NOTE: This entry was originally posted on a different site on January 3, 2017 and has been slightly edited prior to re-posting here.
My previous blog entry explored turning a missed draw into a bluff, after my opponent checked on both the turn and the river, soliciting your comments on the villain’s range.
Last night another, bigger decision presented itself via an interesting puzzle. Let’s unpack the puzzle pieces, assemble them, and see if we can find the missing pieces…
This was at a private, house game (no limit hold’em) with blinds of $1/2. I’ve been having a rough night so far. Shortly after joining the table, I lost my entire stack when I turned a full house, only to lose to a larger full house on the river. I had TT, and the board ran out Qs Qh 6h – Th – Kh. Everybody checked on the flop, then my gin card arrived on the turn, also completing any flush draws. Unfortunately, the other player had KQ and got there on the river. Ouch!
I bought another $300 in chips, and continued trending down. Less than a full orbit prior to the Big Decision, I caught my first big break of the night, with AA > KK on a pre-flop all-in with the same player who had cracked my full house. She had frittered away most of the stack from that hand and had slightly less than $150 remaining, which I was glad to take.
Now I have about $395 in front of me, and look down at King-Queen offsuit. There is one limper in front of me and I raise to $12. Four players call, and I quickly decide not to make a continuation bet unless I connect with the flop. Let’s protect these newly begotten chips.
Flop ($62): Kd 4d 3c
This is a very good flop for me. Not huge, but my top pair / 2nd kicker should be the best hand, and I can get value from flush draws, straight draws and kings with weaker kickers. Giving four other players a free card or ceding the betting initiative would be a mistake. It is checked to me and I bet $35. While not much more than one-half pot, this shouldn’t look like a run-of-the-mill continuation bet with air as there are four other live players.
The player to my immediate left calls, and everyone else folds. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Matt.” While I’m a long-time regular here, Matt is a newbie. Solving the puzzle is going to require us to know as much as possible about Matt. What do we know so far?
Matt is a young white guy, looks about 25 (but might be closer to 30). He has straggly hair that nearly reaches his shoulders, a beard, and has been wearing headphones. Before this cash game started, we both played in a small-stakes tournament here, and learned that he is a roving contractor, currently in the area working on the installation of Google fiber. He’s polite and pleasant when he does engage in any conversation, which isn’t very much.
Matt looks and plays like a stereotypical loose-aggressive (“LAG”) poker player. Early in the tournament, he built up a formidable stack, showing AA, a nut flush, flopping a set of QQQs, etc. I made a mental note then not to confuse his LAGGY appearance and playing style with the fact that he kept showing down big hands. A bit later, he lost a large chunk of his chips in a 3-way all-in where he had AK.
I had joined the cash game about an hour or so after it started. The only open seat was on Matt’s immediate right. At the time, he had over $550 in front of him (the max buy-in is $300), and I anticipated the difficulty of playing with a deep-stacked LAG on my left. Oy! He can make my session miserable.
Sure enough, that’s what happened. Prior to my full house under full house debacle, Matt picked off my river bluff, after I had floated on the flop with a gutshot straight draw (that missed), then he checked behind on the turn, indicating weakness. He has been raising and 3-betting frequently, including an OOP 3-bet as weak as A6o and several other hands that indicated a wide raising range, especially in position. He straddled regularly on the button (always for more than the minimum), demonstrated positional awareness, and attacked limpers often. His play definitely matches his stereotype as a LAG.
And he’s been hit by the deck! Matt built up his stack to approximately $1,100, with multiple full houses, flushes, flopped sets, and bluff-catcher calls. Other players commented on how hot he is running, although with his headphones on we don’t know if he heard any of these remarks.
Prior to this hand, however, he has started bleeding away much of his winnings. Some of his lighter, bluff-catching calls have been wrong, and he’s been caught bluffing / bullying several times, including several river bluffs. He also lost a large pot with flush < full house. He still had nearly $650 at the beginning of this hand.
Back to the hand. After he called my flop bet, Matt and I are heads up, and he has position on me. The pot is getting bloated, with $132 in it.
