Posted by Junelli 1:38 PM First a little bit of background: Last night I played $2-$5 Pot-Limit at Northside Social Club. I won $430 on the night, but it was a struggle to get there. I originally bought in for $300. (**Yes, I know that’s only 60x the BB, and would technically be considered “short stacked,” but everyone else was buying in for that amount, and several players had less than $150 in front of them). I thought $300 would be enough to get me started, and I had another $200 in reserve in case I needed to reload.
I started out white-hot, and took down 3 of the first 5 hands. Nothing too significant because the game was still rather tight. But after 2 hours I had managed to grind my way up to a profit of $230. I was playing tight/aggressive (a necessity in $2-$5 pot-limit), and was hitting my flops. More importantly however, I was bluffing at the right time, making good reads on players, and laying down some pretty good (but dangerous) hands. I thought I was Doyle Brunson.
Then I got cold. The cards stopped coming, and at one point I folded 30 hands in a row pre-flop. For those of you that know me and my playing style, you can just see Hell freezing over.
I started getting angry and impatient that everyone else was winning hands but me. When I did have decent pre-flop hands (AJ, AQ, 99, KQ, etc.), I either missed the flop entirely, or flopped a good hand but was caught by flush/straight chasers. I laid down a number of hands on the river when the calling stations went beserk when their 3 flush hit.
3 hours later (~5 hours into the game), my stack of $530 had been reduced to $140. I lost some more hands, and was forced to reload. I had now bought in for $500, and had about $200 in front of me.
It was agony having to fold so often, because the action became out of control. It was the craziest I've ever seen! At one time I counted 11 pots in a row over $300, and it seemed that someone was all-in on every hand. It cost $15-$20 to see every flop, and people were showing 46o, J7s at the river. I was amazed, yet upset that I was missing out on all the fun.
Then I had my epiphany. I took a step back and consciously thought to myself, “How can I win tonight?” What is it going to take to make a comeback by maximizing my hands when I have the best of it, and protecting my chips when I don’t?
Which brings me to the purpose of this article: I’d like to jot down some rough thoughts on the psychology/strategy necessary to put together a winning night. It's about how to make conscious decsisions that give you the ever-so-slight edge necessary to win.
It all starts with recognizing that, with a few exceptions, most players at the table are “roughly” equal in skill. I use the term “equal” very loosely to describe that everyone knows what they're doing, yet none of us are seasoned professionals. I am, after all, sitting at an underground cardroom. The players who frequent those places are not newbies to the game, and know the same general strategies that I do: Most have read Sklansky. They know how to calculate outs. They know how to slowplay/trap. They’re not afraid to put their chips in play. They all generally raise with Group I & II (and sometimes III) hands. They recognize the significance of a check-raise made against them. They know when to lay down a hand. They know how to increase the size of their bets in proportion to the pot, etc.
In essence, they all know what they’re doing, and most of them are regulars whom I already know by name. It’s not unreasonable to assume that 6-7 of the 9 people playing last night, play poker at least 3 nights a week.
Of course, you’re going to have your occasional village idiot who constantly seems to suck-out. But those people are quickly recognizable and usually don’t last very long at the table. Some people are very quick to dismiss other players as idiots, but I think that’s a mistake. Someone may make a bad call to chase a gutshot on a hand, but that doesn’t mean he’s a “bad” player. It may just mean that he’s bored, impatient, stuck, or believes you’re on a bluff. It's highly unlikely that he's oblivious to the fallicy in the action. Rather it's more likely that he "just doesn't care."
So, here I am at a table with 8 other players who, for the sake of argument, I’ll consider equal in skill (until they demonstrate otherwise). How do I manage to win, and more importantly prevent them from winning? In a vacuum, if we were all equal in skill, and we all played our hands according to the book, we would just trade our money back and forth all night, until the rake killed us.
So what separates me from them? Since we all know how to play “our” hands, the difference between a good player and an average player is the one who minimizes the leaks in his game. By leaks I’m talking about instances where you needlessly throw money into the pot with no positive EV. Some examples of leaks in my game are:
1. Playing too loosely (i.e. calling a preflop raise with a mediocre hand JT, KT, KQ, AT, etc.). While those cards look pretty in your hand, they’re deadly. The most important thought that should be going through your head preflop is, “If I call with this hand, will both my cards be “Live”?” This is a powerful check on your decision making process. Let’s say you have KJ or AJ under the gun. You call the $5 BB. The next player raises to $15 and you have 3 callers before it gets back to you. How good does that KJ or AJ look now? What if you get the flop you want, and hit your King or Ace, and are faced with a pot sized bet (~$50) on the flop. You do the smart thing and lay it down. Yet now, you’re $15 poorer. Over the course of the night these loose calls can cost you well over $100. And that’s now $100 that you have to win back (against all those equally-skilled players) just to break even. These hands can cost you a ton of money if you’re not careful.
