Poker strategy: The Soap Box

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Making adjustments for weird games, III

In my last entry, I wrote about what to do when the blinds are comparatively small. Now, what do you do when the blinds are comparatively big?

For example, at the Seminole Indian Casino Hollywood, the $1-$2 limit game is spread with $1-$1 blinds. In this case, there's 2 small bets in before the flop (as opposed to the "standard" 1 1/3 to 1 2/3 small bets). Can you say "blind stealing opportunity?" Risk $2 to win $2, you only have to be a favorite 50% of the time to win.

Of course, this needs to be tempered by the fact that proper play dictates defending your blind more (even the SB) -- a button raise to you in the SB gives you 4:1 odds on your call; if you're a winner more than 20% of the time, you've made money. In fact, you should consider reraising to a blind steal more (especially out of the BB); putting in $2 to win $4 means that you need to only win just over 1/3 of the hands you reraise to show a profit.

Additionally, you should loosen up slightly in a game like this. You're paying 2 small bets per orbit, so you need to be a bit more active than normal, and the extra money in the pot preflop makes it worth your time to do so (remember, if you open with a call, you only need to be the winner 1/3 of the time to break even). If you have any kind of a read on the players behind you, especially a "they're gonna call, not raise" read, all of a sudden early position can be played like middle position (eg, you can call UTG with K T as I did recently, flopping a flush and netting a $20 win).

So, to sum up the ideas from my little miniseries on making adjustments for weird blind limits:

As the blinds get comparatively smaller, fold more, raise less, steal less, and let your blinds go more.
As the blinds get comparatively bigger, fold less, raise more, steal more, and defend your blinds more vigorously.

Making adjustments for weird games, II

I live in the backwoods of the public poker world; Florida. Here, there's a maximum $5 bet in limit poker, and a lot of folks who want to play ultra-low (for years, there was a $10 maximum on pots, so it's still a scary thing, playing where you can lose $10 a hand for some of these old folks).

At any rate, on a recent trip, I played $1-$2 limit at the Seminole Hard Rock, in Hollywood (see my trip report and room review for more info -- the upshot, nice room, a bit noisy, and the dealers are mediocre). At that game, there is no big blind, only a single $1 blind in front of the button (eg, if the button is at seat 1, seat 2 posts $1, and seat 3 is UTG, as opposed to the more "standard" play where seat 2 would post 50ยข, seat 3 posts $1, and seat 4 is UTG).

How does one adjust to such an arrangement (aside from noting that it's frikkin' $1-$2, so it's an uber low-limit game anyhow, so the major mistake made is players calling when they should fold, and sometimes calling when they should raise or checking when they should bet, that is)? Having a single blind should change the texture of the game, right?

It does.

First off, there's less money in the pot preflop, as normally there's between 1 1/3 and 1 2/3 small bets in the pot (depending on the game -- for $3-$6, it's generally $1 and $3 blinds, for 1 1/3 small bets, for $9-$18 I've seen blinds of $6 and $9, for 1 2/3 small bets). Here, there's only 1 small bet. So, your preflop steal equity goes down; you risk $2 to win $1, so you must be at least a 67% favorite to win if you're called, where in the other situation, you need only be a favorite ~57% of the time (actually, it's between 54% and 60%, depending on the size of the small blind). Additionally, defending your big blind is riskier -- you'll put 1 SB into a 3 SB pot to defend in this case, rather than

So, steal less, and defend less.

This opens the door to the other major strategy change. Tighten up, compared to a game with the same number of players seeing the flop and "normal" blinds. You are only spending 1 small bet per orbit, so you can afford to wait for premium hands more. Admittedly, with generally between 5 and 9 players seeing the flop (on a 9-handed game, this describes the $1-$2 games here accurately), "tighter" is a pretty shaky term; you mainly only have to be tighter than your opponents to win. However, don't let yourself be tempted by mediocre hands like 9 T; you're facing long odds, because of the number of players (remind yourself in early position, "there's gonna be a crowd behind me,"), and can afford to wait for something that plays well against a crowd.

That being said, I can see some players making the argument (and it's reasonable, IMO) that in such a game, taking an extra hand every 2 orbits might make sense (after all, it means you're effectively paying your small blind as "normal"), but I'd caution you to do so in position only. Don't let yourself be swayed into calling UTG with crap like, oh, K T (a joke; I won a big pot in that position with that hand last night) unless you really know what you're doing (in that case, I had good reads on 4 players behind me; they were all calling, so I knew I was OK odds-wise).

So, perhaps a better way of saying it is "tighten up in early position, loosen up a little in late position."

Next time: dealing with games with comparitively big preflop blinds (like, the Seminole Casino Hollywood's $1-$1 blind $1-$2 limit game).

Making adjustments for weird games

Here in Florida, the law limits bet sizes to a maximum of $5 (and allows no-limit games with buyins of $100 or less, but in this article, I'll be discussing limit games). Due to this, there are a number of "strange" limit games in the state, for example:

$2 straight limit ($1-$2 blinds) almost everywhere.
$3-$5 fixed limit ($2-$3 blinds) at Sarasota.
$5 straight limit ($3-$5 blinds) at Naples/Ft Myers.

