The night was going extremely well. I’d won a very large pot and more than tripled my starting stack. I had a winning image and felt good. Hakuna matata!
When the pendulum of good judgment starts to swing in the other direction, you hardly notice.
On the button with KQo and a stack of 370 big blinds (BBs), there were several limpers in front, so I decided to attack, for they will fear me. I raised to 10 BBs, a bit larger than normal for me in that situation. Was this too much, a bet-sizing mistake? Sure, it would be nice to pick up a few bucks when everybody folds, but the combination of hand strength and positional advantage makes it desirable to get to the flop with only one or two other players. A raise of 7-8 BBs should do the trick.
As it turns out, I get four callers. Don’t they know they’re supposed to fear me? Now the pot is bloated considering the no one wanted to raise when first presented the opportunity. I might never understand the mindset of poker players who won’t raise but won’t fold either. Once the calling parade begins, everyone else wants to march along.
Flop (50 BBs): Qc Ts 2s. On the surface, this is a good flop for me. Top pair/2nd kicker should be the best hand. The only hands that should be ahead of me are 22 or QT, or possibly AQ if one of the blinds flatted with that. The limp/callers should not have limped with a hand as strong as AQ. On the other hand, this flop is wetter than a slippy slide in late July. Flush and straight draws abound, including potential combo draws like KsJs or Js9s. I have the Queen of spades, blocking any top pair plus flush draws. Everybody checks. Giving the draws a free card seems unwise, so I bet 30 BBs. After two folds, one of the limp/callers insta-shoves all-in for about 38 BBs more. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Chaz.”
I haven’t played much with Chaz, but this night he’s been aggressive without being overly loose, and shown that he’s a thinking player. After my pre-flop raise, he was either the 3rd or 4th caller, so tempting pot odds might have induced a light call there. He looks calm and happy, like he’s stolen my Hakuna matata mojo. Do I “have to call” here just based on the math? There are 148 BBs in the pot and it will cost me 38 more to call. If my hand is good approx. 20.5% of the time (or more), calling is the mathematically correct play. Or is this a spot where I need to play the player rather than play the odds?
When I’m behind, I’m always going to be way behind. Against a range of 22, QT, AQ, my equity is just under 17%. When I’m ahead, however, I’m not going to be way ahead. Against a semi-bluffing range of all AsXs (other than AK), KsJs, Ks9s, Js9s, Js8s, 9s8s, 8s7s, 7s6s, 6s5s, KJo, J9o, my equity is approximately 65.5%. I haven’t seen Chaz make any large semi-bluffs, so blending these two ranges as if his semi-bluff frequency includes the entire semi-bluff range is a logical fallacy. The fact is I have no idea as to his semi-bluff frequency. Having been taught that a check-raise on the flop against the pre-flop raiser is mostly two pair plus, I fold. Maybe this was too nitty; maybe it was a disciplined laydown.
I can live with it, including the commentary that follows about me getting caught C-betting with air, until another player asks the dealer to run out the turn and river cards. This is a private house game, and unlike casino poker rooms, they will allow occasional rabbit hunting. The turn and river would have been the 9s and Js, giving me a Queen high flush had I called.
Later, passing Chaz in the hallway headed back from a restroom break, I compliment him on making a good bet. He says “I had top top!” [dramatic pause to let this sink in…] Really? I comment that he didn’t seem like someone who would limp in with AQ, to which he replies that normally he would raise but you can’t play it the same way every time.
So here’s the thing. My pre-flop raise was too big (mistake), except it backfired when four players called so maybe in hindsight it was too small. When my C-bet for value got check-raised, I made a nitty but correct fold to a hand that dominated me, only in hindsight I find out I would have won the pot.
In hindsight, it’s a mistake to refer to my mistakes as mistakes.
I’m not saying I shouldn’t have folded. It was the correct play against Chaz’ exact hand. But if I had a time machine…
The other thing is how this sequence messes with your mind. My head was in a really good place before that hand. Afterwards it felt a little wobbly, which happens when you realize you missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, or made the mistake of not making a mistake.
A couple orbits later, I was on the button again, this time with ATo. Everyone folded, so I raised to 5 BBs, a very standard raise size at this game. The small blind folded, but the big blind re-raised to 15 BBs. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Matt.”
Matt is a very aggressive player, and we have the two largest stacks at the table, both over 300 BBs. Earlier he showed down a hand where he had made a large raise to attack multiple limpers from the button (similar to me in the previous hand) with J7o. So he can easily view my open-raise on the button as simply an attempt to steal the blinds, and be re-stealing light.
