KKing David

Ruminations on poker

Archive for the category “Bad play”

Great Flop for Me

It was Saturday night, which means I’m playing poker in someone’s garage.  Just about everybody is a regular player, so we get to do some higher level thinking.  Level 1, of course, is just thinking about the strength of our own hand.  We like it, or we don’t like it, or we’re not sure.  Level 2 is thinking about our opponents’ hands.  The more we have played with somebody, the more we should know about their style and tendencies and use that information to our advantage.  They should be doing the same.  Level 3 is thinking about what our hand looks like to our opponents.  While we know our exact cards, they don’t, so we can consider what our hand looks like from their perspective.  Level 4 flips back to their hand.  What will they think we are putting them on?

On the button, after several players just call the big blind, I look down at JJ.  I like my hand (Level 1).  So far, no one has a hand worthy of raising.  I don’t know their exact cards, but any hand better than mine would have raised already (Level 2).  When I raise, some of the players will think I’m just attacking the limpers and won’t give me credit for a hand as strong as JJ (Level 3).  So I can raise more than normal and still get called by worse hands.

I raise to 8.5 big blinds (BBs).  The BB calls and so do two of the limpers.

Flop (37 BBs):  4d 4s 2d.  This is a great flop for me.  There are no over cards to my JJ.  While there is a diamond flush draw and a possible straight draw, a paired board makes the flush draw less attractive to anyone who has it, and the straight draw cannot be open-ended unless someone limp/called with 53.

Everybody checks to me.

I still like my hand.  It should be best here (Level 1).  While no one has shown any strength (Level 2), any of these players could have a single A, K or Q, or two diamonds, or a lower pocket pair that could turn a set, so I’m not giving them a free turn card.  I bet 20 BBs, just over one-half of the pot.  Some weaker hands will call another bet, including flush draws and low-medium pocket pairs like 55-88.  They would expect me to make a continuation bet on this flop with close to 100% of my pre-flop range, which they would think includes a lot of unpaired hands (Level 3).

The BB folds, but the next guy raises to 60 BBs.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Myles.”  Myles likes to see lots of flops and is willing and able to be bluffing here if he thinks I’m just trying to steal a pot with my favorable position.  He knows his check/raise would look very strong, and I would have to consider the possibility that he has trip 4’s or better (Level 4).  As I start to ponder the meaning of his check/raise, the next guy announces that he’s all-in for about 180 BBs.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Rob.”

Wow!  A big check/raise from Myles, followed by Rob’s check/re-raise shove.  Similar to Myles, Rob likes to see lots of flops.  Even moreso than Myles, Rob will try to steal a pot with a big bluff when the board gets scary or he thinks his opponent is weak.  Both of them initially limped in, then called my largish pre-flop raise, which makes both of them more likely than me to have a 4 or pocket 22’s.  Myles has Rob covered, while I have the smallest stack with about 75 BBs remaining after my flop bet.

Let’s try to figure out where we are (Level 2), while trying not to wet our pants.

I can rule out AA, KK, QQ based on the pre-flop betting, so the only holdings that beat me are any 4x or 22.  That’s it.  And most 4x hands are pretty junky and would have folded pre-flop.  Calling hands might include A4 (suited or unsuited) 64s, 54s, and maybe 43s.  That’s not many combinations: after eliminating the cards on the board, there are 3 possible combos of 22, 8 combos of A4, 2 combos each of 64s, 54s, 43s.

I don’t think Myles would have called my pre-flop raise with A4 off-suit, but he might with A4s, 64s or 54s.  Not with 43s.  Not with K4, Q4 or worse.  He also could have a diamond draw, with Ad2d+, Kd8d+, Qd9d+, or suited connecting diamonds from JdTd down to 6d5d.  He also could be on a pure bluff, or could have a medium pocket pair that he thinks is the best hand (55-99).  But that assumes he always check-raises with his flush draws.  In reality, sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t.  I’ll eliminate about half of his flush draws (including AdKd, AdQd, AdJd and KdQd all of which would have raised pre-flop), resulting in a range of 99-44, 22, A4s, AdTd-Ad8d, Ad5d, Ad3d, KdTd+, QdTd+, 6d5d, 64s, 54s.  Heads-up against that range, my JJ has 77.4% equity and I should call.

But Rob went all-in, AFTER seeing Myles’ check/raise.  That scares the shit out of me.  He could have the same 22 or 4x hands as Myles could, plus I have to include K4s, Q4s and 43s in his range as I’ve seen Rob surprise the hell out of people before when he makes a junky call and hits the flop hard.  I’ll also include A4o.  He too could have a flush draw, but if he does in this spot, it should only be an A-high flush draw (as with Myles, excluding AdKd, AdQd or AdJd as he would have raised pre-flop with these stronger suited aces).  Rob shouldn’t be shoving here with weaker flush draws because he should know Myles might be on a flush draw too, and shoving a non-nut flush draw and getting called by a nut flush draw would be disastrous.  Rob’s resulting range is stronger than Myles’ range: 99-44, 22, A4s, A4o, AdTd-Ad3d, K4s, Q4s, 64s, 54s, 43s.

Against both of these ranges, my equity is 39.7%, compared to 35.8% for Rob and 24.5% for Myles.  Something about a check-raise following by a check-re-raise makes me feel quite certain that I’m crushed here on this flop that initially looked so good for me, and I expected the math to be even worse that this.  It will cost me 75 BBs to call, for a chance to win (assuming Myles also calls) approx. 320 BBs.  If my equity is greater than 75/320 = 23.4%, calling would be the mathematically correct play.

I take my time, and finally fold.  I couldn’t work out all of the math in my head at the table, so I went with the old “Hashtag: they always have it” and concluded that at least one of them had me crushed.

Myles takes his time, asks Rob if he has a 4 and if so how good is his kicker.  Then he declares that he might as well gamble and calls the all-in bet.

The turn is Qc.  I don’t recall the exact river card, only that it wasn’t a high card or a diamond and didn’t change anything.

Rob turns over Ad6d.  He did indeed have the A-high flush draw.  We can debate the merits of shoving over the top of Myles’ check/raise there, but that’s what he did.  Myles turns over Qd9d, a weaker flush draw.

This burns me up when I first see it, as I was ahead of both of them when I folded.  Later I entered their exact hands and my equity was 53.7%.  Putting in 33.3% of the money and having 53.7% equity is a profitable play all night long, and I definitely should have called.

