John Henry “Doc” Holliday was one of the best poker players of his era in the 1870’s and 1880’s, in addition to being an award-winning dentist and gunfighter. He moved from Atlanta to the Southwest in pursuit of a drier climate to mitigate the debilitating effects of tuberculosis, drinking a lot of whiskey to suppress severe coughing fits at the poker tables where he earned more money that at his dental practice.
In Texas, Doc Holliday saved the life of Wyatt Earp and together they were deputized as U.S. marshals in Tombstone, Arizona prior to the most famous shootout of the American Wild West, at the O.K. Corral. Holliday, Earp and Earp’s brothers Virgil and Morgan killed several members of a loosely organized group of outlaw cowboys. Earp later said “The most important lesson I learned was the winner of gunplay usually was the one who took his time.”
Holliday and Earp settled in Dodge City, Kansas, were they became allies of Bat Masterson, a legendary gunfighter and sheriff there, and later a popular New York City sports journalist. According to Masterson, “if you want to hit a man in the chest, aim for his groin.”
We still enjoy the image of two gunfighters facing each other 75 feet apart on a dusty street with tumbleweeds rolling by. It gets eerily quiet, then a referee of sorts yells “draw!” Most gunfights weren’t the organized duels romanticized in dime novels and western movies; they were messy, spontaneous eruptions. The structured duel, however, did exist and played out somewhat like a poker hand with both players on a draw – whoever draws
the quickest most effectively maims or kills his opponent.
Last night, returning to Texas Holdem after a brief foray into PLO, we had one such duel. There was a button straddle, a raise to 3x the straddle amount, then six callers, including yours truly holding A♦ 8♦ in a late position (cutoff or hijack, as I recall). Going to the flop, the pot was already over 50 BBs.
The flop was Q♦ J♦ 6♣. I have a nut flush draw and for the remainder of this hand will be playing the role of Billy Clanton, one of the outlaw cowboys killed at the O.K. Corral. Someone makes a small bet, approx. 8 BBs, and there are two callers when the action gets to me. I smell weakness to go along with my big draw, and decide to apply pressure with a raise to 53 BBs.
A couple players fold, including the original post-flop better. The next player, who had called the smaller bet, suddenly looks like he’s suffering an angina attack. He’ll play the role of Doc Holliday in this shootout, but for purposes of this blog I’ll use the famous gambling dentist’s middle name and call him “Henry.” After the pre-flop betting, Henry had just under 100 BBs left in his stack and I had him covered.
The agony of a difficult decision is all over Henry’s face, like he knows he is supposed to fold but his hand won’t acknowledge the brain’s signal to release the cards. He appears ready to fold multiple times, then pauses, then looks like he might call, then pauses again. Perhaps he needs a double shot of whiskey. Henry’s very analytical, however, so he’s also working through the various possibilities of what I might have and where that leaves him. I use the extra time to consider my fate… if he folds and the only remaining player after him also folds, I’ll be happy to win a decent sized pot with ace high. If he re-raises all-in, I’ll be pot committed and have to call. If he just calls, I’ll reevaluate based on the turn card and his reaction to it.
The tension is palpable. Or perhaps he’s taking a lesson from Wyatt Earp and simply taking his time.
Finally Henry moves all his chips in, a mild surprise as his body language indicated a call or a fold. The next guy folds, and I call 46 more BBs. Now the pot has 260+ BBs in it.
He has 7♦ 6♦, for bottom pair plus a flush draw. His thinking, apparently, was that if I was betting aggressively with a flush (or straight) draw (which I was), he would be ahead with bottom pair. I cannot have a pair and a flush (or straight) draw here. Alternatively, if I already have a value hand like AQ or QJ, he will have a decent number of outs. Sets are unlikely, as he thinks I would have re-raised pre-flop with QQ or JJ, and he has a blocker to 66. Each case is close enough to a coin flip, Henry was running fairly well and felt the poker Gods were smiling on him, and so he decided to gamble.
For what it’s worth, in the long run of poker these decisions that seem so difficult at the time really don’t matter much. You win about half, you lose about half, and the expected value is close to zero. Always folding or always shoving has a negligible effect of your long-term win rate.
It’s an old western style shootout, with equity of 50.4% for Henry and 49.6% for me. Who will be quickest on the draw? Who will draw most effectively? Somebody has to die.
I have 13 outs… any diamond (7), any ace (3), or any eight (3). That leaves Henry with 32 outs… every other card in the deck. While he has more outs, my outs are stronger. If the turn is a diamond, he’ll be drawing dead. If it’s an ace or eight, he’ll have only five outs to win… another six (2) or a seven (3). If the turn is a six or seven, I’ll be reduced to only the flush outs (7); otherwise all of my outs will be live on the river.
I whip out my metaphorical gun and fire first. (Those who know me know how absurd I feel just typing this; I’m not a gun kind of guy.) The turn is 8♠. A direct hit. Henry is bleeding badly. My equity soars to 88.6%. I’ve got this!
Then Henry’s patience is rewarded with the 7♠ on the river. Like the real Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral, this Henry may be wounded but emerges as the shootout winner. Like in the movies, they always have it. Or maybe I should have aimed for Henry’s groin?
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