Archive for August, 2009

Playing the River in No Limit Hold em (With Eric Lynch “Rizen”)

One of the rules I put forward in Poker Tips that Pay, and that’s conventional wisdom in no limit hold em play, is that you don’t bet a medium-strength hand on the river. If you’re betting the river, it’s for one of two reasons: (1) you have a strong hand and believe your opponent has a good, second-best hand you can extract value from; or (2) you have a weak hand and believe your opponent has a hand he may lay down to the right bet. If you have a medium-strength hand, it doesn’t matter what your opponent has: if he’s strong you’re probably going to call him down, and if he’s weak you check to him and let him bluff. But you don’t bet and risk getting raised off your medium-strength hand.

With that in mind I was surprised to read one of the hand examples from an otherwise excellent book, Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time: Vol. I, by Eric Lynch (a top Internet pro who goes by the screen name “Rizen”). In Hand 89, he details a situation where it’s folded around to him on the button. At blinds of 300/600 (75 antes) on the bubble of a $150 online tournament, he makes a standard raise to $1800 with KQ offsuit. He’s called by the loose, aggressive big blind who “has been defending his blinds very aggressively” and “making big check-raise and multistreet bluffs.” After the pre-flop raise, the pot contains $4,575, Lynch has $37,140 behind and the big blind has $14,570.

The flop comes 532 rainbow and the big blind checks. Rizen prudently decides to check behind, as this is not an ideal flop for a continuation bet. If he leads out at this board he’d be representing at best an ace with a gutshot straight draw. If he bets here he might get check-raised by an aggressive opponent holding any two cards.

The turn brings a Q, giving Rizen top pair, king-kicker. The big blind again checks, and given that it’s extremely likely he has the best hand right here, Lynch fires $3,000 into the pot. The big blind quickly calls. Now the pot is $10,575 and the river brings a 6, completing an open-ended straight draw. The big blind has $11,570 behind him and Lynch has $34,140 remaining in his stack. The big blind checks.

What do you do in this spot? You’re on the bubble of a big online tournament and you hold top-pair, second-kicker on a board of 532Q6. If you’re Lynch, this is still a great opportunity for a value bet. He fires $4,000, and is quickly check-raised all-in for an additional $7,570. He calls, and his opponent turns over Q6. He made two pair on the river and decided to extract maximum value from his hand, doubling up in this pot.

Now, why wasn’t the big blind afraid to get all his money in on the river with Q6 and a four card straight on board? The answer is simple: any half-way aggressive opponent would’ve bet that flop with an open-ended straight draw or a set. But Rizen checked the flop, indicating he missed completely. When he bet the turn after being checked to twice, he either had a queen somewhere in the range of QT-AQ or complete air, so the big blind decided to prudently stick around with top pair and an inside straight draw. And the big blind checked the river to induce a bluff, believing it was more likely than not that Rizen couldn’t call a bet, but would probably fire another bullet if checked to. The big blind’s play was perfect from beginning to end, minus the questionable decision to call pre-flop at all with a mediocre holding like Q6 suited.

But Lynch defends his decision to value bet the river with top-pair, second-kicker and complains that it was just unlucky that the big blind ended up hitting two pair on the river. True, it was an unfortunate river card. But in my mind there’s absolutely no reason to put another $11,570 in a $10,570 pot on the river after his hand became quite vulnerable. Notice how expensive the river became: more money was put in on the river than on all the other streets combined! In effect, Lynch was betting MORE on the river that he had the best hand than he had in the whole hand up to that point, despite the arrival of a four-card straight on a coordinated board.

I also hate the decision to call the all-in check-raise for another $7,570 after making the poor decision to try to value bet the river. A relatively small, all-in check-raise on the river is almost never a bluff, especially at stakes like this. Even at that point in the hand, Rizen could have folded and maintained his stack of over $30,000 in chips. Is it really very likely that his opponent expected him to fold for $7,570 in an $18,575 pot? How many opponents are going to fold getting around around 2.5:1 on a call with a stack as large as Rizen’s? By calling that check-raise, he was reduced to a middling stack of $23,000. If he’d played the river prudently and checked behind with his medium-strength hand, he’d have over $34,000 and would still be among the chip leaders at the table.

What do you think? Would you have been afraid of the fast call by your opponent on the turn? Would you have bet top-pair, second-kicker on this board and this action? Would you have called an all-in check-raise on the river? Remember, one of the main reasons we love playing position in poker is so we can control the size of the pot. And no street is more important to pot control than the most expensive one: the river. Being in position means you can always check behind and minimize your investment in the hand.