Then Myles sees that the queen on the turn paired one of his hole cards, giving him 2-pair queens and fours, and he scoops in a pot that totals over 415 BBs.  My JJ would have lost anyway.  That doesn’t change the conclusion that I should have called, however.  Against the ranges I constructed and against the actual hands, calling would be the correct play.  If both Myles’ and Rob’s cards were face up, I would call, especially knowing their flush outs partially cancel each other (and I was holding another out with Jd).  But I folded instead, then got the reverse of “lucky” since part of the draw hit anyway.  What looked like such a great flop for me cost me about 1/4 of my stack and I was lucky not to lose all of it.

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Winning by Leading

You want to win more often than you lose, right?

In team sports, two teams compete head-to-head.  When each contest starts, the score is tied, 0-0.  The scoreboard doesn’t confer any advantage to one team or the other.  Whether it is football, basketball, baseball, hockey or soccer, the winning team is the one with the most points, runs or goals at the end of the game.

What matters is the final score.  One team can be losing throughout the game, only to pull ahead on the final play.  Or the score can remain tied for most of the contest until one team scores to take a late lead.  Or a team can be dominated early, only to have momentum shift in their favor for a come-from-behind win.  Or the lead can shift back and forth multiple times.  Or a team can score first, extend their lead, and never be threatened.  Under every scenario, the winner is whoever has the lead at the end of the game.  It seems silly to have to say that, doesn’t it?

Yet in every sport, the team that scores first ends up winning a majority of the time.  At any time during the game, the team in the lead is most likely to win.

In baseball, hockey and soccer, the team scoring the first run or goal will win about 2/3 of the time.  In football, the team scoring first will win more than 60% of the time.  In basketball, with NBA teams averaging 100 or more possessions per game, the edge is not as great.  The first team to score wins approximately 54% of all games.

Having an early lead doesn’t guarantee victory, but it improves your chances.

In Texas Holdem poker, some of the dynamics are fundamentally different from team sports.  You aren’t a team.  It isn’t a head-to-head competition.  You can opt-out, by folding.  Yet we can still think of each hand of poker like a team sports contest.

Here is the fundamental rule:  The best starting hand is more likely to be the best hand at showdown.

I know, call me Captain Obvious, but bear with me just a bit.

One of the biggest flaws of poker players is playing too many hands.  This post started with a simple question:  You want to win more often than you lose, right?

Before the cards are dealt, the score is tied.  Are the conditions favorable?  Sports teams prefer to play at home.  If professional sports teams played all of their games at home, they would win 5-10% more games.  In poker, the equivalent of the home field advantage is having good position (button or cutoff seat), plus a deep chip stack, winning image and calm emotional state.  Are you giving yourself the poker equivalent of home field advantage?

After the cards are dealt, the score is no longer tied.  Although you can’t look at a scoreboard to see who has the best cards, somebody is in the lead.  Everybody’s betting actions provide us with clues.  If you have the best hand pre-flop, this is the equivalent of scoring first in a team sport.  It doesn’t guarantee victory, but does make you the favorite.  If you have the best hand plus home field advantage (good position, deep stack, winning image, calm emotional state), you are an even bigger favorite.

The amazing thing here is that in each hand of poker, you can opt-in by betting, raising or calling, or you can opt-out by folding.  Professional sports teams don’t have the luxury of opting out when the other team has home field advantage and scores first.  You do.  So why in the world do so many poker players voluntarily put themselves at a probabilistic disadvantage by opting in with hands that are already losing?  Jeez, another hand will start in just a minute or two.

There are 169 possible combinations of two cards.  We can rank them in order of their probability of winning against a full table of opponents.  AA will rank highest; before the flop, this is the nuts.  Next is KK.  There are plenty of poker equity calculators that will show the projected win percentage of each hand vs. any number of unknown hands.

What do you have?  Is it likely to be the best hand at this point – before the flop – in the contest?  Possibly?  Unlikely, but with a reasonable chance of improvement?  Never?  Since poker is a multi-player contest, winning more than anyone else might still be less than 50% of the time.

For example, suppose you are dealt Kh Jh.  King-jack suited is a good hand.  It ranks in the top 7% of all hands.  Out of 169 possible combinations, my Poker Cruncher app ranks it as #15 in strength.  It is possible that you have the best hand at the table.  Kh Jh is projected to win 46% of the time against two random hands, while each random hand is projected to win 27% of the time.  Even though you probably have the lead, the multi-player aspect of poker forces you to acknowledge that most of the time, another player will win the pot.

Limp / call range

But the other players don’t have random hands.  Let’s take this a step further.  Suppose one other player limps in from middle position, you raise with Kh Jh in the cutoff seat, the big blind calls and the limper also calls.  You are 3-handed going to the flop, but now you can eliminate many of the 169 combinations from each villain’s range.  You can eliminate the strongest hands, with which they would raise instead of calling.  And you can eliminate the weakest hands, which they would simply fold.

For this example, let’s assume the limper would have raised rather than limped with all 14 hands that rank stronger than Kh Jh.  These are:  AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT, 99, 88, AKs, AQs, AJs, ATs, KQs, AKo, AQo.  We’ll eliminate those from his or her range.  Also let’s assume he or she would fold the weakest 50% of all hands, instead of limping or in response to our raise.  We’ll eliminate those too.

BB call range

The big blind was responding to our raise.  We’ll assume that he or she would re-raise only with a top 10 hand:  AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT, 99, AKs, AQs, AJs, AKo.  Since we only got called, we can eliminate these.  We’ll also assume the big blind folds the weakest 60% of all hands to our raise.  We’ll eliminate those too.

Now we can recalculate our equity.  Kh Jh is projected to win 41% of the time, vs. 28% for the limp / call hand in middle position and 31% for the big blind.  You are still the favorite, just less so than against two completely random hands.

If your raise was a little bit larger, maybe the big blind would fold and the limper would fold the weakest 60% rather than 50%.  Now you would be heads up, and project to win 58% of the time at showdown (in all cases, these win rates assume there is no further betting), switching the outcome from ‘lose most of the time’ to ‘win most of the time.’  See how powerful raising is?

Suppose, instead, that you had made the same raise with Th 8h and gotten the same two calls.  Now you would be projected to win 30% of the time. vs. 33% for the limp / caller and 37% for the big blind.  Instead of starting with the lead, you’ve opted in despite being an underdog, and done so via a raise.  Why would you want to do that?  Have you forgotten the original question:  You want to win more often than you lose, right?

It is possible to win a pot without having the best hand.  There is even a technical term for this:  bluffing.  Sports teams don’t have this weapon.  Imagine a Little League baseball team yelling in a menacing tone at the other team, “we are beating y’all by more than 10 runs, so you should quit and go home under the mercy rule!” even though the other team is actually ahead by one or two runs.  That would never work.  I’ll return to bluffing in a later post.

There are other reasons you might want to opt-in with starting cards that won’t enjoy the early lead.  This involves pot odds and implied odds.  I’ll return to this in a later post as well.

