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Yesterday you met poker expert Jeff Gore and read his introductory piece about poker hand analysis. Join me in welcoming Jeff’s first column where he delves deeply into one poker hand from start to finish. – Doni
This No Limit Texas Hold’em hand comes from a bright young medical resident who primarily plays $20-$30 online tournaments.
While I would generally classify this player as an advanced intermediate (he has a respectable 20 percent ROI over 900 tournaments), this particular hand was played rather poorly. However, it is a perfect example of the many nuances that lead to the poker cliché, “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.”
This hand takes place in the early to middle stages of a multi-table satellite tournament where the average chip stack is 4,500. We are still far from finishing “in the money,” and blinds are 120 and 240 with a 25 ante. The medical resident — our “hero” — is under the gun with 3,520 chips.
Before doing any further analysis, it is important to gauge our hero’s current status in this tournament. At this level, there are 585 chips in the pot before any action giving our hero has an “M” of 6. The average chip stack isn’t much better, with an M of 7.8. Whenever the average chip stack has this low an M, there will be a lot of action as stealing and defending blinds becomes much more profitable — and necessary.
Table-wise, our hero also has fairly good position relative to the other players (although he is first to act in this particular hand). The three players to his left have about average stacks, which make them prime targets from which to steal blinds whenever our hero has position in the cut-off or on the button. If the two big stacks were to our hero’s immediate left, his chances of successfully stealing blinds would be greatly reduced as big stacks can afford to defend their blinds much more lightly. Likewise, if the short stack was to his left, our hero would be obligated to call the short stack’s all-in; narrowing our hero’s range of cards with which he can steal. Thankfully, this is not the case here.
Additionally, the table’s chip leader is just two seats to our hero’s right – an advantage in that our hero will be able to act after the chip leader in seven out of the nine hands per orbit. As Mike Caro says, “Money flows clockwise around the table,” so having so many chips to our hero’s right is much to his benefit. Overall, he is in fairly good shape, so while he needs to start accumulating chips, he does not need to make any drastic moves just yet.
Dealt to Hero:
King Jack suited is one of the “parking-lot hands” (named for their propensity to send players out of tournaments and into the parking lot). People tend to look down at two suited face cards and feel they have a strong hand, especially when they haven’t caught any good cards recently. However, KJ (and hands like it: A10, AJ, K10, KQ, and QJ) is in terrible shape against dominating hands (AK, AQ, AA, KK, QQ, JJ). So unless one is at a very passive table, has an incredible chip lead, or is in the red zone, marginally strong hands like this should be folded in early position. Whereas someone in middle or late position has the opportunity to observe players acting ahead of him (to better gauge his hand’s relative strength), someone in early position is entering the pot blind.
Because of these reasons, this should be an immediate fold. Instead, our hero raises to three times the big blind:
HERO raises to 720
This raise leaves him with 2,775 in chips, after the ante, which would put him in a critical condition should he have to fold. Additionally, the big blind had 1,035 in chips at the beginning of the hand and only 770 after the blind and ante. This means the big blind is way into the red zone and would be getting the correct odds to go all-in with nearly any two cards.
Our hero, a skilled and profitable player, knows this perfectly well. His justification was that an under-the-gun raise normally shows a lot of strength. To make this raise with such a short-stacked big blind would suggest a monster (AA, KK, QQ, AK). Any other skilled player at the table would be hard-pressed to call with pocket tens or jacks, let alone AJ or AQ, meaning our hero should theoretically have a good chance of either stealing the pot entirely or going heads-up with the big blind (who would be holding just about any two random cards – a range to which KJ compares favorably).
This justification, while seemingly quite clever, is a perfect example of fancy play syndrome. Remember that many online players are often checking e-mail, instant messaging, playing on other tables, or otherwise not paying full attention. And in live tournaments, players are often swapping jokes and stories, distracted by attractive players/staff, or catching the latest sports scores on the TV. Giving these opponents too much credit is just as devastating as giving them too little, so unless sitting with world-class players, moves like this are not likely to be successful.
Additionally, assuming the hand went as our hero planned, when the big blind called our hero would have had to show his hand to the table. This would damage his table image and make stealing the blinds much more difficult in the future as his opponents would be more likely to call or re-steal. The amount of chips he might win, assuming his KJ held up against the big blind’s hand, really would not be enough to overcome the missed steal opportunities in future rounds when the blinds get even higher. The only positive outcome is that if our hero did happen to run into a big hand later, he would be much more likely to get action.
I should note that in most tournaments, this last point on maintaining a tight table image is more of a personal style rather than a hard-and-fast rule. My personal strategy for big tournaments is to pick up enough small pots to stay ahead of the blinds, while avoiding unnecessary high-variance confrontations. Picking up these small pots uncontested requires a squeaky clean table image, so I have to try to go to showdown with only the best hands. This strategy allows me to hang around long enough to finish in the money much more often that the average player. The drawback to this style is that I’m not quite as likely to finish at the very front of the field (where payouts are highest).
