KKing David

Ruminations on poker

I’m Not Talking To You

Let’s say two poker players get all pissy with each other.  For purposes of this blog, imagine Player A lost most of his chips to Player B.  Later, Player B loses all of his chips.  Player A, still steamed from losing, mutters to no one in particular something like “he just lost all of MY chips!”

B is also steamed, and tells A “they weren’t your chips anymore; they were mine.  If you weren’t such a bad player, those chips might still be yours, but when I lost them they were in fact my chips.”

So here is my question:  How many times can Player A shout at Player B “I’m not talking to you!” without it being the case that he is, in fact, talking to Player B?

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The Worst Rule in Poker

“I want to see her cards.”  Who knew such a simple sounding request would nearly lead to an all out brawl?

For purposes of this blog, I’ll call the player making this request “Larry.”  We are at the Seminole Hard Rock Tampa casino poker room, my first trip here. I had just flopped a set of deuces on a very wet board (Qc Js 2c).  The other player, who for purposes of this blog I’ll call “Daryl,” (spelled like the actress Daryl Hannah) had a fairly short stack and seemed like she might be on a draw.  On the turn, I bet enough to put her virtually but not fully all-in.  Thankfully, she obliged but putting in her full stack, and after the dealer counted her chips, I owed one more chip to call.  I didn’t do this intentionally; she had a lot of small denomination chips that added up to more than it looked.

This is relevant.  Technically she made the final raise and I called.  According to protocol, I can wait for Daryl to show her hand first, having paid for the privilege of seeing her cards before deciding whether to show mine.  If the river card gives her a flush or straight, I can muck my hand and no one will know what I had.

When the river card is the 4th deuce, the protocol becomes irrelevant.  There is no reason to inflict extra pain on Daryl, so I roll over my pocket 2’s very quickly to claim the pot.  As an added bonus, my four-of-a-kind qualifies for a $250 high hand jackpot that is paid every half hour, and holds up just long enough for me to get paid.

Larry was never involved in this hand, but still demands to see Daryl’s cards.  According to Robert’s Rules of Poker, he has that right.  Rule 5 in the Showdown section says:

5.  Any player who has been dealt in may request to see any hand that has been called, even if the opponent’s hand or the winning hand has been mucked. However, this is a privilege that may be revoked if abused. If a player other than the pot winner asks to see a hand that has been folded, that hand is dead. If the winning player asks to see a losing player’s hand, both hands are live, and the best hand wins.

In poker’s war for information, some players are maniacal about pursuing every possible edge.  Larry turns out to be one of those players, hoping to learn something about Daryl’s play that he can use to his advantage later on.  Unfortunately for him, the dealer had already pulled Daryl’s cards into the middle of the muck pile and we never found out.

But that’s not why the rule exists.  It exists to prevent cheating, particularly in tournament poker.  Sometimes in tournaments, huge imbalances exist between one player’s chip stack and another’s.  Unlike in cash games, the shorter stacked player cannot buy more chips.  If two friends are at the same tournament table, Friend 1 with the larger stack might be tempted to dump a few chips off to Friend 2 with a desperately small stack to help Friend 2’s chances of making it to the prize money or the next payout increase.  The easy way to do this is for Friend 1 to make a large bet, Friend 2 to be the only caller, then Friend 1 mucks his cards and says he was just bluffing.

That’s cheating.  Rule 5 allows any player at the table to ask to see Friend 1’s hand.  Not for information, but to ensure he isn’t cheating by dumping chips to Friend 2.  The language in Rule 5 says “this is a privilege that may be revoked if abused.”  Well, I’m here to tell you that anytime this so-called privilege is invoked for any reason other than suspicion of cheating, that’s an abuse!

In cash games, Rule 5 isn’t needed.  When I grow up and have my own poker room, the house rules won’t include this one for cash games, and for tournaments the player involving the rule will be forced to explicitly state (and convince a floor supervisor) that cheating is suspected.

I’m not the only poker blogger who feels this way.  At Rob’s Vegas Poker Blog (one of the best of all poker blogs!), Rob also calls this “one of the worst rules in poker,” noting that every use of the rule is actually an abuse of it.  Rob describes another abuse of the rule here.  Last summer PokerNews featured an article by Tommy Angelo – one of the game’s greatest thinkers – describes the rule as “bad for poker” as it fails its mission while “encouraging petty behavior.”

The next rule, Rule 6 in the Showdown section, says

If you show cards to an active player during a deal, any player at the table has the right to see those exposed cards. Cards shown during or after a deal to a player not in the pot should be shown to all players when the deal is finished.

This is different.  In shorthand, “show one, show all” is simply an information equalizer.  Rule 6 only applies after a player has voluntarily shown cards to another player.  By contrast, Rule 5 applies to cards that haven’t been shown to anyone, provided that player’s final bet was called by another player.

Rule 6 comes up later when Larry is involved in a hand with the player on Daryl’s immediate left.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Darrell.”  There was at least one other player in the hand too.  According to Larry, while contemplating a large bet Darrell flashed his cards towards Daryl (who had already folded), and she made a comment like “nice cards” or something similar.  Darrell then folded, and Larry asked the dealer to keep Darrell’s cards out of the muck pile so he could see them after the hand was over.  This wasn’t the first time Larry had invoked Rule 6.  He seemed obsessed with information FOMO.

This time, however, was a tipping point.  Darrell denied showing his cards to Daryl.  Daryl denied seeing them and further denied making any comment.  Larry was insistent, and asked the dealer to call for a floor supervisor.  Before you knew it, Larry, Darrell and Daryl were all standing and pointing and yelling and swearing at each other.

It became apparent that Daryl was still seething from the earliest hand, when Larry wanted to see her cards after she lost her entire stack to my quads.

“God strike me down if I said anything about his cards!” she screamed loud enough for half of the room to hear, standing with arms outstretched.

“Don’t tempt Him,” responded Larry.

“I protected my cards properly and you don’t have a right to see them,” protested Darrell.

“I make more money playing poker in one week that you make in a full year,” Larry hurled back at Darrell, who earlier had revealed that he lived in Las Vegas for several years and recently moved back to Florida.