For now, if you want to win more often than you lose (right?), the easiest place to start is by playing hands that are more likely to be in the lead already and raise enough to shrink the number of remaining villains.  Before you starting bluffing or calculating pot odds and implied odds, just practice playing poker with the lead.  Develop the habit of opting in with the lead and opting out whenever another player is more likely to have the lead.  Opting out eliminates your disadvantage, with no penalty.

Imagine a professional sports coach being able to withdraw from a game after the other team scores first with no penalty, no impact on the team’s win/loss record.  The coach would simply say he’s decided to reset the scoreboard and start over.  In team sports, that would never work.  In poker, you have that option every hand.

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If I Had a Time Machine

If I had a time machine, it would be a very simple time machine.  My time machine would only allow me to go back in time; I don’t need to see the future before it gets here.  Not far back either – a maximum of about 15 minutes would be enough.

You know all those times you say something that doesn’t come out right and you know it immediately?  Like when Mrs. asks if I like HGTV, or do I want to go to the grocery store.  Or Mom calls and asks why I don’t call her more often.  Many self-inflicted kerfuffles could be fixed with a quick trip to my time machine.

If I had a time machine, my life would be more harmonious.  I’d also be rich.

With my time machine, I’d do-over a few poker hands from this week.

First, there was that hand where the button straddled for five BBs, several players just limped in and I put out a big raise from the cutoff seat.  I just wanted to pounce on the limpers’ chips, holding decent but far from dominant cards.  The small blind — for purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Dave” — called rather quickly, so fast the thought flashed through my mind that my raise had been large enough that it should give him pause.  After two more callers (jeez, some of these guys want to see every flop!), another original limper re-raised all-in with a short stack.  I’ll call him “Andy.”

Andy’s limp/re-raise seemed unusual, in the sense that there were three limps before his.  Why wouldn’t he go ahead and raise the first time around if he has a monster hand?  Now the pot has approx. 195 BBs in it already and I have the other players covered.  It will only cost me 38 BBs to call Andy.  With juicy odds, I’m not folding, but a fancier thought enters my head.  If I shove all-in here, I can drive out Dave and the other callers and isolate Andy.  With lots of dead money in the pot, this would be a profitable play.

As I announce my all-in bet, Dave slides his entire stack into the center so fast it gets there while the sound waves emanating from my mouth are still moving across the table.  I think back to his original limp as the first player to act after the button straddle, and to his rapid response call of my original large (30 BBs) raise.  While I’m retracing these steps in my mind, a fourth player also calls, explaining later the pot was too big, too tempting not to join Andy and me as lemmings following each other off the cliff.

The fact that I have an ace reduces the probability of Dave having two aces, and also is irrelevant.  A reduced probability is not a zero probability.  I like Dave, however, and think he likes me.  Of course, he does have pocket AA, a/k/a American Airlines, and flips them over without forcing me to show my soul crushing hand first, despite protocol dictating that I show first.  It’s easier to be magnanimous when you are scooping in a pot with 900 BBs, plus or minus a few.  There are some speculative comments as to what I had while I suffer silently.

If I had a time machine, I’d play that quite differently.

Second, there was a hand later that night when I was in middle position with 6s 3s.  One nickname for 6-3 is the Spanish Inquisition, in reference to a Monty Python movie line, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

Before the action got to me, however, another player raised to 8 BBs.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Ray S.”  Still wounded from Dave’s ambush, I fold.  Playing junky cards like these – low, suited, with two gaps – is a losing proposition.  Playing from behind sometimes works, but starting out with the lead is smarter.  Ray S. does get a couple of callers, so we see a flop of Kc 8h 7s.  Everybody checks.  The turn is 5s.  Had I called pre-flop, now I would have an open-ended straight draw with my 6, plus a spade flush draw, with the 4s potentially giving me a straight flush.  Now Ray S. bets and gets two callers.

When you are running bad at poker, the badness comes in all forms.  Sure enough the 4s comes, and I wish I had my time machine.  At this game, there is a straight flush piggy – a jackpot that builds every week and is paid out when someone makes a straight flush.  The piggy is now 540 BBs.  Ray S. shows pocket KK.  He flopped top set and decided to check the flop for deception.

Third, there was one more hand that same night where I raised pre-flop with QJ.  Some poker pros called this hand Hawaii, as in “if you don’t play QJ for a year you will save enough money to go to Hawaii.”  Another player – I’ll call him “Rob,” makes a massive re-raise.  My raise was 6 BBs.  Rob goes to 50 BBs.  Is this a show of strength or just a move to try to blow me out of the hand?  He still gets one caller.  Some of these guys want to see every flop.  I want to see this one.  But I don’t have a time machine, I’m still bruised from shoving into Dave’s aces and bleeding internally from the curses of the Spanish Inquisition.  And someday I might like to go back to Hawaii, so I fold.

The flop is JT9, with two hearts.  That would give me top pair, plus an open-ended straight draw.  If I were in the hand, with a large pot and modest remaining stack, I would cheerfully get it all-in here.  Rob bets about 50 BBs more, and the other player calls.  The turn card is a K, the river a blank, and Rob shows Ah Kh to take it down.  He wasn’t going anywhere on that flop!

Fourth, a different night of the week.  The player to my right raises to 10 BBs.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Gary.”  With TT, I call and there are two other callers and we see a flop of 764.  Gary bets 35 BBs.  His large continuation bet indicates a very big pocket pair, like AA or KK.  He’s been studying poker rather furiously over the last few months, trying to improve his game, with one result being much greater aggression.  Another result has been better vision into what’s happening when things get all wonky.  I think he might be able to fold a big over pair on a board like this, if he realizes that his hand is pretty transparent.  When it becomes obvious that you have AA or KK, and another player raises or shoves on the flop, you are toast (most of the time), and this flop connects with set-mining hands like 77, 66 or 44.

So I shove, pretty quickly and aggressively.  Gary looks startled, as he should.  He had about 140 BBs at the start of this hand, and I have him covered.  He asks me, did you flop a set?  Oh well, he says, I guess if you did then you got me, and he puts in the rest of his chips.  It WAS obvious what he had, at least I got that part right.

If I had a time machine, I’d go back and spare myself the misery of being right about his hand, right about his ability to smell trouble, and wrong about his willingness to surrender.  Two out of three ain’t good.

Fifth,  there was the hand where I was dealt AA later that same night (or more accurately, in the wee hours of the following morning), we were playing short-handed.  There is a small raise to 3 BBs and Gary calls.  I re-raise to 11 BBs and both call.  Here we go!  The flop was 7c 6s 4s, the same as the hand above only with different suits.  Should that be a tell?

