Archive Feb 2008: Southeastern US Poker

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Theory Post: Initiative

Theory: He who controls the initiative, controls the hand.

If no player makes a good hand or a decent hand on the flop, turn or river, what determines who wins said hand? Initiative

What do I mean by Initiative?
Initiative is what wins the pot until a real poker hand is made that can rightfully claim said pot.

Always ask yourself when you are getting ready to enter a pot: Who has the upper hand (by being the aggressor) and who is in the position of having to make a hand?

“If you constantly call other people’s raises, you will always be at a disadvantage (regardless of their cards.) Also, if you are making them call you, they will always be at a disadvantage.” – Doyle Brunson (though I may be wrong on the quoter here)

I would like to theorize that initiative is a key weapon of a successful poker player. Looking at initiative as a weapon to be wielded, then we, as poker players, must learn to use initiative. We need to recognize when our opponents have the initiative and also to let our opponents think that they have the initiative when we hold a pot controlling hand. Sometimes we need to push the initiative ourselves and sometimes we need to relinquish the initiative to an over aggressive opponent who will stab himself in the foot when he makes a major blunder (i.e. when we have a made hand against an aggressive opponent.) Raising him to take the initiative away too soon may cause him to fold without committing significant dollars to the pot. We need to also recognize when our opponents have acted in a way that takes the initiative away from us and decide if they genuinely now possess a controlling hand or are they simply exploiting the initiative.

Here are some ways that we can take the initiative in a hand , some of which are ways to take the initiative away from another player in the hand.

1. Raising preflop – This is the most basic of methods to control the initiative in a hand. When you are the pfr’r, you will win the blinds a significant amount of time. Also, you are going to Cbet a high percentage of the time when you are called pf, most of which will be a bluff or a semi-bluff. The villain has put himself into a spot where he must either make a hand, or bluff/rebluff into you to win the pot. These are usually small pots won in this category, but many small pots over time will add up to a significant portion of your total win.

2. 3 betting preflop – When someone has announced by a pfr that they wish to possess the initiative, you can snatch the initiative away from them by 3 betting them. 3 betting is very good for defining yours and your opponent’s hand pf. Sometimes this is done when you hold a significant pf starting hand, sometimes it is done “light” from the blinds vs. a LP raiser, sometimes it is done in LP vs. a player who is getting out of line or who folds to 3 bets often. This is a more powerful weapon than a standard pfr, and must be followed by a Cbet much more often when called. When you 3 bet an opponent, you firmly hold the initiative in your control, but when you get it wrestled away from you, the pot is usually larger, and the villain will more often than not hold a very powerful hand. 3 bets by the villain are just as effective against our raises and they will fire a Cbet just as often on the flop. Therefore, we must make a decision pf about what flops we need in order to be prepared to defend against the villain’s post flop play. Folding to a tight villain’s 3 bet is rarely a huge mistake especially OOP. As stated in PNL, we need to plan our hand in advance and decide if our expectation looks positive.

3. Floating allows the initiative to stay in the pfr’s control until they give up the initiative by checking the turn. This is a more passive way of taking the initiative and is dependent upon the pfr’r giving it up and not firing a 2nd barrel. Your call on the flop will sometimes be with a draw but when the villain gives up by checking on the turn, you can easily turn your drawing hand into a very +EV semi-bluff. Floating is also tried w/ PPs that haven’t improved and have two or less overcards on the board, 2nd pair hands and bare overcards when they think you’re on a pure bluff. The best defense against habitual floaters involves check-raising your strong hands and bluffs/semi-bluffs on the turn.

4. Check-raising muscles the initiative from your opponents. By giving your opponent the opportunity to fire at the pot, you allow them to control the initiative before you snatch it away from them with a raise and announce that you have a real hand. The villain may elect initially not to bet at the pot, but that’s in their control since you have allowed them to possess the initiative by your check. C/Ring also allows you to control the initiative as a bluff, such as when you feel that a LP raiser is getting out of line, many times a C/R will snatch the pot away from them. Once again, if you have to wrestle with an opponent over the initiative after a C/R, then they very often will hold a good hand and you can fold easily if you do not also possess a strong hand. (See Baluga Theorum)

Min C/R’s are poor attempts to either bluff cheaply or finesse some more money into the pot. Min C/R’s are usually done w/ very strong made hands when they are finessing, and they allow the original possessor of the initiative to feel that they have to hang on due to the “pot odds” being offered them. Pay attention to your opponents and take notes on who has a strong hand w/ a min C/R and who uses this same play to bluff. In the absence of good information, err on the side of caution against this play.