This went on for several minutes.  What started as a war for information nearly proceeded to an all out war between Larry, Darrell and Daryl.

Larry actually seemed to be enjoying himself through this exchange.  Darrell and Daryl were not.  Despite the floor supervisor’s efforts to calm Daryl down, telling her she wasn’t accused of doing anything wrong, she was in full poker room rage, or academically speaking, what might be called an episode of Intermittent Explosive Disorder.  I thought she might need to be physically restrained.

I can imagine Larry telling his friends he had the best time at the casino today, even though he didn’t win any money.

Without Rule 5, this never turns into such a brouhaha.

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Rope-a-Dope

Most poker experts will describe two reasons for betting:  Value Betting and Bluffing.

Betting for value happens when you think you have the best hand, and want to get called by someone with a worse hand.  When they call, you make money.  When you make a good hand, one that is likely or certain to win at a showdown, you want to get as much money as possible in the pot and the way to accomplish that is by betting.

Bluffing happens when you think the other player has a better hand than yours, but will fold it if you make a strong enough bet.  Maybe both of you have weak hands.  Or the board fits with a narrative you can tell that represents a very strong hand.  When they fold the best hand, you make money.

In this hand from last night, however, the best line turned out to be checking for value.

This is poker’s version of the rope-a-dope, made famous by Muhammad Ali in the 1974 heavyweight boxing title match against George Forman.  Boxing in Zaire (now Congo), Ali backed up against the ropes in a protective stance and let Foreman flail away at him.  With a defensive posture designed to deflect Foreman’s power, combined with letting his body bounce against the ropes, Ali’s body absorbed very little pain.  After five rounds, Foreman began to look worn out.  After seven rounds, Foreman was spent.  Ali won the fight with an eighth round knockout over the younger and heavily favored Foreman.

In a casino game last night, I had KJo in middle position.  Not great, not terrible.  I put in a raise to 5 BBs and got two callers.  One will act before me on future betting rounds; the other will be after me.

The flop was K43, rainbow.  This is a really good flop for me, but probably terrible for the other players.  The first guy checks.  This is what makes a hand like KJ difficult to play for value.  What hands can be in my opponents likely ranges that will call if I bet again here, and I can beat?  KT?  Kx with weaker kickers?  Pocket pairs 55-QQ?  The player who will act last is a younger, somewhat aggressive player.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “George.”  This is my first trip to this casino, and he’s only been at the table for an hour or so, so I have no history and very limited information.

I also check, and George bets 8 BBs.  The first player folds.  I definitely think I have the best hand here.  If that’s true, raising will only get him to fold.  I fiddle with my chips to try to look uncertain, and call.

Turn (31 BBs):  5d.  This puts two diamonds on the board (including the king).  I check again.  George looks like he’s trying to size me up.  I would like for him to think I have a hand like QQ, JJ, TT or 99 that will have to acknowledge that he has a king in his hand for a better pair.  I would like for him to think he can bluff me.  He bets 15 BBs.  I shuffle my chips again as if I might call but I might fold.  The only hands he can have that beat me (other than something very deceptively played) are KQ, 44 or 33.  There are three combinations of 44 and 33, and eight combinations of KQ that he can have, for a total of 14 combinations out of his entire pre-flop calling range (which might have 100-200 combinations (7.5 – 15% of all possible hands).

Let’s assume his flop bet was just a simple stab at the pot leveraging his favorable position.  If he has nothing, but the first player and I both seemed to miss this flop, or are scared of the king, that’s a reasonable play.  In fact, it is one of the benefits of being last to act – you get to take down small pots like this that nobody else seems to want.  Then I called his flop bet.  That makes the pot larger and worth fighting for.  How frequently will George fire a multi-barrel bluff?  Given my image as a middle-aged white guy (MAWG), and the way I’ve played during his time at the table suggesting a fit-or-fold style, I think his bluffing frequency is high enough to warrant calling again, and so I do.

River (61 BBs):  7d.  At first this looks like a scary card.  Now there are three diamonds on the board, making a flush possible.  And there is a 345-7, so any 6 makes a straight.  I check again, knowing this looks scary enough for many aggressive players to take a final stab.  In my mind, I’m Ali and he is Foreman.  (Friends, just let me have my moment here, OK?)  I’m backed up against the ropes, with my (muscular?) forearms in a vertical position protecting my upper body and face.

George fires out a much larger bet of 43 BBs.  Let’s assume he actually has a hand that is better than mine.  Would he bet that much?  After I’ve shown (or tried to…) hesitancy in calling his flop and turn bets, and a scary looking card falls on the river, what can I possibly have that would call again.  I raised pre-flop, then turned passive on a king-high board.  Would I play this way with AA, AK, or KQ?  Or KK?  If so, would I call a bet that is nearly triple the previous bet when the river card cannot possibly have helped me?

At the table, I don’t need any time to process this.  George’s bet is begging me to go away, so I quickly flip a single chip onto the felt and announce “call.”  Ryan sheepishly turns over As Ts.  He was bluffing with total air the entire time.

Had I made the more straightforward continuation bet on the flop, George has an easy fold and I would have won a very small pot.  Rope-a-dope for value!

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The Professor, The Banker and the Suicide King

My last post dealt with the concept of Reciprocality, which refers to differences in how you handle something and how your poker opponents handle the same thing.  The difference in your approach either adds to or takes away from your bottom line (when considered over the very long term).

One aspect of that is Bankroll Reciprocality.  If you partition your money better than your opponents do, you gain another small edge.  You may not see it, but it’s still there.

I was reminded of this last night at a table with two players who appeared very well bankrolled and played with a hyper-aggressive, borderline maniac, fearless style.  The house policy at this private game allows players to top off their stacks up to the biggest stack on the table.  Early on, these players bought more chips several times to keep up with whoever was fortunate enough to build up a deep stack.