I bet 15 BBs and both call.  The turn is 7s.  This is gross – it pairs the top card on the board and fills out a flush.  Gary checks and I check too.  On the button is a player who, for purposes of this blog, I’ll call “Zach.”  Zach can be very aggressive when he smells weakness, and is sometimes prone to excess aggression towards the end of a long poker session.  He bets 40 BBs and Gary folds.  As the original pre-flop raiser to 3 BBs, it is entirely possible that Zach has a pocket pair higher than 7’s, perhaps including one spade.  It’s also possible he has something that includes a 5 and flopped a straight draw.  Or he could have trip 777’s or a made flush or full house already.

The board is almost perfect for him to apply pressure, which he will do here with very high frequency.  I double check and do not have the Ace of Spades.  Nevertheless, I call.  This is now a leveling war.  He knows that I 3-bet pre-flop, indicating strength.  I know that he calls my 3-bets when in favorable position at the table – and late in a long session – with a wide range.  He knows that I’m trying for pot control when I check this turn, or perhaps have a weaker hand like AK.  I know that he likes to apply pressure and his bet is not necessarily indicative of a better hand than mine.  He knows that I don’t automatically surrender to his big bets.  (Earlier I called a small pre-flop raise from Gary with A9o.  After another caller, Zach re-raised more than the size of the pot, a move popularized by Dan Harrington as the “squeeze play.”   After Gary folded, I shoved with a short stack and doubled up through Zach’s king-high.)  I know that he knows that I know that he knows…

Perhaps neither of us really know what level the other is on.  My flop bet was deceptively small (note to self:  when doing this over in time machine mode, make a man-sized bet on this flop!), so despite the pre-flop 3-bet, my true hand strength is probably under-represented.

The river is the Ts, putting four spades on the board.  [insert curse words]  I check again, and Zach slides his entire stack into the middle.  There is no way I can call now.  I flip my aces face up into the muck, and Zach smiles as he shows a bluff, with 54 and no spade.  My read on the turn was right, but the river card made it impossible to continue.  The badness of running bad comes in all forms.

But I gotta tell y’all, and this is absolutely true, if I had a time machine I’d be rich!

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“F**k Sklansky”

There’s going to be a lot of poker math here.  If you don’t like the math, this post may not be for you.  I’ve heard it said that math is only for bad poker players.  Maybe that’s me… here goes.

In several recent posts, I’ve referred to David Sklansky’s classic book, The Theory of Poker.  One post was about Sklansky’s definition of mistakes, as imbedded in his The Fundamental Theorem of Poker:

Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.

Sklansky also was the first (or among the first) poker scholars to fully develop and explain the math side of no limit Texas Hold’em.  Other prior posts included discussions about “Skansky Bucks,” (including one here and another one here) a theoretical calculation of the expected value (EV) of all-in bets or calls that occur prior to the river card.

Last night one of my regular blog readers was at the game.  For purposes of this post, I’ll call him “Rob” since that’s what I called him last month after he hit a 3-outer on the river to chop a large pot, after he thought he was drawing completely dead.  Rob mentioned Sklansky, except when he pronounces the author’s name it sounds more like Sklinsky.

After awhile, Rob raised to five BBs from under-the-gun (UTG), an action that conveys considerable strength.  I called with Ad 9d and there was one other caller.

Flop (16 BBs):  Jd 9c 7d.  I have middle pair with a nut flush draw.  I like it!  Rob leads out for 8 BBs.  Since I’m not going anywhere, I might as well apply some pressure, so I raise to 28 BBs.  The other player folds and Rob calls without very much hesitation.  The strongly suggests to me that he has either top set (JJJ), an overpair (AA-QQ) or AJ.  There are three combinations of JJ and AA, six combos of KK and QQ, and nine combos of AJ.  Against that range, my equity is 45.1%, although I discount the set of JJJ’s as he would be more likely to re-raise on such a wet board.

Turn (72 BBs):  8c.  This doesn’t help my hand but is an interesting card as it creates a second flush draw (which helps Rob if he has exactly Ac Jc) and also means any T now has a straight.  He checks.  I can represent a very strong hand here, which could be a flopped straight with T8, or a flopped set of 777’s or 999’s.  I have 65 BBs left and his stack is approximately equal to mine.  I shove all-in, first of all hoping he will fold if he has KK or QQ (which seems most likely) or praying to hit one of my outs if called.

If his range is exactly KK-QQ here, my equity is now 32.3%.  Against KK, any T would create a straight on the board and we would chop the pot, although with QQ that would simply give him a higher straight.  If he has the Kd or Qd, that takes away one of my flush outs.  This is virtually a break-even proposition.  If he calls, I’ll win a pot of 202 BBs 32.3% of the time, for an expected final stack of 65 BBs — the same as I would have by simply surrendering.  If he folds with any non-zero frequency, the EV of shoving is even higher.

Rob tanks for quite awhile, appearing to change his mind multiple times.  He states that it seems like I flopped a set of 777’s.  I try not to give off any tells.  Inside my mind is screaming, please fold please fold please fold, as I know more than 2/3 of the time I’ll go bust if he calls.  Eventually, Rob calls.  The river is the 2d, however, giving me the nuts.  He showed QQ, including the Qd.  Against his exact hand, my equity is 29.5%, and I would need to expect him to fold 8% of the time for this to be a break-even play.

Put me down for 202 BBs after this hand, but only 60 BBs in Sklansky Bucks.

A few minutes later, Rob asks me if his call was a mistake.  In the Sklansky definition of mistake, it would be a mistake if he would not have called knowing my exact cards.  He says he definitely would call in that situation, a flush draw was what he was hoping I had (I’m not sure he considered that any A or 9 was also an out for me, but those extra outs don’t make his call a mistake; he was ahead).  We agree that he played it right, made a good call, and just got drawn out on.

“Well, f**k Sklansky!” he says, as a way of ending the discussion, and the whole table has a good laugh.

Much later I have two more all-in hands.

In the first, I raised from UTG with JJ and got two callers.  On a flop of T22 I felt pretty good and made a continuation bet. The player to my immediate left, who for purposes of this blog I’ll call “John” calls again.  He can have any Tx or most pocket pairs below T and still make this call.  I’ve played with John many times and he calls both pre- and post-flop bets with a wide range, and he has position on me.  If I’m C-betting with AK or AQ, he can take this pot away on many turn cards and may have the best hand.

Turn (43 BBs):  9.  He only has about 29 BBs remaining in his stack and I have him well covered.  I decided to go ahead and bet enough to put him all-in.  He might call with a weak pocket pair.  John does call, and flips over Qc 2c, and his trip twos wins.  Ugh!  That’s John, however, and his calling a pre-flop raise from UTG+1 seat with a hand like this doesn’t really surprise me.  At the time the chips went all-in, I had two outs and my equity was 4.55%.  I lost the pot, but I can nevertheless assign nine Sklansky Bucks to my account.