Turn ($132): 4h. Now the board is Kd 4d 3c – 4h.
Thinking I very likely have the best hand, I bet $65. I can still get value from flush or straight draws and perhaps a few other holdings. Matt calls again.
What do you think Matt has here? A diamond flush draw is possible. A straight draw with 65 is possible. At the intersection is a combo draw with 6d 5d, although I think such an aggressive player would raise with that on the flop to apply maximum pressure with so many outs as a back-up. He could have a King and we are in a kicker battle. He could have a four and just made trips, or pocket 33s and flopped another set. But I think he probably would have raised on the flop with pocket 33s to protect against flush draws, as none of the other three players had folded yet when he called my flop bet. I also think he probably would raise now on this turn with any 4x (like A4s), to get value from any AA/AK/KQ or draw that I might have. Even as loose as he is, I don’t think he calls $12 pre-flop with A4o or K4.
River ($262): Th. Now the board is Kd 4d 3c – 4h – Th
This should be a good card for me, as it misses all potential draws. The only hands that it helps are KT and TT. I don’t think he has TT – his 3-betting range pre-flop is wide enough to include TT (but not necessarily 100% of the time), and even if he flatted with TT and called again on the flop, he probably would surrender on the turn.
If he has a missed draw, I’m not going to get any more value. In fact, the only hand that can reasonably pay me off on another bet is KJ. So I target that and bet $85, which is a little less than one-third of the pot and might get a crying call from KJ.
With little hesitation, Matt announces “I’m all in!” and slides his remaining chips out. The rhythm and tone with which he does this seems very strong. This is hard to describe, but he seemed calm and confident. The dealer moves my $85 and a matching portion of his stack to the pot, and there is nearly $450 more on top of that. I have just under $200 remaining so I’ll have to do any math based on my stack, not his.
I have a collection of short essays on poker strategy from the late Bill “Ain’t No Limit” Hubbard, who was a highly regarded professional poker coach for many years specializing in live cash games. Over the holidays, I’ve been reviewing some of these essays and several concepts now come into play.
In his foundational essay, Bill says to practice SBRTA when faced with a big decision. Stop. Breathe. Relax. Think. Act. I’m having a little trouble breathing at the moment, considering I’m on my second buy-in of the night and it would really hurt to be down 300 BBs. How in the **** am I supposed to relax when the realization of what might be happening here almost made me shit my pants? [Inhaling very slowly…]
In another essay, Bill drives home the strategy of playing small hands for small pots, medium-strength hands for medium-sized pots and big hands for big pots. My hand is a medium-strength hand. I have two pair, one of which is the pair of 44’s on the board. So my hand is really akin to top pair with 2nd best kicker (“TP2K”). By the river, this is definitely NOT a big hand, but often good enough to win. Bill says: “One of the most notorious leaks among live poker players is that they break the basic rule of playing a medium pot only with a medium sized hand. I think this is due to most players feeling that they must protect their medium strength hand and thus raise to protect the hand plus find out information.” Was I doing that here? I thought I was betting for value, to get called by worse hands and draws (which some might call “protecting” against draws), but not really for information.
In other essays, Bill describes the central question for successful no limit Texas hold’em players: “What is the villain’s range and what will he do with this range?” Or “what does he have and how will he play it?” I’ll come back to this later.
In another essay, entitled “The Fold Button,” Bill notes that the most common mistake among live players is that they call when they should fold. Making big, successful hero calls is exciting, but far out-weighed by calling mistakes. Sometimes, we know we are beat, but call nevertheless to get to what he refers to as the “funeral for the hand,” a form of certainty and closure. Calling forces the other player to show their cards, so now we know and can have closure (i.e., the funeral), albeit at a very high price. This is closely related to the medium-strength hand –> medium-sized pot rule. Before calling a large river bet, Bill advises us to ask: Is the villain capable of bluffing (in Matt’s case, yes)? Have we actually seen him bluff (yes)? Should the villain expect us to call this size bet? This is harder to answer. After bringing in my $85 and his raise (i.e., up to my stack size), there is approximately $630 in the pot and it will cost my last ~$200 to call. I’m getting 3.15-to-1 odds. With those odds, if he is bluffing more than 24% of the time, calling is correct in a strictly mathematical sense. If you feel compelled to call, what percentage of the time is it due to real factors you have considered vs. the overwhelming desire to call and simply see what the villain is betting with (this is really tough, so let’s consider the real factors)?