In a cash game, this style wins over the long haul by putting other players to frequent decisions for all of their chips… with monster hands, medium strength hands, missed draws and total air.  Their all-in and bluffing frequencies are so high that you have to call with lighter and lighter holdings.  Once I called an all-in river bet by one of them – for purposes of this blog I’ll call him “Gabe” – with JT on a board runout of T85-A-3 to double up through a busted flush draw.  Do I really like putting my whole stack at risk with less than top pair?  The really interesting part of the hand was rewinding back to the pre-flop betting, where Gabe had open-raised in middle position with 7h 3h.  If we have to put hands like 73 suited in his pre-flop raising range, we might as well not even try to develop a range at all.

Eventually they will make big hands and will get paid off more often than the rest of us.  With such deep stacks, those payoffs put them in a position to run all over the table.  Gabe had earlier called a pre-flop raise from the big blind with T2 (the “Doyle Brunson” hand) and saw a runout of K62-T-2 to make a full house and crack my pocket AAs.  Later the other guy playing a similar style woke up with his own AA when I had AK.  Given the high frequency of his having something weaker, I decided to push my AK extra hard and got flattened.

That’s poker.  With their bankroll leverage, every time they make a winning hand, they’ll with take someone’s entire stack or double up what is already a deep stack.  That increased their leverage and other players who aren’t comfortable playing for large pots with draws or medium strength hands start surrendering more and more often.

Michael Craig’s book The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time, tells the story of a billionaire Texas banker, Andy Beal, who went to Las Vegas in the early 2000’s to challenge the top professional poker players.  Beal insisted on heads up matches and repeatedly insisted on raising the stakes. Before long, the pros decided to pool their bankrolls as they realized Beal’s bankroll edge offset part of their poker skill edge.  He could force them into tough decision after tough decision, and with a run of good cards push we would present an existential threat to each of the pros’ personal bankroll.

It’s a fascinating story, well researched and written.  The pros, led by Doyle Brunson, Howard (the “Professor”) Lederer, Chip Reese, Ted Forrest, Jennifer Harmon, Todd Brunson, Chau Giang and others, referred to themselves as The Corporation.  Beal’s bankroll edge forced the top poker players in Las Vegas, each accustomed to operating as a lone wolf, to pool their money and acknowledge that some of them performed more poorly against Beal than others did.

The real lesson is that deep pockets matter, especially when combined with a reasonable amount of skill (which Beal worked hard at developing in between his battles with The Corporation) and fearless aggression.  This concept plays out at all levels, and the power of the deep pockets should never be underestimated.

Bankroll Reciprocality.

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Water is Good for You, Even if You Don’t Know Why

While drinking a beer and talking poker with a friend, the conversation turned to various aspect of “being a poker player” in terms of things that we do away from the tables.  It’s great to talk through specific hands or handling specific situations that come up often during the games, but this was different as we stepped back discussed topics that don’t start with “My hole cards were…” or “I bet and then she…”, such as:

  • why we play
  • game selection and seat selection
  • bankroll management and buy-in amounts
  • emotional stability
  • diet and exercise
  • quitting

For purposes of this blog, I’ll refer to the aforementioned conversation as the “Beer Meeting.”

This brought to mind Tommy Angelo’s Elements of Poker, the best book I have read about being a poker player and thinking about and approaching the game like a pro.  Tommy introduces the concept of “reciprocality,” which he describes as “any difference between you and your opponents that affects your bottom line.  Reciprocality says that when you and your opponents would do the same thing in a given situation, no money moves, and when you do something different, it does.”  An entire article on his website is devoted to the topic of reciprocality.

Bankroll Reciprocality – if you partition your money better than your opponents do, you gain another small edge.  You may not see it, but it’s still there.  On the subject of bankroll, I found this helpful article by Jonathan Little (and other excellent strategy content).  While the article focuses on funding an online poker account, the principles apply to all poker environments.

Quitting Reciprocality – in tournaments there is no way to be better at quitting than your opponents.  The decision to quit is made for you, usually rather abruptly.  In cash games, however, Tommy says “there are many ways to outquit your opponents.  If you consistently quit before your skills are dulled when you get tired, bored, irritated or tilted, and your opponents play on despite sub-optimal conditions, money will move in your direction over the long haul.

Tilt Reciprocality – the opposite of tilt is emotional stability, a much more benign term used at the Beer Meeting.  Tilt reciprocality is the difference between your tilt and others’ tilt.  Whoever tilts more often, stays tilted longer, and tilts the hardest loses; whoever tilts less or recovers fasters gains a reciprocal advantage.

Betting Reciprocality – most players fold their worst garbage hands, so no reciprocal advantage is gained or lost.  But approaches to checking, calling, betting, raising and folding vary widely.  The differences in these actions creates betting reciprocality.  Simply stated, consistently taking actions that result in the highest Expected Value (EV) is the way to gain a betting reciprocal advantage over players who pursue lower EV betting lines.  Each hand or situation that you would play differently than your opponent would results in a reciprocal advantage or disadvantage.

Position Reciprocality – part of what I love about Tommy’s writing is his ability to laser in on the very essence of a complex topic.  Either you are last to act, or you are not!  The reciprocal advantage goes to the player who acts last most often or leverages their favorable position most effectively.  This quote is a gem:  “Acting last is like taking a drink of water.  We don’t have to understand why it’s good for us to know that it is.  And the benefits are unaffected by our understanding of them.”

Shut up already!  I’m perfectly aware that this post extolling the benefits of drinking water was inspired by a Beer Meeting.

But seriously, if you’ll stop snickering for a moment, most of the things we discussed at the Beer Meeting suggest ways to improve the odds of success at the poker table that don’t require an understanding of how they work.  Randomly picking a good game or seat is profitable.  Playing within your bankroll is profitable.  Emotional stability is profitable.  A healthy diet accompanied by regular exercise is profitable.  And yes, drinking water instead of beer is profitable.

Information Reciprocality – in a game of incomplete information, getting more information from your opponents than you give them creates a reciprocal advantage.  This is another reason to shut up already, at least with regard to your hands that aren’t required to be shown and your thoughts that aren’t required to be explained.