So how would you have played the river here?

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Tip: You Never Know What Players Will Speculate With Early

This is an important tip that many players seem to ignore all the time: when the blinds are low and the Ms are high, you never know what kind of hands you might be up against. This is true even if you make a standard raise to 3x the big blind (or 4 or even 5x the big blind). You can never be assured that your raise will clear away all the trashy speculative hands you could be up against. What’s more, if you end up in a multi-way pot you need a much stronger hand than usual in order to proceed with confidence. Take this example from the very first hand played at a $12 Poker Stars tournament I ended up winning. Naturally, one of the players at my table managed to bust needlessly on the very first hand.

Everyone starts with $1500 in chip stacks. With blinds at $10/$20 everyone has a very healthy M of 50. The under the gun player makes a standard raise to $60. One player folds, MP1 calls. Another player folds, and I call from MP3 with the QJ of hearts. The cut-off folds, the button calls and both blinds fold. There are now four players seeing the flop and they all only had to invest $60 out of their $1500 stack to enter this pot. The flop comes: KJA all diamonds!

Now my first thought is that’s I what I like to call a “trainwreck flop.” A suited, coordinated flop like this with already-possible flushes, straights, sets, and two-pair opportunities galore is just inviting a bust-out. Needless to say my bottom pair, inside-straight draw hand that could be crushed ten different ways is an easy fold. But I’m expecting one of the other players in this pot to get clipped pretty bad. I wasn’t disappointed.

As it happens, the action is mighty suspicious given what a powerful flop that was. The under the gun player checks in what is an obvious betting situation. When an early position player fails to make a continuation bet in a situation that clearly calls for one (i.e. an ace and/or a king and/or a queen on board), I’m immediately on heightened suspicion. There’s no reason he shouldn’t lead out here and try to represent at least an ace on this board; he might be trying to keep the pot small but there’s just too much that could go wrong even if he had a hand like AK and flopped two pair. The second player checks, I check, and the button makes a small bet of $80 into the $270 pot.

It’s at this point that all hell breaks loose. The under the gun player check-raises more than the size of the pot, $400. Then MP1 check re-raises all-in to $1440. Naturally I fold: my hand sucks and even if it didn’t when you see someone re-raise a check-raiser you get the heck out of the way. Or as I say in my book, the first raise might be a fellow just fooling around, but the second raise is almost always for real. You need a really strong hand to play after the second raise. The button folds behind me, and the under the gun player calls all-in.

Their hands? The under the gun player had KJ of clubs for two-pair, while MP1 had the mighty 43 of diamonds for a made flush. UTG may think he has four outs twice (two kings and two jacks) but we folded one of his jacks, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the button folded either a jack or a king. He’s at the most 12% to make his full house by the river.

What’s the moral of this story? Well, firstly, two-pair is not always a powerhouse hand. Certainly, in a heads-up pot the board would have to turn pretty ugly before I’d fold two-pair. But in a multi-way pot, with low blinds, on a suited and coordinated board like this? He should have been able to get away from bottom two-pair.

Also, he shouldn’t have check-raised his hand. For one thing his hand was way too vulnerable to risk being checked all the way around and everyone seeing a turn. For another thing, he needs to find out where he’s at quickly in a spot like this. If he’d led out and then been raised by MP1 and re-raised by the button, he’d have lost a LOT less money and been able to get away from his hand.

Failing that, he should have known after launching his massive check-raise that MP1 probably wasn’t check re-raising all-in with just the queen of diamonds. The UTG was representing a hand strong enough to call any kind of over-the-top semi-bluff.

Now, if this were the $100/$200 blind level I’d be shocked if I was in the UTG’s seat and I got a call from a player with the 43 of diamonds after making a standard raise. And it would be crazy for a player in early middle position to call an expensive raise with a suited connector in the late game, especially vs. an early position raiser. But Hand #1 with $10/$20 blinds means that anything goes.

You never know what players will choose to speculate with early. A standard raise is not going to clear out all the small pairs, suited cards, ace-rags, etc. You have to be on your guard and avoid committing yourself too heavily to a pot. If you don’t have the discipline to avoid getting overexcited by one-pair or two-pair hands when you could be up against monsters in a multi-way pot, it might be better to just automatically fold your way through the first one or two levels of extremely low blinds. But if you discount the value of AK/AQ type hands early and play the speculation game (like MP1 did here) you might get paid off from players that simply overvalue top pair early.

