Staying in Control

On the drive home from the casino your mind is racing. “If I only bet here or bluffed there, then I could have won it all”, you think, “and how does the last Ace in the deck come on the River to knock me out?” I get it, you want to play perfectly and have a smooth road to success, but is your mind right? Until you accept that if something can happen that it will happen, you’ll constantly be in a loop of confusion and doubt. In Poker, you will actually see that unlikely thing happen first hand if you play enough, unlike a tornado or an earthquake.

No Limit Texas Hold’em adds another dimension by giving players free will to make their own decisions and bet any amount. This means that there are infinite possibilities. Tom is typically a very aggressive poker player, making large bets and putting intense pressure on his opponents. One day Tom came into the casino with a completely different style. He was timid and not playing any hands. Why is the once aggressive player now tightening up? We don’t know, maybe he’s buying a house for his family or his daughter is going to college next year. The point is that no matter how well we think we know a player, outside factors can always affect their decision making.

The Poker Model’s greatest strength is that it recommends how to play out hands with the above unknowns at the forefront because it prepares us to react to any type of player. We see bets for what they are, a number that will always be a percentage of the Pot, not a cowboy trying to show that he has the largest pickup truck. We make calculated bluffs based on how many remaining chips we will have left if unsuccessful, not randomly based on feel. Most importantly, we work to only be all-in with the best hand mathematically, preserving our tournament life, not because J-10 suited is our favorite hand. The concept of “staring down” an opposing player and getting physical “tells” is not scalable for the masses. Our strategies become even more valuable when playing online against a worldwide player pool that we cannot physically see.

Now meet Bob. Bob usually sits for hours and hours without playing a hand. For some reason today, Bob is out of his mind. Every time someone bets into him he raises, putting serious pressure back on the original better. It was only after we ended the session that we learned that Bob hit a $10,000 jackpot at the slot machines and was “excited”.

I hate getting raised when I have mediocre cards by players like Bob. It makes my decisions much harder and throws off my ability to put my opponent on a hand. Does my opponent actually have a monster hand? Do they have a hand like mine and are playing too aggressively? Is it a complete bluff from an “excited” player? I’ll never know. The need to eliminate the stress of these unknowns is what prompted the rule to check the Flop with mediocre hands, described in “Mid-Stack Management”. When we check the Flop, we can no longer get raised and lose our footing. The check will simplify the hand and make our future decisions easier.

Consider a hand where you raised pre-flop with 8-8 in early position and are called by the Button with all other players folding. The Flop comes 3d-4d-5c and the action is on you. Betting here looks like a standard continuation bet. Your opponent may fold, which is good for you, but you “have something” and could have gotten your opponent to fold with any two cards. You could have made this bet with A-K, Q-J, K-9, or any other hand that missed the Flop and achieved the same result: a small pot win. I don’t have any issue with this play, winning is always good. But what if the other player has 5-6? They definitely will not fold with Top Pair and an Open-Ended Straight Draw. If they call, then there are many Turn cards that can help him have the best hand or just appear to have helped, like a 5 (actually helped) or an Ace (appears to have helped). This will force us to be less certain about our position in the hand and lead us down a path of vulnerability. Now we can be easily bluffed off of the hand. Last and most confusing is when our Flop bet with 8-8 gets raised. Opposing players may raise us with hands that we are beating, like Draws and Bluffs, or hands that we are losing to, like Two Pair, Sets and Straights. We don’t ever want to fold the best hand, so we must put ourselves in a position of control. The above describes the negatives associated with betting in this scenario and losing control of the hand.

On the contrary, checking will keep the Pot small and allow us to get to the Turn regardless of what our opponent does. At this point in the hand, we can use the new information to make better-informed decisions about the latter part of the hand. Be aware that you will lose value in certain instances with our style, which tells you to check the Flop with mediocre hand. For example, you may check a Flop that your opponent would have just called behind you, building the Pot with a good Turn card that keeps you ahead. Remember that when we have a mediocre hand, our goal is to cheaply improve on the hand, not look for value just yet.

This week, we’ll break down a hand where what I expect at each stage did not happen and it goes from bad to worse. What’s most important is that the Pot remains very small and I am never at risk to lose my entire tournament.

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I’m under the gun holding 9s-9h with blinds and antes at 16/80/160. We are early on and started with deep stacks so players have plenty of chips. 9-9 is a playable hand (pocket  pair) so I’ll minimum raise to 320. If I receive a 3-bet then I’ll make a tight fold because I’ll be out of position on the Flop and may get into a tricky situation if all unders come on the board (8-7-3 Flop). Higher Over Pairs, like A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J and 10-10 will make 3-bets here and bets on the Flop that I would have to call while being behind because hands like A-K and A-Q will make the same play. It’s a slippery slope that is easily avoidable by folding.

I’d consider not folding to a 3-bet with 9-9 if the raiser had been making multiple 3-bets, showing a very aggressive style. This will add other hands that 9-9 beats to his range of potential hands. I’d call a 3-bet if I had J-J or Q-Q and make a 4-bet with A-A, K-K or A-K.