In another essay, Bill describes the principle of Occam’s Razor. Named after William of Ockham, a 14th Century British mathematician and logician, this principle states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. More simply, “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, then it is most likely a duck!” When we combine this with the medium hand / medium pot rule, Matt’s all-in bet fundamentally says “I like my hand more than you like yours.” Occam’s Razor instructs us that Matt has a hand worthy of playing for an $800+ pot, and I’m toast.
But still, I’m not convinced. Nor am I unconvinced.
First of all, what am I beating? In reality, the ONLY thing I am beating here is a bluff. There is no possible hand that he can be raising all-in for value here, where he is hoping I will call, thinking he has me beat, but he’s actually behind. To do so would violate the medium hand –> medium pot rule even worse than I did.
There is a finite range of hands that beat mine, so we can explore each of them to figure out if Matt has it. This is a reverse-engineering approach to Bill Hubbard’s central question of what does he have and how does he play it? I went through this earlier in my turn betting analysis, but it bears repeating now.
- Could he have Pocket AAs or KKs…? Nope! He would have re-raised pre-flop. Since he didn’t, I can eliminate AA and KK from his range.
- AK… nope! Again, Matt would have re-raised pre-flop. I’ve seen him 3-bet much lighter than that and use his position to put me in difficult spots pre-flop with hands weaker than AK. Besides, if he had AK and planned to raise, he wouldn’t wait until the river.
- KT… maybe, but I don’t think so. He might call me pre-flop with this, especially if suited (which would leave only 2 combos), but I don’t think he would shove all of his chips in on this river. The way I’ve played this hand, betting every street, he has to consider AA as part of my range. With the pair of 44s on the board, it would be a mistake for him to raise instead of just calling again. But this combo worries me more than the others.
- TT… nope! As noted earlier, I think he 3-bets pre-flop with this hand at least some of the time, and also think he releases this by the turn when I show continued strength. My betting looks a lot like I have AA or AK here, especially when I C-bet into four opponents on the flop.
- 4x… nope! He might call $12 pre-flop with A4s or 54s, and call the flop C-bet too. But if that were the case, he would raise on the turn after improving to trips, to get value from flush draws, as well as the fact that I might have trouble letting go of AA or AK against a raise as it would look somewhat bluffy based on the board pairing and his image (if he has that level of self-awareness). I don’t think he calls $12 pre-flop with K4, although K4s is a very slight possibility. That would have flopped two pair, which I think he would raise on the flop, again to get value from flush draws.
- 33… nope! Again, I think he raises on the flop for the reasons mentioned. Keep in mind there were five players in this hand, it checked to me on the flop and I bet $35. He is on my immediate left, so three other players were still live when he called my C-bet. He shouldn’t just call there with a flopped bottom set. If he did and then improved to a full house on the turn, just calling my turn bet and waiting for the river to shove – perhaps hoping to see another diamond in case I’m the one chasing a flush – makes perfect sense. I don’t think he has 33, but this also worries me a little bit.
So here we are. Out of six groups of hands that beat me, four are a definite “nope” and the other two (KT and 33) are probably “nope” too. For better or worse, my analytical thinking concludes that with every possible hand that beats me, Matt would have done something different with that hand somewhere along the way. All that remains are bluffs, contradicted by Occam’s Razor and the medium-hand –> medium-pot rule that is screaming inside my head that I’m about to make a big calling mistake. Matt’s all-in bet looks like a duck, which rhymes with ‘I’m about to get fucked!’
What would you do? Taking a deep breath, I finally called and Matt tabled Kh 6h. My hand was good! He may have thought he was ahead with top pair and a weak kicker on the flop, but by the river realized he need to turn it into a bluff to take this pot.
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