Later still, I’m on the button and post a live straddle.  John is the small blind and raise to 3x the straddle.  The next player, who for purposes of this blog I’ll call “Brooklyn Mike,” calls and everyone else folds to me.  I look down at QQ and decided to raise to 10x the straddle (which equals 25 BBs).  John shoves all-in for 65 BBs with little hesitation, then Brooklyn Mike also shoves for 75 BBs.  WTF?

I peek at my queens again, and they seem to be shriveling up right before my eyes.  Calling will cost 40 more BBs, with 165 already in the pot.  I know John can be shoving with a wider range than most players, and also know that he knows that I can be 3-betting from the button straddle with a wide enough range that I would fold part of that range to a shove.  I call.

Neither John nor Brooklyn Mike turns over his cards right away, so I flip mine over first.  The body language instantly tells me that I’m ahead.  After a 9-high flop, John tables AQo.  After a low turn card, John pats the table next to me and says nice hand.  As he stands and adjusts his jacket to leave, the dealer delivers an A on the river.

Don’t hate the players (or the dealer), just hate the game.  John scoops up a huge pot, and I win a small side pot of 20 BBs.

Pre-flop, when all the chips went in, I was a 56.8% favorite in a pot of 205 BBs, so I “earned” 116 Sklansky Bucks in this hand, while only collecting the 20 BBs in the side pot.

The three hands above were my only all-ins of the evening.  In these hands, my Sklansky Bucks were (60 + 9 + 116) = 185.  My actual result was (202 + 0 + 20) = 222 (less about 5 BBs worth of rake and tips) = net of 217 BBs.  My actual results exceeded my Sklansky Bucks by about 32 BBs, and I went home with a very slightly better than break-even night.  Notice how in just three hands the actual results start to converge with the Sklansky.  If poker math and Sklansky Bucks calculations are valid concepts and accurately done, we should expect a convergence over the long run.  Short-term variance turns into long-term fairness.

Except for one thing… recency bias.  We’re all human, and our tendency is to remember the most recent hand more vividly than any others.  That’s where I lost a very large pot to John when he got lucky on the river.  That’s the memory I carried home.

With all the affection I can muster, “F**k Sklansky!”

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Mistakes and Coolers

In David Sklansky’s classic book The Theory of Poker, the author introduces his Fundamental Theorem of Poker:

Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.

In his view, a mistake is any play that delivers a gain to an opponent.  It’s worth noting that this is Sklansky’s personal definition of mistake, used for purposes of his book, and deviates considerably from a standard dictionary definition (such as “an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong”).  For a poker action to be a mistake, it doesn’t matter who ultimately wins the pot; you can take an action in a poker hand that you would not have taken if you could see your opponent’s cards, then draw out a winning card on the river despite long odds.  You win the pot, but your earlier action is still a mistake.  It also doesn’t matter if other players would have made the same play, as often happens when the 2nd nut hand loses to the absolute nuts.  If you could see your opponent’s cards, you would act differently.

My previous blog post noted that We All Make Mistakes.  So it seems inevitable that the next time I play poker after writing that piece (last night), I suffered through a flood of mistakes.

I made the mistake of being passive when I should have been aggressive, calling a pre-flop raise with QQ, intending to set a trap.  I later learned the villain had TT, after a flop of Js Ts 3s (giving him a set; me an overpair and flush draw).  The 4th T came on the turn, giving him quads.  In hindsight, I might have lost more had I re-raised pre-flop; but at the time of the pre-flop action, not re-raising was a mistake.

I made calling mistakes.  Many of them.

  • In the hand noted above, I called a river bet after a K came on the last card.  Duh… calling when the villain has quads is a mistake!
  • I called turn and river bets with 88 on a board of 432-7-J.  The villain had QQ and just called my pre-flop raise.  His trap worked, whereas my earlier attempt to set a trap with QQ failed.
  • I called flop and turn bets (the latter putting me all-in) with 22 after a flop of 972.  The villain had 99 for top set, crushing my bottom set.  This is a cooler, and fortunate for me that my stack wasn’t too deep.  Under Sklansky’s Fundamental Theorem of Poker, however, calling was a mistake.  If I could see the villain’s cards, I would not have called.  Ouch!
  • With KQs, I called a check-raise and river bet on a board of K64 (two clubs)-6-5.  This was late, the flop was very drawy, a scary turn card came, and the bluffing frequency around the table escalated considerably in the prior half hour.  Not this villain –> he tables A6.  Had I checked-back on the turn for pot-control, I still would make the mistake of calling a river bet, but would lose far less.
  • There was one at least one other river call mistakes, but thankfully I cannot now recall the details.

I made betting and bet-sizing mistakes.  Many of them.

  • With 77 on the button, I flopped a set on a board of 875 (rainbow), and called a flop bet along with two other callers.  The turn J created a flush draw, and everyone checked to me.  One villain called my bet.  The river K completed the flush draw.  I bet again, and the villain called with a very weak flush.  He had 62s, got to the flop when no one raised, flopped an open-ended straight draw and turned a flush draw.  In addition to the river bet mistake, I was too passive pre-flop.  Another cooler, yet still a mistake according to Sklansky’s definition.
  • I made a flush on the river (after my turn semi-bluff got one caller) and a large bet after the villain checked.  He called again, with a bigger flush than mine.  Yet another cooler / mistake.
  • Several times I made a top pair / good kicker hand on the flop, where the villains were too weak to call a bet.  I bet anyway and they all folded.  Had I been more patient, perhaps I could have gotten some value on a later street by giving them a chance to catch up.
  • Other times I was the pre-flop raiser and made continuation bets on flops that didn’t connect with my hand at all, only to be called and have to surrender later.  C-betting with air against a top pair hand is a mistake.

Of course, I didn’t know the villains’ cards in any of these hands at the time of the mistakes.  That’s the thing with the Fundamental Theorem of Poker.  We have to take actions with incomplete information.  This leads to frequent mistakes.  If we can make fewer mistakes than our opponents, we can win over the long run.  The first key to making fewer mistakes is to improve hand reading skills.  Better reads = fewer mis-reads = fewer mistakes.  The second key is to learn to mitigate the effects of tilt.  Tilt leads to anger and other negative emotions, and intense anger shuts down higher brain functions — especially decision making and self-control.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.”

Put me down for progress, with a long way to go to reach wisdom.

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We All Make Mistakes

“We all make mistakes – especially at home.”

I found these words at the Daily Stoic, in an article about Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher who became Emperor of Rome from 161-180, then broke with tradition in selecting his incapable son as his successor rather than a proven leader.