The concept of reciprocality applies to anything else we might do differently from the other players at the table that creates an edge.  Study or sleep habits, meditation, exercise, larger bets and disciplined folds all are ways to improve our edge.  I suppose even a Beer Meeting to bring awareness to the connection between what we do away from the table and our long-term results can create a reciprocal edge.

And if that’s true, a Water Meeting might be even better!

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Great Flop for Me

It was Saturday night, which means I’m playing poker in someone’s garage.  Just about everybody is a regular player, so we get to do some higher level thinking.  Level 1, of course, is just thinking about the strength of our own hand.  We like it, or we don’t like it, or we’re not sure.  Level 2 is thinking about our opponents’ hands.  The more we have played with somebody, the more we should know about their style and tendencies and use that information to our advantage.  They should be doing the same.  Level 3 is thinking about what our hand looks like to our opponents.  While we know our exact cards, they don’t, so we can consider what our hand looks like from their perspective.  Level 4 flips back to their hand.  What will they think we are putting them on?

On the button, after several players just call the big blind, I look down at JJ.  I like my hand (Level 1).  So far, no one has a hand worthy of raising.  I don’t know their exact cards, but any hand better than mine would have raised already (Level 2).  When I raise, some of the players will think I’m just attacking the limpers and won’t give me credit for a hand as strong as JJ (Level 3).  So I can raise more than normal and still get called by worse hands.

I raise to 8.5 big blinds (BBs).  The BB calls and so do two of the limpers.

Flop (37 BBs):  4d 4s 2d.  This is a great flop for me.  There are no over cards to my JJ.  While there is a diamond flush draw and a possible straight draw, a paired board makes the flush draw less attractive to anyone who has it, and the straight draw cannot be open-ended unless someone limp/called with 53.

Everybody checks to me.

I still like my hand.  It should be best here (Level 1).  While no one has shown any strength (Level 2), any of these players could have a single A, K or Q, or two diamonds, or a lower pocket pair that could turn a set, so I’m not giving them a free turn card.  I bet 20 BBs, just over one-half of the pot.  Some weaker hands will call another bet, including flush draws and low-medium pocket pairs like 55-88.  They would expect me to make a continuation bet on this flop with close to 100% of my pre-flop range, which they would think includes a lot of unpaired hands (Level 3).

The BB folds, but the next guy raises to 60 BBs.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Myles.”  Myles likes to see lots of flops and is willing and able to be bluffing here if he thinks I’m just trying to steal a pot with my favorable position.  He knows his check/raise would look very strong, and I would have to consider the possibility that he has trip 4’s or better (Level 4).  As I start to ponder the meaning of his check/raise, the next guy announces that he’s all-in for about 180 BBs.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Rob.”

Wow!  A big check/raise from Myles, followed by Rob’s check/re-raise shove.  Similar to Myles, Rob likes to see lots of flops.  Even moreso than Myles, Rob will try to steal a pot with a big bluff when the board gets scary or he thinks his opponent is weak.  Both of them initially limped in, then called my largish pre-flop raise, which makes both of them more likely than me to have a 4 or pocket 22’s.  Myles has Rob covered, while I have the smallest stack with about 75 BBs remaining after my flop bet.

Let’s try to figure out where we are (Level 2), while trying not to wet our pants.

I can rule out AA, KK, QQ based on the pre-flop betting, so the only holdings that beat me are any 4x or 22.  That’s it.  And most 4x hands are pretty junky and would have folded pre-flop.  Calling hands might include A4 (suited or unsuited) 64s, 54s, and maybe 43s.  That’s not many combinations: after eliminating the cards on the board, there are 3 possible combos of 22, 8 combos of A4, 2 combos each of 64s, 54s, 43s.

I don’t think Myles would have called my pre-flop raise with A4 off-suit, but he might with A4s, 64s or 54s.  Not with 43s.  Not with K4, Q4 or worse.  He also could have a diamond draw, with Ad2d+, Kd8d+, Qd9d+, or suited connecting diamonds from JdTd down to 6d5d.  He also could be on a pure bluff, or could have a medium pocket pair that he thinks is the best hand (55-99).  But that assumes he always check-raises with his flush draws.  In reality, sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t.  I’ll eliminate about half of his flush draws (including AdKd, AdQd, AdJd and KdQd all of which would have raised pre-flop), resulting in a range of 99-44, 22, A4s, AdTd-Ad8d, Ad5d, Ad3d, KdTd+, QdTd+, 6d5d, 64s, 54s.  Heads-up against that range, my JJ has 77.4% equity and I should call.

But Rob went all-in, AFTER seeing Myles’ check/raise.  That scares the shit out of me.  He could have the same 22 or 4x hands as Myles could, plus I have to include K4s, Q4s and 43s in his range as I’ve seen Rob surprise the hell out of people before when he makes a junky call and hits the flop hard.  I’ll also include A4o.  He too could have a flush draw, but if he does in this spot, it should only be an A-high flush draw (as with Myles, excluding AdKd, AdQd or AdJd as he would have raised pre-flop with these stronger suited aces).  Rob shouldn’t be shoving here with weaker flush draws because he should know Myles might be on a flush draw too, and shoving a non-nut flush draw and getting called by a nut flush draw would be disastrous.  Rob’s resulting range is stronger than Myles’ range: 99-44, 22, A4s, A4o, AdTd-Ad3d, K4s, Q4s, 64s, 54s, 43s.

Against both of these ranges, my equity is 39.7%, compared to 35.8% for Rob and 24.5% for Myles.  Something about a check-raise following by a check-re-raise makes me feel quite certain that I’m crushed here on this flop that initially looked so good for me, and I expected the math to be even worse that this.  It will cost me 75 BBs to call, for a chance to win (assuming Myles also calls) approx. 320 BBs.  If my equity is greater than 75/320 = 23.4%, calling would be the mathematically correct play.

I take my time, and finally fold.  I couldn’t work out all of the math in my head at the table, so I went with the old “Hashtag: they always have it” and concluded that at least one of them had me crushed.

Myles takes his time, asks Rob if he has a 4 and if so how good is his kicker.  Then he declares that he might as well gamble and calls the all-in bet.

