Making Good Decisions in Poker
Success comes from observing, adapting and reacting, and adjusting to how actions change at higher levels.
As we work our way from low limit cash games to higher stakes encounters, the calibre of opponents we face improves. Moving up must be done carefully with one eye on results and the other on our bankroll comfort level. We should try to be realistic about our progress and never add the stress of needing to win to the many things that occupy our minds when we are at a poker table. How do we improve our understanding of poker concepts? Partially by reading and discussing the game with friends or on forums. Another way we learn is through playing experience, especially if we carefully observe our better adversaries and scrutinize their plays. In this article we’ll examine the general traits of our competitors based on their skill levels. We’ll also review a few moves made by professional players and delve into the reasoning behind the plays.
Until section 803 (Internet Gambling In or Through Foreign Jurisdictions) was attached to the US ‘must pass’ H.R. 4954 Safe Port Act in late September, we were living in the best of times for a poker player. The popularity explosion in our game combined with the fact that the internet has become a way of life made it easy for us to play in any variation and at any stakes. In preparation for this article, I played a $1-$2 H.O.R.S.E. game at PokerStars and a $10-$20 (the blinds) no-limit hold’em game at ParadisePoker. The action was typical of my five-year online experience. Here are my findings:
In the H.O.R.S.E. game, the low-limit players limped frequently (called the big blind in the flop games and called the ‘bring in bet’ in the stud varieties). They entered pots with marginal hands and even weak hands in un-raised pots. Their standards for calling raises were also loose. In general, they played a passive, straightforward game. When they bet, they usually held a made hand or a draw. Typically, when holding drawing hands, they bet and called without paying proper attention to pot and implied odds. They focused on their own hand and how it was developing. They undervalued position. The average number of players seeing the flop in the hold’em round was 5.1 (that’s high when one is playing eighthanded). They missed many opportunities for value bets.
All guns blazing
Conversely, when I played in the $10-$20 no-limit game (minimum buy-in = $400; maximum buy-in = $2,000), the play was much more aggressive and the players were tricky. My opponents rarely limped in. As Chris Ferguson and Howard Lederer have advised, if you are first to enter a no-limit hold’em pot pre-flop, come in with a raise. My adversaries used any and all information.
Position was revered. While some played very selectively, when they entered a pot they usually came in firing and were poised to pick up the pot when sensing any weakness. Most were tricky and tough to read. If I had to describe my opponents in one word, it would be ‘unpredictable’. They deployed dynamic thinking as opposed to static thinking. By that I mean low-limit players – when concerned at all about an opponent’s holding – tend to assign a small range of hands and rarely change their original opinion. These high-limit players viewed a hand as an evolving process, continually adding every piece of information to the morphing process. Here are the statistics from the $10-$20 no-limit game, gleaned from my eight-hour sampling:
- Although at times we played ten-handed, an average of only 5.4 players were dealt in each hand
- 19% of the hands were over before the flop
- When a flop occurred, the average was 2.3 players The average pot was $481
Now, let’s review two hands played on GSN’s High Stakes Poker television show to go inside the heads of some successful big bet players. Note the subtle shift in the decision making process.
Alaei versus Farha
Playing $300-$600 blinds with a $100 ante and a $1,200 live straddle, Michael ‘The Grinder’ Mizrachi called $1,200 from late position after several folds. Phil Laak mucked from the button. Antonio Esfandiari called from the small blind holding the powerful A♣-K♠. Many low-limit players would have raised with Antonio’s hand. But A-K, while having good potential, is a drawing hand and a bet alerts players to a big pair or strong Ace.Players also fail to sufficiently account for the pitfalls of playing big bet poker out of position on the next three rounds. The Magician was holding down his cost while setting a trap against his highly aggressive foes. Daniel Alaei decided he was getting the right price for his $600 call from the big blind with 8♥4♦. Sammy Farha, an aggressive competitor, peeked at his 7♠-4♣ and tapped the table from his straddling, under the gun position. The flop of 8♠-5♦-2♦ favoured Daniel, but he decided to check, as did his opponents. The 3♠ arrived on the turn. Picking up an open-end straight draw to go along with his fragile top pair, Alaei led out after Antonio checked. Daniel bet $4,500 hoping to pick up the pot, but knowing he had some outs if called. Farha then played around with his chips for 12 seconds before he announced: ‘raise, $15,000 more.’
Announcer Gabe Kaplan commented: ‘It’s a great raise. It should work here.’ I agree. If we replay the hand, we must conclude that Sammy is capable of holding A-4 or two pair – the hands he was representing with his strong raise. All folded to Alaei. As the young player who has won more than $1million in tournaments contemplated, Kaplan opined: ‘I don’t think Alaei can call here with a pair of eights and a lousy kicker.’ But, Daniel, taking into consideration Sammy’s well-deserved reputation for fast play, must have decided he might be ahead and, if not, he had outs to a straight. In addition, if he believed he was trailing another pair of eights, he could induce a fold by moving all-in. Of course, Daniel had to consider being behind to a slow-played set (Daniel would have an 18% chance of winning if Sammy held pocket fives), but top players do not live in fear of sets.
After one minute and 22 seconds, Daniel moved in with enough cash to put Farha all-in. Sammy, now getting zero implied odds for his straight draw, folded.
Brunson versus Farha
Playing the same stakes as before, Eli Elezra limped from middle position with 10♣7♣. The combative Farha, holding 6♦-5♠, called. Barry Greenstein played along from the button with his draw hand of A♦4♦. Todd Brunson looked at A♥J♦ and completed from the small blind. Jennifer Harman made a $5,000 raise from under the gun, holding A♠K♦. Only Elezra folded.
The flop came Q-J-3 – all hearts. The hand was checked to Sammy, who fired $27,000 with no hand and no draw. After Greenstein folded, Todd Brunson raised all-in, representing a flush and making it more than $85,000 for Farha to call, assuming Harman and Greenstein folded, which they did. Note that Todd, holding the A♥, cannot be betting into the nuts. In fact, even if Sammy has flopped a set of 3s, Todd can come from behind (he will win 31% of the time when facing this small set). Todd will also overhaul Sammy 29% of the time if Sammy has flopped a flush. This is a good example of the semi-bluff, a bluff that has many outs.
More interesting is to observe whether Sammy took some unnecessary chances in these two hands – but an underrated aspect of high stakes poker is getting paid off when you hold a big hand. Sammy is an action player, and counts on a high percentage of his income to come from opponents who call him down when he holds big hands and even the nuts. Perhaps the most successful action player in the game today is Daniel Negreanu.
Of course, we can’t all play as well as Negreanu, but we can certainly try to improve our game by developing a style we are comfortable with – and adding some fine tuning along the way. The most effective way to achieve this is by decreeing two overriding goals: to continually work hard to improve our understanding of poker concepts and to strive to make thoughtful, correct decisions. I didn’t say ‘we should strive to win’, because winning is a by-product that flows from our strict adherence to the two cardinal goals. And this is true at every level of poker.