Saturday, December 06, 2003

Posted by Johnnymac 8:51 AM
I made it back to the 5-10 at the Friendship last night and won beyond my wildest expectations: in just under 4 hours at the table I netted $782. And while waiting for the 5-10 game to start, I played 3-6-12 for two hours and won another $18, so in the aggregate I netted an even $800 in the 6 hours I was there last night.

Quite clearly, the reason I won so much was because I was luckier than usual - I was making hands all night and they were holding up. I admit it - I was lucky. Lucky lucky lucky. I know I was lucky because, if you think in terms my data from last week, in my time playing 5-10 I averaged a little more than 11 big bets per hour* and that's quite far to the right side of the distribution. It's almost 3 standard deviations which means that what happened last night should be only a 1 in 100 occurrence. And even though most of my opponents were not the grumpy old men to whom I was advertising on Tuesday night, they were all quick to point out and remind me just how lucky I was when I was constantly hitting my backdoor flushes and straights. No argument from me here - I was very very lucky.

(*The 5-10 game is actually 5-10 with a full kill in which the limits double to 10-20. The requirements for a kill pot are quite liberal enough to that I estimate that almost 75% of all the hands played in the game are played at the higher limit. As such, I consider a "big bet" to be $17.50)

But aside from being just being lucky, it's not as if all of the other players were just lining up to give me money. Everything that one does at the poker table should be done with the intent of maxmizing earnings when you do get lucky enough to hit your cards. This is done in two ways: by either building bigger pots or eliminating the competition for the smaller ones. This is where I think that most poker players, including a vast majority of those I play with at the Friendship club, are at their worst. It's one thing to read a couple of poker books and learn to play "by the book", but it's an entirely more complicated thing to read those books and comprehend just exactly why the book is telling you to play a certain way in those situations. For instance, when everyone folds and you're first in from late position you don't loosen up to attack the blinds because all of a sudden worse cards than usual are going to come on the flop - you loosen up because there is less competition and just about anything has an edge on two random blind hands. Poker, like all forms of gambling, is all about chance and expected values therefrom, and in this light, it requires one to constantly be thinking and adjusting to the circumstances around him. Yes, I was lucky last night in catching cards, but just as I am able to usually minimize my losses when the cards are not running my way, last night I was able to maxmize my winnings when the cards did run my way.

Now, instead of going on and on about why I am so great, I think I would rather just post some observations about the play of the other players at the table last night and try and point out what they did that allowed me to be so successful. Like everything on this blog, the purpose here is not for me to crow about how good I am or to simply snicker at how bad someone else is - the point here is to try and help someone else improve his game by applying some of my observations to his own experiences.

(Furthermore, there really aren't a lot of people who read this blog, so in a lot of ways what Fro and I post here is really meant for ourselves and for each other. It helps us to organize our thoughts and, at least for me, it's a debriefing of sorts that gets me ready for the next game.)

1. Playing Poor Starting Hands
There is advice everywhere on this topic and it's all fairly sound. One can never become a good player until one knows which hands to keep and which ones to throw away. I'm saving this topic for a separate post someday, but the best advice I can give for starting hands is to consider which hands it can make, evaluate the likelihood of making those hands, and then evaluate the likelihood of those hands being winners. While the first two evaluations are rather easy, the last one is the most complicated and is where the most money is won or lost. From there, David Sklansky's rankings start to become very clear.

2. Playing Too Passively
As I say above, this, in my opinion, is weakest spot for most of the Friendship players and really, just about everyone else who ever sits down in a poker game. I divide passive play into two classifications: limping too much and calling too many raises cold.

Limping is often unprofitable for the same reasons that the lottery is a bad bet - yes, you have to "pay to see", but you will never win at poker if you limp to see every single flop because the expected return that one gets from a majority of hands dealt in a game is not at all great enough to pay off the cost of the bet itself. This point also will make a good post on its own someday, so I won't elaborate too much more. Suffice to say, "just $5" is still $5 that goes out of your stack and into the pot. Why throw it away if you if there is a less than even chance that it will ever come back? In this case, $5 saved is the same thing as $5 won. I think the lottery analogy is quite apt here, and even more telling, many of the same people who limp in on every hand will justify their limping with the same kind of logic that they might use to justify buying a lottery ticket: "it only costs a small amount of money and I could win a whole lot in return!" God love him, but my dad happens to be a big lottery player and in the few times I've had the privilege of playing poker with him he's limped more than the 2003 version of Earl Campbell.

The other side of passive play is calling raises cold. First, calling a raise is usually unprofitable for all of the same reasons as limping - the expected return off of that extra amount of money is probably not going to be high enough to justify making the bet in the first place - it's more money leaving your stack. But second, not only is a raise another bet - a raise is information! A raise is information that another player is telling you that he has good cards! And if a player is telling you that he has good cards, then you should be doubly wary of putting another bet into the pot with just any hand because now the chances of those cards winning have gotten even worse. When I first started playing poker, this is was the worst part of my game - calling raises cold , and even today when I am losing I can always look back at a couple of losing hands and see that my poor results are likely attributable to cold calling raises that I should not have been calling. David Skalansky's "gap theory" in his book on tournaments is a great place for even more info on this topic, if you're interested further.