The turn is Qc.  I don’t recall the exact river card, only that it wasn’t a high card or a diamond and didn’t change anything.

Rob turns over Ad6d.  He did indeed have the A-high flush draw.  We can debate the merits of shoving over the top of Myles’ check/raise there, but that’s what he did.  Myles turns over Qd9d, a weaker flush draw.

This burns me up when I first see it, as I was ahead of both of them when I folded.  Later I entered their exact hands and my equity was 53.7%.  Putting in 33.3% of the money and having 53.7% equity is a profitable play all night long, and I definitely should have called.

Then Myles sees that the queen on the turn paired one of his hole cards, giving him 2-pair queens and fours, and he scoops in a pot that totals over 415 BBs.  My JJ would have lost anyway.  That doesn’t change the conclusion that I should have called, however.  Against the ranges I constructed and against the actual hands, calling would be the correct play.  If both Myles’ and Rob’s cards were face up, I would call, especially knowing their flush outs partially cancel each other (and I was holding another out with Jd).  But I folded instead, then got the reverse of “lucky” since part of the draw hit anyway.  What looked like such a great flop for me cost me about 1/4 of my stack and I was lucky not to lose all of it.

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Winning by Leading

You want to win more often than you lose, right?

In team sports, two teams compete head-to-head.  When each contest starts, the score is tied, 0-0.  The scoreboard doesn’t confer any advantage to one team or the other.  Whether it is football, basketball, baseball, hockey or soccer, the winning team is the one with the most points, runs or goals at the end of the game.

What matters is the final score.  One team can be losing throughout the game, only to pull ahead on the final play.  Or the score can remain tied for most of the contest until one team scores to take a late lead.  Or a team can be dominated early, only to have momentum shift in their favor for a come-from-behind win.  Or the lead can shift back and forth multiple times.  Or a team can score first, extend their lead, and never be threatened.  Under every scenario, the winner is whoever has the lead at the end of the game.  It seems silly to have to say that, doesn’t it?

Yet in every sport, the team that scores first ends up winning a majority of the time.  At any time during the game, the team in the lead is most likely to win.

In baseball, hockey and soccer, the team scoring the first run or goal will win about 2/3 of the time.  In football, the team scoring first will win more than 60% of the time.  In basketball, with NBA teams averaging 100 or more possessions per game, the edge is not as great.  The first team to score wins approximately 54% of all games.

Having an early lead doesn’t guarantee victory, but it improves your chances.

In Texas Holdem poker, some of the dynamics are fundamentally different from team sports.  You aren’t a team.  It isn’t a head-to-head competition.  You can opt-out, by folding.  Yet we can still think of each hand of poker like a team sports contest.

Here is the fundamental rule:  The best starting hand is more likely to be the best hand at showdown.

I know, call me Captain Obvious, but bear with me just a bit.

One of the biggest flaws of poker players is playing too many hands.  This post started with a simple question:  You want to win more often than you lose, right?

Before the cards are dealt, the score is tied.  Are the conditions favorable?  Sports teams prefer to play at home.  If professional sports teams played all of their games at home, they would win 5-10% more games.  In poker, the equivalent of the home field advantage is having good position (button or cutoff seat), plus a deep chip stack, winning image and calm emotional state.  Are you giving yourself the poker equivalent of home field advantage?

After the cards are dealt, the score is no longer tied.  Although you can’t look at a scoreboard to see who has the best cards, somebody is in the lead.  Everybody’s betting actions provide us with clues.  If you have the best hand pre-flop, this is the equivalent of scoring first in a team sport.  It doesn’t guarantee victory, but does make you the favorite.  If you have the best hand plus home field advantage (good position, deep stack, winning image, calm emotional state), you are an even bigger favorite.

The amazing thing here is that in each hand of poker, you can opt-in by betting, raising or calling, or you can opt-out by folding.  Professional sports teams don’t have the luxury of opting out when the other team has home field advantage and scores first.  You do.  So why in the world do so many poker players voluntarily put themselves at a probabilistic disadvantage by opting in with hands that are already losing?  Jeez, another hand will start in just a minute or two.

There are 169 possible combinations of two cards.  We can rank them in order of their probability of winning against a full table of opponents.  AA will rank highest; before the flop, this is the nuts.  Next is KK.  There are plenty of poker equity calculators that will show the projected win percentage of each hand vs. any number of unknown hands.

What do you have?  Is it likely to be the best hand at this point – before the flop – in the contest?  Possibly?  Unlikely, but with a reasonable chance of improvement?  Never?  Since poker is a multi-player contest, winning more than anyone else might still be less than 50% of the time.

For example, suppose you are dealt Kh Jh.  King-jack suited is a good hand.  It ranks in the top 7% of all hands.  Out of 169 possible combinations, my Poker Cruncher app ranks it as #15 in strength.  It is possible that you have the best hand at the table.  Kh Jh is projected to win 46% of the time against two random hands, while each random hand is projected to win 27% of the time.  Even though you probably have the lead, the multi-player aspect of poker forces you to acknowledge that most of the time, another player will win the pot.

Limp / call range

But the other players don’t have random hands.  Let’s take this a step further.  Suppose one other player limps in from middle position, you raise with Kh Jh in the cutoff seat, the big blind calls and the limper also calls.  You are 3-handed going to the flop, but now you can eliminate many of the 169 combinations from each villain’s range.  You can eliminate the strongest hands, with which they would raise instead of calling.  And you can eliminate the weakest hands, which they would simply fold.

For this example, let’s assume the limper would have raised rather than limped with all 14 hands that rank stronger than Kh Jh.  These are:  AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT, 99, 88, AKs, AQs, AJs, ATs, KQs, AKo, AQo.  We’ll eliminate those from his or her range.  Also let’s assume he or she would fold the weakest 50% of all hands, instead of limping or in response to our raise.  We’ll eliminate those too.

BB call range

The big blind was responding to our raise.  We’ll assume that he or she would re-raise only with a top 10 hand:  AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT, 99, AKs, AQs, AJs, AKo.  Since we only got called, we can eliminate these.  We’ll also assume the big blind folds the weakest 60% of all hands to our raise.  We’ll eliminate those too.