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50 Cent to be Featured in New (Worst) Poker Film Ever

50 Cent, perhaps best known for his drug dealing and Rasputin-like survivability, is reportedly set to appear in a new poker movie with actor Benicio del Toro and fellow non-actors Wisin Y Yandel (a Latin rap duo). Perhaps we’ll be treated to live musical performances in between key hands? With such a star-studded cast, the film seems certain to join the likes of “High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story”, “Lucky You” and “All In” on the long list of poker films that are absolute train wrecks at the box office. You can read more about the project here:

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Tip: When to Overbet the Pot and Shutdown the Action

The beauty — and terror — of no limit hold em is that any hand could force you to risk all your chips. Now generally, that isn’t the case. Usually, the bets are sized as a percentage of the pot. Opponents will rarely bet less than 1/3 of the pot at the low end or more than the size of the pot at the high end. When the blinds are relatively low, this is generally not enough to force an all-in confrontation without aggressive raising or re-raising.

But although it’s “textbook” to bet a “normal” amount, you should always remember that no limit betting does not restrict you in this way. Many poker books give the impression that only rank amateurs would overbet the pot, especially an all-in overbet. If you have a solid hand, why wouldn’t you get some extra value out of it? If you have a good but vulnerable hand, why risk more than necessary? Why not give yourself the flexibility to get away from the hand?

My answer to these points is that sometimes you simply have to shutdown the action in the hand. There are times when you have a solid advantage, but face too many competitors and too many possible scare cards to continue playing the hand “normally.” When you don’t know what cards to root for or against and cannot select an amount guaranteed to drive all possible draws out of the pot, you should just put the pedal to the metal. Over-bet the pot, up to and including an all-in bet (which is usually the safest move you can make), and put your opponents to the difficult decision. As a poker player, you never want to build a big pot and go deep into a hand without knowing where you stand. If the board is simply too frightening to proceed with “normal” betting, then don’t!

I’ll give two examples of when over-betting the pot and shutting down action in the hand makes sense. In both cases, this is not the only move that can be made. But it’s generally a safe play to put the hand to bed. With no limit betting, particularly in an elimination tournament environment, it’s often best to book a small profit by taking the pot down right away, rather than risk losing all your chips later on.

Example 1: An overpair to a very dangerous and unpredictable board – Let’s say you have AAs in the cut-off position with blinds at $15/$30. The player under the gun limps for $30. You make a “standard” raise to $120 (I would generally argue for a bigger raise than this textbook play with blinds so low) and get called by the big blind and the under the gun player. The pot is now $375 and you have $1,580 remaining in your stack. Your two opponents have a bit more chips than you do. The flop comes down K89 with two diamonds. You have two black aces. The big blind checks, the UTG player checks, and action is on you. What should you do?

My answer: I go all-in right here without hesitation. This hand is unplayable at this point. If you bet a “normal” amount between $190 and $375 you could be called by one or both opponents, who could hold a variety of hands. What if a third diamond comes on the turn? What if a 10, J, or Q comes, completing all kinds of possible straight or two-pair combinations? What if another king comes, or another 8 or 9? What if a 5 comes? How much can you like your single pair when the turn can bring no fewer than 30 possible scare cards (11 unseen diamonds + 3 non-diamond fives, eights, nines, tens, jacks, queens, or kings each minus the two diamonds on board… although it’s true your opponents could be holding one or more of these cards, you can’t know which ones they hold and which to fear)?! I’m afraid of dealing with anything more than 9 possible scare cards (i.e. a flush draw); when I have reason to believe there are this many scare cards out against me I want to shut the hand down right now and take whatever is in the pot.

Could one of our opponents have us beat right now? It’s possible, but not likely. A set of kings is extremely unlikely as 99% of opponents would have re-raised pre-flop with that hand. There’s always the (very small) chance we’re facing a set of 8s or 9s. A K8 or K9 is barely possible at low blinds like this, but those are both unlikely hands and we have outs if the board pairs in our favor. All in all, with a vulnerable over-pair it usually pays to jam the pot on a coordinated flop like this. We may even get action from hands like KQ, KJ, JT, or a flush draw who might be skeptical of our massive over-bet of the pot.

Example 2: A crowded field of limpers when you have a pair like JJs or QQs – I especially like this move with queens. Many players tend to overestimate queens, treating them like kings or aces. In fact, given that a king or an ace is ~48% to arrive on the flop if none of your opponent(s) hold a king or an ace or ~42% to flop if your opponent(s) hold exactly one king or ace, it’s easy to see the hand is not as playable as kings or aces. In fact, it’s half as playable as kings because there are twice as many scare cards! And nothing is as playable as aces, which is the only truly dominating pre-flop hand in Texas Hold em.

