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Things it took me a while to learn part 19: Putting the peices together

Bond18 I wrote this article with Nath a while ago, then while browsing Tworags today in preparation for my soon return I realized this one had yet to be uploaded. So here it is:

Every now and then you'll see someone make a play that looks very much out of the ordinary. Whether it's a sick call, a massive fold, or a bluff that seems almost illogical, you'll see thinking players make moves that are entirely unusual, but surprisingly sensible when they give you their thought process and everything is put together.

Many poker hands are close to automatic, and even putting in a large session of MTT play I probably encounter less than a dozen hands that require considerable thought. Of those, the majority will end with an ordinary or regular conclusion, I just needed some time to think all the angles through. Now and then though, you'll find yourself in a very difficult, strange, or unexpected spot where the best option may not be the most obvious.

Learning to put all the pieces together in a poker hand is integral to your advancement as a player. In order to be able to gain maximum equity from the hands you play you need to be thinking about everything that goes into the hand and how it affects what your decision should be. What kind of factors should you be including in your thought process during a hand? A brief (but likely incomplete) list would include:


1. Stack sizes: Always be considering stack sizes and what they implicate, allow, and restrict.


2. Position: How it gives an advantage to one player in a hand and takes it from the other (being out of position, while normally a disadvantage, can sometimes be reversed when you want to do something like check shove a draw.)


3. Previous streets: When making a decision on later streets you need to consider how previous streets actions have affected the hand. Think about how they narrow your opponents range, how it narrows his perception of your range, and what your opponent was trying to accomplish in them.


4. History/metagame: Unless your brand new to an online poker table as a total unknown and your villain is a total unknown, you need to consider how history and metagame affect the hand. Almost no poker hand is a complete vacuum, and especially in live hands you have all kinds of information available to you, even if that means making broad generalizations (about people’s age, gender, race, clothing, nationality). When you don't have anything else to go on, start using stereotypes. They might not be PC, but they're definitely +EV. In terms of history, think about previous lines the villain has taken both against you and in similar situations against others.


5. How each card affects the hand: On later streets you need to think about how each card that rolls off affects the hand and the options available to you. Obvious examples include: A 2 hitting a AJ8 flop being totally unimportant. An ace hitting a T54 flop being a great scare card to bluff. A heart hitting a J52 two heart board reducing the range your top pair beats, etc.


6. Levels: What level are you thinking on? What level is the villain thinking on? What level does he think your thinking on? Sounds complicated, doesn't it? In order the levels go: What do I think he has? What do I think he thinks I have? What do I think he thinks I think he has? Don't just think about the level itself though, think about how the knowledge you believe your opponent has (or thinks he has) will change his action.


7. What stage of the tournament it is: Many opponents simply won't attempt large bluffs in the first few levels because they don't want to bust early. Same goes with bubble situations. Some opponents will use bubble periods to go ballistic and attempt all kinds of aggressive plays. Know your opponent and whether he cares what stage of the tournament it is.


8. Other external factors: Who have you seen your opponent talking to? Has he been talking strategy? How is he dressed? Anything else you can incorporate to get your opponents range more precise.
It's difficult to explain how to put a hand together simply with lists and advice. I think the best way to impart what I'm talking about here is through examples. The first comes from a hand I played in the 2008 WSOP $5000 full ring no limit event:



History/Reads: We are in the money with about 45 players left. Villain is a young guy moved to the table about half an hour ago. I saw him talking to online players “gunning4you” and Ike Haxton, so I assume he's online. I saw him raise the button with 92o into the BB of a nit with a very short stack who shoved. Button made the standard pot odds call and lost the hand. Overall he seems pretty aggressive and thinking. We don't have any history in hands played between each other, and he hasn't seen me play any interesting or relevant pots on the table.


My stack: ~160,000
Young guy: ~200,000

Blinds 2000/4000 with 500 ante.

I hold Qc Jc in the BB.

Preflop: Folds to the CO, Co raises to 11000, folds to me in the BB, I call.


So far things are pretty standard here. We know the villain is aggressive and he raises in late position, and we make the call with a hand that is a pretty clear blind defense at these stack sizes.


Flop: 4h 7s Td

I check, the CO checks.

His flop check is a bit strange. I would expect him to bet with every over pair, top pair, and the vast majority of overcard hands. I also think he normally bets second or third pair, though checking behind for pot control is certainly possible. I also think he would normally bet if he flopped a draw, such as 98 (the only realistic draw out.)


Turn: Qh

I bet 16,000, the CO thinks briefly and shoves, I call.

Leading here seems pretty standard, though we can also make an argument for check/calling. However, given the somewhat drawy board, I felt like betting was better, especially since he might call down a little light since he might think I'm just firing because he checked behind.

