Two poker lessons in one hand

There are two key concepts I want to share in this article, which happens to be my first poker strategy blog in at least five years. Hopefully I still remember how to play.

Dan Harrington wrote a book on poker tournaments over ten years ago. Before the book’s release everyone was really excited to get their hands on it, myself included. At the time I was probably one of the top online Sit+Go players in the world and in some cases I disagreed with Harrington’s advice, especially in his chapter on Sit+Go tournaments.

However there was one thing he mentioned in this book that I think was brilliant, and that almost no one pays any attention to in any discussion of a poker hand. I don’t have the book on me so I can’t quote it exactly, but it was basically something like this:

“In any calculation where you are trying to figure out what hand your opponent has, you should always include at least a 10% chance that they are completely full of shit”.

I recently glanced through the TwoPlusTwo forums and have seen quite a few discussions on poker hands. There is tons of math, discussion of ranges and people who think they know almost exactly the range of the player in question.

However then the hand is over, the results are revealed, and either one or both players had something completely absurd that made absolutely no sense at almost every point of action throughout the hand. Yet at absolutely no point in the calculations, did anyone take this possibility into account.

My point is simple: When playing a poker tournament, do not completely discount the chance that your opponent is playing the hand like a total lunatic. Almost everyone does it from time to time, and some more frequently than others.

Maybe they see their T6s and they just decide to give it a shot for any multitude of reasons…and then on the flop they figure it makes sense to keep going with it, and decide to just play their hand as though it’s AA. This stuff happens all of the time.

Here is a good example that was just posted in the forums, which will also exemplify my second key concept.

Basically a hand late into a major poker tournament went as follows.

Player 1 has 7 million in chips, Player 2 has 5 million

Player 1 raises to 250k in MP1 with AKo (so first to act with 7 players)

Player 2 reraises to 625k from the Cutoff with KJo

Player 1 calls

Flop comes 972 with two hearts – Pot is about 1.5 million (Both players have no heart)

Player 1 checks and calls a 500k bet

Turn makes the board 972K with three hearts – Pot is about 2.5 million

Player 1 checks

Player 2 bets 900k

Player 1 moves all-in.

Player 2 folds

At this point the discussion in the hand basically turns into how bad Player 1’s check raise was on the turn was. They are literally laughing at him and calling him an idiot for his play. I believe the term “lolbad” was used by someone. I believe the main reason given was:

He is likely to be completely dominated when called, and it denies our opponent the chance to bluff on the river.

First off I actually disagree with this, and think that some worse hands may call (since the pot is so huge). However I think this is a completely wrong way to look at the hand for a few reasons:

1. The villain likely had a very wide range

The villain 3-bet with KJo, which isn’t a horrible hand but definitely isn’t a standard 3-betting hand here. What does that mean? It means his range is pretty wide and he’s certainly the type of player who could just be playing the hand like a lunatic.

That means a ton of other hands that we are crushing are in his range. However the people discussing the hand are giving this player credit for a much more logical range than I think is reasonable. But the next point is the most important

2. The pot is absolutely gigantic on the turn, and our hand is far from bulletproof.

This is the second key concept I wanted to discuss. On the turn, if we check call to ensure that weaker hands don’t fold, we suddenly give our opponent who’s sitting there with a lone heart, a ton of free outs on the river. Giving away free cards isn’t such a big deal in all cases, but when the pot has 4 million chips, and the stack sizes are 3 million effective, it’s an outright disaster, especially when the villain could have so many potential outs. I don’t care at all that when I’m called I’m crushed. What I care about is ending the hand immediately, not allowing free cards, and happily taking the 4 million chip pot.

Sure you could flat call and maybe extract a bet on the river from a dominated hand or a bluff. But the way poker tournaments work are that your last chips are MUCH more valuable than any other chips. The simple concept of protecting your hand becomes very important. Trying to get fancy to extract more value in a poker tournament, when the pot has more chips than you have in your effective stack, is almost always a bad idea.

Am I saying that Player 1 played the hand perfectly? I have no idea, I wasn’t there. There are lots of different things he could have done. However once he checks on the turn, and the villain bets, I STRONGLY prefer check raising allin to calling and trying to induce more action on the river. Yet quite a few players who I assume are pretty successful (maybe I give people too much credit), laughed at the play as though it was one of the most idiotic things they’d ever witnessed.

So remember the following:

  1. Your opponent can ALWAYS be bluffing. They can always have some completely insane hand that makes zero sense. I can show you a million examples of this.
  2. When the pot is giant (ie equal to or larger than your effective stack after calling), you should put a premium on winning it right away and worry much less about extracting value.

2 thoughts on “Two poker lessons in one hand

  1. “Your opponent can ALWAYS be bluffing. They can always have some completely insane hand that makes zero sense. I can show you a million examples of this.”

    Here’s what I think may be a good example of this. This is Hand 2 (mind you, HAND NUMBER TWO) of the 2015 WPT Legends of Poker Main Event. Blinds are 50 100. I’m in the cutoff. Everyone has stacks of 30,000. Player to my right raises to 250. I call with 99. Blinds both call.

    Flop is Qh 9d 5s.

    Player to my right bets 1100. I call, everyone else folds.

    Turn is 2d. He bets 2600. I call.

    River is 4c. HE MOVES ALL IN. I snap call.

    He shows 73o. HAND 2 OF A MAIN EVENT. Insane, no?


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