5. Double-barreling can be a great tool when utilized at the proper times. It holds the initiative firmly in your hands and says to your opponents that you don’t leave your kids out in the cold to be snatched up by some conniving soul. Not 2nd barreling gives up the initiative and allows floaters to take command of the hand. Watch the caller’s stats to determine if they are a likely floater and decide based on the board texture whether or not the flop hit the villain’s range and if you think they will fold to a 2nd barrel. Once again, past history is the best indicator of future actions, so pay attention to hands that you aren’t involved in.

6. Semi-bluffing is a powerful and leveraged use of initiative. Just calling w/ strong draws has less EV than semi-bluffing w/ them since you don’t generate any fold equity through your use of betting/initiative. By letting the other player control the initiative you have relinquished control of the hand and have become completely card dependent for winning the hand at showdown. I win with most of my draws by being the bettor, not by showing down the hands that I make 33% of the time. Good semi-bluffing involves knowing your opponents. Daniel Negreanu says, “If you bluff a bad player, you then become one.” This is a doctrinal poker proverb and applies to semi-bluffing just as much as pure bluffing. It is also a key to understanding how to beat the lowest stakes (up to 25NL.) +EV semi-bluffing can involve floating, raising for free cards on the flop, double barreling and ck-raising. Learning when and where to apply these tactics will require discipline and discernment.

Here are some ways that we relinquish the initiative in a hand. By relinquishing the initiative, we can attempt to trap an aggressive player, or we have relegated ourselves into having to improve our hand to continue in it.

1a. Smooth calling pf is bad when talking about controlling the initiative. Smooth calling forces you to make a hand as most of the time you’ll be facing a Cbet on the flop. Unless the villain is a good floating candidate or you have a hand that either hits the flop hard or is easy to fold when it misses, you shouldn’t be calling other people’s pfr’s. Small pocket pairs are excellent for smooth calling as you either hit the flop or you dump your hand. Suited connectors are good to smooth call with, when you’re in position. You should also only be smooth calling w/ SC’s when you and your opponents are deep enough to take advantage of the implied odds of these high potential hands. SC’s don’t connect with the flop all that often, but they are hugely deceptive when they do hit. Also, SC’s shouldn’t be played for TP hands unless you think you can pull off a float steal on the turn.

1b. Smooth-calling pf OOP is horrible. Full Ring is a game where the blinds matter very little since they come around less often. Blinds matter more in 6max games since your opponents are stealing w/ a much wider range. Also, blinds matter more in tournaments since they become larger and larger percentages of your stack. You should usually only defend with hands that hit the flop hard or are easy to fold as discussed above. Drawing hands OOP are very –EV as any acts of initiative through semi-bluffing are made blindly as to the actions of the pfr’r. A good 3 bet can be much more +EV than a simple smooth-call, but remember to pick your spots carefully by knowing your opponent.

2. Slow-playing is voluntarily leaving the initiative in your opponent’s hands and allows them to bet worse hands w/o you initially revealing the strength of your hand. However, when you do finally reveal the strength of your hand via a C/R or Turn/River lead bet, the jig is up and the strength of your hand is now much more apparent. Slow-playing should be mostly board dependent and partly based on the strength of your hand. A set of Jacks can be slow played on a J-7-3r board, but should never be slow-played on a J-9-8 board w/ 2 to a suit.

From fimbulwinter's "Pilgrimage into 25NL" regarding errors made at 25NL
“5. Slow-playing the wrong kinds of hands. People ALWAYS slow-played sets. One hand a guy had JJ on a J98 flop and pushed in on the river with a board of 389JQ. Slow-playing should depend not on the strength of your hand but on the likelihood of it being outdrawn. One hand a habitual lag bet into my A7s on a board of A33r in an unraised pot. If I'm ahead, he has very few outs, if I’m behind he'll probably get paid as he was such a terrible lag. I called and put a blocker out on the turn and river and took a nice pot against his 88.”