But this isn’t most tournaments. Our hero is playing a satellite, where finishing first pays exactly the same as finishing 20th (one seat to a higher stakes tournament). With that major difference in mind, I don’t see how a strategy resulting in the most frequent cashes can be anything but optimum.
Regardless, our hero’s plan is soon shattered as MP1 puts in a re-raise:
MP1 raises to 1,920
Now, MP1 is a good, solid player — according to our hero’s read — and would clearly recognize the strength represented by the initial raise, so unless our hero had a LAG table image (which he didn’t) MP1’s re-raise truly indicates a very strong hand. To make a raise like this, a solid player can really only hold one of two hands: AA or KK. Someone with JJ or QQ is far more likely to move all-in here so he doesn’t have to wonder if that flopped over card hit their opponent’s hand. The same goes for AK, where a player will generally take the 50/50 odds against a smaller pair and see all five cards rather than take the 66 percent chance of missing the flop and having to fold to a bet or make a crying call (stat fact: a player holding unpaired hole cards will only make a pair on the flop 1/3 of the time).
One of the great advantages of no-limit games is the ability to tailor a bet to a particular circumstance. Yet so few players take advantage of this opportunity – a habit that decreases the amount they win, while increasing the frequency at which that they lose. MP1’s raise, however, is a rare example of good bet sizing, and was exquisitely tailored to deal with four important facets:
The first, and most important, is to narrow the field. Big hands like AA and KK do well heads-up and three-way, but when four or more players see the flop, the win rate will drop below 50 percent (meaning these big pairs will still win more often than any other specific hand, but will only win the pot less than half the time). 1,920 is too much for either MP2, MP3, or the button to just call for they would be putting in between 1/3 -1/2 of their stack into the pot – making them all but pot-committed. Instead, they must either raise or fold and given the fact that two people have shown strength in such early position, folding is very likely.
Yet MP1 did not bet too much, encouraging the two big-stacked opponents (who could afford to lose 1,920) to make a bad pot-odds call. Keep in mind that people with this many chips early in tournaments usually are maniacs, having built their chip stacks by taking long-odd gambles. Where most people would recognize that their opponents hold a strong hand and want to get out of the way, the big-stacked maniac only sees an opportunity to crack a monster. While the maniac may convince himself that this play has a reasonable foundation based on implied odds, the reality is that usually this just isn’t the case (like here). Maniacs allow their need for action (and epicaricacy) to control their game, and, in the process, almost always leave the table a loser.
But remember that the primary goal of this raise was to narrow the field. While MP1 might not mind the action from maniacs, everyone hates to have a big hand cracked, so wouldn’t it be nice if he could somehow get the big stacks to put in the 1,920, then fold to yet another preflop re-raise?
This is what truly makes MP1’s re-raise perfect: 1,920 is 1,200 more than our hero’s initial raise of 720. This would allow our hero to move all in for an additional 1,575 (which anyone presumably would with a hand as strong as our hero has represented). That all-in would be a legal raise, allowing MP1 to make a final re-raise all-in. This series of events would make it very tough for any loose callers to continue, trapping their dead money into the pot (this is a variation on the squeeze play).
Finally, this bet size doesn’t quite commit MP1 to the pot. Should the worst happen and our hero not re-raise, allowing too many people to come along for the ride, MP1 still has enough of a chip stack that he can fold to a flop that likely killed his hand. It will hurt, for sure, but MP1 will still be in the tournament in playable shape.
CO calls 1,920
The cut-off flat calls, which doesn’t necessarily indicate much strength, given the fact he is has a big chip stack. This player was recently moved to the table so our hero has no reads yet, but again, people with big stacks early in tournaments usually are maniacs. He probably recognizes that MP1 holds aces or kings, but in the maniac’s mind, it doesn’t hurt to spend 1,920 in hopes of flopping two pair or a set and busting MP1. However, this is still a bad play not just because MP1 only has 4,000 more chips (so the implied odds simply aren’t there), but also because of MP1’s squeeze-playesque raise.
BB calls 770, and is all in
The big blind also calls — no surprise here since we are far from the bubble and he is getting a chance to more than quadruple up — something no player should pass in this position. As Dan Harrington put it, a player in the red zone can’t be going for running plays – it’s time for the Hail Mary.
We now come back to our hero. He had planned on either stealing the pot, or isolating the big blind and going heads-up. With MP1’s re-raise, our hero now has no doubt that he is behind, yet to his credit he recognizes that each decision is unique and should be evaluated accordingly. Here, he is being asked to spend only 1,200 when the pot is 5,915 (thanks to the cut-off’s flat call). With 5:1 odds this is very tempting.