Now we can recalculate our equity.  Kh Jh is projected to win 41% of the time, vs. 28% for the limp / call hand in middle position and 31% for the big blind.  You are still the favorite, just less so than against two completely random hands.

If your raise was a little bit larger, maybe the big blind would fold and the limper would fold the weakest 60% rather than 50%.  Now you would be heads up, and project to win 58% of the time at showdown (in all cases, these win rates assume there is no further betting), switching the outcome from ‘lose most of the time’ to ‘win most of the time.’  See how powerful raising is?

Suppose, instead, that you had made the same raise with Th 8h and gotten the same two calls.  Now you would be projected to win 30% of the time. vs. 33% for the limp / caller and 37% for the big blind.  Instead of starting with the lead, you’ve opted in despite being an underdog, and done so via a raise.  Why would you want to do that?  Have you forgotten the original question:  You want to win more often than you lose, right?

It is possible to win a pot without having the best hand.  There is even a technical term for this:  bluffing.  Sports teams don’t have this weapon.  Imagine a Little League baseball team yelling in a menacing tone at the other team, “we are beating y’all by more than 10 runs, so you should quit and go home under the mercy rule!” even though the other team is actually ahead by one or two runs.  That would never work.  I’ll return to bluffing in a later post.

There are other reasons you might want to opt-in with starting cards that won’t enjoy the early lead.  This involves pot odds and implied odds.  I’ll return to this in a later post as well.

For now, if you want to win more often than you lose (right?), the easiest place to start is by playing hands that are more likely to be in the lead already and raise enough to shrink the number of remaining villains.  Before you starting bluffing or calculating pot odds and implied odds, just practice playing poker with the lead.  Develop the habit of opting in with the lead and opting out whenever another player is more likely to have the lead.  Opting out eliminates your disadvantage, with no penalty.

Imagine a professional sports coach being able to withdraw from a game after the other team scores first with no penalty, no impact on the team’s win/loss record.  The coach would simply say he’s decided to reset the scoreboard and start over.  In team sports, that would never work.  In poker, you have that option every hand.

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Bink!

From FlopTurnRiver.com’s poker dictionary, with examples from yours truly:

Bink – A term used by poker players to describe someone catching one of their outs to a draw. More commonly used to describe a longshot draw that comes in.

Dude, I had pocket tens.  The flop was queen-jack-four and everybody checked.  Another queen came on the turn and I called a small bet.  Then I binked one of the two remaining tens on the river for a full house.

A Cooler is when you are dealt a very very strong hand only to have your opponent be dealt an even stronger hand. There usually is no way you can avoid losing all of your chips in instances like these.

My full house got crushed by a bigger boat.  What a cooler!  This was the day after another cooler when I flopped a queen-high flush and this other dude flopped a king-high flush.

Running bad – Having a string of tough luck, typically involving multiple bad beats or coolers.

KKing David sure is running bad lately.  He binked a river 2-outer for a full house when Patrick was already sitting pretty with a bigger boat on the turn.  If this keeps up, he’ll start acting like Mr. White in Season 1 of Breaking Bad.

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If I Had a Time Machine

If I had a time machine, it would be a very simple time machine.  My time machine would only allow me to go back in time; I don’t need to see the future before it gets here.  Not far back either – a maximum of about 15 minutes would be enough.

You know all those times you say something that doesn’t come out right and you know it immediately?  Like when Mrs. asks if I like HGTV, or do I want to go to the grocery store.  Or Mom calls and asks why I don’t call her more often.  Many self-inflicted kerfuffles could be fixed with a quick trip to my time machine.

If I had a time machine, my life would be more harmonious.  I’d also be rich.

With my time machine, I’d do-over a few poker hands from this week.

First, there was that hand where the button straddled for five BBs, several players just limped in and I put out a big raise from the cutoff seat.  I just wanted to pounce on the limpers’ chips, holding decent but far from dominant cards.  The small blind — for purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Dave” — called rather quickly, so fast the thought flashed through my mind that my raise had been large enough that it should give him pause.  After two more callers (jeez, some of these guys want to see every flop!), another original limper re-raised all-in with a short stack.  I’ll call him “Andy.”

Andy’s limp/re-raise seemed unusual, in the sense that there were three limps before his.  Why wouldn’t he go ahead and raise the first time around if he has a monster hand?  Now the pot has approx. 195 BBs in it already and I have the other players covered.  It will only cost me 38 BBs to call Andy.  With juicy odds, I’m not folding, but a fancier thought enters my head.  If I shove all-in here, I can drive out Dave and the other callers and isolate Andy.  With lots of dead money in the pot, this would be a profitable play.

As I announce my all-in bet, Dave slides his entire stack into the center so fast it gets there while the sound waves emanating from my mouth are still moving across the table.  I think back to his original limp as the first player to act after the button straddle, and to his rapid response call of my original large (30 BBs) raise.  While I’m retracing these steps in my mind, a fourth player also calls, explaining later the pot was too big, too tempting not to join Andy and me as lemmings following each other off the cliff.

The fact that I have an ace reduces the probability of Dave having two aces, and also is irrelevant.  A reduced probability is not a zero probability.  I like Dave, however, and think he likes me.  Of course, he does have pocket AA, a/k/a American Airlines, and flips them over without forcing me to show my soul crushing hand first, despite protocol dictating that I show first.  It’s easier to be magnanimous when you are scooping in a pot with 900 BBs, plus or minus a few.  There are some speculative comments as to what I had while I suffer silently.

If I had a time machine, I’d play that quite differently.

Second, there was a hand later that night when I was in middle position with 6s 3s.  One nickname for 6-3 is the Spanish Inquisition, in reference to a Monty Python movie line, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

Before the action got to me, however, another player raised to 8 BBs.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Ray S.”  Still wounded from Dave’s ambush, I fold.  Playing junky cards like these – low, suited, with two gaps – is a losing proposition.  Playing from behind sometimes works, but starting out with the lead is smarter.  Ray S. does get a couple of callers, so we see a flop of Kc 8h 7s.  Everybody checks.  The turn is 5s.  Had I called pre-flop, now I would have an open-ended straight draw with my 6, plus a spade flush draw, with the 4s potentially giving me a straight flush.  Now Ray S. bets and gets two callers.

