Too Clever by Half a Step

A former business client of mine was a terrific strategic thinker. With a fertile mind akin to many excellent poker players, he always thought several steps ahead. In business, the ability to “see around corners,” as I liked to say when we worked together, is an amazing gift. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Joe.”

Just like hockey legend Wayne Gretzky was famous for skating to where the puck is going to be while the other players raced towards its current location, Joe built several businesses based on insight into future market needs.

On occasion, he would descend into the kind of Fancy Play Syndrome (FPS) that afflicts poker players too. This happens when you think too many steps ahead, and a simpler approach would generate a better outcome. “Am I being too clever by half a step?” Joe would ask me. At least he had some self-awareness of his tendency to overreach. One day Joe reminds me of Wayne Gretzky; the next day he turns into Wile E. Coyote.

At the poker table, one of the most basic “too clever by half a step” plays is calling the big blind in early position with a monster starting hand, in hopes that another player will raise and create an opportunity for a back-raise when the action comes back around. This tactic often works in a small way, but once the trap is sprung it’s transparently obvious (most of the time) and should be easy for the initial raiser and any callers to fold, or know squarely where they stand.

Last night, playing PLO, this happened twice.

Hand #1

$1/2 PLO, effective stacks $200

Villain UTG calls $2. In middle position, I raise pot ($9) with AAK5♠. After BB calls, UTG back-raises to $37 (pot). Back to me.

This is an interesting twist, as I have AA here. Maybe we both do. If not, UTG is representing a strong hand, which could be something like KKQQ double-suited, or could be a rundown like KQJT double-suited. Against the former, my equity would be approx. 63%. Against the latter, I’m at 58%. Against a lower rundown where my AA and K don’t serve as straight blockers (such as T987 double-suited), my equity drops to 55%.

In all cases, I’m a favorite. With these effective stack sizes, a pot-sized re-raise and call would leave us both pot-committed on virtually any flop. Maybe UTG could find a fold on an A-high flop. I make it $121 (pot!) and UTG calls. The flop is 863 rainbow. Notice how this hits the lower hypothetical rundown above… now I’d be an underdog! UTG opens with a pot-sized bet that puts me all-in, I call, and he shows KKTT double-suited. I cannot explain how he thought this was going to work out favorably.

Had he not tried to set a too-clever trap by limping pre-flop here, what would happen? He would raise to $7. I would re-raise to $24. He would call $24 and the aggression would slow down on this flop that helps neither of us. With only a 1-pair hand and no draws, he might even surrender.

Hand #2

Same game, effective stacks $165

UTG+1 (different villain) calls the big blind and the action folds to me in the cutoff seat, with AK42. This is a very playable hand, being double-suited and containing both an ace and a king, reducing the odds of anyone else having AA or KK. I raise to $9 (pot).

The button and blinds fold, then UTG+1 back-raises to $30 (pot). Just like hand #1, this telegraphs a strong hand. Despite my A and K blockers, he most likely has AA or KK in his hand. Despite the recency bias associated with hand #1, this villain most-most-likely has AA. I’ve played against him several times previously. His pre-flop play is very loose and passive. He likes to see flops, especially in PLO where there are so many more ways to connect with the flop than there are in NLH. He limps and calls a single raise with the highest frequency of anyone at the table.

This makes UTG+1’s hand very transparent. Combined with the playability of my hand, favorable position, familiarity with the villain, and less than 85 BB effective stacks, I decide to call.

The flop is 2♣K♣7. UTG+1 bets $44 (70% of pot), leaving himself $91 behind. There are ways this can end badly for me, especially if he has AxA♣X♣ (which would put us very close to 50/50), but I have to trust my read. Two pair beats one pair, amiright? I raise pot, putting him all-in, and he calls and shows A♠A♣J8♠ (without a flush draw, his equity on the flop is ~ 25%). The board runs out favorably and I win a nice pot.

Again, consider how this would have played out had the villain not been too clever by half a step. He would open-raise to $7. I would call, but not raise with this hand against an early position raiser. Especially against this player, who limps so often but rarely raises. Others might join this small pot. I might point out the turn was a third club, which would shut down any value betting and I might even fold 2-pair to a strong bluff.

Being clever is great. Being too clever, even by just half a step, can be costly.

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