Ironic, isn’t it?

It was Marcus Aurelius who said this:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.”

Marcus taught us to approach our fellow humans as kinsmen –  think of everybody as a brother, sister, cousin, etc. – to be loved and not hated, despite the flaws of being busybodies, arrogant, deceitful, envious, or unsocial.  His point is that people are flawed, flaws are part and parcel of the human condition, thus we should expend extra effort to condition ourselves not to overreact.

Poker is a competitive game involving incomplete information.  Even in games like chess where nothing is hidden, there will be mistakes.  In poker, less information leads to more mistakes.  The same is true in many other activities – investing, relationships, negotiating, weather forecasting…

We all make mistakes.  The Stoics acknowledged that, and developed their school of philosophy around forgiveness – of themselves and of others.  We cannot control others in a manner that prevents mistakes, bad attitudes, negative emotions, poor judgment or devious conduct.  We cannot expect to conduct ourselves to be mistake-free.  The Stoics reasoned that we must work at controlling how we react when these inevitable things happen all around us.  Otherwise, every one of our days is surely to be ruined.

Two millennia later, Marcus Aurelius’ words ring as true as ever.

I’m re-reading The Mental Game of Poker, by Jared Tendler, which is an excellent book.  Tendler offers strategies for letting go of mistakes – whether made by yourself or other players who end up winning despite their errors – that put us on tilt, which further blocks the brain from making correct decisions.  Among other strategies, Tendler advocates writing as a tool for working through aspect of your “mental game.”  Here I am.

I have made many mistakes.  I continue to make mistakes.  I will make many more mistakes.  Poker mistakes cost me money.  Other mistakes cost me in other ways.  I own my mistakes, and they are the experiences from which I can learn the most.  I hope I can learn, and also forgive.

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Tilting in My Favor

NOTE:  This entry was originally posted on a different site on February 24, 2017 and has been slightly edited prior to re-posting here.

I don’t like getting bluffed and hate it when the villain shows the bluff.  But that’s what happened on Monday at the Maryland Live poker room, which led to a chain reaction much like dominoes falling on each other.

I was grinding away at a $2/5 no limit hold’em cash game, with about $685 in my stack.  My cards are like the waves on a calm day at the beach, holding very little promise as over and over the fold themselves gently and invisibly into the shore.  On the horizon there appears the makings of a big one, or perhaps it’s just a mirage made worse by the sting a drop of sunscreen rolling down my forehead into one eye.  How long can I watch the waves and resist the urge to play in them?  How many hands can fold without wading at least ankle deep into the action?

With KQo, I wander to the edge of the waves to have a closer look.  The player UTG posts a $10 straddle.  This is the first domino; when it falls, the stakes for this hand rise.  Better cards, higher stakes, bigger waves.  Two players call, including a very loose, aggressive Asian player.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll refer to him as “Jun.”  I raise to $45.  Without the straddle, I would only raise to $30 here.  If the only thing that happens is everybody folds, I’ll be happy to take the $37 in the pot (rake-free), tip the dealer and move on.  If I get called or re-raised, we’ll play poker.

The straddler calls, and Jun also calls.  Second domino.

Flop ($140):  622 rainbow.  This is a good flop for a continuation bet bluff.  As the pre-flop raiser, my range is uncapped.  I can have AA, KK, QQ, etc.  They cannot, and are much more likely to have hands like AQ, AJ, AT, suited connectors and gappers, and pocket pairs TT & under.  Without going through detailed range construction and combinatorics, I know this flop misses most of their ranges, and that I can represent a big pair with a confident continuation bet.  They both check and I bet $100, which is designed to say “Guys, I’ve got this!”  Third domino.  The straddler folds, but Jun calls. Fourth domino.

Now I think he is more likely to have any pocket pair, a pair of 6’s (A6, 76s, 65s), or two high cards.

Turn ($340):  3.  This should be a good card for me if I want to continue barreling, representing that I have a big pair.  With my image as a tight-ish, middle-aged white guy, another strong bet would look somewhat like turning a big pair face up.  But this time Jun leads out with a bet of $125.  Fifth domino.

Huh?

The size of his bet and the action of calling the flop then leading into the aggressor make no sense whatsoever.

I have a little bit of history with Jun.  The first hand I ever played with him, a few days earlier, I had 77 and the flop was 722.  Yahtzee!  I called Jun’s flop bet and checked back on the turn.  When a river K came out, he shoved all-in, and looked quite surprised when I snap-called and flipped over a full house. Since then I’ve noted him to be an action player, raising and calling a lot pre-flop (but not many re-raises), and a willingness to make big bluffs post-flop.  Despite my first impression, he isn’t a total maniac and seems wary when involved in hands with me after the initial ambush.

Back to our hand.  Jun’s bet of $125 into a pot of $340, leading into the aggressor, makes no sense.  It feels like the “post oak bluff” described by Doyle Brunson in Super System, where a small bet appears to be begging for a call, which must indicate strength, which makes the bluff successful.  What can he really have that would limp/call pre-flop, check/call the flop, and now decide to lead out?  I’m tempted to raise to around $350-375, although this would be a total naked bluff.  All I have is King-high.  And no draws.  Heck, I can’t even beat Ace-high.  I’ve seen Jun make some pretty light calls.  Players like him who bluff a lot tend to assume that other players also bluff a lot and will pay off a lot of strong value hands.  Do I really want to get into a dick measuring contest when I don’t have a good read, just a nebulous feel?

No.

So I fold.  Sixth domino.  It gets weird when a player not involved in the hand remarks that Jun flashed his cards to the player sitting between Jun and himself (which I’d seen Jun do on other occasions prior to mucking) and asks if he can see them also.  Jun denies that he flashed his cards and then somebody asks the player in between if he saw Jun’s cards – which are face down on the table but not mixed into the muck pile yet.  This puts an innocent guy on the spot.  A lot of players would tell a white lie, denying that they saw Jun’s cards, rationalizing that the player asking to see his hand is slowing down the game and has no business demanding extra information when he wasn’t involved in the action.  The white lie is “for the good of the game.”  Other players are just straightforward and honest.  “Did you see that?”  “Yes, I did.”  And that’s what happened here.  After some protest from Jun, the dealer turns over Jun’s cards for everyone at the table to see… Jack-Ten offsuit.  Seventh domino.

WTF!  My read and instincts were spot on, but Jun’s inexplicable float / smallish bet bluff on the turn somehow worked, since I had no showdown value or backup equity.

Had I raised on the turn, Jun must fold.  I would win the pot and my stack would have grown to approximately $1,000.