When you are running bad at poker, the badness comes in all forms.  Sure enough the 4s comes, and I wish I had my time machine.  At this game, there is a straight flush piggy – a jackpot that builds every week and is paid out when someone makes a straight flush.  The piggy is now 540 BBs.  Ray S. shows pocket KK.  He flopped top set and decided to check the flop for deception.

Third, there was one more hand that same night where I raised pre-flop with QJ.  Some poker pros called this hand Hawaii, as in “if you don’t play QJ for a year you will save enough money to go to Hawaii.”  Another player – I’ll call him “Rob,” makes a massive re-raise.  My raise was 6 BBs.  Rob goes to 50 BBs.  Is this a show of strength or just a move to try to blow me out of the hand?  He still gets one caller.  Some of these guys want to see every flop.  I want to see this one.  But I don’t have a time machine, I’m still bruised from shoving into Dave’s aces and bleeding internally from the curses of the Spanish Inquisition.  And someday I might like to go back to Hawaii, so I fold.

The flop is JT9, with two hearts.  That would give me top pair, plus an open-ended straight draw.  If I were in the hand, with a large pot and modest remaining stack, I would cheerfully get it all-in here.  Rob bets about 50 BBs more, and the other player calls.  The turn card is a K, the river a blank, and Rob shows Ah Kh to take it down.  He wasn’t going anywhere on that flop!

Fourth, a different night of the week.  The player to my right raises to 10 BBs.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Gary.”  With TT, I call and there are two other callers and we see a flop of 764.  Gary bets 35 BBs.  His large continuation bet indicates a very big pocket pair, like AA or KK.  He’s been studying poker rather furiously over the last few months, trying to improve his game, with one result being much greater aggression.  Another result has been better vision into what’s happening when things get all wonky.  I think he might be able to fold a big over pair on a board like this, if he realizes that his hand is pretty transparent.  When it becomes obvious that you have AA or KK, and another player raises or shoves on the flop, you are toast (most of the time), and this flop connects with set-mining hands like 77, 66 or 44.

So I shove, pretty quickly and aggressively.  Gary looks startled, as he should.  He had about 140 BBs at the start of this hand, and I have him covered.  He asks me, did you flop a set?  Oh well, he says, I guess if you did then you got me, and he puts in the rest of his chips.  It WAS obvious what he had, at least I got that part right.

If I had a time machine, I’d go back and spare myself the misery of being right about his hand, right about his ability to smell trouble, and wrong about his willingness to surrender.  Two out of three ain’t good.

Fifth,  there was the hand where I was dealt AA later that same night (or more accurately, in the wee hours of the following morning), we were playing short-handed.  There is a small raise to 3 BBs and Gary calls.  I re-raise to 11 BBs and both call.  Here we go!  The flop was 7c 6s 4s, the same as the hand above only with different suits.  Should that be a tell?

I bet 15 BBs and both call.  The turn is 7s.  This is gross – it pairs the top card on the board and fills out a flush.  Gary checks and I check too.  On the button is a player who, for purposes of this blog, I’ll call “Zach.”  Zach can be very aggressive when he smells weakness, and is sometimes prone to excess aggression towards the end of a long poker session.  He bets 40 BBs and Gary folds.  As the original pre-flop raiser to 3 BBs, it is entirely possible that Zach has a pocket pair higher than 7’s, perhaps including one spade.  It’s also possible he has something that includes a 5 and flopped a straight draw.  Or he could have trip 777’s or a made flush or full house already.

The board is almost perfect for him to apply pressure, which he will do here with very high frequency.  I double check and do not have the Ace of Spades.  Nevertheless, I call.  This is now a leveling war.  He knows that I 3-bet pre-flop, indicating strength.  I know that he calls my 3-bets when in favorable position at the table – and late in a long session – with a wide range.  He knows that I’m trying for pot control when I check this turn, or perhaps have a weaker hand like AK.  I know that he likes to apply pressure and his bet is not necessarily indicative of a better hand than mine.  He knows that I don’t automatically surrender to his big bets.  (Earlier I called a small pre-flop raise from Gary with A9o.  After another caller, Zach re-raised more than the size of the pot, a move popularized by Dan Harrington as the “squeeze play.”   After Gary folded, I shoved with a short stack and doubled up through Zach’s king-high.)  I know that he knows that I know that he knows…

Perhaps neither of us really know what level the other is on.  My flop bet was deceptively small (note to self:  when doing this over in time machine mode, make a man-sized bet on this flop!), so despite the pre-flop 3-bet, my true hand strength is probably under-represented.

The river is the Ts, putting four spades on the board.  [insert curse words]  I check again, and Zach slides his entire stack into the middle.  There is no way I can call now.  I flip my aces face up into the muck, and Zach smiles as he shows a bluff, with 54 and no spade.  My read on the turn was right, but the river card made it impossible to continue.  The badness of running bad comes in all forms.

But I gotta tell y’all, and this is absolutely true, if I had a time machine I’d be rich!

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“F**k Sklansky”

There’s going to be a lot of poker math here.  If you don’t like the math, this post may not be for you.  I’ve heard it said that math is only for bad poker players.  Maybe that’s me… here goes.

In several recent posts, I’ve referred to David Sklansky’s classic book, The Theory of Poker.  One post was about Sklansky’s definition of mistakes, as imbedded in his The Fundamental Theorem of Poker:

Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.

Sklansky also was the first (or among the first) poker scholars to fully develop and explain the math side of no limit Texas Hold’em.  Other prior posts included discussions about “Skansky Bucks,” (including one here and another one here) a theoretical calculation of the expected value (EV) of all-in bets or calls that occur prior to the river card.

Last night one of my regular blog readers was at the game.  For purposes of this post, I’ll call him “Rob” since that’s what I called him last month after he hit a 3-outer on the river to chop a large pot, after he thought he was drawing completely dead.  Rob mentioned Sklansky, except when he pronounces the author’s name it sounds more like Sklinsky.