Know your opponents and pick good spots to use initiative to pick up orphaned pots. Most of the time players don’t make a hand and the pot will be won by whoever takes possession of the pot. Pots are obtained by utilizing initiative to represent a controlling hand.

Playing +EV aggressive poker can be learned, but there is a cost associated w/ learning. This cost is not variance but is commonly referred to as “spewing.” There is a very tough learning curve associated w/ becoming an aggressive poker player. In the micros, the judicial use of these tools is paramount. It is both a quality and a QUANTITY issue. I think the poker books flying off the shelves do a great injustice to many beginning players by not stressing the value of folding. Overuse and misuse of these tools WILL cost you more money than playing passively will. Implement one aggressive strategy at a time until you get it down, then move on to the next one. Try to use all of these weapons sparingly and in the correct situations.

It is significantly easier to run all the moves mentioned above if your image is that of a true TAG. If you are running LAG stats, you won’t be able to sell everybody on the stoutness of your hand. Planning ahead and folding PF is often the best line out there that the micro player can embrace, then the initiative plays will have more teeth.

Special thanks to Threads13 and King Spew on 2+2 for helping me to revise this essay into a readable and correct format.

Mid-month Update on my “Break”:

Mid-month Update on my “Break”:

My February goals were:
Reinvigorate my spiritual life.
Create new habits
1. Prayer time
2. Reading time
3. Exercise program
Purify my body, through a strict diet.
Retool my calendar so that I am doing things based on what is important, not what I feel like doing.

Well, I can’t say that I have thoroughly kept any of my stated goals for the month. I’ve played about 7k hands online, (which isn’t much.) It’s definitely a lot less than I would have covered if I weren’t considering myself on a break. I’ve done well in regards to live play though; I’ve declined several home game invitations and two invitations for trips over to the casino. I’ll definitely be making a trip over to the Horseshoe on Saturday, March 1st (Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.)

I’ve done fairly well w/ increasing my reading time, but my prayer and meditation times are mostly unchanged. If reading helps to improve your spiritual life, well, I’m probably doing better in this area than I was before this month. I’m also thinking about spiritual matters more often, but taking the time to stop to pray and meditate just isn’t happening.

I did make an improvement in my sunroom, which I am proud of. I used some of my bankroll to buy a nice, cushy love seat that my wife and I can both crawl into and do some reading together. We’ve already turned the TV off on a few nights and sat together for some reading time alone. This is very +EV for the marriage, though I’m sorry to say that we haven’t “broke in” the new furniture yet. The wife has some sort of problem w/ the neighbors being able to see us. I guess it IS a sunroom…

My strict diet only lasted a week, though I’m just now having caffeine again. An exercise program is yet to be considered and is as of yet non-existent.

I’ve probably done the best in regards to my calendar retool. I’ve been writing down what I spend the majority of my free time doing. I know this is reactive instead of proactive, but at least I’m looking at what I’m doing and can view it in terms of whole months and weeks. It also helps me to know what my normal activities are during the week and this allows me to stick to a better schedule and plan accordingly.

Overall, it looks like I’ve hit 2 areas on my list to some degree and haven’t budged any on the rest. Not a very successful break, IMO. I guess that I’m just a degenerate gambler at heart and am struggling to fight my way out of this cubicle that I call a job!

January Graph & Results

January was a nice start to the year. I had a good trip to the Horseshoe-Bossier City and got fully rolled for 50NL on PokerStars without having to deposit anymore money. I wish that my earn rate at 50NL would have been higher, but a wins a win and a few of the losses that I took were unavoidable suckouts.

In a borish economist voice, "The chart is upward trending with a few rough patches at the end. It looks like we've found ourselves a winner."
click to enlarge the image

I will be taking a break from poker in February. It’s not that I’m burned out or anything, I just need to put my priorities back into order.

My goals are to:
Reinvigorate my spiritual life.
Create new habits
1. A prayer time
2. Reading time
3. An exercise program
Purify my body, through a strict diet.
Retool my calendar so that I am doing things based on what is important, not what I feel like doing.

I recently bought Security Analysis by Benjamin Graham on audio CD, The Essays of Warren Buffett by Warren Buffett and Lawrence A. Cunningham, and No Limit Theory and Practice. I won’t start reading NLT&P until March. I want to keep my mind clear and focused upon the long-term.

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