That’s when I tilted.  It took seven dominoes, but the last one – showing the bluff more than the bluff itself – got to me.  I wasn’t the one asking to see Jun’s hand, and didn’t want to see it.  If he bluffed me, congratulations.  Seeing it, however, put me on a tilt.  Not a full-blown demolition tilt where I’m determined to lose the rest of my chips as fast as possible, but more like a goddammit-I’m-gonna-play-more-junk-because-it-seems-to-work-for-these-other-clowns tilt.

Which leads to the very next hand.  This time, Jun raises to $20 and I’m in middle position with 5s 2s.  This is an easy fold, a tiny wave that barely makes a sound as it disappears into the sand.  So I call.  Eighth domino. There are at least 4-5 players still to act who could re-raise.

If anyone other than Jun was the raiser, I would have folded.  The button also calls as does the big blind.  Does anything good ever happen here?

Flop ($80): As 4s 8h.  Good news:  I pick up a flush draw and wheel draw.  Bad news:  I’m going to put more money in the pot with 5-high, and my flush – if it comes – would get destroyed by any other flushes.  But we’re playing poker, so let’s play.  Jun makes a continuation bet of $45.  Since I’m not on full-blown demolition tilt, I resist the urge to raise or jam here and just call and the button also calls, then the BB folds.  Jun’s range is really wide, and the button could have a better flush draw or an Ace (probably not with K as kicker, which usually would re-raise pre-flop on the button).  With the potential draws, I would expect the button to raise with any 2-pair plus hand.

Turn ($205): 9h.  Now there is a heart draw, making one of my straight outs (3h) suspect as it could give somebody else a backdoor flush as hands like Ah Qh, Ah Jh, Ah Th could be in either Jun’s or the button’s ranges.  Jun is first and checks.  With this drawy board, he would bet again with a strong value hand, or any pair + flush draw.  The action is on me.  On goddammit-tilt, with cards I would normally fold pre-flop, it’s time to make some waves again.  I bet $125.  Ninth domino.  In hindsight, I think this should have been more like $160-175 as I really don’t want any callers.

While I’m sneaking a peek at Jun to see if he signals whether he will fold, the button raises to $275.  10th domino.  Holy oversight, Batman!  After a short acting job, Jun folds.  I better assign this guy on the button a “for purposes of this blog” nickname, so from here on I’ll call him “Robin.”

Now there is $605 in the pot and it will cost me $150 to call, with an additional $200 behind.  Robin’s raise sizing begs for a call.  This – in addition to my other reads on him – tells me he isn’t on a flush draw.  Raising with a draw on the turn isn’t his style.  Despite not raising on the flop, Robin has to have a 2-pair plus type of hand and I can’t expect him to ever fold if I jam.  A9, A8, A4s, 88, 44 are all possible, along with the occasional 98.  A9 makes the most sense, improving from a call-strength hand on the flop to a raise-strength hand on the turn.  Any spade that pairs the board makes me a flush but might also make Robin a full house.  So I have seven clean flush outs.  Unless he has exactly Ah 8h, it also means he does not have a heart draw either, so all of the 3’s that make me a straight should be clean outs.  If the 3c or 3d comes, my straight will be well concealed and I’m likely to get paid on a river shove.  I don’t know if he will pay off a flush.

The math is this:  $150 to call with $605 in the pot, and $200 more behind.  My equity needs to be at least 150 / (150 + 605), or 19.9% or better to justify a call.

With 10 outs, my equity should be a little over 22%.  After the fact, putting this range into my handy-dandy Poker Cruncher app (A9, A8, A4s, 88, 44, 98), I come up with equity of 23.9%, so calling is correct.  I didn’t include 99 in his range, but he might have that too.

        

Somewhere I think there is a quote that says math is for people who are bad at poker.  I can’t find it right now, but feel like I’m playing some really bad poker.  While calling $150 more is mathematically correct, I’m not happy about this at all.  Let’s review why.  On the previous hand I lost $145 when I got bluffed.  Had I re-bluffed, which I seriously considered, I would have gained over $300.  The bluffer, Jun, was forced to show his bluff – not by me, but by another player who wasn’t even involved in the hand.  This put me on tilt.

Now I have garbage that I should fold pre-flop without a second thought, but called in the unrealistic hope that I might spring some kind of trap on Jun.  I flopped a combo draw, bluffed at the turn card only to get raised, and I’m about to put $150 more, for a total of $340 into this pot, with 5-high and a combo draw, while the target of my ire is now just a spectator.  The distance between what my stack could have been after the previous hand and what my stack is probably going to be after this hand is $800.

Why am I here?  What am I doing?  When are we going to have fun?

I call.  11th domino.

River ($755):  3s.  Holy Magic Lantern, Batman!  And cue the Heavenly Choir.  It’s like the 12th domino is spring-loaded, and snaps back to flip all the other dominoes upright again.

Now I know why I am here!  I know what I am doing.  I’m having fun, right freaking now!

I shove my last $200, and Robin says “Well if you have a flush, good for you” and calls, showing a set of 8’s.

My stack is now approx. $1150… $150 more than it would have been if I had followed my read on the previous hand, which would have led to folding this one.

As a side note (yes, I know this post is rather long), this poker room was paying high hand bonuses all month every day other than Friday’s and today (President’s Day).  Any other day and my straight flush would have brought me an additional $525 windfall.  Not bitchin’ just sayin’.

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RIP Tom Petty

I keep a number of reference lists handy, things like a vacation packing list, books to read, restaurants to try, and so on.  One of my lists is Songs for Poker.  I don’t have these songs downloaded and organized into an actual playlist, but occasionally I’ll hear a song and something about the theme or lyrics makes me think about some aspect of poker and I put it on the list.

First on the list is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ classic I Won’t Back Down.  Now Tom is gone.  May this rock & roll legend rest in peace.  He passed away yesterday at the age of 66 following a cardiac arrest.

As much as I love this song, having it on the top of your mind at a crucial moment of a poker game is downright awful.  Facing a big raise or re-raise, you are usually going to lose.  I mentioned this song in a blog post a couple of years ago, that bears repeating here, in explaining that backing down is exactly what a good poker player does.

Well I won’t back down, no I won’t back down
You could stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

Gonna stand my ground, won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground and I won’t back down

[Chorus:]
Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out
Hey I will stand my ground
And I won’t back down

Well I know what’s right, I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down

Hey baby there ain’t no easy way out
Hey I will stand my ground
And I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down

Feeling a great loss over Tom Petty’s passing.  Maybe I Won’t Back Down should go on a different list — songs I hope other players have on their minds when I have the nuts.  In looking at a list of Tom Petty songs, we could make a whole list based on titles that could be about poker.  I expect to be listening to a lot of Tom Petty in the coming days for sure:

  • Don’t Do Me Like That
  • Don’t Fade on Me
  • Even the Losers
  • Free Fallin’
  • I Need to Know
  • Jammin’ Me
  • Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around
  • Turn This Car Around
  • Yer So Bad
  • You Got Lucky
  • You Wreck Me

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Quitting

According to Tommy Angelo, in his classic Elements of Poker, one should think of quitting is a skill to be developed and mastered.

