Size Matters

Here’s two hands where I had QQ in early position, but played very differently based on the relative stack sizes. Notice the contrast…

Hand #1 – QQ under the gun

Both hands are from last night at a private $1/2 NL Hold’em game.

After a long stretch of folding, I looked down at QQ under the gun and raised to $10. It folds around to the button who re-raises to $35. After his raise, he has approximately $75-80 remaining which I easily cover. The small blind calls $35.

I’ve never played with the button before and don’t know his name. He’s been quiet and not aggressive. His range must be strong here, but I really don’t know if it starts at KK+ or TT+, nor whether he 3-bets with hands like AQo or AJs. I do know the small blind and for purposes of this blog I’ll call him “Cantrell.” He likes to see a lot of flops and has about $150 behind.

QQ is a premium hand here. On the other hand, it could be dominated already by AA or KK, or vulnerable to any ace or king on the flop. In this spot, the key question is whether I’m prepared to play for stacks against the button. I’m either going to put him all-in now, or just give him credit for a very strong range only (AA, KK, AKs) and meekly fold. I’m less concerned about Cantrell. While he would call with AK, he would likely have 4-bet all-in with AA or KK.

Answering this requires a check of the bankroll and emotional state. I have plenty of money in my pocket and a potential loss of 55-60 BBs isn’t going to kill my session. If the button has the top of his range or only has a 3-betting range that dominates me (as is common at these low stakes games), will that lead to tilt? If so, it would be the type of tilt that comes from getting coolered or rationalizing an optimistic play by adding combinations to a villain’s range that don’t actually belong there as a way of justifying stubbornness. It would not be anything close to Breakfast Tilt, or TV Tilt, or Brain Fart Tilt, or other more destructive forms.

My emotional state feels OK. If I 4-bet and get called by AA or KK, I can accept that as the inevitable outcome of the button’s relatively short stack. I came to play poker! Folding is too nitty. I 4-bet to $120 and both the button and Cantrell folded.

Hand #2 – QQ UTG+1

Later on I looked down at QQ again. This time I was 2nd to act and the UTG player raised to $10. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Ronnie.” He has about $450 in his stack, while I have slightly over $300. Ronnie is a young, aggressive, often fearless player and positionally aware enough that his UTG opening range should be decently tight. Still, I should have the best hand here.

With these stack sizes, however, I decide to just call. There are some hands in Ronnie’s range that cannot call a 3-bet but might put more money in on a lot of flops, especially if he was the last aggressor. On the other hand, I won’t get any help in figuring out whether he has AA or KK. Other other player calls, with a very short stack behind. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Aaron.”

The flop was J96. Ronnie bets $15, I call and Aaron also calls. I still think I have the best hand. Sometimes in this game patience is a virtue. In those moments, we can quote Napolean saying “Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake.” Ronnie’s C-bet seems rather non-committal to me, and he could simply be fishing with a hand like AK, TT, 88, or A9s. I’ve only seen Aaron once before this session and don’t have a good read yet, other than he seems generally loose and passive.

I don’t recall the exact turn card. It was either a 7 or 5. My plan is to raise if Ronnie bets again, which he does, this time $40.

“Time out!!!” screams a little voice in my head. Yes, I have an over pair to this board. But Ronnie has continued betting from out of position into two opponents. His sizing on the turn seems more like he’s protecting a strong hand than a bluff or thin value bet with a hand like AJ. This is a feel thing for me, as I’m not always able to define and narrow ranges at the table like the top pros. For shits and giggles, let’s take a deep dive into ranges… ignoring Aaron for now as his very small stack size makes him only a minor threat.

For Ronnie’s pre-flop UTG opening range, let’s go with: 55+, ATs+, AJo+, T9s+, KJs, KQo. After eliminating my queens, that’s 121 combinations, representing 9.9% of all possible hands. Against this range, my QQ has 67.4% equity.

On the J96 flop, his range for C-betting for value, out of position against two opponents, is 99+, 66, AJ, KJs, QJs, JTs, T9s. I’ll also include KQ, which has a gutshot straight draw and two over cards. Now we’re down to 55 combos (after eliminating the cards now on the board, which also blocks 17 of his pre-flop combos) and this range would have Ronnie C-betting 55/104 = 52.9% of the time. There should be some C-bet bluffs in there too, with AK or AQ, or backdoor draws, raising his C-betting frequency above 55%, which sounds about right. Against that range (excluding the bluffs), my equity is only 52.7%.

The turn (7 or 5) brings some possible straights and more straight draws into play, and at this point there also was a possible flush draw. I cannot recall if the flush draw was present on the flop or only came on the turn. But it was there. If my feeling is right that Ronnie is betting for value and protection on the turn, we can eliminate KQ, TT, QJs and JTs from his range. With any of these combinations, he should slow down, especially against my stack size. This leaves JJ+, 99, 66, AJ, KJs, for 37 combinations. This means he bets the turn for value with 37/55 = 67.3% of the combos that bet the flop for value, which also sounds about right, although here he might opt for pot control with a few of the strongest bluff catchers like AA or KK. My equity against his turn value range is 39.9%. Gulp!

This combinatorics, which I most certainly did NOT do at the table, reinforces the instinct to call a time out. As Ronnie keeps betting into two players, his range gets stronger and my equity shrinks. In real-time, I decided not to raise and just called instead. Aaron put all his remaining chips in, $33, leaving about $175 in the main pot and $14 in a side pot for Ronnie and me to fight over.

The river was another 6, both pairing the board and completing the flush draw. Ronnie lets out a heavy sigh and checks. That alone removes the strongest part of his range — JJ, 99 or 66 — improving my equity to 55.4%. Basically I’m now losing to AA and KK and beating AJ and KJs. Again, I wasn’t doing this level of analysis at the table (even if I should). But it was clear from Ronnie’s river check that he was no longer in love with his hand.

I could check back or bet for thin value, recognizing there isn’t much in the side pot but Ronnie might make a crying call with AJ here. I bet $40, as missing out on thin value opportunities is a small leak in my game that I’d like to plug. Ronnie looks pained and folds.

As I flip over my QQ, expecting to win the entire pot, two things happen. First, Aaron turns over a straight. He had 87 or 85, whichever made a straight on the turn (which was a 5 or 7). And second, Ronnie says “damn, you got me to fold pocket kings.” With the connected, paired, flushy board, he simply figured KK wasn’t any good.

Notice how the deeper stacks and Ronnie’s tight UTG range at the start of this hand caused me to play more cautiously, and Ronnie’s C-bet and 2nd barrel on the flop and turn kept me in a pot-controlling mode. Whew!

Also notice the butterfly effect. If I had flapped my wings harder pre-flop in the form of a 3-bet, Aaron would have folded and Ronnie would have destroyed me. I don’t think I would get all-in pre-flop at this stack depth with QQ. Maybe I would 3-bet to $35 and fold to a large 4-bet. In that case, I would actually lose less than I did as played, although it would turn out a lot better for Ronnie and denying Aaron the opportunity to triple his stack.

Oh yes, and the very next hand, I got QQ again. I won a small pot and nothing interesting happened. The end.

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