar cost of an individual chip than a carpenter thinks about the cost of the nails he's driving. That carpenter will drive all the nails he needs to in order to do the job. That is what I am going to do at the poker table, and that is what you should do as well.

Consider your chips to be the cost of doing business, nothing more and nothing less. As with any buiness, you will have overhead. Think of bad beats as your overhead. Furthermore, as Doyle Brunson once wrote, when you make a big bet, you cannot think, "Oh man, I'm betting a Cadillac." Even if you're a recreational player, if you're thinking of the steak dinner you could buy with the chips you're betting, you're dead money. So look at those chips as the tools of the trade. You will free yourself from the fear of losing them, and then you can go win more.
I believe that Tony had mentally already locked up his win. The chips had ceased to be tools with which to win more chips, and had already become mentally and emotionally transformed into cash in his pocket. That mental shift meant that it was far more difficult to put them into the pot when he needed to. There is a crucial mental distinction between betting seven red chips from your stack and betting $35 from your wallet, and Tony had fatally crossed over from the former to the latter. As a result, he couldn't pull the trigger when it was the obviously correct thing to do.

Scared money loses. Fearless money wins. If at any point in a poker session you are no longer willing to risk losing all the chips sitting in front of you whenever you can get them in with an advantage, then that is the moment when you need to stop playing. Right then--not when the blinds next come around, not when the football game is over, not when your chip stack gets to some predetermined amount, not when you've finished putting in the hours to qualify for the weekly freeroll tournament. Those chips are far more at risk from your timidity than they would ever be from smart, aggressive play.

Tony didn't set out to remind us of that lesson, but I believe that when we read between the lines, that is what his story teaches us.


snevman said...

Great analysis. I believe that you nailed it.

So often you will see people playing with scared money. They will often openly discuss it at the table. When that occurs, my mouth starts to water and I know that I can easily get them off a hand.

Good luck,


SirFWALGMan said...

Interesting hand and post Grump. I am just curious where you go with the rest of the hand? Is this an automatic call if someone shoves? You always go broke on a JJx board with AA? Do you bet 1/2,3/4,1/4 pot?

Once you bet the flop (which I think is a good play btw) and you get called then what do you do assuming a non-scary card like the Q Tony got on the turn? Are you again just all in since this is not likely a deep-stacked game? Are you betting again? Folding to a jam to your turn bet?

The flop is interesting but it is also the cheapest and easiest to play street.. I am curious how you would finish out the hand if your opponent will not go away or puts you all in. I find it is VERY common at 1/2 for people to call your flop bet with almost anything.

Rakewell said...

Waffles: Since you have already made it known that you don't respect my opinions and think I'm "a fucking moron" and a "freaking toolbag," I'm baffled why you would bother asking for my thoughts on this hand.

sevencard2003 said...

it kind of was a deepstack game. and the guy who was last to act, just looked like he hit his hand. as always when the flop is coming out, i cover up the view of the flop and just watch the other players as they look at the flop, like i always have. and he was the one with the biggest stack next to mine.

u are guilty of judging the hand by results, which u tell me not to do. most of the time, my play wouldve either saved me a ton if someone else had a jack, or made me a ton if someone caught up to a hand a little smaller than mine and felt i was only on AK due to me not betting.

sure i didnt want to give back the win. But that dont make my play of this hand wrong.

Rakewell said...

I am not at all judging the play by the results. I would say betting the flop was correct even if you found out later you were betting into a full house, and I would say checking the flop was incorrect even if you won the hand. It happens in this specific hand that the results show why betting would have been right and checking was wrong--because a hand that would have folded to a bet got two free cards to become the winner. But that's just icing on the cake.

I'm stunned that you still think you played it right, using the justification that "most of the time" it would save you "a ton." That's demonstrably wrong. Most of the time your opponents will not have flopped trips or better, and you're losing value by not betting.

Just about the only situation in which I would agree to a check here is if one of your opponents--especially the guy on your immediate left--had a propensity to bet after you check in the vicinity of, say, 80% of the time or more. In that situation, you could legitimately contemplate a check-raise. But the obvious, straightforward play is usually the best, absent some very specific, articulable reason to deviate from it, which you simply do not have here.

Anonymous said...

"If at any point in a poker session you are no longer willing to risk losing all the chips sitting in front of you whenever you can get them in with an advantage, then that is the moment when you need to stop playing. Right then"

Forget everything else about this post...this is THE point. Well played sir.

Anonymous said...

Great commentary- are there other blogs where you think the play and hand discussion is better?

grrouchie said...

@Tony: your inability to accept criticism of your play is the reason why you continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

PG: I am with you 100% and this was one of the first things I thought when I saw the hand. Tony should have just mucked on the flop instead of checking because he was afraid to bet and create any action. Had someone bet he probably would have called down because he's afraid of being bluffed. Tony's biggest weakness in his poker game (other than VBJ) is that he has so many fears at the poker table.

Rob said...

Really great post, Grump. And one I am going to have to study. As a newcomer to No Limit (after years of playing Limit Hold Em), I find myself having the urge to be too conservative when I get up a few hundred bucks. I think I'm winning the battle but it is a constant challenge. Several times I doubled up very early in the session and then started thinking too much of how great it would be to leave with all those chips. Fortunately I usually was successful in overcoming this and thus several times greatly increased my stack. Of course, sometimes I lost most or all of my profits but in those cases I think I was playing correctly. One time I knew immediately I made an obvious error and promised myself to learn from it.

But I do wonder on this particular hand just how much you are willing to risk with just an overpair?

Anonymous said...

hey i took your advice with teh mighty duece 4:

sent my opponent on full blown monkey tilt

PS lol tbc


Anonymous said...