When the CO shoves we need to start thinking about his range for making this play with. Would he play a set or two pair like this? Certainly not, if he checked back the flop with a hand that strong he would almost never just shove the turn (at least with no history) and I would expect him to do something like raise to 46,000 instead. Would he play an overpair like this? The overpair is similar to the set, except there's even less chance he checked behind on the flop with the overpair. Would he play KQ or AQ this way? KQ is certainly unlikely from a thinking player because he knows it's very hard to get value this way. AQ is possible, but even still I think it's much more likely he calls or raises a nominal amount, since the only realistic thing for me to call him with (that doesn't beat him) is KQ or perhaps QJ.

So what would he shove? Well with the heart hits that puts a flush draw out, so him checking back over cards with a heart draw on the flop would make sense. KJ checking the flop and cramming would also make sense. He could also have some form of combo draw, such as a small pair with a flush draw like 7h 6h, that decided to check the flop to induce bluffs but now decides I can't call with one pair hands and shoves instead.

Overall though, we can't seem to find many (if any) hands in his range that make sense for him to shove for value, and numerous hands make sense for him to shove as a semi bluff.

We also know villain is young and talked to online players, and online players aren't normally the type to be very risk averse and scared for their tournament life.

After I called the CO tapped the table and turned over Jh 7h for a combo draw semi bluff.

For a second example on this matter I've asked my friend and well known forum contributor Nath capnjackpot Pizzolatto to include a hand he posted on his blog some time ago that I thought was an excellent example of adapting to the changes in a hand and putting the pieces together in it. The hand comes from the Sunday Million about a year ago:


SB (t31052)
BB (t35813)
UTG (t29700)
UTG+1 (t19400)
MP1 (t28360)
Hero (t27246)
MP3 (t12775)
CO (t7727)
Button (t11100)

Preflop: Hero is MP2 with 9s 9c

UTG raises to t1200, 2 folds, Hero calls t1200, 4 folds, BB calls t600.

Flop: (t3900) 5h 4c 2d(3 players)

BB checks, UTG bets t3600, Hero calls t3600, BB folds.

Turn: (t11100) 2d(2 players)

UTG bets t4800, Hero calls t4800.

River: (t20700) Ad(2 players)

UTG checks, Hero bets t17646 (All-In), UTG folds.

Final Pot: t20700


OK... now you're probably wondering why I took a line that seems really weird and determined to get as much of my money in the pot as possible while behind. And I'm going to show you why it works here. Let's look street by street.

Preflop: Hero is MP2 with 9s 9c.

UTG raises to t1200, 2 folds, Hero calls t1200, 4 folds, BB calls t600.

So this is the most straightforward street in the whole hand. A min-raise is indicative of everything and nothing; mostly, it tells me my opponent is probably a clown. It doesn't do a whole lot to define his hand, though. Some players love to min-raise their big hands to try to induce action on them. Some like to min-raise hands they want to see cheap flops with, in hopes the min-raise discourages a re-raise. FWIW, I think both are pretty terrible, and if you consistently do one or the other you have a huge hole in your game. I try to blend my raise sizes so as to make my hand difficult to read.

Anyway, having said all that, I elect to just call with 99 because I have no idea what my opponent has; if I re-raise and he folds, I win a relatively small pot, but if he 4-bets me, I have to fold, and I've wasted a chance to win a big pot. So I decide to call and proceed post flop. The BB comes along because he's getting 5.5:1 and closing the action, not because he necessarily has much.

Flop: (t3900) 5h 4c 2s (3 players)

BB checks, UTG bets t3600, Hero calls t3600, BB folds.

Here's where it starts to get interesting. Making a pot size bet here is often indicative of an overpair. Here's the catch: I still beat a few of the overpairs. In addition, some people panic with their AK/AQ hands when they miss here and just start firing big bets in hopes of scaring away an opponent. On this board, AK/AQ has an additional four outs against underpairs. This increased equity makes betting and getting it in with AK here really not that bad a play.

It's also the big reason I don't make a move at the pot now. Some people see "overpair" and think "I have to protect my hand". Having seen him make a big bet at the pot now, I know my opponent likes his hand, but I don't know exactly what he has. It's too likely my hand is good to fold here, but he also has an overpair far too often to make raising and getting the money in profitable. I feel as if I get it in, it's going to be as a 60-40 favorite or a 90-10 dog. I don't mind getting it in as a 60-40 favorite, especially in a tournament like the Million, whose field size I feel dictates a faster style of play, a more "race to the finish line" approach-- but I get it in drawing to the two nines way too often to want to push now. So I call and decide to reevaluate based on the turn. The BB folds, and I never considered him to be much of a factor anyway.

