Bluffing is exciting. Well-timed bluffs are profitable. Bluffs that work based on accurate reads or range analysis plus an understanding of which villains will fold are smart poker. Every poker player should have bluffs in his or her arsenal.
In low stakes no limit Texas Holdem, however, the path to profits runs through value betting. There are two simple reasons this is true:
- When you bluff, you collect whatever is in the pot. When you make a value bet and get called by a worse hand, you collect that much more. Bet sizes being larger on the later streets, the payoff from value bets is much greater on action at the turn and river.
- Low stakes players call too much. Way too much. They just do.
In theory, all we have to do is be patient and bet for value when we are pretty sure we have the best hand. And fold a lot.
Last night, however, this strategy served up some perfectly grilled frustration on a silver platter.
For the longest time, I was card dead. Very card dead. Long sequences of hand like T2, 72, 94, T4, J4, 93, 82 in patience eroding repetition. The three players to my left were all straddling on the button. Other players tend to limp more and raise less in straddle pots in a misguided effort at pot control. Both value and stealing opportunities abound. Fold. Fold. Fold. Fold again.
Reduced to a spectator, I watch the poker chips fly across the table like little flying saucers whizzing George Jetson and his boy Elroy & friends across a galaxy of felt. All-in bets are made and called, chips stack amassed and destroyed, more buy-ins, seats vacated and quickly filled.
Patience. Like putting the frustration in a teriyaki marinade before grilling.
Over 90 minutes pass before I win a single small pot (with a bluff!). Soon after that, I win a medium size pot after 3-betting with AQ, getting two callers a Q-high flop, and called again on the flop before they both surrender. I’m even for the session.
More patience. In theory, practice is exactly like theory. Except when it isn’t. Don’t rush the marinade.
Three or four hours in, I’m thinking about my value betting opportunities. I haven’t made a single full house, or flush, or straight, or flopped a set or even top 2-pair. These are the kind of hands that create the best paydays. Suppose I’m seeing flops with a tight but not terribly nitty range of the top 20% of all hands. On average, I should make two pair or better on the flop about 11.5% of the time. By the river, I should make three-of-a-kind or better about 18.5% of the time, or approx. one out of every six hands. Put differently, 3-6 hands every hour might provide good value betting opportunities (minus, of course, those that run into even bigger monsters, which we must learn to identify and fold).
While waiting for regression to the mean to kick in, I simply wait and look for spots to pick up a few chips.
I raise with AJ and get only one caller. On an A-high flop, I check, to disguise the strength of my hand. I’ll bet on the turn for value, and do, and get called. The river is a 9, making the final board AT7-2-9. I don’t really like this card, as there are very few hands with an ace that I can beat… losing to AK, AQ, AT, A9, A7 and A2. Will A8 or A6 call me again? Will any 1-pair hand without an ace call, like KT or JJ? On the other hand, I deliberately under-represented my hand by checking the flop, so thin value seems like an option. I bet again, rather smallish, and get called. He tables A2. Ironically I checked the flop when ahead, and bet the turn and river when behind. One of my dear blog readers asks me, “isn’t AJ called the Soul Sucker?”
In the cutoff seat, I look down at AA. So beautiful. Everyone folds to me, so of course I raise, but no more than normal. Everyone else folds and I win the blinds. This is one of the loosest games in town, where raises to 10 big blinds or more frequently get multiple callers.
In early position, I look down at KK. Long live the KKings! I raise and get one caller. On a 764 flop, I C-bet about 2/3 pot and get no further action. Later I get KK again. This time there was a button straddle and one caller. I raise and get no action. While none of these premium pairs got cracked, they didn’t win much either.
Then I’m in the big blind with Th 4h. No one raises. The flop is 778 with two hearts. Everybody checks. The turn is another heart, giving me a flush. My bet gets called twice. Finally! The river is the Kh, putting four hearts (and a pair) on the board. I check, and now the button bets, a little less than half-pot. #TheyAlwaysGetThere. #HeroCallingIsForDummies. My flush is no good, so I fold.
A little later, I raise pre-flop with KQ and get one caller, the big blind. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Brian.” The flop is KQ4 with two hearts. Brian checks and I bet 1/2 pot. He calls. My C-bet might have just looked like a feeler, so his calling range could include any Kx, any Qx, maybe weaker pocket pairs like JJ, TT or 99, flush draws, and straight draws including JT or AT. The turn is Jc. While this completes one of his straight draws, I’m still way ahead of his range. He checks again and I bet slightly more than 1/2 pot. There is risk of him drawing out on me, but I make more money in the long run by giving him poor odds to call but not so poor that he cannot chase. I’m betting for value and want to get paid. I’ll be last to act on the river; if a scary card comes, I can check back if he doesn’t bet first.
The river is a 9. Brian’s body perks up ever so slightly, and now he leads with a bet of about 1/3 of the pot. That’s a value bet if ever I saw one. Brian knows I’m capable of light calls, and probably puts me on a hand like AK or AQ based on my betting lines. Most likely he was chasing a flush draw with the Th and backed into a straight, or chasing an open-ended straight draw all along with JT. Makes perfect sense. I fold.
This is a textbook example of how it feels like I’ve been running all year.
A new player joins the table, to my immediate left. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “John.” He is one of the nicest old guys you’ll ever meet. As a player, he likes to play a lot of hands and tends to get stubborn after the flop. His natural instinct is to suspect bluffs, so if he catches any piece of the flop he’ll usually continue. On a button straddle, I’m in the Hijack seat and everyone folds to me. With JTo, I raise and both John and the straddler call. The flop is 988, with two diamonds, and gives me an open-ended straight draw. I bet again, nearly 2/3 pot, and only John calls. The turn is Qd, giving me a straight – the first one I’ve had nearly 5.5 hours into this session – but there are also flush and full house possibilities. John’s calling range on the flop is wide enough that I can bet again for value. I make a fairly large bet and he puts in his entire stack, just a few chips more.
As I’m revealing my straight, John flips over two red Jacks. He has 8 flush outs (my Td eliminates one), and 3 more outs to improve to a full house (two eights, one Jack). A ten will result in a chop. The pot has over 200 big blinds in it. My equity is 71.6%, according to Poker Cruncher. But who gives a damn about Poker Cruncher when the 7d falls on the river, giving both of us flushes (my 2nd flush of the night, both losers), with John’s Jd besting my Td.
Now I can stop complaining about never having pocket aces or kings, or never flopping top two pair or turning a flush or straight. But surely I’ll think of something, as I walk a couple blocks in the steady rain to my car.
Patience. Value. They always have it. No, they always get there. It’s just variance. 2018!
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