Just my 2c:

TBC bet 12 and got 3 callers: Pot 48. On the river he pays off 50 when the guy makes the hand (Q's Full).

If TBC was planning to pay off 50 anyways, why not do it in parts.

Bet 1/2 Pot on the flop. Lets say 25. Either he takes it down if no one has a J or a 4 (X4 or XJ) or gets smooth called (if someone is slow playing) or drawing. There is a chance that he can reduce the three callers to one or two.

Pot: 98 assuming one caller. TBC investment $37. If there is a huge raise or min reraise then fold.

Turn Q. Bet 40. The only player that would remain is the guy with the Q. If you see a min raise or huge reraise then fold.

TBC's investment: 40+37 = 77 and for $15 more provides more chances for him to take it down on the flop or turn. On the river I would take it easy.


Aces & Faces said...

Rakewell -
Unlike Waffles I do not think you a moron.
So if possible would you answer his question?
Not for him, but for the rest of us who appreciate & value your insight.

SirFWALGMan said...

Because my questions are brilliant unlike your stupid comments and must be shared with the world. I stand by my earlier statements about you.

Anonymous said...

If I felt that way about someone, I certainly wouldn't waste another minute on their blog....let alone take the time to type remarks.....unless a part of me felt there was value or entertainment to continue doing so. Go back into your hole.

Great post and commentary, Grump.

hfrog355 said...

When you checked your AA from up front, there was no reason to think any of your opponents is holding a J. In fact, it is statistically less likely that they are. Were you intending to check then fold your aces based on the flimsy "think he liked the flop" read?

Grump is spot on here. It's difficult for your opponent to have connected in a meaningful way on a board such as this. If you'd have bet even a small amount on the flop, it is likely the hand would have ended (assuming the eventual winner would have folded his Q high, no draw hand). Grump lists plenty of other scenarios in which you get called by weaker hands.

Not betting the turn is criminal. Just to overly simplify the situation, your plan was to raise AA preflop and then check it down with 3 opponents?

Rakewell said...

As to the questions about decisions and actions later in the hand: As usual, it all depends. It can go a whole bunch of different ways depending on the type of player(s) you're facing, how many of them call on the flop, whether anybody raises, the presence or absence of any tells about their strength, their stack sizes, etc. It's a branching decision tree, with almost infinite different outcomes given the number of variables involved.

Fred said...

Thank you for this post, Grump! I never really thought about why I have a huge preference for tournaments over cash games. I think I have a tougher time playing cash games for this specific reason, Too often I'm looking at my profits as "my money". Obviously, It's much easier in tournaments to seperate the 2. I'm up in both, however, I'm closer to even in cash games and I'm waaay up in tournaments and I bet this is(was) my big leak! In regards to the hand, I think Tony lost himself all kinds of money playing this hand, he should've just folded it preflop... He loses value from anything that's not a J that would call on the flop, which is probably a lot, he loses money from Q-9 on the turn(we want Q-9 to call on the turn!) and he loses money when he calls a 4-handed river bet on a board of JJ4QQ...Also, not that it matters, we don't know how much Tony had, but he says nobody had him covered so he wasn't going broke on this hand.

Vookenmeister said...

I'm dead on with grump on this one.

Tony protects his wins. I really appreciate Grump's detailed analysis about playing scared. Despite what Tony says, this is 100% what occurred.

now as far as playing the AA post flop and why you bet, what you don the turn, etc.

as grump says, it depends...

The quick answer is it is all about hand ranging. I am betting this flop to get value from the range of hands that will call me. If I do get called or raised, then I need to reassess the range of my opponent(s) and proceed on the turn based on what the turn card is. In some cases, I will slow down on the turn. I do this partially for pot control and to keep hands like lower pairs happy and still in the hand for value on the river. If my opponent(s) check behind on the turn, then I will bet most cards for value on the river.

If someone has a J I am going to lose money. How much money depends on my view of the opponent? I might not go broke on this hand. If a loose crappy calling station calls me on the flop whose range includes 22+, any card, and a toothpick then I am going to lose my ass if they actually have a J and hit trips on the flop. On the other hand if somebody who is tight as hell or in lock up mode like Tony calls me (or raises me on the flop) then I am completely shutting down and will often check/fold the turn even with AA. Please note that I actually folded my AK on a flop of A105 or something like against Tony. I knew his range had me crushed when he calls or raises my flop bet. So it's all about hand ranging. I do not see any reason to slow play this flop against 3 people. It's ok to do it as usually you are way ahead. However, with 3 other people in the pot there are a lot more mystery outs and our hand is not a lock and unlikely to improve. Also, many folks will still put you on two overcards thinking you are cbetting and will call with mid-pairs. If I am heads up I might check flop depending on the opponent but I am doing it more to get value later than I am for pot control.

but most of all what I do after the flop.... depends!

Rakewell said...

I was just reminded of this, which I wish I had thought of in time to include in the post:

Tommy Angelo, in Elements of Poker, p. 21, in list of poker terms he has coined:

POOP -- Acronym for "passively out of position." Sometimes I play POOP.

vookenmeister said...

POOP... that is great. Adding that to my knowledge base. thx

Michael said...

Having read Tony's blog in the past, I think your analysis is spot on. In this particular case it's a clear cut example, not acting on the turn or the flop can only be related to fear.

It's also something I'm consciously aware of in playing cash vs tourneys. I don't do well in cash, as I don't treat the chips like tools. It's money to me there, and until my bankroll meets that level, I'll always have that problem. For a tournament, the buyin is done and utilizing those chips is just a means to an end, completely different approach.