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Three players to my left fold, a big stack calls (200 Big Blinds) and action folds to the Big Blind. Once again, I’m prepared to use The Poker Model’s strategies regardless of the Flop. If I flop a set of nines (A-9-3 Flop), then I’ll bet to get all-in because the other players in the hand may call or raise me. If they both fold, then that is fine; it’s unlikely that they’ll improve on the Turn. We can’t force our opponents to pay us off with a big hand like a set of nines unless they have something or decide to bluff.

If I flop a mediocre hand like an overpair (7-5-2 Flop), Middle Pair (A-8-4 Flop), Straight Draw (6-7-8 Flop) or Flush Draw (5s-8s-Ks Flop), then I’ll check to avoid a Flop raise from my opponent. While Over Pairs are a higher tier than Top Pair, the board texture will always determine what is ultimately “better”. We’ll then see how the hand plays out and look for value later on or potentially use a River Blocker Bet.

If I miss the Flop and have third pair (A-K-4 Flop) or worse (A-K-10 Flop), then I’ll make a standard continuation bet in an effort to win the Pot right now.

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The Big Blind folds and the Flop comes 2h-7c-7h. The action is on me. We’ve already discussed that with an overpair we’ll check the Flop here to minimize risk. Let’s consider some potential outcomes if we bet.

My opponent called a pre-flop raise. This usually means he has hands like 22+ or J-10+. In today’s game, this could even mean that he is holding any two cards, especially because he has such a large stack. Remember that the more chips a player has, the more loose they tend to be. Also recall that it’s less likely for a player to have the cards on the board than to not because there are only 4 of each in the deck. It’s also likely that hands like 10-10, J-J, Q-Q, K-K and A-A would have 3-bet me pre-flop; this did not happen. So really the only hands that I’m worried about are X-7 or 2-2, both which are highly unlikely.

Seems like I should bet, right? I may be called by a flush draw or lower pocket pairs like 33-88. But what if my opponent flat called with A-A pre-flop? What if he decides to raise me with nothing? What if he flat calls my Flop bet with the unlikely 7 or another heart comes on the Turn and he makes his Flush? We can’t know. This is why I’m going to check. Even though we can break the hand down piece by piece and convince ourselves that it all adds up, we cannot know what our opponent has until he flips his cards over. We want to keep the Pot small until some of these unknowns are cleared up.

I expect that my opponent will try to take the Pot down by betting if I check. This is where we can make the call and see what happens on the Turn, ultimately getting to a cheap River where we can make a Blocker Bet.

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My opponent checks behind me and the 7s shows on the Turn. I’m not particularly amazed by the third 7 showing on the board because I’ve seen this many times before, but it is not what I expected. First, there is only one 7 left in the deck, now it is even more unlikely that he has it. Also, I now have a Full House, making his Flush Draw irrelevant. But wouldn’t he bet on the Flop after I checked to him to get me out if he had nothing? If I bet here and get raised, does it mean he has the 7? Some players would check Three of a Kind on the Flop. Does he have Quads? If I bet, get called, and then an over card comes, what do I do then?

We can go on and on with the questions. I’m going to focus on my own stack and ensure I see the River without getting bluffed off of the hand. I’ll play the hand similarly to how I played it on the Flop by checking. If my opponent bets, I’ll call and make a River bet (not sure if it’s for value or to block until it comes). It’s for value if I’m called and ahead, while we can call it a blocker if it saves me money or slows down my opponents betting in some type of way. If my opponent checks behind, then I’ll make a River bet as well.

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My opponent checks behind me and the Qh shows on the River; again not what I expected. He has made no attempt to take this Pot down. What’s worse is that any Queen now has me beat on the River. If I check again, I’m leaving the door open for him to make a big bet to take the Pot down. For this reason, I’ll make a River Blocker bet to ensure that I flip my cards over. If my opponent raises on the River, then I will fold. If he calls, then I’ll flip my cards over and will have kept the Pot small. If he folds then I’ll win a small Pot.

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I make a ⅓ pot River Blocker Bet and my opponent calls. Recall that River Block Bets should be about ⅓ the size of the Pot while keeping you over 20 big blinds. Q-J, sigh. If I had just made a standard bet at any point in the hand before the River, it would appear that I would have won. Keep in mind that many things had to happen in order for the hand to play out this way. 1) My opponent made no attempt to steal the pot 2) An unlikely 3rd 7 appeared on the Turn 3) An unlikely Q appeared on the River to beat me.

Let’s not beat ourselves up too much on this one. We could have just as easily made a bet on the Flop and been raised by a bluff. What if our opponent decided to call on the Flop with nothing (Float) and happened to get to the River where he hits the Queen to beat us? Players can do anything with any two cards at any time. When navigating through hands like this, be mindful that if you are raised you are most likely behind. It feels good to think that your opponent is bluffing and that they don’t actually have a hand, but you will lose tournaments this way. While our style may have you losing small pots from time to time, you’ll find yourself going deeper in tournaments because you’ve minimized the risk. Don’t worry too much about losing small pots when you were focused on keeping your stack where it needed to be. Be prepared to see it all because you will.

Brett

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