If you play poker for keeps, there is plenty to fear. Fear of being wrong, getting bluffed, losing, going broke, embarrassment, ridicule, etc.
We try to mitigate our fears by improving our poker skills, folding bad cards, avoiding out-of-position spots, pot control and general self-discipline. Maybe some people are wired in a way that makes them truly fearless, but that’s not me.
Sometimes the stars in the poker universe line up in such a way as to force you to confront your fears. You might just have to gamble. When you have to gamble, you might as well just close your eyes and push all your chips out to the center. At least that’s what I was told recently, in a Jon Kabat-Zinn Wherever You Go, There You Are kind of way.
Last night I decided to go to a local, private poker game. The stakes were $1/2, no limit Texas Hold’em. There I was. A couple hours in, the stars lined up just so.
An early position player raised to $8. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Brian.” Because he raised in such an early position (either under-the-gun or UTG+1), I have to give Brian credit for having pretty good cards.
The next player re-raised to $32. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Josh.” Because he re-raised after an early position opener, I have to give Josh credit for having very good cards.
The next three players all call $32. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call them “Wesley,” “Patrick,” and John,” respectively. Wesley and John both like to fuck around in large pots with all sorts of hands, including plenty of low, junky, connecting cards that can make a surprising straight, trips or 2-pair hands that are hard to see. Patrick… not-so-much with the junk but he could smell a big pot brewing and doesn’t want to be left out.
I’m next in the cutoff seat, with 99. There’s $141 in the pot and it will cost me $32 to call, giving me pot odds of 4.4-to-1. If I call and Brian 4-bets when the action gets back around to him, I’ll have to fold. If Brian calls, my odds get slightly better. Most of Josh’s range for his 3-bet will be pocket pairs higher than mine, although he could have 3-bet with AK or AKs. The set mining odds are good enough, so I call.
The button and small blind also fold, and the big blind ponders his fate. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Sam.” Sam fakes like he’s going to shove all-in, pulls his chips back and then mutters something to the effect of this being a situation that calls for jamming. He just calls, however, and I note that I should keep an eye on him.
Brian calls. Seven live players will see the flop, with $225 in the middle already. This is a good time to take note of stack sizes. I didn’t make note of all of them, but here are some of the important ones:
- Me – $210 remaining
- Wesley – $158
- John – $255
- Sam – $300+
The flop is 842, rainbow. My 99 is the lowest possible over pair to this board, which is like being the best of all possible crappy one-pair hands.
Sam checks. Brian checks. This looks like standard checking to the pre-flop raiser. They want to see what Josh is going to do.
Josh checks. Hmmm… Even with this many players, I would expect Josh to bet again if he has a big pocket pair like AA/KK/QQ. Now I have to think it’s more likely that he has AK or AQ.
Wesley checks. Patrick checks. John checks.
Damn, nobody wants this??? Does everybody have either two unpaired high cards (AK, AQ, KQ, AJ…) or a low pocket pair that missed this flop (77, 66, 55, 33)? Being last to act, methinks I should bet. If my hand is best right now and I give everybody a free turn card, there’s “only” 20 cards in the deck that would increase the uncertainty. I have to deny some of that equity.
On the other hand… fear. Six other players. Who might be waiting in the bushes with 88, 44 or 22? What will I do if someone check-raises? How much should I bet, given that my remaining chips are slightly less than the size of the pot?
Checking is the worst option. I bet $105, exactly half of my stack. In hindsight, I don’t like this bet-sizing at all. It’s too wishy-washy. Am I pot-committed or leaving room to fold? As the guy who made that bet, I wasn’t even sure. As bad as it would be to check here, betting without knowing why or having a plan is also bad. This is a really strange hand, with such small stack-to-pot ratios that I really should only check or shove.
Sam looks very uncomfortable, but calls. That’s scary, because what is he calling with that is consistent with his muttering about jamming pre-flop? This looks like QQ/JJ/TT to me. Something to fear.
Brian folds. Josh folds. Whew!!!
It gets back to Wesley, and he raises all-in for $158. Even if he has me crushed with a flopped set, I can’t fold for $53 more in a pot this large. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t do this without a 2-pair or better hand, as there aren’t any obvious draws. The best case for me would be if Wesley has A8 for top pair, top kicker, or snuck into the pot with 84, 82 or 42 and flopped 2-pair, in which case I’ll have some outs to make a better 2-pair.
While I’m pondering this, John also raises all-in and has me covered. WTF? This only increases the likelihood that I’m crushed, and yet the extra money in the pot now also makes it increasingly mandatory that I call. There’s $803 in the pot and will cost $105 to call, giving me nearly 8-to-1 odds (if Sam folds… and 9-to-1 if he comes along).
A math purist might point out, correctly, that I only have two outs against a set. With two cards to come, I need to be getting slightly better than 10-to-1 odds just to break even. On that basis, I should save my chips, but I’ve played with these guys enough times to see them do some crazy shit with worse hands than sets, which makes the math work, although just barely.
Wherever you go, there you are. Here I am, and I just have to close my eyes, stick all my chips in the middle, and gamble. And I do, and try to look fearless all the while.
The turn card is a 5, followed by another 8. The whole table is abuzz in anticipation of the showdown.
John and I have to show first, to determine the winner of the side pot. John says, “if you have at least a pair of twos, you win.” I can only imagine he put all his chips in with AK there. He cannot lose to a deuce with any 8x, 4x, or straight draw such as A3, 53, 65 or 76. I turn over my 99, John mucks, and the dealer pushes the modest side pot in my direction.
Wesley starts shaking his head slowly. “I can’t beat that. He wins.” Then I hear him saying, to no one in particular, “I flopped two pair.” He really did call $32 pre-flop with 42 – the only 2-pair or better (on the flop) hand that I now beat – as the board-pairing 8 on the river saved me.
For the rest of the session, I was about break-even, thanks to tight play, folding bad cards, avoiding out-of-position spots, pot control and general self-discipline.
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