Turn: (t11100) 2d (2 players)

UTG bets t4800, Hero calls t4800.

The deuce doesn't change anything. Neither of us has a deuce and we both know that. Now, his turn bet is interesting-- he bets just under 1/2 pot, which seems weak, but which also sets him up for a pot-sized river shove if I call. (By the way, if you aren't thinking about manipulating pot and stack sizes like this when you size your bets, you are making a mistake.) For my part, the price is too good to fold an overpair-- but still, my hand is not good enough to raise. I suspect some time he has an overpair to mine, some time he still has AK/AQ (the bet size is actually an effective size to block-bet a draw and see if he hits it), and rarely, he has a worse overpair than mine. So considering most of his range as TT-KK and the other major part of it as AK/AQ*, I call again.

* - I don't include AA here, not because it's impossible, but because it's a special case. He has the best of both worlds, and I'm screwed; the river is basically irrelevant because he's shoving all of them. I also considered 66-88 unlikely, though not impossible.

River: (t20700) Ad (2 players)

UTG checks, Hero bets t17646 (All-In), UTG folds.

Wow. This is such an interesting card. All his ace hands got there, and all his overpair hands just got scared shitless. This is the beauty of position-- I can use his action to judge what he has. Since he has a pot-sized bet left, he's going to have to shove for value if he hit his ace (or his 33, or if he was already full, or what have you).

He checks.

Now, many, many players' immediate reaction would be to check, thinking that "Oh, either he had me already, or he hit that ace. And he's not calling with a worse hand, and we have a pair, so let's check and hope we win the showdown."

They're wrong.

When he checks, he's completely vulnerable. We each have less than the size of the pot left (he has me barely covered), and if we have anything reasonable, we're pot committed. The only reason not to put in the rest of the money here is if we think, for some specific reason, that a scare card has helped so much of our opponents' range, that we should give up. Trapping would be absurd at this point for villain, given that I should be calling his push with anything reasonable, having gotten this far.
So when he checks, it's not to trap, it's because that ace scares the crap out of him and he will fold to a shove.

And -- this is important -- we should realize that this swings all the Ax hands and 33/44/55 out of his range, and makes his range overwhelmingly overpairs. So his range consists primarily of hands that will beat ours at showdown, but cannot call all-in.

Knowing this, we should move in as a bluff. The fact that he didn't move in already gives us all the reason in the world to. He's announced to us that he is scared of the ace, and he is hoping we will let him show down his hand. So we have to disappoint him.

On a side note, the stack sizes are really excellent for this move. We each have slightly less than the pot left (I have 17.5k and he has 20k in a 20k pot). Which means that an all-in bet can be interpreted as a "normal" bet size. (Moving all-in here for, say, four times the pot would be considered "abnormal".) Because of that, it makes our opponent less likely to suspect that we are bluffing; we could simply be trying to get every dollar possible out of our hand. It puts him in a pretty terrible spot, since from his perspective we could easily have the AK/AQ/33. We certainly wouldn't check those behind on the river. So it's very unlikely that villain is good one time in three, and he folds.

Now, at the table, this process is much quicker, and is occasionally guided by intuition-- you don't always have the time to think out, in words, why a move will work; you "know" it. While it's good to have sound, logical reasons for your moves, it's more important to trust your intuition-- it's a part of you, and it works on what you have learned, too. In the heat of the moment, it's taking all your experience and skill and training and leading you to the right decision. If you have prepared it for the moments you need it, it will not let you down. Work on your logic away from the tables, and study and review and prepare your theory, so that your instincts have the background they need to make the right decision. Trust yourself to learn the game.

I will say that bluff-shoving the river hadn't entered my thought process until the river hit, and the villain thought for a bit and checked. Then it occurred to me that he couldn't call a push, so I pushed-- it wouldn't have really mattered what I had, but I was definitely swayed by the relative weakness of my hand. (If I had, say, KK, I might have checked behind-- or pushed for value.)

But that's another point of this hand-- you have to be able to adapt your decision-making process each time new information comes to light. Even though you have a plan for a hand, something may change which will cause you to abandon that, because you realize an alternate line is more profitable. Online, the pace is fast, so you need to be quick mentally. Live, you always have an opportunity to think through a hand. Online, you have much shorter time limits and may be multi-tabling as well, so being quick on your feet is just as important as being sound on your feet.

So to recap today's lesson:

a) Be alert to your hand strength relative to your opponent's range, not just to the board, or in the absolute sense

b) Don’t be afraid to turn a made hand into a bluff

c) Don't be afraid to change plans in the middle of the hand, as you gather information

d) Be a quick thinker

e)Trust yourself


---

Thanks very much to capnjackpot (Nath) for his input and that's all I have for now. As always if there are questions or comments, I'm happy to field them.

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