Now, admittedly, the competition at these games is fairly weak, but there are adjustments to be made to optimize your play in them.

First, preflop. In the SB, for example, in the Sarasota game, you're OK to call limpers with almost any two cards, even if it's folded around to you! Consider the case of 2 3 in the SB against K K in the BB: you're getting 5:1 odds from the pot (completing your $2 blind costs $1, the blinds total $5), and your hand is a winner 15% of the time. Yes, it's slightly -EV, but the KK would likely NEVER fear a board of 2 3 7, so your implied odds are greater. It's fit-or-fold on the flop; if the flop hits your hand hard (not bottom-pair-weak-kicker, not middle pair, I mean at least a pair and a draw, or two pair), you can play it out and make some money from implied odds, and if not you can get away cheap.

Your hand selection in the straight limit games should be different; your high card values go up, while your suited and connected values go down. Why? When do most straights and flushes hit in a "normal" limit game? On the turn or river, when the bets double and the straight or flush gets paid big. In the straight limit games, however, since there is no higher betting limit, the straight or flush doesn't get paid well, and is therefore less valueable. Therefore, hands like 6 7, that are playable in late position in a normal limit game, aren't so good here, while hands like K Q become more playable in early position (as the players who DO play small-card drawing hands in late position are giving up equity to your higher cards).

In the Sarasota game, your hand selection should be relatively standard; since there is a higher betting limit, straights and flushes get paid off reasonably. However, since the higher limit is $1 less than in a "normal" limit game, you can more easily fold your weak straight/flush draw hands preflop; you'll need more callers to give you odds than you would in a "normal" game.

Postflop, as indicated above, in the $2 and $5 games, you can draw more inexpensively, but you don't get paid off as well. Because of this, it's almost never a good idea to slowplay a good hand; you want to make it expensive for the draws to happen (and, when they arrive, it won't be as costly to you as it'll be on a "cheap" round). You don't want to be playing draws as much; free card plays negated in value, and your implied odds are lower. Strong draws are still playable (eg, A Q on a flop of T J 3), but weak ones can be safely mucked, even though your pot odds on the turn are better!

In the Sarasota game, postflop adjustments can be more limited; basically only the weakest draws should disappear. You can safely slowplay huge flops, and free card plays just become cheaper-card-plays (a raise from the button in our above situation with A Q on a flop of T J 3 costs you $3 to save you from the $5 turn bet, so you save $2 instead of the normal $3). Semi-bluff opportunities are OK for such plays, but don't do it if you only have the straight or flush outs to beat top pair.

Interestingly, in all these games, many players seem to take a sort of binary logic on whether or not they'll play their hand; they look at the cards, decide to play or not, and then see the flop or fold. Note that at no time is there a "re-evaluate the strength of my hand based on the preflop raise from the UTG player" stage in that logic. Additionally, players in these games almost never let go of a hand when they've limped and are raised preflop! Therefore, your preflop raises should be more based on value than on wanting to narrow the field. All of a sudden, hands that are perfectly callable in other games become raising hands in late position, and your field-limiting raises in early position should be severely reconsidered.

Low limit games like these have a ton of weak players; they offer a skilled player a nearly ATM-like opportunity to take money off the table. With minor adjustments to your play, you can raise your expectation in these fishponds.

On being aware of game texture

Last night, while playing online, I sat down at a $1-$2 limit table (yeah, sue me. I like low limits.). The statistics were nothing special; 40% seeing the flop, $10 or so in each pot.

However, when I sat down, I noticed quickly that the texture of the game was quite different than what I'd expected. Most low-limit games are loose-passive affairs, with a lot of hands going to showdown, and not much preflop raising (call this "east-coast low limit," as most low limit games I've seen in the west coast tend to be loose-aggressive, with lots of preflop raises and more action). Most pots aren't won uncontested, and bluffs rarely work.

However, the game I sat down in played more like it was out of Hold'em For Advanced Players, with more than half the pots being raised preflop, semi-bluff checkraises on the turn driving out players, and river bets with unimproved hands winning pots. Yes, there were 3-5 players in on each flop (either the raiser, a caller, and one of the blinds, or 3 limpers and the blinds), and the pots were hovering around $10, but that's because they were either $5 and won uncontested on the flop, or $15 and won on the later rounds or shown down. Probably 1 hand in 4 reached showdown (and that estimate might be high. Of 111 hands in the session, I showed down less than 7, while winning 14 pots total.). The game played like an aggressive $5-$10 game, not a $1-$2.