Occam’s Razor is a problem solving principle that says when there are competing hypotheses, you should start with the one that requires the fewest assumptions. In other words, assume the obvious… Matt has a strong hand. My head is still wobbly though, plus I’ll have position after the flop, plus my AT isn’t exactly weak. Its a top 20% starting hand. On the other hand, Matt has the initiative and most of the time, I’ll miss the flop and fold to a C-bet.
The smart play is to fold. My investment in this pot is still small, and there is no reason to tangle with the other big stack at the table who is a good and very aggressive player, with a hand that while strong can easily be dominated.
So I call.
The flop is KJ2 with two diamonds. Matt bets 20 BBs as a continuation bet.
Once again I can fold. It’s still possible that he is just trying to steal this pot. I have a gutshot Broadway draw and one over card. Matt’s C-bet doesn’t really narrow his range much. He can make this pre-flop and flop play with a wide range. Even though I might have the best hand, I should get the hell out of here and find someone else to pick on.
So I call again.
Turn (70 BBs): Another J. Matt checks.
Is he surrendering? I can take a free card here. Matt’s not the only aggressive poker player; now that I’m here, I can (and should) be aggressive too. If he has a hand like AQ, QQ, TT that is beating me but perceives it to be vulnerable after my flop call, I can take this pot away. Before I bet, however, I should consider what I’m going to do if he check-raises (easy fold) and also how I’m going to play the river if he calls (duh…..). Did I mention that my head was still wobbly from the earlier mistake of failing to make the mistake of calling Chaz’ all-in bet?
So I bet 43 BBs. Matt calls, looking cautious but without much hesitation. For the first time I am a believer that he has something of actual value.
The river was a total blank. I didn’t make a note of it, but it wasn’t an A, K, Q, J, T or diamond. Matt checks again.
Now my options are to make a really large bet in absolute terms, or surrender. The pot is 156 BBs. I’m not sure how light Matt might call me even for a close to pot-sized bet. I’ve poured 78 BBs into this pot and only have Ace-high. This now feels like one of many hands I’ve heard analyzed on various poker podcasts, where the experts are lambasting the listener who submitted the hand for his or her fancy play syndrome. Do I really want to risk pissing away the rest of my earlier profits? Matt’s has something decent… it is weak enough for him to lay it down? I don’t feel like I have a good enough read on his range.
So I check back, and Matt tables AK. Easy game for Matt. Note to self: write “Occam’s Razor” on the chalkboard 100 times.
A few hands later, I notice that my once 370+ BBs stack is down to barely 200 BBs. A couple orbits after that, having recovered some, I look down at KQo (again!) and open-raise to five BBs. Only the big blind calls. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Brian.”
The flop is Kc Qc 3s. This is a great flop for me with top two pair, but another wetter-than-a-slipply-slide-in-late-July board. Brian checks. I bet 8 BBs and Brian check-raises to 20 BBs.
I note that Brian also has accumulated a deep stack, with approx. 275 BBs that now has me covered. He’s generally not super aggressive with his draws, but a set of 3’s fits his play perfectly. There are several possible big combo draws, such as AcTc, AcJc, JcTc or Jc9c. I consider re-raising, but just call.
Turn (51 BBs): 8d. This changes nothing. Brian leads out for 33 BBs. By betting 2/3 of the pot here, if he is on a flush or straight draw (but not both), he is denying himself good drawing odds and it isn’t mandatory for me to raise. If he has a set, which I fear the most, he’ll never fold and I could lose the rest of my stack by raising. It also occurs to me we might have the same hand.
My head still feels wobbly. Am I being too cautious here, too worried about monsters under the bed?
Marcus Aurelius and other Stoic philosophers posit that one reason human failures are so devastating is that we don’t spend enough time considering worst case scenarios. They advocated meditating on what could go wrong as a form of negative visualization, to reduce the element of surprise (and resulting tilt) when things go south. Aurelius wrote “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
I remind myself that #TheyAlwaysHaveIt and call again. In live, low-stakes cash games, this is very often the case.
River (117 BBs): 6d. Another meaningless card.
Brian checks. I’m comforted by this. All the draws missed. If I bet, he’s not going to call, unless he’s turning a set of 3’s into a trap.
So I check. Brian tables Kh3h. My hand is good, but I’m surprised to see him holding two pair here (top & bottom pair on the flop). It explains his post-flop play, even if conventional wisdom says he should not have called my pre-flop raise.
Brian asks me why I checked back on the river. My only explanation is that I didn’t think it was likely he would have a weaker hand that could call. I leave out the fact that he would have to show his hand first, and I wanted to see it to get some additional information about how he plays – did he overplay a hand like KJ? Bet aggressively from out-of-position with a draw? He thanks me for not betting, as he would have cheerfully pushed another 50-75 BBs into my stack had I simply asked by betting on the river.
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