2. Chasing Unless I’m getting unbelievable pot odds I never chase a gutshot. Not because it’s a bad economic decision, but rather because I don’t want to get yelled at when I hit it! I have been known to peel off a card or two when I’m open-ended and/or have a flush draw (also, I will usually call with a gutshot & flush draw and/or pair and a draw). I don’t know how much money I’ve given away “peeling” off cards, but it’s a lot, and I can assure you, it greatly exceeds the amounts I’ve actually won when the hands hit. Two things to consider: First, if you hit your draw it may not be good (ie your flush/straight may be beat), and second if you hit your draw, you may not get any action going forward. A decent player with a made hand will try to bet off the chasers by making a pot-sized bet. If Chaser reluctantly calls and then lights up like Times Square when the 3rd spade comes, the decent player will routinely (but not always) fold. You have to consider these important aspects.
3. Playing out of position The more I play, the more I realize how important position is. We’ve all read the books, and understand what it means, but I doubt any of us have a true appreciation for how much money we lose playing hands out of position. For example, if I call a $20 preflop raise with AT. What do I do when a Ten hits? Or an Ace? If I check, I’m certain to get bet into. I have no idea where I stand. If I bet, and get raised, I’m really worried. If I bet and get called, I am again clueless, because when turn card comes, I don’t know what to do. Do I throw $75 more into the pot and try to steal it. Do I make a small $20 bet and give him odds to call? Do I check, and let him bet $75 into me? I’m screwed any way you look at it. Let’s say I decide to check-raise him. He bets $30, and I raise to $75. He calls. Uh oh. Does he have an overpair? Two pair? I’m confused as shit, but more importantly I don’t know what to do when the next card comes. If I check I show weakness and will have to lay down my hand to a monster bet. I’m almost forced to throw good money after bad.
4. Bluffing at the wrong time I’ve lost so much money getting my hand caught in the cookie jar, it’s not even funny. Things to avoid: Don’t bluff when out of position. Don’t bluff when there are multiple players in the pot (3-4+). Don’t bluff when a potential draw card hits. Don’t bluff for anything less than their maximum comfort threshold (i.e. in my game last night, a $25-$50 bluff was meaningless because it was such a common bet). If I bet $100+, they were much more likely to lay it down. If you try to bluff and buy the pot on the turn, and get 1 or 2 callers, you ought to think twice before you try it again. People in these games consider themselves pot-committed if they’ve put $20 into it.
5. Fold BB and SB to raises. Don’t think that just because you’re getting a discount, you should see the flop. Remember that for the rest of the hand you’re playing out of position (see Tip 3 above).
6. Sometimes it’s best not to “gas it” Some players think that if they have the best hand “at the moment” they should “get it all in.” While mathematically this may be correct, it doesn’t correspond with the extraneous factors of poker (bankroll, time period of play, etc.). Sometimes the wise course is taking a smaller profit in exchange of a decreased risk of going bust. Remember that if you make a pot sized bet on the flop, and get called, that player is likely committed and won’t go away. Also, your pot-sized bet just doubled the size of the pot, and made the hand exponentially more expensive for you to play going forward (i.e. if you raise the pot $50, the pot is now $100, and your bets will have to increase accordingly). It’s easy to see how a $500 bankroll can evaporate quickly if you lose a hand or two. Slow down and grind it out until you absolutely know you have the best of it.
Finally, you have to maximize your winnings when they come. Against a table full of equals that’s not easy to do, when most are adept at putting you on hands. After countless hours playing I’ve discovered that the best way to extract the maximum amount of money from people is to surprise them. It’s not going to come from your value bets when you have the best hand (because everyone has the same hands over time). It’s going to come from sneaking up on them and popping them when they don’t expect it. Here are a few deceptive moves that have worked well for me (but have added risk):
Don’t raise with AK preflop (you lose over 70% with it anyway, so why raise? If you hit it, no one will call your flop bet).
Don’t raise with big pocket pair under the gun or early position (you don’t want to scare out the other players, and you’re hoping someone else will raise and you can “reluctantly call”).
Raise with small pocket pairs on the button or in late position.
If you flop a set, bet it strong (an average player won’t put you on it).
Be disciplined enough to check monsters to the river so you can get some action.
Reraise preflop if you see someone consistently raising with weak hands.
Raise with small suited connectors (they’ll never put you on it).
Trap with a small bet into an aggressive raiser. When he raises you, you can come over the top.
If you’re first to act on the button, raise no matter what you have.
Try to trap as much as possible. Yes, there’s increased risk, but the rewards are well worth it.
Conclusion Obviously a lot of these ideas go against conventional wisdom, but that's the point. You want people confused, and shocked when you turn over your hand. These ideas should only be used sparingly and at the proper time/place. You run the risk of losing the hand by slowplaying it, but generally, you've put less money into it, and it should be easier to get away from.
That’s my rant. I’d be interested to hear your comments.