It was kind of nice. Some of the more "advanced" plays that you wouldn't make against fish (can't bluff out someone who's too stupid to know that your bets say he's behind) worked! Call a raise in the BB with J Q, catch a flop of 9 8 3, and checkraise to win! Limp with A A, then reraise preflop to trap a 9 9 for an extra bet! Make free card plays! Push at big pots! Ultimately, I wound up down $3.50 for the session (getting KK cracked on the flop for 4 preflop bets helped; someone called with QJ, and flopped JJ3, and it was a bet on each round to me), but it was money well spent in entertainment alone.

What's the moral of the story? Well, there isn't much of one -- if anything, it'd be this: Don't be a victim of Fancy Play Syndrome in games where fancy play doesn't work. None of those plays I made last night would have flown in a "normal" $1-$2 game; when has a checkraise on the flop ever pushed out most low-limit fish? However, having recognized the kind of game I was sitting in, I could adjust my game to fit the game texture.

Make sure you know how the game runs when you sit down.

The eight mistakes you can make in (limit) poker

Author's note: This short article is inspired by one I read in either Poker Digest or Card Player about 6 years ago. The content is all mine, but the idea of there being 8 fundamental errors is not.

Limit poker, at it's heart, is about making decision. You have basically 5 choices: check/bet if no-one has bet yet, and call/raise/fold if there is a bet (yes, you can fold to a check, but that's an obvious error, and won't be covered here). Now, anyone who's read The Theory of Poker is familiar with the Fundamental Theorem of Poker, "Any time you act differently than you would if the cards were dealt face-up, you've lost money." Given that, and the limited number of decisions allowed, there are eight fundamental errors that are possible in any given hand of poker (yes, there are more errors possible, such as game and limit selection problems, and where to sit, but here we'll concern ourselves with play of the hand only).

Bet instead of check: This is the classic loose-aggressive mistake; you have 8 9 in an unraised big blind with 2 other players, and the flop comes out T 7 A. Betting here would be a bet instead of check mistake -- there's a strong possibility that one of your opponents holds Ax or Tx, or even a middle pair, and you're holding nothing more than 6 straight outs (3 of which allow for a higher straight), 7 flush outs (one of which pairs the board), and 2 straight flush outs. Yes, your hand is strong, and yes, you should take the turn (and, indeed, probably the river), but no, you probably shouldn't bet. This mistake is a middle-of-the-road one, as it costs you a bet or two (two when you're raised and then call through).

Check instead of bet: This is the classic passive mistake; it not only costs you bets, but it also allows hands to stay in to draw out against you. As an example, you've got A A, and the board is J 8 2. You've got an overpair, and if you raised preflop, a number of players will put you on an overpair. A check here would let any 9T or any two spades draw for free, not to mention allowing players with an underpair to you try and spike their kicker. Bet, make them pay! This mistake is probably more costly than betting when you should check

Call instead of raise: Again, another passive mistake. A wonderful example of this would be sitting with K K on a board of A K 9 T A and calling a bet from an early-position player. Yes, you've got only 5th nut, but the possiblity exists that any number of other hands would be betting into you (Ax, any two diamonds, and JQ come to mind). This is a minor mistake most of the time, as it only costs you one or two big bets.

Call instead of fold: Do you like being called a calling station? Do this! Every time you put a bet into the pot saying "I know I'm beat, but I'll pay you off," you're doing this! If you know you're beat, why call? Because this mistake only costs you one bet, usually (it's a common river mistake), and it does make sure you'll hardly ever be bluffed out.

Raise instead of call: This is an error of aggression. Again, not as bad as some, but it's costly (usually to the tune of about 2 bets). Think of something like raising with Q J into a bet from the BB with a board like Q T 9 7 6. Top pair, weak kicker, facing a straight and flush board, not to mention the possibility of two pair due to the two pairs of middle connectors. Call, sure, but don't raise here!

Raise instead of fold: This is a hyper-aggressive mistake. Usually it's an error made on the river, trying to over-extend something like second pair, or top pair bad kicker. You know you're beat, but you think (or convince yourself) that your opponent is weak, and you raise their bet -- usually to only get reraised. It'll cost you at least 1, and usually 2, big bets (if the reraise comes, most players then call instead of folding, due to the size of the pot).

Fold instead of raise: This mistake is rare; ususally only the fishiest of fishes doesn't realize that they have a raising hand and folds instead. The most often cause of it is misreading your hand (missing a straight or flush), or getting bluffed out with a weak-ish middle hand (ie, 5 6 and a board of 7 8 A K 9. It'd be rare for JT to stay with that flop). However, it's a mistake that will cost you dearly; you lose the whole pot!

Fold instead of call: Again, another rare-yet-expensive error, similar to folding instead of raising. It happens a bit more when the pot is large and you've got a medium-strong hand (especially with a ragged board).that can beat "big card only" hands (ie, you're holding A 9 on a board of 9 7 4 2 2 -- you can beat a lot of hands that will be in the pot). Still, it costs you the pot to make this error!

So next time you sit at the table, after each hand (win or lose), ask yourself, "how many mistakes did I make? What kind?" Recognizing your errors is the first step towards fixing them, tightening your game up, and winning more.
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