With that in mind, if I face a crowded field of limpers in one of the blinds and the pot is somewhat healthy, I’ll often just move in pre-flop. For example, if the blinds are $25/$50 and I’m in the big blind with queens, and six players and the small blind all limp in (this kind of cascading limping will often happen if the under the gun player limps), there’s $400 in the pot. Let’s say I have a $2,000 stack at that point; therefore the pot represents a 20% increase in my chips. I’m inclined to move in right here. If I were to follow the “textbook” play, I’d raise the pot ($400) and from my experience I’d be guaranteed to get one, possibly two callers. And I can guarantee one of those callers will have some kind of ace, and possibly another could have a hand like KJ suited. If a king or an ace flops out there, I’ll still have to make a continuation bet, and to make it look good this will have to be at least $500.

Do you see the asynchronous risk/reward ratio that we put ourselves in with a standard raise? By not moving in, I have to risk $900 ($400 pre-flop plus $500 continuation bet, which is nearly half my stack) to win this pot. And I risk getting bluffed off my hand. Let’s say there’s one caller of my pre-flop $400 raise. That means the pot will be $800 by the time I launch my $500 continuation bet. If my opponent has a hand like AJ, he’ll probably move in if he hits his ace and fold otherwise (unless I’m lucky enough to get a jack-high flop vs. him). I’m risking $900 to win $800, while he’s risking $400 to win at least $900 or more if I can’t get away from my hand. When you’re out of position in an uncertain situation, the risk/reward favors your opponent!

But if I just move in pre-flop, I know I’m a favorite against any hand that calls me, unless somehow the UTG player really decided to limp with kings or aces at these low blinds. I’m risking my entire stack, to be sure, but I’m unlikely to get called. I can’t get bluffed off my hand, and I’m likely a substantial favorite to any hand that might call me. Most importantly, there’s no asynchronous risk/reward ratio with this move. My opponent must risk the same $2,000 that I’ve put on the table. And there’s one more added benefit to this move: many players automatically assume AK/AQ when you jam the pot pre-flop like this. You might get called by small and medium pairs looking to gamble with you, assuming they’re getting odds to do so. In fact, you’re a huge favorite over these hands! By jamming the pot with queens, you’re actually helping to disguise the strength of your hand.

What do you think? Can you think of other scenarios where it makes sense to overbet the pot and shutdown the action in the hand? Do you agree with these examples? Let me know.

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World Poker Tour Sold for $9 Million

The World Poker Tour, which became famous during the post-Moneymaker poker boom by featuring the likes of top poker pros like Gus Hansen, Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Howard Lederer and J.C. Tran, has been sold for $9.075 million to Gamynia Ltd. Gamynia is promising to continue operations of the World Poker Tour and the Professional Poker Tour, while WPT Enterprises Inc. (a publicly listed company) will use the money to acquire an unspecified “non-poker related business.” I’m sure the WPT shareholders are thrilled by that news. You can read about this development here:

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A raise on the river is rarely a bluff

One of the biggest mistakes many poker players make is bluffing too much on the river. Now, there are times when such a bluff makes sense: when you can’t win by checking, a scare card has come on the river (presenting many straight/flush/high pair possibilities), and/or your opponent might have missed a draw, but can win with a hand like ace high. Those are all good opportunities to bluff the river. What doesn’t make sense is bluffing just for the sake of being aggressive, or as a last-minute attempt to steal the hand after checking all the way through.

Now, if bluffing the river is so dangerous (because it often doesn’t work), raising the river is an even stronger move. A strong, competent player that raises big on the river is rarely making a move, especially if his opponents have shown interest in the pot from the beginning. A recent hand I played illustrates this point, as well as several other important concepts.

I was in the small blind with 43. The big blind was a tight, weak player, so I wasn’t concerned about him at all. The button was extremely loose, limping in with ~80% of his hands and betting very aggressively. Everyone folded around to the loose, aggressive button, who naturally limped (he never folded a hand on the button the entire time he was at my table). I completed the small blind, and the big blind checked.

The flop came 345. Now, with bottom two pair, I’d bet this aggressively so I don’t risk getting counterfeited on a later street. Plus, anyone with a 2 or a 6 has a straight draw, so I want to protect my hand. But acting out of the small blind, I usually check and see what happens with the other players. Here, I’m even more inclined to check since the loose, aggressive button always bets when checked to in position. I can earn another bet by check-raising here.