After awhile, Rob raised to five BBs from under-the-gun (UTG), an action that conveys considerable strength.  I called with Ad 9d and there was one other caller.

Flop (16 BBs):  Jd 9c 7d.  I have middle pair with a nut flush draw.  I like it!  Rob leads out for 8 BBs.  Since I’m not going anywhere, I might as well apply some pressure, so I raise to 28 BBs.  The other player folds and Rob calls without very much hesitation.  The strongly suggests to me that he has either top set (JJJ), an overpair (AA-QQ) or AJ.  There are three combinations of JJ and AA, six combos of KK and QQ, and nine combos of AJ.  Against that range, my equity is 45.1%, although I discount the set of JJJ’s as he would be more likely to re-raise on such a wet board.

Turn (72 BBs):  8c.  This doesn’t help my hand but is an interesting card as it creates a second flush draw (which helps Rob if he has exactly Ac Jc) and also means any T now has a straight.  He checks.  I can represent a very strong hand here, which could be a flopped straight with T8, or a flopped set of 777’s or 999’s.  I have 65 BBs left and his stack is approximately equal to mine.  I shove all-in, first of all hoping he will fold if he has KK or QQ (which seems most likely) or praying to hit one of my outs if called.

If his range is exactly KK-QQ here, my equity is now 32.3%.  Against KK, any T would create a straight on the board and we would chop the pot, although with QQ that would simply give him a higher straight.  If he has the Kd or Qd, that takes away one of my flush outs.  This is virtually a break-even proposition.  If he calls, I’ll win a pot of 202 BBs 32.3% of the time, for an expected final stack of 65 BBs — the same as I would have by simply surrendering.  If he folds with any non-zero frequency, the EV of shoving is even higher.

Rob tanks for quite awhile, appearing to change his mind multiple times.  He states that it seems like I flopped a set of 777’s.  I try not to give off any tells.  Inside my mind is screaming, please fold please fold please fold, as I know more than 2/3 of the time I’ll go bust if he calls.  Eventually, Rob calls.  The river is the 2d, however, giving me the nuts.  He showed QQ, including the Qd.  Against his exact hand, my equity is 29.5%, and I would need to expect him to fold 8% of the time for this to be a break-even play.

Put me down for 202 BBs after this hand, but only 60 BBs in Sklansky Bucks.

A few minutes later, Rob asks me if his call was a mistake.  In the Sklansky definition of mistake, it would be a mistake if he would not have called knowing my exact cards.  He says he definitely would call in that situation, a flush draw was what he was hoping I had (I’m not sure he considered that any A or 9 was also an out for me, but those extra outs don’t make his call a mistake; he was ahead).  We agree that he played it right, made a good call, and just got drawn out on.

“Well, f**k Sklansky!” he says, as a way of ending the discussion, and the whole table has a good laugh.

Much later I have two more all-in hands.

In the first, I raised from UTG with JJ and got two callers.  On a flop of T22 I felt pretty good and made a continuation bet. The player to my immediate left, who for purposes of this blog I’ll call “John” calls again.  He can have any Tx or most pocket pairs below T and still make this call.  I’ve played with John many times and he calls both pre- and post-flop bets with a wide range, and he has position on me.  If I’m C-betting with AK or AQ, he can take this pot away on many turn cards and may have the best hand.

Turn (43 BBs):  9.  He only has about 29 BBs remaining in his stack and I have him well covered.  I decided to go ahead and bet enough to put him all-in.  He might call with a weak pocket pair.  John does call, and flips over Qc 2c, and his trip twos wins.  Ugh!  That’s John, however, and his calling a pre-flop raise from UTG+1 seat with a hand like this doesn’t really surprise me.  At the time the chips went all-in, I had two outs and my equity was 4.55%.  I lost the pot, but I can nevertheless assign nine Sklansky Bucks to my account.

Later still, I’m on the button and post a live straddle.  John is the small blind and raise to 3x the straddle.  The next player, who for purposes of this blog I’ll call “Brooklyn Mike,” calls and everyone else folds to me.  I look down at QQ and decided to raise to 10x the straddle (which equals 25 BBs).  John shoves all-in for 65 BBs with little hesitation, then Brooklyn Mike also shoves for 75 BBs.  WTF?

I peek at my queens again, and they seem to be shriveling up right before my eyes.  Calling will cost 40 more BBs, with 165 already in the pot.  I know John can be shoving with a wider range than most players, and also know that he knows that I can be 3-betting from the button straddle with a wide enough range that I would fold part of that range to a shove.  I call.

Neither John nor Brooklyn Mike turns over his cards right away, so I flip mine over first.  The body language instantly tells me that I’m ahead.  After a 9-high flop, John tables AQo.  After a low turn card, John pats the table next to me and says nice hand.  As he stands and adjusts his jacket to leave, the dealer delivers an A on the river.

Don’t hate the players (or the dealer), just hate the game.  John scoops up a huge pot, and I win a small side pot of 20 BBs.

Pre-flop, when all the chips went in, I was a 56.8% favorite in a pot of 205 BBs, so I “earned” 116 Sklansky Bucks in this hand, while only collecting the 20 BBs in the side pot.

The three hands above were my only all-ins of the evening.  In these hands, my Sklansky Bucks were (60 + 9 + 116) = 185.  My actual result was (202 + 0 + 20) = 222 (less about 5 BBs worth of rake and tips) = net of 217 BBs.  My actual results exceeded my Sklansky Bucks by about 32 BBs, and I went home with a very slightly better than break-even night.  Notice how in just three hands the actual results start to converge with the Sklansky.  If poker math and Sklansky Bucks calculations are valid concepts and accurately done, we should expect a convergence over the long run.  Short-term variance turns into long-term fairness.

Except for one thing… recency bias.  We’re all human, and our tendency is to remember the most recent hand more vividly than any others.  That’s where I lost a very large pot to John when he got lucky on the river.  That’s the memory I carried home.

With all the affection I can muster, “F**k Sklansky!”

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