(As an aside, I will fully grant that there is the aspect of a raise not necessarily being from the best hand - that perhaps the raise is coming from someone who simply wants to represent the best hand, that is, maybe he's bluffing. And this is the beauty of poker - there is no rule that says that raises can only be made by the best hand in the game, instead one can be deceptive and thus calling the raise might really be the proper play. The problem here is that the level of sophistication at the Friendship Social Club is not nearly that high, because for deception to work it has to work on all of the other players. Almost all of the players at the Friendship (or just about any low-limit or home game) are going to call the raise anyway, no matter what, and most likely the raiser knows this. And if he knows this, why is he going to try something that's likely to be unsuccessful? And if you then know that he's not going to bluff because it's likely to be unsuccessful, the only other conclusion is that he really does have good cards! Easy! So tell me again why you're calling his raise? )

3. Not Raising Enough
This is a little bit contradictory to my advice about calling raises, but sometimes it is appropriate to raise, or reraise, either to put more money in the pot or to thin the competition, even when you might not have the best cards. In loose-passive games like those at the Friendship, there aren't that many opportunities to thin the field, so raising becomes more of a way of maximizing one's winnings from good cards, but there still are a few opportunities where raising helps to eliminate the competition and I'll touch on that below.

And in response to some remarks I heard last night, yes, aggressive play makes other people uncomfortable and yes, in that sense it's not very "nice" to make other people uncomfortable in a social setting, but despite its name, I go to the Friendship Club to play poker and not to be friendly. Although socializing is a big part of the experience for a lot of the other players, it's not for me. I don't go there to necessarily make friends or be social - I go there to win money. I can be social with my friends later.

4. Being Unaware of One's Position
This one is actully rather minor because the Friendship players are so passive that they tend not to mind the possibility of getting raised behind. If it happens, they'll just turn around and check and call all the way to the end, not realizing that either , should they happen to catch the right card, they are giving away value by running from the aggressor or that checking with weaker hands and then calling a bet is the same thing as getting raised - just not quite as expensive. Furthermore, position is very important in conjunction with good starting hands, but if you're not going to be too selective with starting hands then there's likely very little that being aware of position can do for you anyway.

That said, drawing hands are a lot more profitable with many players willing to pay you off, so being in late position in a very passive game should be grounds for calling with true longshot odds, should you have the wherewithal to recognize those circumstances. Whether or not these other players know this themselves, I doubt, but this might be an area where the typical Friendship style makes up for itself, at least to the players who do get lucky and catch cards.

5. Not Being Observant of the Other Players
Again, one of my favorite blog topics - looking at one's cards instead of observing the table. Sometimes you really can catch a tell from another player, but even more importantly, you know who's in and who's out of the hand.

Example: Last night there was a new player in the game who seemed to be more interested in watching basketball than in playing cards. He folded most of the hands dealt to him all night and, given that tight play was not necessarily something I would expect from a typical person having the same attributes and appearance as he, I put him as a good player and someone to be wary of until I had more information. On one particular hand towards the end of the night he was watching basketball and turned to look at his cards. After taking a look, he raised the kill from fairly early position (see below). I knew something was up and threw away my rags without another thought, but onetheless, 2-3 other players, including the blinds, absentmindedly called his raise and then eventually paid off the set of queens that he had hit on the flop.

None of the players who called this guy ever seemed to notice his entry into the pot - they were too busy looking at their own cards. Furthermore, they probably didn't even recognize the significance of his raise, or even the rarity of his playing for once, because they had been all night, and continued to be, too focused on staring down the flop rather than watching the other players.

6. Not Adjusting to the Kill Pot
I made a lot of my money last night in the Kill Pots. Why? Because the passive nature of the game and the "expensive" price of the 10-20 stakes allowed me to constantly isolate the blinds and extract value. Just like my strategy against the live straddle on other games, but even moreso here, whenever the Kill is on I like to raise with almost any hand with a bit of strength. This does two things, first, it scares a lot of people off because, while they don't mind limping and cold calling the $5 bets and raises the rest of the time, for the most part, they absolutely hate paying $20 to see the flop. And if they do pay the $20, they usually have to hit it quite hard in order to be persuaded see another card at the higher stakes, not in the least because, in their mind I must have a monster hand because I was willing to raise extra money before the flop. Accordingly, if most players don't like playing at the higher stakes and calling the $20, I am subsequently able to isolate myself against three blind bets that by definition are likely in the pot with substandard hands. When this happens I am a huge favorite to win the hand most times.

This tactic is quite specific to this 5-10 game and the poor passive play of the other players. In a tougher game with better opponents, in Las Vegas for example, I probably wouldn't be able to get away with this tactic after more than 1-2 attempts because someone else would either be trying to do the same thing or would likely see what I was doing and adjust accordingly.

So that's it. A 90 minute blog post and I'm tired of writing. More later.

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