It is one of the longest element in the book, which highlights its importance.

The end.

An Embarrassingly Bad Call

I didn’t want to write this post, but I’ve been thinking about this hand for several days and need to purge it from my consciousness.  This blog originated as a place to vent and purge bad thoughts, back when no one was reading.  In the hand I’m going to describe, I found out exactly where I stood, knew it, and called off my stack anyway out of sheer stubbornness.  Or stupidity.  Or tilt.  I hoped I could forget about it and move on, not owning up to it here, but it’s still rolling around in my head… THAT’S THE ONLY THING SHE COULD HAVE!  And of course, she did.

I still don’t want to write this post, mostly because I’m embarrassed that people will read it.  Now, dear readers, you have a choice.  Either read on to find out what I did that was so awful, or skip the rest of this post.

As usual, I’m playing no limit Texas hold’em in a private game, at someone’s garage.  Most of the players are regulars.  So far, this night has been frustrating as I’ve either had shitty cards, or totally missed the flop with my hands like AK or AQ.  I had bought in for 200 Big Blinds, won a few very small pots, and started this hand with about 170-175 BBs.

The villain is a young woman, who for purposes of this blog I’ll call “Stardust.”  In the cutoff seat, she opens the action with a raise to 4 BBs.  The button calls, and with QQ in the big blind, I re-raise to 16 BBs.  Stardust very quickly calls and the button folds.

Immediately, I’m thinking she is set-mining with some sort of medium pocket pair.  With a pair higher than my Queens, she would have made a bigger raise in the first place.  With a really low pair, she would limp.  Perhaps she has AK, but again she would have made a bigger raise.  Stardust doesn’t balance her pre-flop range by using the same bet size regardless of hand strength.  A lot of players don’t seem to notice the bet sizing tells, so with certain opponents this can actually be an exploitative strategy.  Her stack is about the same size as mine, so set-mining is mathematically justifiable.

The flop is Jd 8c 2d.  I bet 20 BBs and she quickly calls.

The turn is 7c.  Now there are two possible flush draws – diamonds and clubs.  An open-ended straight draw with T9 also got there.  I discount that based on the pre-flop action.  Stardust might have raised to 4 BBs with T9 suited, but wouldn’t have called my re-raise with so little hesitation.  But what I’m really thinking about is whether she might have flopped a set of 888s.  How can I get her to tell me?

I bet 25 BBs.  Stardust stacks all of her chips other than the $1 chips and puts them in for a large raise.  I ask the dealer for a count, and it is 115 BBs more.  She didn’t announce “all-in” so I can call the raise and still have a few $1 chips of my own left.  The conventional response, if not folding, would be to put the last few dollars in as well, but that would alter the order of the showdown.  She would be calling my shove, and I’d have to show first.  By just calling her raise and leaving the handful of remaining chips alone, I am the caller and Stardust will show first.  If I call and lose, nobody will know exactly what I have.

The main failure here was not taking enough time to ponder Level 3.

Level 1 thinking is “what do I have?”  I have QQ, an over-pair to the board, which is generally considered a strong hand.

Level 2 thinking is “what does she have?”  She raised, smallish, pre-flop then quickly called a re-raise.  She called a flop bet, then raised big over the top of the turn bet.  Of the hands that beat me, I can safely conclude she does not have AA or KK – she would have raised my larger pre-flop.  She does not have JJ – same reason.  She does not have 22 – she would have limped in pre-flop.  She does not have T9 off-suit – she would have folded to my re-raise pre-flop.  She might have T9 suited – a total of 4 combinations – but I think the speed with which she called my pre-flop re-raise effectively rules that out.  She never has 2 pair here – all of the 2P combinations are too weak to raise pre-flop AND call my re-raise.  That leaves 88, which perfectly fits the betting patterns and our reads about Stardust’s playing style. This along is enough to justify folding here.  With Level 2 thinking alone, I should fold and move on.

What about Level 3?  Level 3 thinking is “what does she think I have?”  I re-raised from out-of-position pre-flop, then led out with bets on the flop and turn.  Doesn’t this smack of an over-pair?  My hand should be pretty obvious to anyone paying close attention.  It might be AA, or KK, or QQ, but at this point in the action, these are all equivalent hands.  With this being the case, and two flush draws on the board, can she be raising effectively all-in here with a flush draw?  Stardust just put 140 BBs with of chips at risk.  Would she do that as a semi-bluff, and have any reasonable hope that I would fold after showing as much strength as I’ve shown?

My turn bet was intentionally small.  There was about 77 BBs in the pot and I bet 25 BBs, giving her about 4-to-1 odds on a call.  With a flush draw, Stardust can justify calling.  On the other hand, she might not have much fold equity, and might not be increasing her expected value by shoving.  My hand looks too strong for that, and it’s not here style to bet that aggressively without a made hand.  The only flush draw she can have is with a combo like Ad Kd or Ad Qd. Anything weaker is likely to fold pre-flop, and any Ac Kc or Ac Qc would fold on the flop and not hang around for the second flush draw that came on the turn.

If I have any lingering doubts about her having 88 after the Level 2 thinking, they should be totally erased by the Level 3 answers.

What is weird sometimes is the precision of the hand analysis.  It’s also disconcerting.  Surely there is something else she can have… but there isn’t.  After removing my hole cards and the flop & turn cards, there are 46 unknown cards.  Out of those, there are 1,035 combinations of two cards.  My Level 2 and Level 3 analysis reduces this to exactly three combinations that Stardust can really have.  They are:  8s8h, 8s8d, 8h8d.

After thinking through Level 2, I heard “Trust your reads,” from the imaginary gremlin perched atop my right shoulder.

“You have an over-pair!  Won’t it feel great to bust her?” asks the imaginary gremlin atop my left shoulder.

I call, knowing inside I’ve just made a colossal mistake.

Despite each of us having between $5-10 remaining in $1 chips, she immediately flips over her pocket eights.

The dealer delivers the river card, the Kc.

Technically, we aren’t all-in yet, and her set of 888s is laying face-up on the table.  It’s not like I can bluff her into folding, as if I have KK or made a flush.  So I announce loudly, “I check.”  Stardust looks sheepish now, and also checks.

I buy more chips and two hands later, lose half of them again when a different villain hits a flush on the river after getting all-in with me on the flop against my top pair / top kicker.

I buy more chips.  This ain’t going to be my night.

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