I check, the big blind checks, and then the button checks. Now, at this point, warning sirens should have been going off in my head. It’s never a good sign when a player acts out of character. It’s a very bad sign when an aggressive player checks in an obvious bluffing situation. But somehow I forgot one of my own poker tips in my delight at having flopped two-pair. Admittedly, two-pair is a big hand to flop, but on a board like this I could be staring down two likely straights (heck, the extremely loose button could even have a 62 for all I’d know) or three possible small sets. It’s impossible this loose aggressive player is checking a straight draw because he always bets his draws.

The turn is a real disaster card for my hand: an ace. At this point I’m worried about the big blind possibly having a deuce. Heck, the button could even be holding a deuce because he’d limp with any two cards in position. Not wanting to build a big pot with a vulnerable hand, and not wanting to risk a raise from the loose, aggressive button, I check again. I fully intend to call if the button bets, but I don’t want to help build a bigger pot than I have to at this point. This is especially so since the button has me covered. The big blind also checks, and the button checks yet again.

Now, not bluffing in position at a coordinated flop might be understandable. But an aggressive player not taking a stab at the pot after a scary turn card and two checks in a row from his opponents? I should have smelled the danger from a mile away. Instead, I obliviously watched the river bring a queen. Hoping to extract a little value from my small two pair if either player hit that queen, I make a small 1/3 pot bet.

The tight, weak big blind calls. Then the loose, aggressive button raises the size of the pot. Now, at this point, I have to fold. You never want to put yourself in the middle of two other players actively contesting the pot without one heck of a hand. My small two-pair doesn’t fit the bill. Also, the call from the tight, weak big blind is disturbing: he must have something (and probably more than just a queen). Plus, the button has behaved suspiciously this hand from beginning to end; it’s looking increasingly likely that he flopped some kind of monster and was slow-playing.

I fold, and the big blind calls. The big blind turns over a deuce for a 5-high straight. The button turns over a 76 for the nuts: he’d flopped a 7-high straight. He checked twice in a row and raised the river to extract some more money from his hand. The moral of the story is clear: a raise on the river is rarely a bluff!

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Tip: Poker is Like a Boxing Match

There are many metaphors about the game of poker. It has been described as war: “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” It’s been compared to life itself, with women being the rake (“Rounders”). It’s even drawn romantic comparisons: “Poker is a lot like sex, everyone thinks they’re the best, but most don’t have a clue what they’re doing” (Dutch Boyd). For my money, at least when it comes to poker tournaments, I think of boxing. Poker is a lot like a boxing match: you dance around early, trade some jabs, and land power punches when your opponents tire in later rounds.

In the early stages, it’s all about sizing up your opponents. It’s like shadowboxing, conditioning yourself for the real action later. Sure, you’re still going to bet a big hand when you have one, but you’re not going to tire yourself out in the early going. You’re not looking to take any big risks, drop your guard, and suffer an early knockout. While it would be nice to score an early double-up, you’re not going to make any big moves to accomplish that goal. You’re also not going to risk any large part of your stack without a hand bigger than one pair, unless you hold AAs and push in pre-flop. To summarize: in the early stages of a tournament you’re not looking to bluff or to risk too much of your stack without a massive hand. You can speculate a bit in position with truly playable hands, but if you don’t hit the flop big you’re done with these hands. You should rarely bust out of a tournament early.

As you progress in the tournament, you open up your game. You start stealing blinds from middle and late position. In the very late stages you’re either stealing the blinds once per orbit or you’re falling behind pretty rapidly. You also need to mix in some re-raises to steal from the loose, aggressive big stacks that will start attacking the table. And there will be at least one loose, aggressive big stack raising way too often to steal the blinds. It’s a bit of a risk, but to make the final table you’re going to have to push back against these players at some point. Wait for a reasonable hand and a situation where it’s likely the loose player is just raising in position, and push back. If you can steal a standard raise along with the blinds you’ve won three rounds worth of blinds. That buys a lot of breathing room.

Finally, you launch the power jabs. Towards the very end, you’re either going big or going home. You don’t want to rely on the cards to decide your fate (that’s like trusting the whim of the judges’ scorecards). You’ll need to gamble, and usually it’ll be all-in pre-flop or fold. Alternatively, if you raise a smaller amount and get called, you’re pushing on the flop with any made hand, solid draw, or if the flop is unlikely to have helped your opponent. You must maintain a big stack at all times or die trying. It’s worth taking big risks so you have the chips you need to gamble: without being forced all-in.

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