How Does He Do It?

Harry Houdini poker escape artist

It seems like I’ve been card dead all night.  4 hours into a home game, my stack sits at 105 big blinds.

Patience.  It’s one of my cardinal virtues.

A player in middle position raises to 4 BBs.  This is an uncharacteristically small raise for this game.  The guy on the button tosses out 8 BBs, then says “Oops!”  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Tony.”  “I meant to call, and didn’t realize one of the chips in my hand was a larger denomination,” protests Tony.  Everyone agrees that since he didn’t announce “call” and the amount that hit the felt constitutes a valid raise, Tony must leave it out there.

The small blind calls.

I am the big blind, and look down at A♠ J♠.  This is one of the better hands I’ve seen all night.  I can attack the weak looking opening raise and capitalize on Tony’s mistake.

Position.  Another cardinal virtue, except I don’t have it here, and my hand could become difficult to play post-flop it I get multiple callers.  Maybe the cardinal virtue should be called positional awareness.

I raise to 35 BBs.  Because I’ll be out-of-position post flop, I’m perfectly happy to win the pot right now and add 20 BBs to my stack.  If I get called, I probably have the best hand right now and we’ll just play some poker based on whatever cards come.

The original raiser folds, but Tony calls, chuckling as he says he’s sure I have the best hand.  His stack is 3-4x larger than mine.  Calling here is typical Tony, who’s range is the closest to Any-Two-Cards-at-All-Times-in-All-Situations of anybody I play poker with on a regular basis.  He craves the chase.

Harry Houdini poker escape artist
By McManus-Young Collection – Library of Congress, Public Domain,

If you believe in reincarnation, Tony was probably Houdini in a prior life.  Over a century ago, “Harry Handcuff Houdini” challenged police forces to keep him locked up, with an escape repertoire that included handcuffs, chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, being buried alive, and holding his breath inside a sealed milk can with water in it.

As a real estate investor, Tony is the type would seek fixer-uppers.

At the horse races, he would bet on the long-shots.

As a business investor, he’d risk his money on start-ups over established companies.

As a kid, he would be the type to dive into a pile of horse manure excitedly shouting “With all this manure, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”

For vacations, he takes the road less traveled.

When other poker players ask Why should I play these cards?, Tony asks Why not?  He sees possibilities and seeks the thrill of pulling off the near impossible…

A week earlier, as the game was short-handed and approaching 3:00 am, there was a hand with a flop of AT8, rainbow.  With J9, I picked up an open-ended straight draw and made a pot-sized bet.  Only Tony called.  He had position on me.   Another Ace came on the turn (also putting two hearts on the board) and I bet 90% of pot.  With this second barrel, I’m representing that I have an Ace, and hoping Tony will fold.  He calls again.

The river was a total brick, not completing my straight, nor a flush, nor pairing either of my cards or the board.  I ponder firing a 3rd bluff, but Tony gets so goddam sticky sometimes.  I check, and he bets about 2/3 of the pot.  With only Jack-high, I have to fold.  Tony tables 5 4 for a total airball bluff.

I can handle being bluffed.  Usually I can handle being shown a bluff.  In my mind I replay this hand, fixating on Tony calling a pot-sized bet on the flop with 5 4 where the board is A♣ T 8♠.  [Queue picture of me looking incredulous.]  With his hands cuffed behind his back, his feet in shackles, blindfolded with a wet sock stuffed in his mouth, Houdini still managed to pick my pocket.

Back to last night.  Tony didn’t want to raise to 8 BBs; that was accidental.  But when I raise to 35 BBs, his inner-Houdini takes over.  After Tony’s call, the small blind also calls.

The flop is 883.  This most likely misses everybody, and the action checks all the way around.

The turn is J.  Cha-ching!  Now I have top pair, top kicker against two very weak ranges.  The SB checks.

The pot has 109 big blinds in it, and I stick in my last 72 BBs.  Whether I get called or not, I’m happy.  Hell, I was expecting to be happy winning 20 BBs if no one called my pre-flop raise.

Like a sailboat in the middle of a lake hearing a thunderclap in the distance, my inner calm is shattered when Tony softly announces “raise.”  The sailor looks around and realizes a huge storm has gathered just behind him, betraying the blue sky in front.  My huge storm is sitting two seats to my right.  As the small blind folds, I already know Tony has an 8 in his hand and flopped three of a kind.

How does he do it?

It seems pointless, but I can estimate Tony’s range, by including all non-premium hands better than Tony’s actual hand, 87 off-suit, and a few weaker hands too.  Something like this:  TT-22, AQs-A2s, K2s+, Q8s+, J7s+, T7s+, 96s+, 85s+, 74s+, 64s+, 53s+, 43s, A9o+, K9o+, Q9o+, J8o+, T8o+, 98o, 87o, 76o, 65o, 54o.  That includes 456 combinations, or 37.2% of all possible hands (after eliminating my holdings).

On a flop of 883, he’ll make three of a kind only 11.5% of the time.  When the Jack comes on the turn, my equity against that entire range is 81.2%.  Of course the calling portion of the range is narrower, but that still includes Jx, perhaps TT, 99, T9 in addition to everything that includes an 8.  So I’ll make his calling range:  TT-88, 33, AJs, A8s, KJs, K8s, QJs, Q8s, J8s+, T8s+, 98s, 85s+, AJo, A8o, KJo, K8o, QJo, Q8o, J8o+, T8o+, 98o, 87o, and now my equity is 47.4%.  While I’m not in great shape if he calls, it ain’t terrible either.  On the other hand, if I check and he bets, I’m never folding and the result doesn’t change.

Houdini might look like a crazy, self-endangering fool, but apparently he knows something.

All I know is They Always Have It.


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