When deep-stacked in a cash game, this might actually be a good call. (The only reason it would be bad is because the possibility of AK, AJ, KK, and JJ dramatically lower KJ’s odds. Lower-suited connectors like 98, on the other hand, would be a good implied-odds call as none of the other players are likely to hold these cards.) But this isn’t a cash game, and our hero is not deep-stacked.
One very important aspect of tournament play is that just because making a call has a positive expectation in terms of chips, doesn’t mean is has a positive expectation in terms of actual money. By making this call, our hero is leaving himself with only 1,575 in chips (well into the red zone). Factoring in reverse-implied odds, there is virtually no flop that could fall where he wouldn’t have to call the rest of his chips, so by making the call now he is fully committed to this pot.
With this in mind, our hero’s only viable options in this situation are to move all-in or fold.
Ideally, when you move all-in with the worst hand, you want to have at least some hope that a better hand will fold. But MP1 is definitely not going anywhere with AA/KK. So the question becomes a mathematical exercise of whether he is getting the right odds to “gamble” here. By moving all-in, he would be spending the rest of his stack (2,775) in hopes of winning either 7,490 or 9,065, depending on whether the cut-off calls. So instead of the apparent 5:1 odds, our hero is actually facing odds of either 2.7:1 or 3.3:1. Normally, 3:1 odds are quite favorable, but because this hand is so often dominated, these odds are not good enough to risk his tournament life.
Put another way, if each of the four players had an equal chance of winning this pot their win percentage would be 25 percent. But because of the high chances of domination, KJ is almost always going to be in the 10-15 percent range in this situation. If our hero continues playing this hand, he will risk a 85-90 percent chance of getting knocked out in hopes of a 10-15 percent chance of having a chip stack of 11,840. Unfortunately, having that many chips this far from the bubble really won’t correlate to an equivalent amount of real money earned (especially since this is a satellite where finishing deep doesn’t matter), so this is just a bad bet all-around.
Unfortunately, our hero can’t resist the 5:1 temptation and makes his second critical error by calling.
HERO calls 1,200
As if he wasn’t already committed, he flops top pair and a King-high flush draw.
HERO bets 1,575, and is all in
Not only does this flop have many draw possibilities, but the cut-off is likely committed to the pot-odds, so there is no point in MP1 slowplaying.
MP1 raises to 3,275, and is all in
The cut-off happened to flop an open-ended straight draw and thinks he is getting the right odds to call. If he had stopped to think about it, a queen might not actually help him as AK is a likely holding of someone betting like our hero (AK would have two over cards and a gut-shot, not a bad flop despite not hitting a pair – especially for someone with only 1,575 in chips). Additionally, the flush possibility means three of his 10 outs might be no good (aside from the eight straight outs, the two remaining 9s would give him three of a kind – but even those can’t really be counted since they would give any queen a straight). Clearly this should be a fold here – let alone preflop – since he can really only expect the three non-diamond 7s to give him the winning hand. But maniacs use flawed logic and crave action so he comes along for the ride.
CO calls 3,275
MP1 wins (15,215) with a pair of Kings
As it turns out, the big-blind happened to have a pretty decent starting hand and would have won heads-up against our hero. He did nothing wrong in this hand. With such a short stack, he had to make the call. This would have been an immediate fold if he wasn’t in the red zone, however, since AJ is also one of the easily dominated hands.
The cut-off made a bad call preflop and thought he was committed to call on the flop with his straight draw. In doing so, he went from a big stack to an average stack. Had he won, he would have become chip leader, but really wouldn’t have improved his position much in the overall scope of the tournament. By getting involved in this pot, he had little to gain and much to lose (but that is the nature of the maniac).
MP1 could not have played this hand any better (an extremely rare accomplishment in No Limit Hold’em). He probably did not mind the cut-off making the initial call preflop, as he almost certainly expected our hero to re-raise — setting up the squeeze. That didn’t go as planned, but thankfully his kings held up to the 4-way action and he became the new chip leader.
As an aside, after marveling at MP1’s brilliance for so long while writing this article, I began to wonder if it wasn’t just by sheer dumb luck that he scrolled the bet amount slider to that perfect amount preflop. Wouldn’t I feel silly? So I attempted to look up his username on sharkscope only to find that he had blocked his name – a strong indication that he is an online professional.
As for our hero, instead of making the correct fold (twice), he got sucked into the hand and wound up in the figurative parking lot.
For him this is just a small setback, I’m sure, and provided an excellent opportunity to learn from his mistakes.
Jeff was born and raised in Redding. He is a graduate of Shasta High and Shasta College and currently attends Chico State University where he majors in mechanical engineering. He enjoys playing poker and has written book reviews for poker Web sites. His friends in Redding know his passion for cars and racing.