In professional poker play, one of the most important skills is maximizing wins and minimizing losses. Of the hands chosen to play to showdown, every player will win some and lose others. It’s the sizes of the pots won or lost that makes the difference. Here are two examples to illustrate the skills required to take advantage of those lucky moments.
Playing $1/3 No-Limit Texas Holdem cash game, after about two hours of play, I had increased my chip stack from my starting buy-in of $300 to $375, patiently waiting for the right situations and carefully observing the patterns and tells of the other players. On my right was a young woman who was clearly a novice and had no idea how to size her bets. She was tight in her hand selection, only playing the top 10% of starting hands. She won most of the pots she played, but they were always small pots as she kept her bets small, betting maybe $12 on the flop when she hit top pair with AQ for example, and checking down the turn and river.
Another player, who was normally a $5/10 player, started teaching her to bet more. Every time the lady showed down a big hand, he told her she should have bet bigger. For instance, on a hand with a 753 flop, two spades, he instructed her that she should have gone all in with her pocket kings to get out the straight and flush draws. By the way, he was buying in for the minimum $100, playing nearly every hand, playing big-bet poker and roller-coastering his way to being felted multiple times.
His boisterous and pedantic egging was so convincing to her, and quite honestly she was a bit dullish, that she started following his advice, making flop bets of $25 to $50 when she was strong. To my thinking, this opened her up to being exploited to lose her whole stack. The player that was coaching her wasn’t wrong necessarily, just not teaching her the full skills necessary to successfully play big-pot poker, like reading tells, folding when beat and varying one’s betting patterns. She was too dull to notice that the player whose advice she was taking was happy to keep peeling off $100 bills to rebuy, passing the time waiting for a seat at his bigger game.
I decided to look for an opportunity to stack her. Not many hands later, she limped under-the-gun. I looked at my cards and found 74d. Most pots were limped at my table, so I didn’t mind taking a shot at playing this hand from early position. It was a straddled pot and I limped for the $6, knowing that a favorable flop might put me in the right spot where she would put her stack in against me, not detecting my hidden hand value. The player two to my left was an older fellow, who was the typical elderly nit – playing only top-top hands, always for a raise and happy to fold when the flop comes with overs to his pair or to push all in when it doesn’t. He raised to $26, with another $75 behind.
It folds around to the lady on my right, who calls, making the total in the pot $68 so far. Knowing her patterns, this limits her range to a pair under tens, a big ace or a big king – very exploitable to my mind, the kind of situation I was looking for. She has another $265 behind. The gentleman to my left obviously has a big pair. I call the extra $20 to see the flop.
The flop comes K83, two diamonds, giving me the flush draw. She bets out $60; she must have hit the king. Now I have a decision to make. I’ve only the flush draw but it is also the chance to take her stack that I’ve been looking for. The nit to my left will fold if he can’t beat kings, but it’s basically irrelevant what he has since his stack is smallish – I can’t lose more to him than to her. I could just call, but am sure that she will bet the rest of her stack on the turn and I’d rather push now to either make her fold now or see it all the way to the river for her draw. I move all in, hoping she will fold but expecting her not to. The nit to my left folds his JJ. After hemming and hawing, and looking to see if she is covered, she calls with AK. Board comes 6s, 5c to give me the winning hand with a straight. Got there the hard way!
It was luck. But it was also my calculated risk to win a big pot at cash game. In tournament, I would fold or in some cases, depending on stack sizes, call to see what happens on the turn. At the cash game, I put my money in as a dog in an attempt to take advantage of an exploit. If she were still playing small-pot poker instead, I would have just called her $15 flop bet to see the next card, she would have checked the turn, giving me a free look at the river to make the straight. River would have been a check from her, $35 bet from me and a call from her to lose a smallish pot rather than her whole stack. However, if she were still playing small pot-poker, I might not have limped in with 74d from early position in the first place.
That’s a lot of thought, strategy and observation. The result was fortuitous but the skills I employed led me to a situation where I doubled my money.
The second example is from a multi-table tournament, down to heads-up play. I have the chip lead by three to one. My opponent is an experienced player, but I have a strong handle on his play at this point. I haven’t picked up any sure tells on him, but I do know his hand ranges and betting patterns.
With the blinds at 5K/10K, I raise from the button to 35K with J9 offsuit. He calls for a quarter of his remaining stack. I know he would move all in with any pair, any ace and any two high cards, JT or better. I’m sure he is taking a flier to try to out-flop or out-play me for the pot.
The flop is K83 rainbow. He checks. Normally I would attempt to steal the pot in this situation with a close-to-pot-size bet, but I don’t like the king or his check – a weak king is a very likely hand for him here, and I certainly can’t call if he re-raises all-in. I check.
The turn is a seven. He checks. Oh my! He almost never checks a turn when his opponent shows weakness on the flop with a check. I’m virtually certain he has a strong hand and wants to trap me. I know I can’t win this pot. Except of course if the ten comes on the river to give me the straight, in which case I’ll probably get his whole stack. I check.
River is a ten. He moves all in. I call to win the tournament. He was trapping me with K7 in his hand.
Once again I get the lucky runner-runner straight. Once again I get a maximum pot. But in this situation without the strength of a draw, I skillfully avoided the trap, ending up with the big win instead of handing chips over to my opponent who might have leveraged a bigger stack into his win.
Luck is a big factor in poker. But that doesn’t make it a wild card. Properly combined with the other weapons in a player’s arsenal, it is one more tool to win with. Use the luck like the battlefield general who uses the patterns of weather to best his enemy. You might not be able to predict the exact moment of the storm, but be prepared to take advantage as you know it has to come sometime soon.